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“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

― Roald DahlMatilda

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Writing with a Purpose: The Antagonistic Metaphor

“Yet no man can write so much and so honestly and not reveal himself in some measure. We can see enough to sense in him an unusually large gap, even a contradiction, between his teaching and his experience. He taught self-reliance and felt self-distrust, worshiped reality and knew illusion, proclaimed freedom and submitted to fate.”

-Stephen E. Whicher, Emerson’s Tragic Sense

The purposes of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words are heavily debated. A man with many thoughts, and an ability to display his thoughts in such artistic expression sometimes elicits unfavorable attention. Joel Porte puts it best in the title of his persuasive text, The Problem of Emerson. Emerson’s work has developed a band of dedicated followers that aspire to comprehend, and grow from his arguments, but for those same reasons Emerson’s texts have also been met with much critique and misunderstanding.

One of the more reoccurring issues that surface when noting the criticism surrounding Emerson is his seemingly contradictory lifestyle. To clarify; Emerson is a great enthusiast of thought and action. In his 1837 address The American Scholar, Emerson chronicles the process towards becoming “Man Thinking” [Emerson 2001, 57]. In his later essays, particularly the Conduct of Life series like Fate, he expands on his earlier discoveries, and the cause and effect importance that the “Man Thinking” has on the American society. Focusing on Fate, an essay in which Emerson struggles with the back and forth notion that fate and limitations are in a constant power struggle with thought, the reader discovers that Emerson’s purpose of the development of strong thought is that it should lead to action. “Whilst the man is weak, the earth takes him up. He plants his brain and affections. By and by he will take up the earth, and have his gardens and vineyards in the beautiful order and productiveness of his thought” [Emerson 2001, 276].

In Emerson’s time many of his contemporaries and colleagues struggle with the notion of his ability to dispense great words of thought and action, but feel as though he comes up short on his ability to ‘practice what you preach.’ Len Gougeon specifically uses the example of former Harvard President Charles Eliot’s opinions about Emerson’s ability to articulate great thought and inspire movement, but that he takes little act in reforming. “Although a prophet and inspirer of reform, Emerson was not a reformer. He was but a halting supporter of the reforms of his day; and the eager experimenters and combatants in actual reforms found him a disappointing sort of sympathizer” [Emerson 2001, 762].

Stephen Whicher’s addresses Emerson’s perceived lack of action in his piece Emerson’s Tragic Sense in which he explains his issues with Emerson’s lack of presence in his writing. The problem is that Emerson often addresses the necessity for a man to embrace his true nature or unattained inner power. Whicher’s argument lies in the sense that he believes that Emerson spoke of the uninfluenced mind, while not being entirely uninfluenced. Stemming from Emerson’s thoughts on self-reliance Whicher notes examples in Emerson’s writing in which he believes “self-reliance . . . is God-reliance, and therefore not self-reliance” [Emerson 2001, 664]. However, Whicher additionally notes Emerson’s awareness of his personal struggle with the religion and his questioning of its teaching. “His early journals often show manly courage and good sense”[Emerson 2001, 665].

“A score of words & deeds issue from me daily, of which I am not the master. They are begotten of weakness & born of shame. I cannot assume the elevation I ought –but lose the influence I should exert among those of meaner or younger understanding, for want of sufficient bottom in my nature, for want of that confidence of manner which springs from an erect mind which is without fear and without reproach” [Emerson 1960-82, 2: 487]

            Emerson is faced with limitations, and preaches the beliefs and scripts of others, of which are not of his own convictions. His tone is helpless and regretful of the situation he is placed in. Emerson is aware of the solution, and that he needs to abandon the influence of expectations. In doing so it will allow him to inspire those young minds not to conform to societal conventions. Emerson creates a platform of his own based off of his true nature and thought in which he will gain confidence in the words that he speaks; therefore, having no regrets.

An interesting and inspiring fact about Emerson’s personal life is that during his twenties and into his thirties, he is very ill [Emerson 2001, 791]. With questionable health, Emerson gains courage in his reasoning. A reader can joke that perhaps he becomes deranged, but that is not the situation, and if anything a reader should claim that he finds mental clarity. In a journal entry dated October 9, 1832 Emerson expresses his new outlook on the presence of God in his life:

“I will not live out of me

I will not see with others’ eyes

My good is good my evil ill

I would be free – I cannot be

While I take things as others please to rate them

I dare attempt to lay out my own road

That which myself delights in shall be Good

That which I do not want – indifferent,

That which I hate is Bad. That’s flat

Heneforth, please God, forever I forego

The yoke of men’s opinions. I will be

Lighthearted as a bird & live with God.” [Emerson 1982, 86]

There is a shift in his tone. It is strong and exact. The clipped phrases do not drag out, into a lengthy grappling of thoughts. He is decisive. Emerson will no longer be limited by what he does not trust in. He will be brave and break away from the oppression of limitations, and begin his own platform of his own convictions. Looking forward, he still remains with God, but will do so in away that he can be free, discarding any influences in his path. Emerson’s devotion to God is sometimes perceived as surrendering to a higher influence, but what goes unrecognized is his inner strength in breaking away from traditional conventions of worship. In 1832 Emerson takes an active leap of faith by resigning from the church, and on Christmas day he boards a ship to Europe [Emerson 2001, 791].

All historical and influential minds of the past are subject to criticism. Many readers of Emerson find him lacking in his ability to act, but a question must be considered: What constitutes action? Emerson is a writer, and holds high regard for the power of words. While he may appear to be physically passive, it does not imply that he conducts his life without action. Emerson writes with a purpose that many of his followers have noted. Cornell West touches on the purpose of Emerson’s writing in The Emersonian Prehistory of American Pragmatism. “The primary aim in Emerson’s life and discourse is to provoke” [Emerson 2001, 743].

The very definition of provocation is “to arouse to a feeling or action . . . to stir up purposely” [Merriam-Webster 2013]. Emerson is very aware of the power that words can have on a reader and listener when phrased in a particular way that engages thought and remembrance. “Nothing so marks a man as imaginative expression. A figurative statement arrests attention, and is remembered and repeated” [Emerson 2001, 298]. Many individuals that have written pieces on Emerson reference his ability to draw in a crowd of listeners. As George Santayana notes in his piece about Emerson, “they flocked to him and listened to his word, not so much for the sake of it’s absolute meaning as for the atmosphere or candour, purity, and serenity that hung about it, as about a sort of sacred music” [Emerson 2001, 633]. Therefore, Emerson is very aware of his most valuable course of action, and is aware that the shock value of what he says will engage an individual to listen. What many critics fail to remember is that Emerson does not wish to influence society by saying ‘follow me.’ His purpose is to inspire the individual to ‘follow yourself.’

However, other critics are not convinced of his purpose, and believe that Emerson misuses his respected and elevated status to corrupt his followers. In his reviews, Andrew Norton provides his opinions of Emerson’s use and conduct of his opportunity to speak at the Harvard Divinity College graduation in 1837. He states that not only did Emerson insult religion, but also the instructors of the institution. Claiming that because he was invited to speak by the graduates “that these gentlemen . . . have become accessories, perhaps innocent accessories, to the commission of a great offense,” and goes on to refer to Emerson’s words as “incoherent rhapsody” [Emerson 2001, 599].

However, Emerson’s words are not meant to be an undecipherable string of commentary. It is done deliberately to engage a reader or listener towards personal awareness. As Richard Poirier notes in his book Poetry and Pragmatism:

“Within every single word, language can create that vagueness that puts us at rest inside contradictions, contradictions which, if more precisely drawn, would prove unendurable. We willingly live with the fact that by its beneficent betrayals language constantly delivers us to ourselves, and makes us known to others, within a comforting haze.” [Emerson 2001, 769]

Therefore, what can be considered to be incoherent is meant to actually bring forth a type of clarity. Not an exact clarity, but the recognition that there are balances in the world to be examined through thought.

In his piece on Emerson, Joel Porte describes how “the alert reader can discover, and take much pleasure in discovering, remarkable verbal strategies, metaphoric patterns, repetitions, and developments of sound, sense, and image throughout Emerson’s writing” [Emerson 2001, 685]. His use of language is clever, and allows for him to weave such intricate thought patterns to keep the reader questioning and engaged. One of the most commonly implemented tools that Emerson uses in his writing is metaphor.

“Meek young men grow up in colleges & believe it is their duty to accept the views which . . . books have given & grow up slaves”

-R.W. Emerson, The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson [5: 365]

“But I wish to say – at least let our theory not be slavish: let us hope infinitely & accustom ourselves to the reflection that the true Fall of man is the disesteem of man; the true Redemption selftrust; the growth of character is only the enlargement of this, & year by year as we come to our stature we shall inherit not only forms & churches & communities but earth & heaven.”

-R. W. Emerson, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson [2: 213]

“Forget the past. Be not the slave of your own past.”

-R.W. Emerson, Selected Journals 1820-1842 [613]

One of the most reoccurring and brazenly controversial of Emerson’s metaphors is his insight that all men are slaves. In a time when the word slavery was closely linked with the actual enslavement of person based off of race, some might feel as though his constant use of the word slave is distasteful, and possibly a little racist. How dare he compare the influence of thought on man to the atrocities facing the African American nation? As noted by Cornell West, he is referred to as a “mild racist” [Emerson 2001, 746]. What that means exactly is hard to define, but West believes it to mean “he is a racist in the American grain in that his notion of human personality is, in part, dependent on and derived from his view of the races” [746]. It is well documented that Emerson made it a priority to study the understanding behind any assumptions associated within the differences of races.

“Emerson spent a significant amount of time and energy keeping up with the science of his day. His purpose seems to have been to be assured that the best knowledge available about nature buttressed and supported his idealism. An Important part of his reading focused on “whence came the Negro?”” [Emerson 2001, 746]

It is the basic requirement of any successful debater to have a comprehension, and be able to defend both views of an argument. In order to weed out a problem one must locate the roots. In Emerson’s dedication to staying current with his scientific knowledge, he studies the very same information being rooted into the young and impressionable. His assumption is that in studying the very reasons that certain races are fit to be slaves, the young minds are in fact becoming slaves themselves. Emerson uses the metaphor of slavery not to be cruel and inconsiderate, but in hopes to inspire the strong-willed minds to see what he sees.

Emerson use of the metaphor of slavery is antagonistic throughout his essay Fate. It is not an essay about slavery rather it is an essay that uses the metaphor of slavery to draw in the reader’s attention. As is common with Emerson’s writing, he often makes a bold statement, and has the reader convinced of his content. In the opening lines of Fate Emerson informs the reader of the extreme limitations set forth, and his inability to reach them let alone over come them. However, Emerson quickly begins his dissection of this notion of unchangeable fate, which allow him to redirect the reader/listener from concise decision to question the credibility behind that position. Emerson uses this verbal strategy repeatedly throughout Fate in conjunction with the metaphor of slavery:

“Nor can he blink the freewill. To hazard the contradiction, – freedom is necessary. If you please to plant yourself on the side of Fate, and say, Fate is all: then we say, a part of Fate is the freedom of man. Forever wells up the impulse of choosing and acting in the soul. Intellect annuls Fate. So far as a man thinks, he is free. And though nothing is more disgusting than the crowing about liberty by slaves, as most men are, and the flippant mistaking for freedom of some paper preamble like a “Declaration of Independence,” or the statute right to vote, by those who have never dared to think or to act, yet it is wholesome to man to look not at Fate, but the other way: the practical view is the other. His sound relation to these facts is to use and command, not to cringe to them. “Look not on nature, for her name is fatal,” said the oracle. The too much contemplation of these limits induces meanness. They who talk too much of destiny, their birth-star, &c., are in a lower dangerous plane, and invite the evils they fear.” [Emerson 2001, 269]

Emerson uses metaphor to antagonize his readers. He makes his case to the reader of Fate the choice to side with fate and follow the conduct of life already set in place, but in doing so they are not thinking for themselves. The intended effect that is understood through Emerson’s language is that he truly wants to engage the reader. He finds something that all of the individuals listening want, like the allusion of great power that can overcome Fate. Once he discovers their desires and peaks their interests, he says you cannot have it because you are all slaves. Americans endeavor to the notion of freedom as is set forth by what they know, but it is only an illusion because without personal thought or action the freedom they speak of is conventional and limiting. Those individuals that invest too deeply in limitations loose their freedom, essentially making them slaves.

Emerson’s bold statements demand attention and cannot be ignored. This provokes the reader/listener to to make connections in their own lives, causing the thoughts that allow for individuals to create progression. The purpose of his antagonistic metaphor is to inspire idle minds to think, which compels the thinking man towards action.

There will always be readers of Emerson that find the purpose of his words contradictory of his own action. There will always be readers that look for ways in which his action is embedded into the words he put on paper or spoke to crowds. In all honesty, Emerson would be very happy with both analyses. The purpose of his writing and lesson is not to convince a reader. If there is one definite lesson to be learned from studying Ralph Waldo Emerson it is to never be definite about anything. Complacency in thought leads to limitations. Conformity attempts to suppress individual thought. Emerson himself is never settled in his reasoning.

“He was not a prophet who had once for all climbed his Sinai or his Tabor, and having there beheld the transfigured reality, descended again to make authoritative report of it to the world. Far from it. At bottom he had no doctrine at all. The deeper he went and the more he tried to grapple with fundamental conceptions, the vaguer and more elusive they became in his hands. Did he know what he meant by Spirit or “Over-Soul”? Could he say what he understood by the terms, so constantly on his lips, Nature, Law, God, Benefit, or Beauty? He could not, and the consciousness of the incapacity was so lively within him that he never attempted to give articulation to his own philosophy. His finer instinct kept him from doing that violence to his inspiration.” [Emerson 2001, 633]

With respect to reform, Emerson knows that his greatest contribution to a movement is found within his words. He is never settled in his own beliefs, and would never aspire to be settled, he will not tell his audience what to think. Telling people what they want to hear is never his purpose. The true action of Emerson’s life lies in his ability to provoke individual thought and action in others. One can only act off of one’s own convictions, and Emerson’s convictions are found in his beliefs that language grabs hold of interest, and inspire a man to think.


Primary Sources:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The journals and miscellaneous notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. W. H. Gilman. Vol. 2-3, 5. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-82. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. R. L. Rusk. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Joel Porte. Emerson in his journals. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Joel Porte, and Saundra Morris. Emerson’s prose and poetry: authoritative texts, contexts, criticism. Norton Critical Edition ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected journals, 1820-1842. Ed. L. A. Rosenwald. New York, NY: Library of America, 2010. Print.

Secondary Sources:

“provoke.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/provoke&gt;.

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Project Prospectus

Working Title: Metaphor with a Purpose: Emerson the Antagonistic Writer

Working Statement of Purpose:

The purpose of this essay will be to explore the ways in which Emerson uses metaphor to antagonize his readers. Not only does Emerson use bold statements to make his connections to very heated topics of his time, but he also provides a struggle of thoughts about those topics. Emerson’s writing is never one-sided, and this is due to the fact that he believes there are limitations to everything. Whether it is in nature, thought or action – to Emerson, they all have never ending boundaries in which nothing can be solved or definite.

The antagonistic presence in his writing appears when he addresses limitations, especially in his essay Fate. When looking back at his earlier essays such as The American Scholar, it is interesting to see where he leaves the reader – eyes open, mind kindled, body in motion, but in Fate he seemingly puts a lid on the reader’s previous motivations. However, it only appears as so. What Fate is truly doing, is observing the extreme importance of the “man-thinking,” and the role that thought plays in the fate of an individual. Thinking men are a necessity to human function, and with out them man becomes complacent and limitations suppress him. This is why there always needs to be progression of thought instead of hovering and reiterating the knowledge and philosophies of those that came before. The minds of the past should never be discounted, but should be viewed as contributions towards progression. Where is your contribution? Mankind needs it to go the next round with fate.

Fate and thought are in a constant power struggle, sometimes man is on top, and has come to new realization. However with time, that new realization becomes the old, which in effect makes it the new Fate, the new boundary, the new limitation. As said before, there is no winning the war with thought, but there is no winning the war for Fate either. Fate can send floods, but man has constructed dams. Fate can take the ideas of the past, and make them law, but man can think, and therefore challenge those laws.

With the notion that there is a necessity for thinking man to battle with fate, what better way to combat oneself than with taking the offensive and antagonizing fate? Emerson does this through his writing, and one of the most reoccurring metaphors in his arsenal is alluding to the idea that all men are slaves.


Nothing so marks a man as imaginative expression. A figurative statement arrests attention (298)

-R.W. Emerson, Poetry and Imagination

 The primary aim in Emerson’s life and discourse is to provoke (743)

-Cornell West, The Emersonian Prehistory of American Pragmatism

 the alert reader can discover, and take much pleasure in discovering, remarkable verbal strategies, metaphoric patterns, repetitions, and developments of sound, sense, and image throughout Emerson’s writing (685).

-Joel Porte, The Problem of Emerson

Nor can he blink the freewill. To hazard the contradiction, – freedom is necessary. If you please to plant yourself on the side of Fate, and say, Fate is all: then we say, a part of Fate is the freedom of man. Forever wells up the impulse of choosing and acting in the soul. Intellect annuls Fate. So far as a man thinks, he is free. And though nothing is more disgusting than the crowing about liberty by slaves, as most men are, and the flippant mistaking for freedom of some paper preamble like a “Declaration of Independence,” or the statute right to vote, by those who have never dared to think or to act, yet it is wholesome to man to look not at Fate, but the other way: the practical view is the other.

-R. W. Emerson, Fate

Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle” (292)

-R.W. Emerson, Illusions

History is the action and reaction of these two, — Nature and Thought; — two boys pushing each other on the curb-stone of the pavement. Everything is pusher or pushed: and matter and mind are in perpetual tilt and balance, so. Whilst the man is weak, the earth takes up him.

-R. W. Emerson, Fate

December 21, 1823

Who is he that shall control me? Why may not I act & speak & write & think with entire freedom? What am I to the Universe, or, the Universe, what is it to me? Who hath forged the chains of Wrong & Right, of Opinion & Custom? And must I wear them? Is society my anointed King? Or is there any mightier community or any man or more than man, whose slave I am? (485)

-R. W. Emerson, From Journal and Notebooks

 October 9, 1832

I will not live out of me

I will not see with others’ eyes

My good is good my evil ill

I would be free – I cannot be

While I take things as others please to rate them

I dare attempt to lay out my own road(86).

-R. W. Emerson in his Journals, Porte 1982

Meek young men grow up in colleges & believe it is their duty to accept the views which <others ha> books have given & grow up slaves (365).

-R.W. Emerson, The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. V

 June 19, 1838

Forget the past. Be not the slave of your own past (613).

-R.W. Emerson, Selected Journals 1820-1842

 August 1, 1839:

But I wish to say – at least let our theory not be slavish: let us hope infinitely & accustom ourselves to the reflection that the true Fall of man is the disesteem of man; the true Redemption selftrust; the growth of character is only the enlargement of this, & year by year as we come to our stature we shall inherit not only forms & churches & communities but earth & heaven.

-R. W. Emerson to Harrison G. O. Blake,The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. II

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Enslavement of Character Restricts Government Growth

June, 1835

“We bow low to the noted merchants whose influence is felt not only in their native cities, but in most parts of the globe; but our respect does them & ourselves great injustice for their trade is without system, their affairs unfold themselves after no law of the mind: but are bubble built on bubble without end; a work of arithmetic not of commerce.” (274)

“Statesmen are solitary. At no time do they form a class. Governments, for the most part, are carried on by political merchants, quite without principle, & according to the maxims of trade & huckster.” (275)

-R.W. Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. V

August 18, 1837

“Meek young men grow up in colleges & believe it is their duty to accept the views which <others ha> books have given & grow up slaves” (365).

-R.W. Emerson, The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. V

August 1, 1839:

“But I wish to say – at least let our theory not be slavish: let us hope infinitely & accustom ourselves to the reflection that the true Fall of man is the disesteem of man; the true Redemption selftrust; the growth of character is only the enlargement of this, & year by year as we come to our stature we shall inherit not only forms & churches & communities but earth & heaven.”

-R. W. Emerson to Harrison G. O. Blake, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. II 


In the middle of the 1830s, Emerson is well known and studied for his ideas represented in The American Scholar to do with the thinking man and innate powerful soul. What is interesting is that while he is inviting the American public to think for himself, he is also very distressed in some of his private journals and correspondence of the ways in which the young minds of the future are being manipulated by the minds of the past in a very detrimental way to the American future.

In June of 1835, Emerson uses the metaphor of a statesman as a merchant, and goes on to describe the merchants as having a set of guidelines that have previously been in place. The “bubbles” don’t expand, but pile on top of one another in a repetitive, but never new manner. Emerson addresses this problem in his essay Politics composed in the 1840s, and explains how laws are made. “Every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case” (213). Emerson recognizes the need for youthful generations to breakaway from the merchant-like mold. If one man’s initial idea is a brick, it cannot be the foundation from which all other bricks are laid. There needs to be outward expansion before there can be upward expansion. “They only who build on Ideas, build for eternity” (214). There is a necessity for more foundational “acts” to add support to a lasting and beneficial government.

Emerson believes that the statesmen of his time are content to carryon with the set of guidelines in place that govern the American people. In his August 17, 1837 journal entry, he touches on the notion that this type of government is enslaving the minds of the youth, that young individuals in college are not being instructed to think, but instructed to know. Emerson is aware of the inequality within his America, whether it is slavery, women’s rights or Native American suffrage. Emerson believes that the path to equality lies with in the young minds of the rising generation, but that their inner power is not being kindled, but snuffed-out. Thus, fourteen days later, he provides his controversial lecture of The American Scholar in attempts to reignite all that is being suppressed.

In a correspondence between Emerson and Harrison G. O. Blake, a member of the committee that arranged for Emerson’s Divinity School address, Emerson speaks to the young Blake about a “growth of character.” In Politics, Emerson claims that Americans are “superstitious, and esteem the statute,” which influences “so much life as it has in the character of living men” (214). In order for one’s character to grow, there needs to be a regaining of “selftrust.” To save one’s character, a scholar needs only to rely on their own innate moral beliefs, and not be influenced by the one-sided minds of politicians that cling to the “act of a single man.” If an individual can break away from the chains that suppress their character, then growth will occur, and as Emerson says in his essay Fate, “events [will] expand with the character” (276), which will hopefully lead to a better government.

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Commentary on Commentary: Analyzing Poetics with the use of R.W. Emerson’s essay Circles

“Commentary: 1a: an explanatory treatise- usually used in plural b: a record of events usually used by a participant- usually used in plural 2a: a systematic series of explanations or interpretations (as of a writing) b: comment 3a:something that serves for illustration or explanation . . . b: and expression of opinion”

-Merriam-Webster Online

 Providing commentary on an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson is very fitting because it can be argued that Emerson is in fact simply providing his own commentary of a subject matter. Therefore, to begin with a commentary about one of Emerson’s essays, one must understand exactly what commentary is. Words like “explanatory,” “treatise,” “interpretations,” “comment,” “illustration,” “expression” and “opinion” almost perfectly describe the thought process behind Emerson’s essays. Arguably, these are not the only words that can be associated in a description of Emerson’s texts, and Emerson would never aspire to have his work summed up into one word, but never-the-less commentary is a predominant occurrence.


 Emerson often provides epigraphs for his series of essays to assist the body of his essays. On some occasions it is noted that the epigraphs, many of Emerson’s own composition, were added in later versions of the essays. This draws a question as to why Emerson would add an epigraph years after the composition of his essay. Take for example Emerson’s essay Circles written in 1841 from his first series, with its six lines and rhythmic seven-syllable repetition, which was added to the essay in 1847(p. 174). This epigraph can be viewed as a broad generalization of the subject matter to be addresses, while other readers may develop differing opinions on Emerson’s intention of text interpretation. Without examining the hermeneutics of the specific text there is similarity to be found among those epigraphs incorporated into his first series of essays such as Poet and Experience. Each essay has an epigraph that is in a rhythmic rhyme scheme, and at first read is not always apparent in its purpose. The meaning of the epigraph resonates with the body of the essay, and in some instances like in the essay Circles ties in with the title.

This non-apparent meaning of the epigraph allows for a warm-up of the mind, or familiarization of the subject of focus. A reader can interpret the lines of the epigraph, which are highly descriptive with metaphor and allegory, and use the suggested meaning to refer back to when reading one of Emerson’s essay. As is suggested by Richard Poirier, Emerson can often be “hard to read” (p.770) in that the language that he implements through out his writing is not typically used day-to-day among most people. Emerson’s language is difficult, and sometimes requires multiple avenues of interpretation, but it is not impossible. As Poirier points out in his excerpt of From Poetry and Pragmatism, Emerson “seldom uses [words] without allowing for [their] double sense” (p. 769), which can bring about contrasts or better clarification in some of his subjects. The epigraph can aid a reader by offering up certain subject topics to be aware of. Not to necessarily search for, but to remain present in the mind. To possibly peek interest so that one’s own thoughts may branch off Emerson’s thoughts.

While using a published definition of a word is very different from the types of epigraphs used by Emerson, they both achieve the same goal. They engage the reader to think. They behave as a warm-up of the mind, and invite the reader to be active and recall connections through out the text. Similar to the use of epigraphs, Emerson most often begins a paragraph in the same way. Typically he will make a statement, which causes the reader to pause, a slowing down or pacing of the mind before he transitions into a change or different continuation of a subject. Once the statement has been assessed, the movement of tone quickens with his repetitious elaborations to aid his topic.

“Therefore, we value the poet. All the argument, and all the wisdom, is not in the encyclopedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play. In my daily work I incline to repeat my old steps, and do not believe in remedial force, in the power of change and reform. But some Petarch or Arisoto, filled with the new wine of his imagination, writes me an ode, or a brisk romance, full of daring thought and action. He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eyes on my own possibilities. He clasps wings to sides of all solid old lumber of the world, and I am capable once more of choosing a straight path in theory and practice.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Circles

 Critics of Emerson’s like Barbara Packer refer to this type of passage as “declarative sentences” that transition and “suddenly flower out into illustrative metaphors and periodic sentences” (p. 731). There is a quick movement to be noticed from Emerson’s paragraph, and Packer uses the word “suddenly” to describe it. He makes his statement without previous explanation or clarification, and immediately takes off on a commentary of elaboration. Poirier complements Packer’s theory on Emerson’s structure by suggesting that “you must stay as close as possible to the movements of his language, moment by moment, for at every moment there is movement with no place to rest” (p. 770). Poirier concedes that when “suddenly” his elaboration begins the closeness that a reader must have is to stay close to the comprehension of the language that Emerson uses. The paragraph begins slow and undefined, but the movement soon accelerates, and provides great detail and explanation before slowing down and finishing the train of thought unconcluded and open to further interpretation.

  Emerson uses language in such a stop and go fashion. His essays are a relay race and the paragraphs are the runners with unique abilities. The runners are all lined up in the sequence that they will run. There is an initial understanding by all of the runners, an epigraph, an overview of what is to be accomplished. The first runner takes his place, takes a stance, then “suddenly” sprints into action. The runner quickens the pace, finding his repetitive rhythm. Sometimes there are hurdles and confusion, other times there are a curves, but there are also times of smooth continual surface. Eventually while racing around a tract a runner finds himself on the opposite side of the field from where he began, and gradually has to slow his pace. The runner is coming to the end of his run, but is still left unanswered as to the outcome of the race. The runner comes back to the place that their initial stance was made, and readies himself to hand the baton off to the next runner in line, waiting for her turn to show what she can do. However, even after all of the runners have gone, and the results are in the books, there all always more races to be won, endings can change. There are always new generations of runners that will fall short or set new records much like the circular rotation of the changing seasons.

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Emerson on Books

“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This everyman is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn.”

                       – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar

It is understandable how some readers of The American Scholar have a misconception about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s theory pertaining to books, and that he believes that reading is unnecessary. The indication behind the first sentence is that Emerson believes that books can be used in two ways. They can be “well used,” which he is in favor of. Or the use of books can be abusive, which he is not in favor of. The first line in the passage negates the notion that he finds books to be unnecessary by him referring to them as “the best of things.” Additionally, using the word “well” allows for him to alter the negative connotation typically suggested by the word “used” to give thought to his central question pertaining to the positive usage of books and their importance. However, Emerson wants to make it very clear to the reader that books are only to be “used” in a correct manner as a guide or an aide. The next piece of the sentence is where Emerson introduces his qualm about books, “abused, among the worst.” The primary question is, what does Emerson mean by suggesting that books are abused, and how can one differentiate between using a book well, and abusing its substance?

The next question is “what is the right use?” Before answering this primary question, another question needs to be asked. When Emerson uses the word “books” does he only mean books? No, of course he does not just literally mean books, but is referring to the “mind of the past” (58). Therefore, it is important to clarify that when Emerson uses the word “books” in the passage that he is referring not to the physical pages, but to their content, which can be found in written form, art, a lecturer and overall the knowledge of those scholars from the past.

Inspiration is the answer to Emerson’s question. The “right” use of a book is when it is used to inspire the reader. However, sometimes a book is abused, and “the scholar errs with mankind and forfeits his privilege” (57). The privilege that the reader gives up is the ability to think beyond the book’s content, limiting his reach of potential. The reader acts as a machine in that it intakes material, and outputs the material as a previously designed product. It is a tool of the creator. A machine cannot invent or alter unless it is programmed to do so, causing creativity to find an end. A machine’s only potential is instilled in the man that created it. The machine is still essential to the creator, but is not of equal intellect. A man can become a machine and a book the creator when the man is only able to take in the content of a book, and out put the very same previously acquired information inlayed in the text.

However, Emerson does not discount the importance of books that pertain to gaining knowledge, and that cannot be expanded upon or discredited. “There is a portion of reading quite indispensible to a wise man. History and exact science [a scholar] must learn by laborious reading . . . But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create” (61). Emerson is aware that not every book or source of information is allowing of creativity, and that it is important for the scholar to comprehend such knowledge, submitting to the author’s truth. Although, it is better for a scholar if there are books of the same subject matter that can better assist creativity because they aim to inspire.

Emerson describes the nature of a scholar as an “always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find, – so entire, so boundless” (57-58). A scholar uses the books to find their motivation that will bring them round and round to their next inspiration. There are no ends to the theories that one can uncover from a book if it is well used.

Additionally, Emerson aims to encourage scholars to not narrow theirs minds to branching out in one direction, but in all directions. If a reader objects to a theory, the better way to understand their opinion is to examine all angles of the situation. In Emerson’s essay Circles he encourages the scholarly thinker to think of him as an experimenter. “I unsettle all things. No facts to me are sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back” (180). A scholarly thinker must be open to all thoughts and remain non-judgmental even if faced with a confrontation of beliefs. A scholar will take an unfamiliar position to seek and experiment to gain unique knowledge and perspective. Most importantly, the scholar does this freely with no alliance to any “Past” influence. The capitalized “Past” that Emerson refers to in his essay is not his own past, but directly relates to books in the form of the “mind of the past.” Meaning that a scholar is free to explore without the intimidating influence of the books they have read.

Emerson uses metaphor about becoming a satellite to further aid his warning to the reader. He implies that the “attraction” and acceptance of a book’s content can often be so alluring that it can halt a scholar on their path to new ideas. A scholar becomes the satellite for the book to relay it’s code to, and have it reverberated to other locations, or other satellites stuck in the same gravitational pull. In situations like this, a scholar is pulled from their own place of power and position, and turned into a rotating worshiper of the book, a man not thinking. The similar imagery can be found in the phrase “broken record” in which the same thing is said over and over again. On a broken record there is an end caused by a deficiency on the vinyl, and this never allows the spindle a way to expand outward to new music because it is stuck.

Again, it is important to maintain that Emerson does not intend to devalue the importance of books. He believes that they are for the “scholar’s idle times” (60). Referring to the times in a scholar’s study when the new ideas cease, and there is a struggle to maintain and nourish the creativity. Emerson relates books to that of a lamp casting light in rays that can aid in spotlighting new directions of inspiration. He insists that books can help “guide [a scholar’s] steps East again, where the dawn is,” (60) the dawn of new creation. Additionally, a reader will likely stumble upon the works of a “Past” mind, and share interests and thoughts. A scholar will establish what Emerson refers to a “preestablished harmony” (60) so that they may align themselves to inspire generations of scholars to come.

The last part of the passage focuses on that of what Emerson referrers to as an “active soul.” The opposite of active would be dormant or un-awakened, and soul referring to a type of divine power that can take a scholar anywhere whether physically or mentally. In an essay written by Stephen E. Whicher entitled Emerson’s Tragic Sense he explains Emerson’s excitement at the idea of an active soul when The American Scholar was written. “His imagination had kindled to a blaze at the thought of the divine power latent in the soul. Give way to it, let it act, and the conversation of the world will follow” (665).  This course of thinking aligns itself with Emerson’s theory of the thinking man recognizing the power within him to not just hear, but to understand the truth behind words. Emerson describes the active soul as acknowledging absolute truth, and how it can lead to creation to be shared with the world of scholars, further implying that it is genius. Books are the genius of the past, and the genius of the future creates (59).

Emerson’s three impulses of the mind that embody an American Scholar; nature, books and action are all interrelated through out his essay. A Scholar cannot have one without the other. While nature was not greatly addressed, Emerson believed that all three impulses move in a fluid progression towards the other. “When the artist has exhausted his materials, when the fancy no longer paints, when the thoughts are no longer apprehended, and books are a weariness, – he has always the resource to live” (62-63). Emerson’s plea to the Scholar is to not read books and halt on the subject, he expects for them to guide a reader on to great ideas, and not only great ideas, but also great experience – to great action.


1. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Joel Porte, and Saundra Morris. Emerson’s prose and   poetry:authoritative texts, contexts, criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.

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A.R. Ammons, Tape for the turn of the year

A.R. Ammons’ book, Tape for the Turn of the Year, can best be described as a hodgepodge of language. There is merit in this assumption as Ammons himself frequently breaks off into slang or vernacular. He sometimes goes as far as to make up words. For example, the use of the word “jever” in place of the phrase “do you ever” is used on page 107. Additionally, Ammons’ blend of free verse and prose, have no meter in structure. There are no patters to be found within the stanzas or syllable counts per verse line.  His speech acts continuously transition between address, apology, narration, question, retraction, and plea to name a few. The only consistency in structure to be found is the structure that is provided by the physical dimension of the adding machine paper roll. The poem is thin, eight words at most to a verse line, and it is long, very, very long.

To begin as Ammons begins, there is a prologue in which he apologizes to the reader in advance of his explanation to describe what he is attempting with his latest venture. Ammons almost laments the idea before he has even started. In the onset of his work, he clearly feels as though this whole project is rather “foolish” on his part (p. 2). It is unsure in the beginning as to what Ammons is hoping to achieve. He provides the knowledge that he has been giving this project lengthy consideration over a two-week period, and acknowledges the poem as his muse because he will need her assistance.  He is uncertain in his tone of his newest endeavor, and implores the reader to have patience, and to understand, as he has no idea where this project will lead him.

There are two very obvious ways of approaching Ammons’ work as a book. An individual might conclude that the text is one long continuous 205-page poem, much like the epic tale of The Odyssey that he refers to on multiple occasions. Another approach is to view it as a book of poems in which each date entry acts as a separate thirty-two-poem compilation. An argument can be made for either stance. To provide evidence that the text is one poem a reader can consider the very simple formality that there is no table of contents. Another indication is that there are overlapping topics from date to date. Additionally, Ammons never alludes to the fact that he is embarking on this project as a compilation of poems. However, if this is meant to be one long continuous strain of thought, then why even add the dates? Especially since he does overlap in topic content throughout parts of the book? Not to mention that these overlaps tend to weigh heavily on the fact that he has examined his previous day’s work, and has come to a new revelation about the topic for a new poem.

In his review of previous day’s works, Ammons frequently makes observations in which he either elaborates on his ideas or retracts them. He does not remove the previous day’s text in his retraction as it could be considered cheating, but instead begins a new train of thought to further explain the reason for his retraction.  An example of one of Ammons’ retractions is when he points out his tendency to unintentionally slip into prose. Ammons is very conscious of the notion that he wants to have some course of direction. What is more, he does not want the subject matter to be too convoluted. This is perhaps the reason for his displeasure in his use of “incontinent prose” (p. 49), and his desires to be able to convey himself with “clarity & simplicity” (p. 4).

As interesting as Ammons’ intentions are to create a text with inconspicuous content, he fails in multiple instances besides his slipping in and out of prose. He uses a variety of figurative language including oxymoron, which in its very function is meant to confuse a person into thinking about what the conflicts between two words could mean. For example, Ammons writes, “we’re going to make a dense trellis so lovely and complicated” (p. 44). This example is not overly complicated for a reader to decipher his intent, but nonetheless, it is still an oxymoron in the literal translation that complication is not typically considered to be lovely.

The use of imagery is present in many different forms throughout the text. In the few repeated instances where there are one to two words per line, it is suggested that Ammons is using this structure intentionally to add emphasis to his points. These suggestions can be as subtle as accompanying a phrase about the imagery of the tape unwinding (as the words descend on the page) into a trash can (p. 29), or as direct as to actually point out that he is needing to rush through the process, and the use of one word per verse line will help him accomplish this (p. 59).

As previously noted, Ammons refers to his work as a “muse,” “song” and occasionally a “woman.” When he is frustrated with his inability to arrive at a topic, he frequently addresses the muse. In his address he speaks of their labor of love, and of the ways in which they lead each other astray. This causes more vagueness to the material, because the image of his work as a woman occasionally relates he and the poem to a couple that are engaging in a sexual relationship. In doing so he often uses the discourse one would typically find between two sexually active partners, rather than a writer to his text. This occurs throughout most of his entry for December 11th; however, two days later on December 13th, Friday the 13th, his entry reads much like the minutes report from a board meeting. Ammons shifts his content and tone so drastically from day to day, that it begs the question, what is straightforward and comprehensible about that?

Another form of imagery implemented in his work is the repeated religious allusion of a “crown-of-thorns.” The most immediate image to accompany that saying is that of Jesus Christ while he is being crucified. While a reader can interpret with his or her own beliefs as to what the meaning behind this repeated phrase may allude to, it is at times so casually implemented that it may be uncertain exactly what Ammons is hoping to convey. Additionally, a reader can make note of the fact that the longest stretch that Ammons is absent from his writing is between Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas. This occurs in what can be perceived as the middle of the book, which ends the entry of December 23rd on page 101, and begins again two days later on December 26th on page 102. It could be a coincidence, but it could also be seen as a structural decision to convey some intended purpose, as his entries leading up to the holiday are shorter in length. It is interesting to note as well that Ammons begins to provide insight into his own religious beliefs on page 98, just before his two-day break in writing. While he is informing the reader of his individual outlook on religion, it can be argued that the very obvious break is used to emphasize his religious commitment without actually having to provide the words to the reader. Ammons is being being suggestive through his omission. Another thought could be that he just simply took his holiday vacation. Either way, the break is very present in the text where a reader might be looking forward to observing what a Christmas Day post would be composed of.

Ammons has many reoccurring topics in his text, particularly in the beginnings of his entries. One reoccurring theme includes his observation of birds, most specifically a blue jay. The blue jay is introduced to the reader on December 10th and makes it all the way to the very last date entry on January 9th. Ammons is writing in the winter, and makes constant reference to the temperature. In many of his entries he begins with proclaiming how cold it is, and provides the reader with the outdoor temperature.  Often while concluding the entry he claims the reason for his stoppage is due to the fact that it is too cold to continue. Additionally, he makes mention of a day in which the temperature reaches into the forty degree range.  His tone actually seems to shift into a more optimistic and aggressive manner along with the rise in temperature (p. 102). Coincidentally, the following day he mentions that it is rainy, and could be cold. He regards it passively by stating that it is “none of (his) business” (p. 111). It is interesting how he uses the language surrounding certain temperatures to alter the mood of his writing.

Some additional observations of the way in which Ammons uses language are his commonplace phrases that he observes in the environment around him. For example, he notices the message on the back of a garbage truck that reads, “we aim to serve not disturb,” (p. 42) which he recognizes as assonance, and begins him on a tract of elaborating what that brings to the forefront of his mind. Ammons also makes use of the empty spaces on the tape to create shapes with his typewriter using the symbols available on the keyboard. He uses these shapes as visual aids to his words. Throughout the entire text there is also an intermingling of metaphor, simile, anecdotes, discourse and even Ammons’ desire to convey certain vernaculars. Additionally, on more than one occasion he purposefully leaves the vowels out of words in certain phrases. For example on page 30 the text reads as, “wd be gd bth cmng & gng.” The same method reoccurs on page 65, but is implemented in an entirely different topic matter, leaving the reader curious as to what Ammons’ purpose is in the use of this sporadic form of spelling.

Some style decisions frequented throughout the text include the use of contractions, dashes, the placement of phrases or words into quotations and the use of italicized words in sentences to place emphasis on the rhetorical value of the question at hand. Another aspect of style that stands out, but is considered to be more of a modern innovation, is the use of a colon with parentheses to indicate a mood, most commonly viewed as : ). While more than likely this is not Ammons’ intention, some of the instances where they occur during the poem deserve notice because feeling indicators are widely used in recent social communication. Whether Ammons is aware of it or not, some of the placements of the colon and parentheses in his text form a feeling indicator that work in pleasing ways. An example is found on page 39 when Ammons declares, “I’m bushed : ).” Viewing this example from Ammons’ perspective, the phrase is meant to be a straightforward and a non-amusing declaration. In modern interpretation, one could say that viewing the colon and parentheses as a feeling indicator changes the entire tone of that phrase to light-hearted, humorous or maybe even suggestive.

As he discovers the red ink at the end of the scroll, Ammons thanks the muse and reflects on their journey together with a sense of shock and relief. Interestingly enough, Ammons addresses the reader in his final day of writing as well, and asks questions directly of the muse and reader, providing little closure since there is no possible way for the muse or reader to immediately respond. It is fitting to conclude with the constant element throughout the text, which is Ammons’ use of the colon that interferes with any hope of closure. There are absolutely no periods to be found to conclude any series of thought. There are plenty of question marks and exclamation points to accompany the colons, but absolutely no periods- period! Alluding to the fact that this is done intentionally to make sure that the reader knows there is no end to questioning, pondering and the like:


Ammons, A. R.. Tape for the turn of the year. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1965. Print.

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New Historicism

New historicism is a relatively new, and not widely understood method of analyzing and criticizing texts. Stephen Greenblatt has been regarded as the most prominent specialist of new historicism along with his co-author Catherine Gallagher. Together, Greenblatt and Gallagher compiled some of their essays and ideas in the book Practicing New Historicism. In the introduction of their book the pair convey to the reader how new historicism came to be, and the struggle that the diverse group of colleagues had in arriving at a consensus to adopt a type of structure or guidelines to be followed. This group of colleagues consisting of a “literary critic and art historian; historian and political scientist; Lacanian, Foucauldian, Freudian, neopragmatist; deconstructor and unreconstructured formalist” (Gallagher, 2001) met for several years to share their professional opinions on how a text should be viewed as a new historicist. Interestingly enough, there is no standard set of qualifications to analyze a text using the new historicism method.

Greenblatt and his colleagues brought their views on new historicism to the English world in the 1980’s, and have been developing and expanding since. In the beginning of their studies much of what was being examined as historical texts was Renaissance Literature and Victorian era Literature primarily written and published in Europe. An example that surfaces often in conjunction with Greenblatt is his new historicism depiction of William Shakespeare’s, The Tempest. While a historicism view of The Tempest would be to say that it is a play about the colonization in America, Greenblatt was more concerned with analyzing the cultural dynamic. What exactly was Shakespeare’s purpose in writing this play? It is not that he is not interested in Character dynamic, and their relationships, but would rather analyze what the relationship between the characters can tell the reader about the societal behaviors. Additionally, when examining those social behaviors, is the writer conveying them in a positive or negative light, and how does that resonate with the meaning of the text. Greenblatt suggests that when The Tempest was written, it was very important to Shakespeare to convey the stronghold that England still had over the colonies in the new world, and to portray how beneficial England’s influence is in civilization. (Harmon, 2012)

As was described in the introduction to Gallagher and Greenblatt’s book, the compiled group of colleagues actually found through their reading of each other’s thoughts how to pull new historicism ideals out of texts, and they actually started to arrive at certain agreements and began to blend some of the practices from their school or criticism of expertise. However, due to that sort of theoretical blending, much of the concern to do with this particular school of criticism is due to that ambiguity. Even within the confines of scholars that consider themselves to be new historicists, there is much dispute over what is significant.

The primary reason for the dispute is due to the idea that unlike old historicism that focused on the way in which texts depicted historical traditions, new historicism would examine literary works as guides to delve into the ways in which certain social, political and economic status resulted in behaviors regarding laws, principles of conduct and etiquette. (Harmon, 2012) A new historicist will examine those elements of the text and assess them into what they believe to be the philosophy behind the text. Now because there are so many different elements to be examined when reading as a new historicist a political scientist will more than likely pull examples from a text to support their understanding of the books philosophy that will differ from those opinions of a Freudian.

New historicists will argue that many of the schools of criticism are too simplistic in their evaluation of a text. Veeser put it best in his introduction to his book The New Historicism, by stating that “social and cultural events comingle messily, by rigorously exposing the innumerable trade-offs, the competing bids and exchanges of culture.” Giving way to the argument that new historicism is a valid way of interpreting texts because the best new historicists are the ones who derive their theories by examining the ideals of Marxists, postcolonialist and social historians to name a few.

Louis A. Montrose is “often cited as exemplary” (Veeser, 1989) as a new historicist. This status has seemingly evolved from his ability to combine the aspects of multiple schools of criticism to divulge new cultural or social meaning from a text in some of his early papers. Lending emphasis to the idea that a proper new historicist is never following a strict set of standards or guidelines. Upon further thought, this ideal and method is accurate because history is never-ending, and cultural and social change will always occur with progression; therefore, a new historicist attempting to find the correlation must engage with an open mind to examine more modern texts. In the 1980’s, when the criticism was in its infancy, and the more relevant texts to be studied were Renaissance and Victorian era material, the knowledge of culture and society was thoroughly documented, and new historicists could examine different ways in which to study the culture of the text by implementing some of the different stands of other schools of criticism. Similarly, new schools of criticism will more than likely evolve, and perhaps even a new form of historicism, but as these new criticism evolve, new historicists will examine their theories to interpret whether or not there is anything that can be gained from a new historicism’s point of view.


  1. Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 12th ed. Boston: Longman, 2012. Print.
  2. Gallagher, Catherine, and Stephen Greenblatt. “Introduction.” Practicing New Historicism. Pbk. ed. Chicago [Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 1-19. Print.
  3. Veeser, H. Aram. “Introduction.” The New Historicism. New York [etc.: Routledge, 1989. ix-xvi. Print.

Further Reading:

  1. Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism, 2001, call no. PN81.G44 2001.
  2. H. Aram Veeser, The New Historicism, 1989, call no. PN81.N43 1989.
  3. Joshua E. Polster, Reinterpreting the plays of Arthur Miller: an approach using cultural semiotics and new historicism, 2010, eBook, AN 500490.
  4. William D Dean, History Making History: the New Historicism in American Religious Thought, 1988, call no. BR115.H5 D4 1988.

Suggestions 1 and 2 were also sources for my research, and provide a large sample of works from multiple new historicists. Suggestion 3 is what drew me to my criticism of choice because studying the works of Arthur Miller was one of my favorite topics in my high school english class, and I can remember studying the history of the era and how it related to the content of The Crucible. Lastly, I chose suggestion 4 as another interest piece, but only got a chance to briefly skim it. However, the notion of analyzing religious content as a new historicist, should provide for an interesting outlook.

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What is English?: A Whole Lot of Reading, Thinking and Writing.

Part 1: What is English?

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “English” is an adjective used to describe the language and people of England, it is a noun for the “language, literature, or composition when (in) a subject of study” and it is a transitive verb “to translate (or adopt) into English (9).” It all sounds fairly straight forward, but when the word “English” is in conjunction with the word “Major,” the floodgates of uncertainty open. In the history of education in America a common element was always very prevalent when considering the status of a well-educated individual, it was whether or not they could read. For instance in the 18th century, secondary schools were slow to develop “because children could learn to read in common schools (elementary schools), and reading was considered sufficient education by many citizens.”(Powell, 2011). Arguably, the amount of content that could fall under what to study as an English Major is limitless, but there is a way to narrow it down to allow for a more tangible sense of understanding. The English field of study can be narrowed down to three major components, reading, thinking and writing.

The first component, reading, is possibly the most difficult topic to discuss. What should an English Major read? Some individuals will give specific examples with little variation in what they consider to be literature, others would say anything and everything, all text is important. An English Department at any post-secondary institution has a primary concentration on the study of Literature. The weight of literary knowledge varies from specific disciplines at different schools. Louisiana State University (LSU) has prerequisite courses for any English Major; however, those students pursuing creative writing, will take less literature courses, and are obligatory to supplement with their writing classes to fulfill the Major requirements. Additionally, there are schools like Bowdoin College in which part of completing an English Major with a concentration in writing is to complete all courses necessary to fulfill the requirement of a British and American Literature discipline, as well as additional writing courses instead of supplementing (6, 7).

While defining an English field of study is challenging, nothing is more challenging or seemingly impossible than trying to compose a definition of literature. Literature is likely the most controversial focus in the English discipline with many forward thinkers and plenty of backward thinkers. Terry Eagleton is a man that observes every aspect of the debate, and tries to make sense of the criticism around the question, “what is literature.”

It is true that many of the works studied as literature in academic institutions were ‘constructed’ to be read as literature, but it is also true that many of them were not. A piece of writing may start off life as history or philosophy and then come to be ranked as literature; or it may start off as literature and then come to be valued for its archaeological significance. Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them.” –Terry Eagleton

The passage above is an accurate depiction of the debate with regards to literature. Is a novel written with the intention of being studied for imagery and metaphor more important and have more merit for debate and critique than a journal entry written by an American explorer in the early 19th century? What’s not interesting about reading the opinions of a person experiencing unchartered territory for the first time? A journal entry can just as easily transport a reader into a different era as that of a thoughtfully written 18th century novel. So which example will have more value as being considered Literature, or are the two examples equivalent?

British and American Literature were mentioned, and are very traditional and historical eras of literature, but that does not necessarily mean that they should be removed for the sake of being repetitive. One way in which to break down the concept of literature is to separate it into categories such as genre, of pertaining to poetry, fiction and non-fiction novels. Another component would be the period in which a certain text is written such as Medieval or Victorian era. Traditions is another category that can go on to include the more original foundations of literature like British Literature, but also has a Multi-Cultural aspect that includes the texts from cultures spanning the globe. In addition to genre, period and traditions, there are different themes that can include the typically thought of British literature, but take into account scientific writing or women writers as specialized themes.

Another area of conflict is in regard to discourse. Eagleton goes onto to encourage the debate of what characteristics of a text constitute literature. He uses examples of comic books and cookbooks. Why would they not be considered Literature? Which individuals choose what constitutes literature? More people in today’s society might find the story plot of a celebrity’s autobiography more interesting than the work of the Bronte sisters and their novels full of descriptive imagery and old English discourse.

It is thus quite possible that, given a deep enough transformation of our history, we may in the future produce a society which is unable to get anything at all out of Shakespeare. His works might simply seem desperately alien, full of styles of thought and feeling which such a society found limited or irrelevant. In such a situation, Shakespeare would be no more valuable than much present-day graffiti.” –Terry Eagleton

The possibility of Shakespeare’s body of work not being considered literature is an important lesson into the insight of discourse. What if in generations to come that Shakespearean style is too complex and what is considered to be more important bodies of work surface? Will Shakespeare be shelved and categorized outside of literature? The discourse used, will more than likely not reappear in day-today usage, and therefore begs the question, why is it read? Shakespeare’s writing is interesting sure enough, but is not the scientific experiment that resulted in the cloning of Dolly the Sheep interesting too? Once some body of text has received the literature stamp of approval, what is to stop future generations from crossing it out? What if as years pass nobody wants to study the work of Shakespeare and his texts hold no interest of the evolved people? Will his work no longer be considered literature? Or will it still be literature, but just unimportant literature?

In the future something as collective as a commonplace book of political slogans or inspirational song lyrics could come to be considered literature over the prose and poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson. As culture collides with English, it may appeal to future generations of learners to study the history of elections and the power of words over the masses.

Another prevalent component to the English Major is that of thinking. After reading a text, whether considered to be literature or not the thinking process takes over, and in that process an individual studying English should be able to analyze or discuss a text, and make critical assumptions to form an original thought.

Discussion of criticism is apt to be considered a rather introspective diversion. But it is a fact too often forgotten that the real content of the school and college subject which goes under the name ‘English Literature’ is not literature in the primary sense, but criticism . Every school student in British education is required to compose, not tragic dramas, but essays in criticism.” –Chris Baldick

In the passage above, Chris Baldick is implying that reading literature is not nearly enough to be considered well-educated in the field of English. One must demonstrate the ability to comprehend what is read and criticize it appropriately. The word criticism typically has a negative connotation, but it does not necessarily imply that a reader has to disagree with any particular position or story, but instead create their own inquiry as to what they can derive, and use information from the text to defend critiques of their opinions. The term method, being able to relate to material, a character, or a conflict, and theory, finding conflicts in text, and making assumptions are invaluable components of the critical thinking process.

Included in the component of thinking are the studies of Linguistics and English as a Second Language (ESL). At the University of Wisconsin, Madison the English Department offers English Majors in the discipline of Linguistic or ESL (5). These can be thought to be included in the thinking component of the English Major because in order to master these disciplines one needs to study and think about how they relate to text. True, there is reading material and practice to attain the knowledge needed, but to put those skills into practice requires thinking and analyzing language. For instance, Linguistics will have a student thinking about syntax, morphology and phonology in a written dialogue, and critically analyzing where the aspects of the human language are found. Similarly, the Study of ESL requires an individual to make connections in their native language to the English language. Additionally, understanding how words are composed can aid in the dialect and comprehension of other unfamiliar dialects.

The writing component of an English Major is what culminates reading, thinking and writing into one Major. A discipline in writing for an English Major often designated specifically for the purpose of writing is the rhetoric element, or the act of persuasive writing. To be a good Rhetoric writer one must first be able to read and think about a text. LSU is an institution that offers a discipline of Writing and Culture for an English Major. As in any English Major, there are the prerequisites of studying literature, but a major specifically designed for the cultural purpose will likely stray from heavy influence of the more traditional texts considered to be literature. Instead, the description of this Major at LSU invites the student to read a variety of texts and draw conclusions about how that text could be used in a rhetorical argument, and how social aspects can affect the text of a certain region (6).

Apart from making arguments, an important part of the writing component is the knowledge of how to actually write, whether in the form of a letter, essay or citation. It is important for an English student of to have a working knowledge of what plagiarism is, and how to avoid it. When making an argument, and using the written ideas of another, it is extremely important to be well practiced in what is qualified as correct and incorrect ways to use their ideas. For instance, adding a passage to make a connection is allowed. However, a student must be careful that they are expanding on the thought of another and not owning it whether in agreement or disagreement.

Something as simple as the proper use of grammar and vocabulary is important in the writing component. Additionally, if a student is going to pursue a career in any type of creative writing, it is important to ensure a comprehension of descriptive language. Additionally, being familiar with different types of discourse used when writing an article or journal entry for a newspaper will always be beneficial to the writer. When writing a novel with a complex protagonist, the use of imagery and analogy can draw a reader in.

By taking the English Major, and breaking it into the components of reading, thinking and writing, all of the cores of the subject appear to have been addressed. Some components such as analogy and critical thinking can be found in more than one component, and it is important to recognize their presence in each piece. For example, it was mentioned before that linguistics and ESL are components of thinking, while others may argue that they are components of reading or writing, or possibly should not be considered valuable disciplines of the English Major at all. The study of English is so evolved that it comes down to a matter of opinion.

An academic subject is never at a standstill, it is always moving in one or more directions.” –DJ Palmer

As Palmer says, what is believed to be the study of English in the twenty-first century will not be the study of English in the twenty-second century, or will it?


Part 2: Proposed English Major

1. 100-level Introductory Sequence, Combined Introduction to English and Literary


2. 200-level Grammar/Linguistics

3. 200-level Writing Workshop

4. 300-level British and American Literature

5. 300-level Poetry Analysis/ Transcendentalism

6. 300-level Literature elective (i.e. Medieval Literature)

7. 300-level Literature elective (i.e. American Indian Literature)

8. 300-level Non-traditional Literature (Reading Film as Literature, Adolescent         Literature [LSU])

9. 300-400 level Creative Writing/Advanced Writing Workshop

10. 400-level Literature and World Culture

11. Advanced Sequence I

12. Advanced Sequence II

The suggested list of courses above is what I believe to make up a good English Major. I decided to combine the introductory level English with Literary Analysis because if a person is a freshman entering the English Major, then chances are that they should have some secondary background and interest in the subject. One would like to believe that if an individual did not do well in their high school English courses that they would not pursue it as a field of study in their post-secondary education. I feel that a course in grammar or linguistics should be required. Grammar especially because I cannot believe some of the posts that I read from non-English Major students in other classes, and the grammatical errors in their writing. While an English major may not have those difficulties in their writing, I feel it is important to be able to recognize them in others’. I do feel that grammar should be an option, but if not chosen, then a course in Linguistics should be considered. These two options supply some formative aspect into the English language that I feel any English major should have an interest in. Similarly, I believe that a basic writing workshop would help any English Major whether in the discipline of Literature or Writing, to help prepare them for the amount of writing that will be expected for any English class.

Next there’s a series of 300-level Literature courses. While the topic of “what is Literature” is very vague, I feel like exploring those opinions should be reserved for the Graduate level. There is so much text in the history of the world that there has to be a starting point with some directional guide. Nobody ever said that studying British Literature in your Major means you cannot explore other literary possibilities in your free time. I see the various literature options as a place to begin. As Terry Eagleton mentions in his essay, some books were written with the intent of becoming literature to be studied, therefore the theory is that there must be something in those stories worth reading, and if you do not find any of it to be worth reading, then it must be worth debating (2).

The only course that I’m not one hundred percent on board with would be a more advanced Creative Writing course. Perhaps instead of Creative Writing some type of Advance Writing Workshop should be offered. The only reason that I included Creative Writing specifically is because one can easily read what would be considered a creative passage of text, but it is another experience entirely to have to compose a creative text.  A Writing English Major typically enrolls in multiple Literature courses, and I think an interchangeable advanced writing course would be beneficial to Literature English Majors.

Finally, I agree with Keene State College’s two-part advanced sequence courses. I think that in culminating a field of study, there needs to be a reflection of material learned, and additional components whether theoretical or historical that an individual in their final years of study should need to consider and convey their gained knowledge (8).


  1. Powell, Sara D. “History of Education in the United States.” Issues In Education. Third ed. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011. 42. Print.
  2. Eagleton, Terry. “Introduction : What Is Literature?” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2013. <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~engl5vr/Eagle1.html&gt;.
  3. Baldick. Chris. The Social Mission of English Criticism, 1848-1932. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
  4. Palmer, D.J. The Rise of English Studies. London: Oxford UP, 1965.
  5. http://www.english.wisc.edu/undergraduae
  6. http://english.lsu.edu
  7. http://www.bowdoin.edu/english/curriculum/index.shtml
  8. http://sites.keene.edu/english
  9. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/english
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I Find Comfort in Anonymity, but I’m Working on it: Reflections on the Academic Essay

I entered high school with no formal education in writing an essay. I always assumed that as long as my grammar was somewhat acceptable and spelling errors were at a minimum that I would receive a desirable grade from the one viewer, the teacher. I went through the first two years of my small town high school English classes writing so-called essays with no regard to structure or descriptive and analytical topic. The word essay had little intimidation on me because I did not know what exactly constructed a good essay, or even why anyone needed the knowledge to write an essay.

 It was not until my junior year of high school that I started to understand that a well-written essay was a way to use the texts I was reading, and make any connection I could support. The teacher that taught the seniors in Advanced Placement English (APE) additionally taught one Grade 11 English course, and I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in that class. Throughout the year she began to incorporate the basic skills and methods used in the writing of an academic essay. Her motive was to have her students use our new skills to become critical thinkers and find connections to topics outside of the immediate material. In reading “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, I was not particularly interested in the descriptive detail about a man changing into an insect. Instead I wrote an essay focusing on how his metamorphosis impacted his family’s dynamic.

The more I practiced using a variety of texts from poems, plays and other academic essays the more diverse my knowledge became. I discovered that I struggled with staying in any particular tense. I would constantly be writing in the present tense, and two sentences later be stuck in the past tense. My teacher had a process that she was very willing and eager to share with her students that was composed of key elements to aide us in organizing our thoughts, and overcoming our challenges. These elements were, active reading, discussion (brainstorming), outline, draft and finally, the essay.

To familiarize her students with this process, one of the first projects to test run our new knowledge was to write a research paper. However, we were not expected to read about material, and immediately get to writing about it. Instead the process commenced with gathering source material, and writing out bibliography notecards. The notecards were then numbered. My research topic was to determine whether or not the 1920’s were a decade tainted by violence using the examples of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial and the actions of Al Capone. My sources were composed of an A&E Biography, the online crime library, and academic articles. I was instructed to put any evidence found on to an index card. I would then label the evidence index card with the same number as the source index card that it came from. This ensured that when writing my essay, I would easily be able to insert supporting evidence.

Once all of the research was completed, the organizing of thoughts and brainstorming process began. I examined my prompt and chose my stance in agreement that the 1920’s were a decade tainted by violence. I then organized my notecards to support my opinion. For example, on one of my notecards I used a quote from Leopold and Loeb’s lawyer from the trial to support the idea that the boys were “thrill killers” as theorists had derived.

Was this killing done, as we have been led to believe, by defense, merely for the thrill, your honor, or the excitement.” – Darrow (Linder, 2002)

Part of analyzing Darrow’s quote was not that he was calling the boys “thrill killers,” but instead it was supporting evidence that it was implied by the defense. Our teacher was always urging us to be critical thinkers, and to not just read the logic of the text, but whether or not there was any type of sub-text.

What I believed to be the most crucial part of the process was to create a detailed outline using the evidential notecards. I would place them into the order in which my examples and evidence were to appear in the essay. Using the order of those note cards, I would draft my outline. This particular process was always the most beneficial to my essay skills. It was almost as if looking at a map for me, all laid out in plain sight with the most basic of the content at the forefront. From the outline, it was much more efficient to see the flow of an essay, and make assumptions about how my paragraphs would transition from topic to topic. It was my opportunity to determine if any particular piece would fit better in a different location or if a certain topic needed more supporting content. Additionally, it allowed me one last chance to analyze and see if any more thoughts about the material surfaced. Once the outline was completed, and all of the hard work was finished, it was time to take that outline and turn those bulleted topics into sentences. Effectively drafting an essay.

While in high school, studying a draft was always part of the process, and frequently the drafts would be exchanged between classmates for opinions and corrections. This was sometimes difficult for me, as many of their comments stemmed from my frequency of shifting in and out tenses, most likely making me feel insecure about my work. At that stage in the process I was able to address my challenge of shifting between the past and present tenses. Once I could read the text and focus on which tense to use, I could train myself to find those hiccups, and adjust my wording to stay consistent.

Looking back on my high school English work, I can now see the importance of the research paper assignment, and my teacher’s motive behind it. I had been familiar with research papers in my earlier years in which I had read a bunch of stuff about a topic, collected the most important facts and rewrote it in my own words. However, the research paper with a prompt was setting up my classmates and me for a senior year of researching literature, and analyzing the content for deeper meaning and subtext.

One of my senior year essays was another research paper. I had read The Awakening by Kate Chopin, about a wealthy wife and mother vacationing on an island off the coast of New Orleans in the late 1800’s. The research required was to analyze the novel and compare the protagonist, Edna, to Chopin herself. I had to use the fictional text of The Awakening as a source of material to write a comparative essay about the type of woman Chopin was in her society.

Having these writing skills helped me in many other classes in high school as well as some of the courses that I took while attending the University of New Hampshire. Being well trained in actively reading different types of texts made the transition from literature essay to research essay in another field of study very smooth. While Erickson’s theories did not necessarily keep my interest as well as Arthur Miller, I was still able to read with an inquisitive mind for a psychology essay in which I gave my opinions about his subject matter.

One particular essay that I wrote surprised me one day while I was siting in a very large lecture hall at UNH.  My Abnormal Psychology professor was chatting away about his handout that he wanted everyone to read, and give his or her thought on. I began reading the handout, and quickly realized that I could stop after the first couple of lines. I was reading back to myself a text that I had read numerous times the previous week to prepare my final draft on an essay about a documentary on schizophrenia we had viewed in class. After the initial shock passed over me, and the reassurance set in that it was anonymous to the thirty other students in the hall scrutinizing my work, I listened in on what they had to say. In that moment, I was so grateful for my ability to research a topic, and lay it out in a cohesive format. Most of the comments were about my use of evidence to support original ideas. Some comments were less kind, but I do not need to go into detail about that. The professor never shared with the class that it was my essay they were looking at. It is likely that the reason for that was the obvious discomfort written all over my face, but his purpose in sharing my work with the class was to give an example of what he wanted to see in the next essay assignment. This example culminates for me that all of my practice in writing essays did in fact make me a more effective writer. I was by no means published for my work, but it was photocopied many times, and viewed by more than just one person, and that’s got to count for something, right?


Linder, Douglas. “Illinois V. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.” Famous American Trials. http://www.law.unkc.edu/faculty/projects/trials/LEOPLOEB/leopold.htm (May 24, 2002).

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