He also continued to be alert to the social and political contexts of literature. In a speech about in 1859, published in (1884), he noted shrewdly that Burns, "the poet of the middle class, represents in the mind of men to-day that great uprising of the middle class against the armed and privileged minorities, that uprising which worked politically in the American and French Revolutions, and which, not in governments so much as in education and social order, has changed the face of the world." In 1870 he included an essay called "Books" in a volume titled . The essay contains Emerson's reading list, his recommendations about the best books to read. Coming during the same period as 's concept of "touchstones," it is an interesting prefiguration of the premise that underlies modern general education, namely that there is a body of knowledge that all educated people should share. For the Greeks, for instance, he lists , , , , and , then goes on to give some background reading in ancient history and art. It is an eminently practical essay, as well as a useful indication of Emerson's own broad taste.
Books of course are an important part of "The American Scholar," and Emerson gives a description of what he calls "the theory of books." "The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him--life; it went out from him--truth." But once the book is written, says Emerson, there "arises a grave mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation,--the act of thought,--is instantly transferred to the record." The book is now regarded as perfect, untouchable, unimprovable, and what might have been a guide becomes a tyrant, leading the young people in libraries to read and admire the books of others when they would be better off writing their own. By overvaluing the finished book and underrating the act of book writing, we become mere bookworms, a book-learned class who value books as such. "Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees." "The American Scholar" makes a major protest against what has called the burden of the past and what Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. Books "are for nothing but to inspire," Emerson declares. "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." Books must not be overestimated. They can too easily intimidate us and make us forget that "the one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul." Another way to keep the great work of past writers in proper perspective is to read actively and not passively. "There is then creative reading, as well as creative writing." The most valuable part of the text may be what the reader brings to it. "When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion." Emerson is set against any suggestion that we should worship the great books of the past. We can learn from them, of course, but "the man has never lived that can feed us ever." The human spirit, fluid and restless and charged with heat and energy, will always be breaking out with new experiences, and Emerson draws on personal observation from his Italian trip of 1833 to make a bold metaphor of the human mind as "one central fire which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples."
These enchantments are medicinal, theysober and heal us.
's great subject, says Emerson, is not so much the fall of man as liberty. The English poet advocated civil, ecclesiastical, literary, and domestic liberty. He opposed slavery, denied predestination, argued for freedom of the press, and favored the principle of divorce. 's writings are valuable not as literary artifacts, Emerson argues, but as pathways to the man. Emerson insists on linking the person and the writing. 's poems, like his prose, reflect the "opinions, the feelings, even the incidents of the poet's life." In general Emerson rates 's prose at least as high as his poetry, and he boldly redefines 's prose poetry in an important critical statement. "Of his prose in general, not the style alone, but the argument also, is poetic; according to Lord Bacon's definition of poetry, following that of , 'Poetry, not finding the actual world exactly conformed to its idea of good and fair, seeks to accommodate the shows of things to the desires of the mind, and to create an ideal world better than the world of experience.'"
, (1803 - 1882) American Essayist & Poet
The main purpose of is to recover for the present generation the direct and immediate relationship with the world that our ancestors had. "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?," Emerson asks, with emphasis on the word "also." He goes on to inquire, "Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?" He had already discussed the poetry of tradition in his English lecture series. is an inquiry into the conditions necessary for a modern literature of insight.
, (1803 - 1882) American Essayist & Poet
Alittle water made to rotate in a cup explains the formation of the simplershells; the addition of matter from year to year, arrives at last at themost complex forms; and yet so poor is nature with all her craft, that,from the beginning to the end of the universe, she has but one stuff, --but one stuff with its two ends, to serve up all her dream-like variety.
I am over-instructed for my return.
The men, though young, havingtasted the first drop from the cup of thought, are already dissipated:the maples and ferns are still uncorrupt; yet no doubt, when they cometo consciousness, they too will curse and swear.