Emerson’s Theory of Books and Changing Lives Through LiteraturePosted: June 3, 2009
Carl Schinasi enjoys teaching at Miles College, a historically black college, in Birmingham, Alabama. His recent works have appeared in Ducts, Slow Trains, Southern Hum, and the essay collection, Baseball/Literature/Culture. Most summers, he can be found lolling around any baseball field anywhere.
Note: Long before Dr. Waxler and Judge Kane started “Changing Lives Through Literature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson proposed, in fact, demanded his own version of the program. Emerson framed his program not for felons, but for a population I’m sure he considered equally, if differently, incarcerated. This short essay places “Changing Lives Through Literature” directly in the honorable tradition of “programs” that tie literature to life.
At this late remove, it may be difficult to imagine Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ”The American Scholar” a radical document, the equivalent of a battle cry that inspired Oliver Wendell Holmes to proclaim it “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.” Yet few literary efforts in America’s history so decisively throw open the doors for a generation as did Emerson’s exhortation to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge on August 31, 1837. His speech with its declaration, “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close,” liberated and emboldened the youth of his day to build an America in their own vision. The speech marks a watershed moment in American history and letters. Though delivered over fifty years after the fact, it resonates as the parting shot of the American Revolution.
In “The American Scholar,” Emerson fumed aloud about a land peopled by ingenious and industrious folk who showed a profound lack of originality. In the speech, Emerson directs his listeners to unshackle themselves from their European ancestors’ ideas and traditions. He admonishes his audience and all Americans to turn this new land into a democracy of “Man Thinking,” not mere “thinkers.”
A simple distinction separates these titles: “Thinkers” degenerate into victims of society as they parrot other people’s ideas. They devolve into individuals disconnected from each other and a larger purpose; they wind up materialists and solipsists. “Man Thinking” creates and invents. He produces an integrated society while drawing inspiration from and remaining connected to Nature, the larger world, which embodies a united, universal, and generative spirit. “Man Thinking” defines Emerson’s idea of the American scholar, his model for the American citizen. This individual would combine vision and action to establish a new government, culture, and society ultimately fulfilling John Winthop’s prediction this nascent country “shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, [where] the eies of all people are uppon us.”
Emerson outlines three criteria to forge this new American. Among these is a call for an engagement with books. With this admonition, not coincidently, Emerson catechized a theory of books we still find instructive in its power to challenge, shape, and change lives. To become a scholar, “Man Thinking,” the seer and doer, Emerson urges his audience to participate in a radical act—read!
To Emerson, books provide instructive lessons from “the mind of the Past,” but only if the reader transforms these lessons to his own purposes. Without equivocation Emerson believed, “The theory of books is noble.” As a tangible vision of an author’s perceptions and ideas, a book renders a new version of reality; it holds the capacity to shape the world and the lives that fill it. Writers, in essence, reinvent the world for their respective generations through their words and visions. This notion provoked Emerson to demand, “Each age…must write its own books.”
Emerson does not offer this advice indiscriminately. He warns that not all books are of equal import and no book is immutable. Even books we love and revere, such as those written by Shakespeare and Plato, do not completely present or ratify scenarios for better lives. Emerson thought it imperative that readers approach books warily and wisely. No book contains “pure thought” or fully captures a time or subject with “perfection.” So Emerson poses this caution: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.” Readers abuse books when they read them uncritically and blindly assimilate and regurgitate their contents. When this occurs “the book becomes noxious; the guide is a tyrant.” Undiscriminating readers become “bookworms” formed by and tethered to the book. In a fitting cosmic image, Emerson disparages these kinds of readers and this restrictive use of books: “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.” Readers who mindlessly accept a book’s tutelage never rise or grow; they remain followers, mere “thinkers” trapped by history and an author’s regimes.
In “The American Scholar,” Emerson challenged his listeners to read inquisitively, skeptically, curiously, creatively, boldly, fearlessly, and to use a word we have seen often in this blog, deeply. “Books” he insists, “are for nothing but to inspire” and for them to inspire, “One must be an inventor to read well.” The creative reader becomes an elastic thinker, defines his own spirit, and evolves into his own person. “The American Scholar” formulates a theory of books that charges us to be creative, inspired readers because Emerson construed the book as an elemental force powerful enough to change minds, change lives, and change the world.