Thursday, June 10, 2010

`A New Contribution of Observation'

Only as a writer and reader am I greedy and acquisitive; otherwise I have little appetite for stuff, the world’s shiny clutter. A convenient stock of books that have proved themselves reliable by long acquaintance – that’s almost all I ask. But once I open a book the jealous gourmand takes over. I expect always to be gratified with savory sentences, phrases and words, even in books otherwise indifferent. Alfred Kazin writes of Emerson in American Procession (1984):

“Emersom the writer had lived from day to day by talking to himself in his journal. What was instinctive to him, elemental, was the fragment, the stray observation, the aphorism or epigram that came from an absolute confidence that his perfect freedom made him a vessel of truth and a link to the divine mind. No wonder Emerson found any right sentence sufficient to itself.”

Much in Emerson’s two volumes of Selected Journals reads indifferently but that’s inevitable. The Library of America has included roughly one-third of the 182 volumes Emerson accumulated over fifty-some years, totaling almost two-thousand pages of printed text. Let’s say one good sentence for every ten pages (the true proportion is gratifyingly higher). That’s two-hundred memorable sentences, and here are several from 1834 on the subject of sentences:

“As soon as I read a wise sentence anywhere I feel at once the desire of appropriation. How shall I use it? If I possessed the power of excluding all other readers from that sentence I should be conscious of some temptation to do it. At the same time I know the lower & the higher objections to this meanness.”

A blogger sympathizes with Emerson's avariciousness and at the same time feels gratitude for the technology that permits me to have it both ways: We can remain greedy for sentences and hoard them like a miser while sharing them like Santa Claus with good boys and girls everywhere. Emerson returns consistently to the subjects of writing and reading, often splendidly. Here he is in 1836:

“He only is a good writer who keeps but one eye on his page and with the other sweeps over things. So that every sentence brings us a new contribution of observation.”

This reads like the commonest of common sense yet how often do we see it in practice? “Observations” not diatribes or political sermons. Most writers seem to bring us only new contributions from the interior of their self-regardingly cloistered subcultures. David Myers, no admirer of Emerson but a fine crafter of sentences, observes of American novelists:

“The American continent no longer compels them into an aesthetic contemplation they neither understand nor desire. What moves them are the envies and ambitions, the disdains and irritations, of their class.”

Emerson’s sensibility, with its broad learning and bottomless curiosity, is admirably inclusive. He draws wrong conclusions – about the pervasiveness of evil, for instance – but little is foreign to him. Had he written fiction he might have failed but his novels would have been interesting, eccentric and probably big, as most of Melville’s are. He might have produced a literate Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One of the few contemporary novelists whom Myers singles out for praise, Marilynne Robinson, has frequently credited Emerson and others in the great American Renaissance -- particularly Thoreau and Melville – as “very influential for me in the way they use metaphor.”

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