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Local authors

[Holiday weekends are tricky for blogging at my place.  Things get busy around the homestead and it’s hard to carve out time to post, which doesn’t bother my readers much since traffic tends to fall way off anyway as they find better things to do with their holiday.  I’m guessing it’s the same around here.  So I hope no one minds if I post a re-run from last spring.  I’ll try to be back this evening with an original post, but meanwhile: Last Memorial Day the Mannions were spending the weekend in the Boston area and a year ago today we were in Concord, and after a walk along the Battle Road and a good lunch we wound up at the Concord Bookshop, where I met up with two of my favorite ghosts.]

In most bookstores, outside of the big cities, when you browse the Local Authors shelf, you think, Who are these people and how much did they pay to get their “books” published?

At the Concord Bookshop the names of the local authors are vaguely familiar.

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Hawthorne, Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau…

There was a time when you couldn’t throw a brick in Concord without hitting someone carrying a fresh letter of acceptance from the Atlantic Monthly in their pocket.

The Transcendentalists would like the way the owner of the book store has arranged his wares.  In the Classics section you find only the Classics---Homer, Virgil, Hesiod, Plato.  If it wasn’t translated from Greek or Latin, you have to look for it in the regular Fiction section, no matter how many college syllabi it appears on.

I grabbed a copy of Walden---I had a wide assortment of editions to pick from; I chose the one from Princeton---and a book of excerpts from Emerson’s journals, found a chair, and sat down to read.

I read the first chapter of Thoreau and got a kick out of this passage

I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders “until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach”; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars- even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness. The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolaus to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra’s head, but as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.


I laughed, because many of the buildings that lined the main streets of Concord in Thoreau’s day are still standing, still in use, still housing shops and little businesses that I had just walked by and peeked in the windows of, and they’d all looked like quite cheerful places to me, full of smiling rather than penitential faces.  Life was harder in the 19th Century, but sometimes, when the subject was other human beings, and not plants, animals, and the weather, Thoreau saw a little too much of what he expected to see and not enough of what was really there.  Or as his friend Emerson put it, perhaps thinking of Thoreau, who sometimes got on his nerves, Thoreau made a difficult friend:

People only see what they are prepared to see.

There are entries in his journal where, writing about a visit from Henry, Emerson sounds as though he wishes that he’d pulled the drapes and hid behind the furniture, pretending not to be home, when he saw Thoreau coming up the walk.

The collection of excerpts from the journals is one I’ve read through many times before.  It’s my favorite.  Emphatically Emerson edited by Ralph Crocitto.

Sitting there in the bookstore, I found at least 20 quotes I want to copy down, memorize, put to work.  I had a notebook with me but didn’t use it, because I was pretty certain I already had most of the quotes that struck me saved in my own journals.  Sure enough.

The maker of a sentence, like the other artist, launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight.

The sum of life ought to be valuable when the fractions and particles are so sweet.

Who can blame men for seeking excitement?  They are polar, and would you have them sleep in dull eternity of equilibrium?  Religion, love, ambition, money, war, brandy—some fierce antagonism must break the round of perfect circulation or no spark, no joy, no event can be.

Are you not scared by seeing the Gypsies are more attractive to us than the Apostles?  For though we love goodness and not stealing, yet also we love freedom and not preaching.

The god of the cannibals will be a cannibal, of the crusaders a crusader, and of the merchants a merchant.

Fools and clowns and sots make the fringes of every one’s tapestry of life, and give a certain reality to the picture.  What could we do in Concord without Bigelow’s and Wesson’s bar-rooms and their dependencies?  What without such fixtures as Uncle Sol, and old Moore who sleeps in Doctor Hurd’s barn, and the red charity house over the brook?  Tragedy and comedy always go hand in hand.

God had infinite time to give us; but how did He give it?  In one immense tract of a lazy millennium?  No, but He cut it up into neat succession of new mornings, and with each, therefore, a new idea, new inventions, and new applications.

Every poem must be made up of lines that are poems.

If I should write an honest diary, what should I say?  Alas, that life has halfness, shallowness.  I have almost completed thirty-nine years, and I have not yet adjusted my relation to my fellows on the planet, or to my own work.  Always too young or too old, I do not justify myself; how can I satisfy others?

The sannup and the squaw do not get drunk at the same time.  They take turns in keeping sober, and husband and wife should never be low-spirited at the same time, but each should be able to cheer the other.

Emerson is my bible.  I can open up his essays and journals at any page and find a passage that matches my mood, addresses my concerns, makes the point I am struggling to make on my own.

Still sulking about being stuck with this handyman’s nightmare of a house, Lance?

When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, bobolinks, and thrushes; as little did I know what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying.

Need to be flogged into doing some work?

Like the New England soil, my talent is good only whilst I work it.  If I cease to task myself, I have no thoughts.

Worrying about the 11 year old heading off to junior high and the nightmare of his initiation into the adolescent social scene?

When I was thirteen years old, my Uncle Samuel Ripley one day asked me, “How is it, Ralph, that all the boys dislike you and quarrel with you, whilst the grown people are fond of you?” Now am I thirty-six and the fact is reversed—the old people suspect and dislike me, and young love me.

Feeling a little full of myself?

Every man I meet is in some way my superior.

Feeling a little too much the other way at the end of the day, crushed by an insight into my own worthlessness, and unable to fall asleep as I count and recount today’s mistakes and failures, a nightly occupation for me?

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

Not at all comforted by that quote and close to deciding to chuck it all and light out for the territories?

No change of circumstances can repair a defect of character.

Emerson would have made a wonderful blogger.  Thoreau too. Their journals read very much like blogs.  Thoreau would probably have been a Libertarian blogger.  Emerson a Liberal:

All conservatives are such from personal defects. They have been effeminated by position or nature, born halt and blind, through luxury of their parents, and can only, like invalids, act on the defensive.

Men are conservatives when they are least vigorous, or when they are most luxurious. They are conservatives after dinner.

Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory.

But he was not an un-self-critical Liberal:

Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry.

So it’s no surprise that Emerson has a lot of good advice for bloggers.

Trying to make sense of the rage of the dittoheads on the Right and some on the Left, as well?

Henry Thoreau made, last night, the fine remark that, as long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way, governments, society, and even the sun and moon and stars, as astrology may testify.

Thinking of posting something pithy about Bush and Iraq?

America should affirm and establish that in no instance should the guns go in advance of the perfect right.

DeLay, Rove, Frist?

These rabble in Washington are really better than the sniveling opposition.  They have a sort of genius of a bold and manly cast, though Satanic.  They see, against the unanimous expression of the people, how much a little well-directed effrontery can achieve, how much crime the people will bear, and they proceed from step to step...

Disgusted by what you read in the newspapers, watch on CNN, hear on the radio, overhear in lines at the supermarket and at the water cooler at work?

To what base uses we put this ineffable intellect!  To reading all day murders and railroad accidents, to choosing patterns for waistcoats and scarfs.

Thinking maybe you’re quoting too much from Emerson?

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.

Of course the editor of Emphatically Emerson chose the journal selections based on his judgment of their universal applicability.  And I have been reading and thinking about Emerson for such a long time now that he’s hardwired into all my thoughts, into my outlook, probably into my very habits of thinking and seeing.  When I was teaching I made a conscious effort to become a Transcendentalist.  I went looking for Emerson everywhere and made sure I caught him, brought him home, and pinned him like a butterfly on every other page of my notebooks.  So reading Emerson is just looking into the mirror and using it to arrange my thoughts the way I use the mirror to shave and comb my hair, to see what I know intimately is already there but can’t groom without aid.  And, as for all that, would it have mattered if I’d never read a word of his or Thoreau’s all day?

I can get the same result from reading the newspaper, Dickens, a poem, the back of a cereal box, or thinking and writing too much about Star Wars.

I can find my biography in every fable.

Posted by on 05/29 at 07:31 AM
  1. Wonderful post, Lance. I have forwarded it to others.

    Posted by A. G. Rud  on  05/29  at  10:20 AM
  2. Thanks, A.G.  One of my personal favorites, but then you can’t go wrong stealing from Waldo and Henry.

    Posted by  on  05/29  at  11:01 AM
  3. Lance, do you read much Melville? I just got finished with Andrew Delbanco’s new book on him, and was struck by his (admittedly brief and tangential) comments about Thoreau and Emerson. For Delbanco, Melville occupies a higher position in this schema of New England 19th century writers. I am not doing justice to what he says, the book is fascinating.

    Posted by A. G. Rud  on  05/29  at  11:10 AM
  4. What a great post. I have to read more Emerson right away.

    Posted by  on  05/29  at  01:08 PM
  5. A.G., Thanks for reminding me.  Delbanco’s book has been on my must-read list for a long while now.  I should make that the next biography I tackle.  (I have Frederick Brown’s Flaubert staring at me from my stack of books to read, but so far all it’s done is intimidate me.) Melville’s never struck the same cord in my heart as Emerson and Thoreau, for reasons that have more to do with my own biography than my thoughts about his work.  I also don’t think of him as a New England writer so I tend not to make comparisons.  If I conjure up an image of their time, I see Emerson and Thoreau over here and Melville over there, with Hawthorne standing between them, blocking their view of each other.  Hawthorne, of course, isn’t looking at any of them.  So I’ll be interested in reading what Delbanco has to say.

    Posted by  on  05/29  at  01:26 PM
  6. Ushama, thanks.  Joel Porte put together a selection from Emerson’s journals which is good and has many more and more extensive excerpts than Emphatically Emerson.  And Robert Richardson’s The Mind on Fire is the biography that brought Emerson most alive for me.

    Posted by  on  05/29  at  01:37 PM
  7. You are right, and it is Delbanco who makes much of Melville as an urban writer. I hail from where M wrote Moby-Dick, hence my association (Pittsfield, MA).

    Posted by A. G. Rud  on  05/29  at  01:37 PM
  8. Dear Lance

    I thrive on and live for clear thinkers who can express that clarity in clear writing. Up till now, I have been a Bertrand Russell devotee but possibly I should give some time to this colonial, W Emerson.Based on your encomium, that is.

    Posted by  on  05/29  at  02:34 PM
  9. Melville was more Mid-Atlantic than New England, and his mother was from a Dutch family. I prefer him to either Emerson or Thoreau because his sardonic take on the world seems appropriate the the reality I know.

    “The Confidence Man” is an odd book, perhaps unfinished, but I love it. Like Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi”, it’s a sharp take on the craziness of the American frontier.

    Thoreau was diligent in his Orientalist studies and was about as advanced in that line as any author of his period, anywhere. The New England connection to China goes back before the Revolution—for example, ginseng has been an American export crop since the early XVIIc..

    <a href="http://www.herbalgram.org/default.asp?c=american_ginseng">American ginseng</i>

    Posted by John Emerson  on  05/29  at  03:26 PM
  10. American ginseng

    Posted by  on  05/29  at  03:28 PM
  11. Nice post.

    Again with the Ginseng, John.

    Posted by Matt  on  05/29  at  08:06 PM
  12. Yep, when we lived in the hollers of western NC, there were folks who made a living cultivating ginseng, while others would go into the (Great Smoky Mtn Natl)park for some illegal ‘sang diggin’.

    John, of course you are right about Melville and his background. I just was struck by Delbanco’s mentions of Thoreau, Emerson, and even Whitman in his bio, none particularly positively as I recall.

    Apparently Whitman penned his own glowing reviews and submitted them (either anonymously or pseudonymously, can’t remember what Delbanco said...why do I think of Ward Churchill?...hmmmm).

    Delbanco’s discussion of the Melville/Hawthorne friendship is absorbing. And I am waiting for HM’s *Pierre* to arrive, gotta tackle that one.

    Posted by A. G. Rud  on  05/29  at  08:38 PM
  13. However quaint and oratory-like the prose of Emerson and Thoreau may be on occasion, I would agree that the Transcendentalists are at least as important to American writing as Hawthorne and his madman crony Melville are. Thoreau in fact made a point of protesting romanzas and narratives, did he not. Though the official American Lit. bombast school seems to favor Melville, count me one who finds Moby Dick to be a bit less sublime than like reading Ezekiel, or Ezekiel re-dux by Shakespeare. Like his mentor Emerson, Thoreau, however “provincial,” never resorts to exhortations or Screeptural prose or Romantic visions; instead, there are observations, descriptions, nature, a few maxims (not all of them gems, true), and philosophical reflections here and there. In some sense he is an original thinker and more anarchistic and philosophical than most in the LIT. business realize, as Cactus Ed Abbey knew. Melville seems nearly psychotic in comparison to Thoreau or Emerson, and if one desires some yankee melancholy or spooks, Poeian manga will generally serve better than Hawthorne--tho’ Hawthorne could on occasion produce some dread writing, when he avoids the New England goth (i.e. Rappaccini’s Daughter). And Hawthorne’s cynicism also a nice antidote to some of the Transcendental dreams…

    Posted by Percival Danby Carruthers  on  05/29  at  11:16 PM
  14. Great post. I love both Emerson and Thoreau and hope you do a post like this for Thoreau.

    Enron “If a thousand men are laid off, maybe they weren’t well employed”

    Media “Read not the Times buth the Eternities.”

    Getting Out of the House “Birds do not sing in caves.”

    I thought after reading Ed Abbeys great essay “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” that if Thoreau lived today he might say, “The mass of married men lead lives of quiet masturbation”.

    Posted by  on  05/30  at  05:31 AM
  15. Lance, I was a Thoreau and Emerson hater as an undergrad, a Hawthorne and Melville devotee as a grad student, and only have just begun to appreciate T’n’E over the past few years.  Books by Christopher Newfield and Eduardo Cadava on Emerson started me in the right direction, but the one that had the biggest impact on me in Kris Fresonke’s West of Emerson.  Would love to see how you relate Thoreau’s opposition to the Mexican War and westward expansion to our world today.  Students in my American Romanticism course this past semester always had something to say in response to HDT’s provocations....

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  05/30  at  12:58 PM
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  18. Local writers have expressed concern that government is not doing enough to promote the literary arts in the country.

    Posted by Andrew Jacob  on  12/11  at  04:27 AM
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    Posted by Peter Parker  on  12/11  at  04:32 AM
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    Posted by Medyum  on  05/18  at  03:46 AM
  23. I just was struck by Delbanco’s mentions of Thoreau, Emerson, and even Whitman in his bio, none particularly positively as I recall.

    Posted by Paul the Handyman  on  02/22  at  01:26 AM

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