Wednesday, June 09, 2010

`Man-Making Words'

In his “Editor’s Afterword” to the two Library of America volumes of Emerson’s Selected Essays, Lawrence Rosenwald notes that the journals are conventionally viewed as “primarily a literary quarry, a mine of rough material to be refined into finished products.” (The same understanding is applied to Thoreau’s journals.) Rosenwald then makes the audacious claim that Emerson’s journals should be understood as “a great work in themselves, a different kind of literary work perhaps: more intimate, conversational, spontaneous, aleatoric, and indecorous than the lectures and essays.”

Except for “aleatoric,” a fifty-cent word that stinks of graduate seminars and means nothing fancier than “characterized by chance,” Rosenwald’s conclusion is commendable. As beneficiaries of the Modernist project we’re comfortable with, or at least tolerant of, the fragmented, improvised and incomplete. We don’t reject out-of-hand the notion that a work written across half a century, guided only by the whims of its author, may be judged as “a great work.” Damion Searls, editor of The Journal 1837-1861, a recent selection from Thoreau’s life work, describes it as consisting of “a longish essay about the events of the day, day after day, month after 80- or 100- or 120-page month.” I would argue that Thoreau’s journal is his supreme artistic accomplishment and a foundational work of American literature, greater even than Emerson's, and comparable to Moby-Dick and Leaves of Grass.

Emerson writes in 1841:

“All writing is by the grace of God. People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad. In these sentences that you show me I can find no beauty, for I see death in every clause & every word. There is a fossil or a mummy character which pervades this book. The best sepulchres, the vastest catacombs, Thebes, & Cairo pyramids are sepulchres to me. I like gardens and nurseries. Give me initiative, spermatic prophesying man-making words.”

The words might have been Whitman’s, more than a decade before Leaves of Grass. The “you” and his book are unidentified by Emerson and Rosenwald but he’s still with us, fathering stillborn books. What I admire about the passage in particular is the way the pious first sentence in no way predicts what follows. What begins as a sermon turns abruptly into an artistic call to arms.

Rosenwald describes Emerson’s journals as “intimate” and “spontaneous,” virtues that can turn heartbreaking:

“28 January 1842
Yesterday night at 15 minutes after eight my little Waldo ended his life.”

The second of the LoA volumes includes a photograph of this entry, the words written in Emerson’s clean hand at the top of an otherwise blank page, as though only silence can do justice to his grief. Five-year-old Waldo, Emerson’s oldest son, died of scarlet fever. Two weeks earlier Thoreau’s brother John had died of lockjaw. His son’s death damaged Emerson forever. On his deathbed in 1882 he’s reported to have said, “Oh that beautiful boy.” In the wake of Waldo’s death Emerson writes his best poem, “Threnody” (“I mourn / The darling who shall not return”) and the essay “Experience” in which he says:

“Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, -- no more. I cannot get it nearer to me.”

But the journal entries in the days following Waldo’s death, raw and unliterary in the sense of polish and formality, make even more painful reading. Often they read with an oddly modern unadorned directness:

“30 Jan What he looked upon is better, what he looked not upon is insignificant.”

Sometimes he neglects punctuation as though unable to complete his thoughts:

“Every tramper that ever tramped is abroad but the little feet are still
He gave up his little innocent breath like a bird”

“Sorrow makes us all children again destroys all differences of intellect The wisest knows nothing”

And this:

“It seems as if I ought to call upon the winds to describe my boy, my fast receding boy, a child of so large & generous a nature that I cannot paint him by specialties, as I might another.”

“My fast receding boy” are the most desolate words I’m able to imagine. If we must read them in the spirit of literary criticism, let’s turn the task over to Robert D. Richardson in First We Read Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process:

“Emerson’s interest is in the workshop phase, the birthing stage of art, not the museum moment, the embalming phase.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Nice post, especially "we don't [thanks to 'the Modern project'] reject out-of-hand the notion that a work written across half a century, guided only by the whims of its author, may be judged as 'a great work.'"

Of the fragmentary and raw nature of Emerson's journals, it reminds me of what Rilke wrote in "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge," of the impossibility of becoming a poet without first experiencing everything there is to experience. It is experience, not feeling (which, as Rilke says, any five-year old child has), that catapults this from a private journal of grief to the undiscovered country of art.