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On Desultory Questions

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Nowhere, Doing Nothing

On Desultory Questions

Generally, people who admire writers, or profess to, admire instead the stories writers tell, just as people who claim to love the ocean really love the shore they see the ocean from. Most readers refer to authors as “they,” or “it says,” rather than by their names. Names of authors are unimportant to them, the first things they forget. They remember the characters, the incidents. Further, most readers prefer stories that come out of and end up in “positive” feelings, happy moods, the good things in life. Not the negatives, the obstructions, the pessimisms, the difficulties, the complications. Another popular idea about writers is that they are more sensitive than most people. But writers often crave insensibility, as the long line of drunks and addicts in literary history indicates.

Why do they? It may be because they know that the sword is mightier than the pen, and that history, as William James wrote in 1910, is a “bloodbath.” Long before we thought of writers as vacation companions and writing as therapeutic, poets were prized as companions of the camps. That Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle and slept with Homer under his pillow was a commonplace of Renaissance and Enlightenment thought. The writer knows what the moral equivalent of war is: it is his or her writing. In 1589, George Puttenham made a poem called “Cupid’s War” an example of “pragmatographia” or “counterfeit action.” Lord Byron quotes Alexander Pope as saying that the life of a writer is “warfare on earth.” Nietzsche said, “I have been more a battlefield than a man,” and spoke of the struggle between poetry and prose in a writer’s life as “civil war.” Ezra Pound in a 1914 review of Robert Frost’s first book of poems said that poetry concerns itself with two emotions only, love and hate—and variations on them. Then, in a long footnote to his 1920 essay on Henry James, Pound spoke of prose as something negative, as the analysis of something detestable that one wants to do away with. That kind of writing, and that kind of writer, is not much in demand today.

Still, writers are praised and blamed, found valuable and avoidable, greeted warmly and ignored, thought moving and disappointing, wished more widely known and deemed minor. Writers represent, in short, a type that either does not or should not exist. In this, writers are like Fred Flintstone’s pet tiger: you can kick them out the door, but they’ll come back in through the window. Writers—even best-selling ones like Judith Krantz in fiction or Jewel or Jimmy Stewart in poetry—are likely to be more quizzical than others about the same things. They tend to try harder than most people not to dismiss the difficulties. They try, even, to celebrate and explain them; when they do, the unpopular ones are often called “academic,” meaning useless or boring. If they insist on the difficulties, they are called “experimental” or “difficult.” But the truly difficult person says, “I’m an exception.” The writer knows better: there are no exceptions—none, anyway, that last for long. Writers, like most people, are weak, impressionable, and irritable, but more openly and, if they get into print, more availably. But writers are no better at cutting and running than others: they only express the wish more often and more vividly. If they cut and ran as often as they wished, they’d get no writing done.

Writers are hard to gauge. In person, they’re often boring, especially the good ones, and for any number of reasons, all of which have one thing in common: a little too much of the characteristic in evidence—crankiness, opinionation, confidence, self-loathing, sensitivity, loathing. As if that excessiveness were not enough, writers tend to distinguish themselves by another habit or manner even more provoking than the first. Most people want you to say what you mean (by which they often mean, what they mean). Most writers, on the other hand, are like the forgotten John Jay Chapman: they want to say something and have you see what it means—and then, like the famous Robert Frost, claim ownership both of what they said and of what you think they meant.

Take Emerson. Emerson is always on the verge of making himself exceptional—either exceptionally puny, ineffective, and futile, or exceptionally stable and transparent. He gave his “Laws of Writing” to the young George Woodbury one day in 1860. There are ten of them:

  1. Write not at all unless you have something new.

  2. Write it, and not before, behind, and about it.

  3. Have nothing of the plan visible—nor firstly, secondly, or thirdly. Show the body, not the ligaments.

  4. Do no violence to words. Use them etymologically.

  5. Don’t quite satisfy the reader. A little guessing does him no harm, so I would assist him with no connections. If you can see how the harness fits, he can.

  6. Start with no skeleton or plan. Knock away all scaffolding.

  7. Speak in your own natural way.

  8. Avoid adjectives. Let the noun do the work.

  9. Out of your own self should come your theme.

  10. Only read to start your own team.

Emerson claimed to have no use for the “available rules,” all of which can be inferred from these laws, and said he neither wanted to describe nor celebrate them. He conceived of his writing as a turning of the back on accepted norms, forms, and rules, but he knew how briefly this turning lasted; and, after all, to turn one’s back, to quit, to leave—that’s also an available rule. Emerson told himself to make this point about the brevity of freedom to the students at Dartmouth College in 1838. “Let them know how prompt the limiting instinct is in our constitution, so that the moment the mind by the bold leap has set itself free . . . on the instant the defining lockjaw shuts down his fetters . . . and the last slavery is even worse than the first.”

Emerson’s essays try to do justice to this leaping and this shutting down, this first and last slavery. One can be enslaved to being bold as boldly as to going unnoticed. Emerson never holds “our constitution” in contempt for long, though. It promises freedom. “As even in college,” he reports, “I was content to be ‘screwed’ in the recitation room, if, on my return, I could accurately paint the fact in my youthful Journal.” But Emerson doesn’t ask for the condition to be granted prior to his being screwed: he’s going to be screwed anyway. And it will have been worth it, if some writing comes out of it.

Emerson found it hard to get much of a reception for his idea that Concord was a prison or a plantation, and he its prisoner or slave. But, as Frost pointed out, people don’t like to think of themselves as going down before anything less than the worst—and what worse than dying a slave in prison? In writing after getting screwed, Emerson kept his self-pity in check. He checked it, too, by remaining faithful to casual and mundane experiences—pleasant weather, long walks, birdsong, the stars at night: “At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog and Nature seemed to say Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.” Still, as the passage suggests, Emerson hankered.

Desire won’t be checked. The things around us, and the persons near us, are insufficient to satisfy us, and eventually annoy us. Inside—aunts, friends, schoolgirls, neighbors; outside—a bird, a frog, stars. They can all be “degrading and injurious,” Emerson said, to our better natures. So can protest. Though Emerson publicly protested the US government’s treatment of the Cherokee Indians in 1838, the experience, he said, was “like dead cats around one’s neck,” like “School Committees & Sunday School classes & Teachers’ Meetings & the Warren Street Chapel & all the other holy hurrahs. I stir in it for the sad reason that no other mortal will move & if I do not, why it is left undone. The amount of it, be sure, is merely a Scream but sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.” He talks in the same tone about having to weed the garden.

The productive value of these impediments to writing—weeds, injustice, visitors, piety, power—was not lost on Emerson, but he felt that such forces were superficial, “cutaneous,” and he wanted to be less rather than more open to them. Like Napoleon, he aspired to resemble “a block of marble during all the great events of his life,” so that they “slipped over him without producing any impression on his moral or physical nature.” What he called “the Napoleon temperament” would make him the most sensitive unfeeling instrument. Like the eyeball, the thing that wrote in Emerson did not want to be touched.

What are the disadvantages of being marble? It helps not to have been born in the condition, before you become the block of marble. It helps to have wit; it helps to have read widely; it helps to be a fluid writer; it helps to have a little money—and then it’s safe to become marble. It could be that Emerson knew human companionship, as Chapman said Emerson did, chiefly in the form of pain; it could be that he craved insensibility; it could be that he identified in some refined way with rock, and had a special appreciation of the identity of mass and energy. After visiting a museum and seeing a specimen of azote, Emerson said that it impressed him because he just was azote. “We are stardust, we are golden,” as Joni Mitchell sings. “All beings play into each other’s hands,” Emerson said. He disliked people who talked of their “spiritual side.” That was to make exceptions, to part things out. He hated squinting, furtiveness; he loved the plain and fierce, and those who looked at you with their whole head. But these antagonized Emerson, too, and didn’t tell the whole story. The blocks of marble, the impassive temperaments, the robotic eye sockets could be as perturbing as “the rueful abortions that squeak and gibber in the street.” Emerson’s writing often resembles a broken sculpture garden, Michelangelo and Rodin’s unfinished executions.

There are two functions of style—or, of form: the second is to teach new dogs old tricks, and in this Emerson excelled. He put his books together by breaking up his journals; he put his journals together by breaking up his life, his friends’ lives, and the books he read. He was not independent of creeds, institutions, and tradition—who is?—but relied on them, to his great annoyance. What else can individual consciousness and energy rely on? If one is part of all, everything is built-in, factory-equipped, and no serious after-market options exist but More and Less. To which Emerson says: “It is in the nature of the soul to appropriate all things.” If you don’t believe in the soul, this statement is bland at best; if you do, you should know what Emerson means. If you think you know what it means both to believe and not to believe in the soul, as most literary persons think they do, you’ll find that the sentence sharply sums up everything that’s wrong with Emerson—or with your friend the writer, who uses you for material. Some write out of scorn for anything having to do with the soul; Emerson wrote out of scorn for everything but the soul. Henry James assumed that Emerson’s life in Concord lacked “passions, alternations, affairs, adventures”—but it wasn’t so. (Substitute you for Emerson and your address for Concord, and see if it isn’t so.) How would Henry James have known, anyway? James, whose dramatic imagination was ravenous, wanted that background for Emerson so that Emerson could seem all the more remarkable in his rise from a colorless, unbroken surface to a colossus-like proportion in a mere forty years.

The “enviable quiet” that supposedly surrounded Emerson is supposed to surround all writers: they read, sleep, take walks, eat, write, and drink. Writers’ colonies are set up to embody that image of the literary life. Emerson chafed against it and, like many other writers, cultivated it. “I dwell with my mother, my wife, and two little girls, the eldest five years old, in the midst of flowery fields,” he wrote to an English poet in 1844. No mention of the loss of his son Waldo, two years earlier, or of the effects of the Depression of 1837 on his household economy. Instead, Emerson says his and his friends’ habit “is so solitary that we do not often meet.” He wonders how the German scholars are managing to put in twelve-, thirteen-, fifteen-hour days; “there are but seven hours, often but five, in an American scholar’s day.” What Chapman called “the apparent futility” of Emerson’s “external life” was simply a shortcut Chapman took in his exposition. Both James and Chapman forgot Emerson’s forty years as traveling lecturer, the visitors he hosted, his dealings with publishers, his family life. They didn’t care about that stuff any more than they thought Emerson did. They, too, wanted only the ideal harvest, the books minus the circumstances—so they pretended there were no circumstances worth speaking of, and moved on.

An instinct for stability and repose, an instinct that seeks an outward type—mother, bed, dog, exercise, partner—to impress itself on, to rely on, seems natural to most of us. As we grow up, we find and lose, and choose and refuse, slates of likely candidates, and yet we seem to be whole or real without them, sometimes in the event and sometimes after. We go on, at any rate; we survive. How? By internalizing, we say, these representatives at large. Nothing outside us, apparently, props us up. We must achieve an inner repose, more or less. Like shampoo, we are “self-adjusting.” Or so the technical writing says we are.

The writer sees at once both how inessential other people are to that repose or balance, and what a threat to it they can be. And yet the writer goes on trying to find that permanent thing, that one thing not fleeting, and this search disturbs the repose. For Emerson—offering repose naturally and etymologically to listeners and readers he thought were insane with action, work, and progress—that one thing was the desire for permanency itself. On this ground alone, “the opportunities of society” were to be refused. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” he tells us, knowing that most of us want to get hitched to other people, to houses and places. The Sage of Concord objects to such low aims with a “proud discontent,” like Hamlet’s. But Emerson, who almost single-handedly made “self-reliance” an American virtue, doesn’t discuss Hamlet’s problem—his inability to act, to decide on a course of action—as Johnson, Coleridge, Goethe, and Hazlitt had. Emerson doesn’t have Hamlet’s problem; he is decided, convinced. For him, the problem is that Hamlet, the play, exists—and Shakespeare is responsible for that. Had Shakespeare’s Folio been published a few years earlier, Emerson noted in his Journal, our “Pilgrim forefathers” might have decided to stay at home.

But Shakespeare isn’t the problem, either—no more than the Constitution of the United States is, or the poem you just loved in The New Yorker, or the latest war, or the freshest rejection. None of these things is worth “dispersing”; rather, each must be taken in, by an act of “compensation.” “It is the nature of the soul to appropriate all things. Jesus and Shakespeare are fragments of the soul, and by love I conquer and incorporate them in my own conscious domain. His virtue,—is not that mine? His wit,—if it cannot be made mine, it is not wit.” This may be the ultimate in complaisance, or indifference, or in what has been called “transcendentalism.” But does it really differ in kind from positively suggesting that anyone can be a writer or a parent, a financial analyst or a trumpet player (and that “it’s never too late”)?

Emerson often challenged his materialistic fellow Americans. “If you believe in the senses,” he said, “try living by their laws for one day.” Or this: “Are you fond of drama? say the gods, said you so, my fine fellow? Verily? Speak the truth a little, & truth on truth, . . . to all persons & woman; try that a few hours & you shall have dramatic situations, assaults & batteries, & heroic alternatives fast enough, to your heart’s content.” There’s no denying that we couldn’t get through a day on either the senses or truth-telling alone; we need an admixture of abstraction and tact. Emerson also knew, on the other hand, that it is futile, if possible, to refuse “false norms and available rules” for eight hours. The land of possibility, of anything and everything, is a wasteland. The Nike slogan, “Just do it,” has nothing on Emerson, who wrote in his journal in 1840, “Do your thing and I shall know you.” He then changed it, for publication in “Self-Reliance,” to “Do your work, and I shall know you” and “Do your work, and you shall have the power.”

In this translation of the second line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, about people who “do not do the thing they most do show,” Emerson advises us to do the thing we most do show. Having done it, we will have made room for ourselves to do it in. Examples of this process are legion: inventions, start-ups, poems, fifteen-minute fames, neighborhood watches. Whenever I hear myself saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?,” I think of Emerson’s advice, which is founded on the observation that most people are capable, but timid and uncertain. We call such people “reactive.” Emerson was “proactive.” He had suffered enough missed opportunities, and seen enough lives snuffed out early, to know that most of the things others did around him or for him he could do for himself, if he wanted to. This is what he called his “one” doctrine: “the infinitude of the private man.” I suppose it does not go without saying that though it may not work for me or for you, we are not therefore justified in saying that it never did or does or will work for others. Do your thing—and don’t talk too much about it, lest you become that most miserable of creatures, the rebel who rebels against his own revolt.

But enough about Emerson. Whitney Bolton, a professor I never took a class from in graduate school, liked to say, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think Emerson has something to tell us, and those who don’t.” Professor Bolton was using Emerson as a stalking horse to get at the head of his department, Richard Poirier, who thought Emerson had something to tell us. I think Emerson has something to tell us, but I am not sure, from essay to essay, from one page of his journal to the next, what that is—as if writers were obliged to leave one message, while the rest of us are free to message each other instantly. Emerson has nothing to tell plenty of people, but in this he differs in no way from Shakespeare or Seventh Day Adventists or Buddhists, from Danielle Steel or the editorial page of the New York Times.

Writers sometimes claim that they would be happy to lose themselves in the actual order of things, the “desultory questions,” the available rules. But they can’t, or won’t, lose themselves happily for long. I am a writer who feels daunted and tethered, who is moved by a temperament I don’t possess and uses it to illustrate the one I do—a writer who gets revenge on the inarticulate by making sharp observations and despotic pronouncements. And I can’t read Emerson without sooner or later getting up and going outside to see if nature is law, if the squirrel leaping from bough to bough does make the forest one tree. When I come back in and open the book, Emerson throws a wet blanket. “Patience,” he says, “patience.” Patience is Emerson’s remedy, his cure-all, his allopathy and his homeopathy. If for six or seven hours a day I read and think in terms of poetry, America will be a poem in my eyes; everything will be a poem in my eyes. Reading and writing tend to remove me, or make me feel removed, from my immediate experience. The sense of being removed is deepened when I write because, as Toni Morrison has said, the impulses that move writers to write are useless when they write. I may be writing about grief, death, love, friendship, or sex, but I’m not feeling, making, or having those things at the time of writing; virtually, maybe, surreptitiously, vicariously—but not vitally.

There are moments when, drunk, stoned, or jacked up on caffeine or nicotine, or just rested from sleeping, I’ve become more articulate than I am, wiser than I ever was. And then the moment passes. “The solids, the centers, rest itself, fly & skip,” Emerson writes. “Rest is a relation, & not rest any longer.” And so, for Emerson, a person is a relation, and not a person any longer. I can’t do without relation for as long as I can do without people. Nor could Emerson, who relates on almost every page something I know and something I don’t, or did once, or almost did. He tells me something about the way I live, about the way most of us live, about the way we don’t live, might live, should live. He tells me these things in surprising ways. Unsettled, I begin to think for myself, to make connections, to put my own interpretation on things; and then I go on doing so without him.

I find Emerson reconciling theory and practice every day, and I verify him. It’s a mistake to think that anyone else’s Emerson can be my Emerson, or that my Emerson doesn’t have other people’s Emersons mixed in. If there’s life at first-hand, there’s no telling at what hand life ceases. I got Emerson first at second-hand, through a namesake of Emerson’s; then through a college friend; then through a graduate school seminar presided over by Richard Poirier. I first read Emerson in January of 1984. I understood everything he said, it seemed to me. But the essay called “Self-Reliance” didn’t seduce me. It was Poirier who seduced me. After hearing us talk on the first day of class, he suggested that I and my classmates had missed the strangeness and the slipperiness of Emerson. “What’s he talking about here?” Poirier asked, and then read this passage:

Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is.

What was slippery? What was strange? My life was all darting and shooting. Becoming, “process,” change—these were our watchwords. Nothing in the passage was unfamiliar. We spoke, not of self-reliance, but of self, and if we weren’t comfortable with the word “soul,” or with the adjectives “confident” and “agent,” “energy” was good enough; “potential” and “kinetic,” or “real,” were good enough. The passage may have seemed strange and slippery to a man of my father’s age, born in 1930, but to us, born in 1959, it seemed both prophetic and immediate. Emerson was translating current imperatives, the things we were telling ourselves: Don’t rest on your laurels; don’t live in the past; don’t look back. Keep moving. Do your thing.

Was Emerson saying things that lay on the verge of the unsayable 150 years ago? Or was he saying what, even then, was on everybody’s lips? Or was he reworking wise saws to fit modern instances, teaching new dogs old tricks? He was doing some of each, and his reading convinced him that every writer did the same; that, as he says in his essay on “Goethe; or, The Writer,” “All things are engaged in writing their history.” As I was reading Emerson in 1984 and finding in him my contemporary, so Emerson was reading Shakespeare in 1838 and finding in him his contemporary. I couldn’t rest in reading him. “Power ceases in the instant of repose.” And yet Emerson seemed full of repose and certainty when, later in the same essay, he calls traveling “a fool’s paradise” and recommends staying at home. I began to wonder what he meant by “repose,” what he meant by “power.” I knew those words, but he was using them in strange ways. What did it matter that I hadn’t found in Emerson’s pages what Professor Poirier had found? As Emerson says in another essay, a book is a thousand books to a thousand readers; read your eyes out—you won’t find what I find. This makes Emerson rewarding to read and difficult to discuss: he is a thousand authors. In going from sentence to sentence, from Journal to Lecture to Essay, Emerson makes literature, what he calls the “whole extant product of the human mind,” one index, one web.

Between 1984 and 1992, Emerson ruined my life. As he blamed Shakespeare for making Concord seem so bare, so I blamed him for making New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, and Colorado seem so bare. What was it that I found so compelling in Emerson? He often stood me up after he’d called me, put me in my place as soon as he’d made me feel ecstatic. He reminded me of the trick my friend and I used to play on my dog. We would call her over with the tone that said “Get out of here” and tell her to get out of here with the tone that said “Come here.” We’d say “Good dog” in the tone of “Bad dog” and “Bad dog” in the tone of “Good dog.” Sam usually ignored us, but I couldn’t ignore Emerson. He was endless. Yvor Winters was right: “there is no context in Emerson.” Or he was wrong: Emerson is all context, and we are the lumberjacks who, in going from sentence to sentence, reduce his forest to one tree.

Emerson abbreviates, slights, condenses, ignores, degrades, reduces, disposes, dissolves, neglects, and detaches—all in the name of identifying, of heightening. Heightening, as Mark Richardson says, is the key to Concord thought. It is perhaps also the key to American thought, to its Republic of Letters, its Declaration of Independence, its Constitution. All are agents of ideal unification. Emerson takes them from within, however, not from without. They were first energies within persons. They are not functions of the dramatic imagination, which wants to spectate, to have something without that guarantees what’s within. Emerson railed against this preposterous state of things. If our Constitution is only in our dramatic imaginations, it doesn’t stand a chance against television, cars, computers, and murder. And if it’s in our bones, why be so pious about its “original intent”?

I say that Emerson ruined my life. I was not the first whose life he’d warped. Stephen Emerson Whicher committed suicide after finishing the introduction to a collection of articles on Emerson. Yvor Winters, the Stanford professor and poet, argued that the “doctrine of Emerson and Whitman, if really put into practice, should naturally lead to suicide: in the first place, if the impulses are indulged systematically and passionately, they can lead only to madness; in the second place, death, according to the doctrine, is not only a release from suffering but is also and inevitably the way to beatitude.” Winters goes on to argue that Emersonianism played a crucial role in the poet Hart Crane’s life, which ended in suicide. (But this is as absurd as the claim that John Wayne was responsible for the Vietnam war.) John Jay Chapman said in 1897 that Emerson sent 10,000 young men to their deaths in the Civil War. Closer to home, stories still circulate that graduate students who set out to write dissertations on Emerson (Sharon Olds was one) ended by quitting graduate school or, worse, finishing, becoming professors, and then finding themselves unable to turn their dissertations into books. As Whicher concluded, “Emerson is, for all his forty-odd volumes, finally impenetrable.”

Fair enough. On the other hand, Emerson clearly registers, again and again in those forty-odd volumes, what he called “the astonishment of life . . .the absence of any appearance of reconciliation between the theory and practice of life.” By which I think he means that there isn’t one example in recorded history of an appointment that was kept, and that we always exaggerate our disappointment that this is so. Our disappointment, too, is partial; nothing is round and final. No performance equals the promise. We all fall short. None of us is enough, has enough, knows enough, does enough. We never touch each other but at points, like porcupines. We come near, we get close, we hold off. Emerson summed up the year 1843 this way:

The year ends, and how much the years teach which the days never know! The individuals who compose our company converse, & meet, & part, & variously combine, and somewhat comes of it all, but the individual is always mistaken. He designed many things, drew in others, quarreled with some or all, blundered much, & something is done; all are a little advanced; but the individual is always mistaken.

Still, our expectations are severe, our demands insatiable. We know that the cheapness of life is every day’s tragedy, yet we persist. “Patience and patience,” Emerson says, “we will win at the last.”

Not long ago, in the New York Times, Ted Levine, “age 60-plus,” published an Op-Ed piece against senior discounts. “Having grown up reading ‘Self-Reliance’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Levine wrote, “I wonder what we have done to deserve all this commercial generosity. Somehow, not dying doesn’t seem a sufficient justification.” Mr. Levine’s idea of self-reliance is, at best, a watered-down sip of Emerson’s. Self-reliance as Emerson describes it has little or nothing to do with deserving or with justification. His essay doesn’t endorse the message that Mr. Levine takes from it: “I work for what I get; no handouts.”

Halfway into the essay, published in 1841, Emerson stops to ask, “But why do we prate of self-reliance?” His answer indicates that the problem isn’t the prating, but the reliance. “To talk of reliance,” he says, “is a poor, external way of speaking. Speak, rather, of that which relies, because it works and is.” “That which relies” would seem to be the “self,” yet Emerson doesn’t name it as such. The word “reliance” annoys him, as if people were pronouncing the compound word with an emphasis on the wrong half. Emerson found it difficult to get himself understood on this matter. And why not, if the individual is always mistaken, and Emerson is an individual? If “the individual is always mistaken,” why not rely on reliance instead of the self? If I am always mistaken, why rely on myself? As we all know, we can’t rely on others: being individuals, they too are mistaken. Then where does the solution lie? Emerson found a dozen ways to give it a local habitation and a name—“truth,” “the unsounded center,” “a lower deep,” “the race,” “the Universal Genius,” “the Abyss,” “your thing,” “your work.” None was satisfactory. But “that which relies, because it works and is”—how could something so awkward and slippery have become America’s secular principle of salvation? If the self Emerson is constrained to speak of relying on is not the individual, then what is it? “It works and is,” is all he says. In 1837, he had called it “the Self of Nature and Nation,” the self that Walt Whitman would project twenty years later in Song of Myself. But the problem remained: our access to that Self comes only through our mistaken individual selves, which, the minute they begin to bind or hold—that is, to rely—become “poor” and “external.” How, then, does the self “work” and “be”? Emerson’s lack of a concrete answer is no better or worse than anyone else’s. Self-reliance is an energy, not a status; a process, to use one of our tired words, and not a result. And it is as much a process in society as it is in solitude. As Frost puts it in “The Tuft of Flowers,” we “work together, whether we work together or apart.” We work, we get worked up, we get worked over, we get worked in. We work out, we work it out, we let it work itself out. It works, it works out. It “works and is.”

Repeatedly in his essays, Emerson will say that something that has been written—the sentence or the essay he just wrote, for example, or the book he had just finished reading—has “yet to be written.” There are no final words, only “signs of power,” indications of our potential to do work. The writer observes what people, animals, and trees do in order “to derive from their performance a new insight” for his or her own. Chapman, who wrote one of the best essays on Emerson, and whose son is the subject both of Steely Dan’s “Barrytown” and Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, says that philosophy and drama differ in that the former “says what it means” while the latter “says something and you see what it means.” Emerson, like most serious writers, would prefer to leave something up to his readers; that was one of his ten laws of writing, and he obeyed it. He would rather I catch his drift than he state his position. So he drops links, goes sideways, zigzags. He doesn’t give us “paraphrasable content.” Emerson works on you, or doesn’t, after you’ve stopped reading him. There’s no better way to describe the Emersonian attitude toward literature: the real book is not the printed one. That is the sign; you are the power. Any book that grows within you after you put the printed one down is a great book for you. The reader, Emerson said, “should esteem his own life the text and books the commentary upon it.”

Instead of saying to a new generation of readers that Emerson can’t write expository prose, that he’s hard to read, that he’s the fountainhead of a predatory American optimism (the market works and is), why not say, “Here’s a new generation untainted by ‘literature,’ one that knows itself to be attention-deficient, learning-disabled, channel-surfed, and internetted. This is just the generation that Emerson in some sense called into being; just the audience Emerson needs to be tested by.” Maybe that experiment, like so many, would be superfluous. Chapman gave the result of his experiment in 1909. Emerson, he wrote,

let loose something within me which made me in my own eyes as good as anyone else. To express this I invented a phrase which I have always thought equal to any of Emerson’s own exhortations to spiritual independence, and much more modest in form. It was this: “After all it is just as well that there should be one person like me in the world.”

There is another problem: Emerson’s writing has no characters and no story—unlike, say, Jane Austen’s, about which, or rather, about the readers of which, Emerson had something to say. And so he takes aim at us, who would rather see movies based on Jane Austen novels than read Emerson (or Austen):

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me so vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched & narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, “Persuasion”, and “Pride & Prejudice”, is marriageableness . . . . Suicide is more respectable.

Marriageableness and suicide were practical questions in Concord between 1830 and 1860, when Emerson was doing his work; they are no less practical today. Through them, Emerson addressed more generally what he called, in the title of his last book, Society and Solitude. We do the same, beginning with the discrepancy between what is and what could be, and ending with the question that forms the title of a recent best-seller by Po Bronson, “What shall I do with my life?” Emerson had an answer. He wrote in his journal in 1838:

I find no good lives. I would live well. I seem to be free to do so, yet I think with very little respect of my way of living; it is weak, partial, not full & not progressive. But I do not see any other that suits me better. The scholars are shiftless & the merchants are dull.

Emerson understood the productive potential of low self-esteem. And when he found a “good life”, a “personal ascendancy,” he liked to “degrade” it. Degrade was one of his favorite words. In 1867, Emerson and his daughter Ellen went to see General Ulysses S. Grant in New York. Emerson took Grant’s ascendancy for granted. He was happy to come away thinking that Grant wasn’t much, was pretty regular, like the rest of us, who know nothing, do nothing, are nothing. Plato, Goethe, Napoleon, and Shakespeare received the same estimate. Each, Emerson felt, could have ascended a little higher. “Every man,” he wrote “is not so much a workman in the world as he is a suggestion of that he should be.” That “should be” resides in almost every sentence Emerson wrote. And most men I know (and some women, too) feel, if they seldom say so, that there’s something more they should be doing, something more they should be, than what they do and are.

“We grant that life is mean,” Emerson wrote, “but how did we find out that it was mean? What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim?” Perhaps. But most of us don’t feel this “universal sense of want and ignorance” much, or often. We don’t ask ourselves how we found out that “life is a bitch, and then you die.” We don’t frequently tell each other, either, that we haven’t been doing our best, or that we could stand to learn a little more. Most of us, in short, are not writers, and, when conscious of what one of Emerson’s contemporaries, the English playwright Henry Irving, called “the littleness that clings to human things,” rarely take our sense of worthlessness for the soul making its “enormous claim”— certainly not when we’re feeling unhappy, unsatisfied, and discontented.

Emerson was too much a Calvinist by reflex not to. Always something more to be done, said, or thought; always a potential in poverty and emptiness. And once that potential is felt, however feebly, Emerson wanted to feel only that, and give himself over to it. He used the experience of writing and reading to illustrate the idea. When Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father and a neighbor, told Emerson one day “that he found a dictionary fascinating,” Emerson noted it in his journal, adding: “he looked out a word, and the morning was gone; for he was led on to another word, and so on and so on. It required abandonment.” Abandonment, not a steady or natural state, is required. Anyone who has gotten lost in the thing he or she was doing knows how a morning gets lost, and usually regrets it. Emerson seems to have practiced it. In current terms, Emerson might sound like this: “Stop playing head-games. Focus. Be in the moment.” But Emerson didn’t revel in the results of such efforts. Rather, he reveled in the source of them—in what he calls the “unsounded center.” In that abandonment, distinctions and categories disappear: you’re in the zone. Nothing and something are one; being and doing are one; idleness and work are one; actions and words are one.

Of course, the zone can’t last; it isn’t the whole story. Emerson knew the pressure and stress of the world, and asked himself repeatedly whether literature in a democracy could be a vocation, a public service— and not an idleness, an indolence, a slacking-off. But he couldn’t spend his time in questioning. Writing always already is action. The idea can be found Aristotle, who defined “action” as “a movement of the soul” in his Poetics. Soul is the coincidence of idea and action, the place where promise and performance become indistinguishable. “Utterance,” Emerson said, “is place enough.” His first publication, Nature, in 1836, begins by observing how difficult it is to be alone, to find solitude—even in Concord, a village of 1,800 people. Hamlet has the same problem, but indoors, in a hereditary monarchy, where his succession is threatened. Emerson is Hamlet outdoors, in a rude democracy, where success is an obsession, and where, as he noted in his journal in 1838, if you sit down on a park bench to think, someone will ask if you have a headache. If thoughts are only headaches, then what good are they? If you can’t be in society what you are in solitude, then what are you?

William James addressed the problem again in 1903, on the occasion of Emerson’s 100th birthday: either you keep “a purely literary ideal,” or you fight for what you think. But when you fight, you show that writing down the bones isn’t enough. Once you try to realize the world of your thoughts, you might go commercial, market yourself; then you’re compromised. You think of your fifteen minutes of fame rather than of your soul on the highway, commuting, alone. And in a culture that takes for granted an economic right to sell ourselves, to make ourselves attractive, Emerson won’t serve. “The attempt to attract deliberately,” he said, “is the beginning of falsehood.” Tell that to the career counselors at your local chapter of Alumnae Resources or Robert Half International, where they give their candidates two ratings: the first is for looks, and that’s the important one; the second is for skill and competence.

Emerson said that his essays were an “apology” to his country for his “apparent idleness.” That apology has been persuasive with a small number of the people who identify their work as the study of literature. But most people don’t study literature; they can hardly be expected to identify the study of it with work. A safe rule of thumb: when Emerson (or any writer) puts the adjective “apparent” before a noun, he is at work to show that what appears to be the case is not the case. Emerson was no more apologizing for something he didn’t feel sorry about than he was defending a practice—idleness—he didn’t engage in. In this sense, Emerson’s suitable action, his calling, his work, his thing, was his “apparent idleness.” He would act on the world as an “idler,” a name which, if Hawthorne’s “Custom-House” sketch can be admitted as evidence, was as commonly used on 19th-century American writers as on English writers a century earlier. What does an “idler” do? He reads, talks, listens, and writes. If you’re building railroads, or nursing, or clearing timber, a writer’s activities look idle to you. But if you’re the one reading and writing—and if you make your living by your pen and voice, as Emerson did—then such idleness will look like work to you, and will get you what road-building gets those who do it: money.

But enough about Emerson. I’ve used him. In the first chapter of Representative Men, he says: “We are here to put our own interpretation on things, and to put our own things for interpretation.” It’s all there. I think Gertrude Stein was saying the same thing when, after one of her lectures in America, a member of the audience complained. “Why don’t you write the way you talk?” he asked. Stein answered, “Why don’t you read the way I write?”

In difficult situations, people don’t usually succeed in speaking that well. Not even in simple situations do most of us speak well or say what we mean. And anyone who speaks at length is suspect.

A Coming Appetite

After evading readers’ questions about what a poem or story means, writers are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Some writers answer that a poem, play, essay, novel, or story begins with a thought (“I don’t have room for that”); some, with an image (“a troubled sky”); some, with a word (plums); some, with a sentence (“Names run like a shiver through me”); some, with a question (“When was the pencil invented?”). Frost once said that his poems began with “animus,” a Latin word that can be translated as “mind” or “soul,” or, in courts of law, “intent.” “Irritation” may also serve. A poem begins, according to Frost, the same way that something to say begins when I see a person I know approaching. What shall I say? Writing begins as something to say, with the emphasis on “something”: we don’t yet know what to say, and then unexpectedly we’ve said something—in the face of a shared, projected, introjected, habitual, or ghostly expectation. (“There are two ways to hold people,” Frost wrote, “Hold them, or hold them off.”)

I am not saying that any response we make to an exigency constitutes literature. I’m saying that any real response we give may be “cared into song,” to quote James Stephens’s “Strict Care, Strict Joy.” The act of writing itself brings up, or brings on, an unexpected supply of words. Language scholars like David Crystal and psychologists like Stephen Pinker predict that we will grossly underestimate ourselves in judging how many words we know. According to Pinker, of the roughly 500,000 words in the English lexicon, the average American high school graduate knows 45,000—knows, not uses, Pinker would be the first to say. But this “most sophisticated” scientific estimate isn’t the point. The point is that each of us has a greater supply of words than we think we do, and that the act of writing is liable in a practiced writer to make an effective demand on this greater supply.

More than likely, most of us already know that in writing we use words we didn’t know we knew, words we rarely if ever speak. The exercise of writing presses out of us ideas, images, and relations that, most of the time, to quote Hamlet, “fust in us unused.” At first, the yield of this “insufficient knowledge” may be small in word-count and seem unusual in word-kind. But we don’t need to get another education before we can start writing. Nor do we need another mind to write with, or another language to write in. We already have a perfectly inadequate mind and language.

The perennial problem in writing is that language knows and uses us more immediately and thoroughly than we know and use it. Language is older and quicker than we are, and it never sleeps. In the blink of an eye, to coin a phrase, language will have us saying things we’ve heard said or read written hundreds of times. Every writer at every sitting faces the problem of “used” or “pre-owned” language. But the way to come to terms with other writers and talkers in writing is neither to coin words and phrases nor to reject all the suggestions language gives us. We don’t do that in conversation, and we don’t do it in writing. But in writing, we have more time than we do in talk to find, for a little longer than the time being, the way we’d like to say the thing we’ve found to say. I spent fifteen minutes on the sentence that begins this paragraph—all in a satisfying but almost vain effort to keep the usual, available formulas from writing for me. This is the ninth draft of this essay. But for all that, the likelihood is very small that any of the sentences I’ve written here, especially the ones with quotations in them, have been written before. (Not that singularity or uniqueness is the aim in writing, as has been said many times before.) The same goes for most of the sentences you and I spoke yesterday. We’re always making fresh sentences, and we’re always working with the stale ones.

None of us is ever without language—contrary to the formulas we let say we are at times of grief, surprise, or joy. Nor does genius have the only licensing agreement with meaningful expression. Each of us is, has been, or will be eloquent at least once. And even though writing isn’t necessary, it can be useful, like forks and cups, if you’re hungry. “You’ll eat with a coming appetite,” our grandmother used to say, when we said we weren’t hungry. And you’ll write with a coming appetite, if you write.


Every question is a squirrel.

An adult is any person who can be missing for twenty-four hours before the police are required to take notice.

Entropy is what frat boys do to their frat house.

Home is where your mother had the babysitters come.

Life is what it is, plus all the accidents that didn’t make it what it might have been.

The apex of manners is to suffer in silence.

Genius makes us wonder where it came from, how it could have come. So does idiocy, but genius for longer. Genius is idiocy with stamina.

There are two kinds of people in the world. One will call a friend instead of picking up a book. Who cares about the other kind?


Apart from its writers, Concord, Massachusetts is famous for three things: The Battle of Concord, where “the shot heard round the world” was fired on April 19, 1775; the Concord grape, developed by Ephraim Bull; and Walden Pond. Walden Pond is still only two miles from the center of Concord, and the center of Concord still only eighteen miles from Boston. The adjective “sprawling,” which appeared next to the noun “suburb” in a ten-year-old New York Times article about Walden Pond, adds nothing but scale to the fact: Concord was as much a suburb of Boston in 1845 as it is today. On Independence Day, 1845, when Thoreau went to live in Walden Woods, on the shore of Walden Pond, the population of Concord numbered about 2,000. Today, that many people can be found at Walden Pond on any given summer day, and Concord has a population ten times larger than the one Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott were part of. In June 1996 alone, 74,000 people visited Walden Pond.

One of the reasons Emerson gave for having settled in Concord in 1835 was that he wished “to use” Boston. So Thoreau “used” Walden—not to get away from Concord, but to get a purchase on it; and he used Concord to get a purchase on Walden. When Thoreau left Walden, after two years and two months, he said grandly that he became “a sojourner in civilized life again.” In fact, during his stay in the woods, Thoreau sojourned into “civilized life” almost every day—to eat meals cooked by his mother and sisters, collect mail from the post office, and visit his friends. But this was not a secret that biographers later dug up and told. Thoreau himself tells us, in Walden; or, Life in the Woods, and his acquaintances knew it. “How people should regard Thoreau as a hermit on account of his little stay here I cannot guess,” wrote John Muir in 1893, on his pilgrimage to Walden Pond. Muir could make the same comment today: in three 1997 New York Times articles, Thoreau is still regarded as a hermit in retreat at Walden Pond.

We may as well concede the point and move on: the myth of Thoreau is more satisfying than the record of Thoreau, who spent seven years in Concord writing up his two years at Walden Pond. The record includes the following facts. When Thoreau took up residence in what would become one of the more famous places in America (30,000 visitors annually by World War I; 500,000 alone in the late 1970s), he was only about two miles from where he’d been the day before; he’d been visiting Walden daily for years; Emerson owned the land Thoreau built on, and had himself, the year before, wished to build “a cabin or a turret there high in the treetops,” where he could spend his days and nights “in the midst of a beauty which never fades for me.” We seem to need Thoreau to have gotten away from it all, alone: it saves us the trouble of doing likewise. Simplicity is a costly proposition. The Concord–Walden legend is more efficient and practical, and much less expensive, than the life it invites me to lead. But I also know what all of the friends in the Concord circle knew: that my Walden may be two miles or twenty or two thousand miles away; upstairs or downstairs; in the back yard, the bathtub, or the park; anywhere and nowhere. And this knowledge doesn’t make “getting away from it all” any easier.

Most of us, here in the United States, get two weeks a year in our Waldens, some less—a weekend, a daytrip now and then. But in this we are more like Thoreau and his friends than not. Here, from a guestbook in a Northern California cottage by Tomales Bay, are some of the things Americans say about their brief vacations:

Just arrived. Can hardly believe the raw beauty and picturesque landscapes. Our eyes are not big enough to take it all in. It is good to escape the mundane confines of home now and again.

Hopefully we will both cherish these moments and care for them with a little more diligence.

Arrived yesterday in heaven.

The weekend here was, for me, an escape from news deadlines and city construction outside our home. For her, respite from dying patients and a disintegrating health care system.

Each of us has our Walden. Once there, wherever there is, we are, or feel ourselves to be, independent, self-reliant, and free; “Free,” as Emerson wrote in 1838, “even to the definition of freedom, ‘without any hindrance that does not arise out of [one’s] own constitution.’” There, we spend our days simply and wisely. There, society, community, neighborhood, family, friendship, solitude, and love admit of and balance each other. There, acceptance and toleration guide us, and our moods believe in each other; elsewhere, as Emerson said, they do not. There, we express ourselves fluently and listen patiently. There, where being costs us nothing, we go as we are and give ourselves leave. There, we find “respite”—a word, a state of being we’d forgotten. But getting away from it all isn’t, I think, what the Concord writers were doing or talking about.

One of the misconceptions of the Concord writers is that they led lives of solitude and contemplation in “complete withdrawal from the busy life of the community.” With a few exceptions, this is an exaggeration. For ten years, Emerson acted as a one-man Chamber of Commerce, coaxing writers and thinkers like Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott to come and live in Concord. The Apostle of Self-Reliance paid the debts of his friends, subsidized their rent, raised money to send them on lecture tours at home and abroad, and defrayed the costs of publishing their manuscripts. He hosted meetings, arranged lectures for visiting authors, opened his house on Sundays for Concord children, made rooms available to friends for extended visits, and made his friends available to the citizens of Concord for conversation. He delivered addresses on the history of Concord and on the anniversaries of the Battle of Concord.

Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Thoreau publicly defended abolitionists, harbored and guided fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, protested the treatment of Indians, and supported (with the exception of Thoreau) the movement for women’s rights. Thoreau was undoubtedly beneficial to his community through his temp work as “a Schoolmaster—a private Tutor, a Surveyor—a Gardener, a Farmer—a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.” He spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax, and he spoke courageously in defense of John Brown after Brown and his men raided Harpers Ferry in 1859. Thoreau was also a friend to the children of Concord, who loved to go on walks with him.

As for Hawthorne, who stayed in the utopian enclave of Brook Farm for eight months in 1841, the charge of living in isolation from his community would have struck him as ironic: most citizens live this way most of the time, if they can. This was the point Hawthorne made when he left Brook Farm for Concord, saying that he could “best attain the higher ends” of his life “by retaining the ordinary relation to society.” Like Emerson and Thoreau, Hawthorne was not averse to tweaking some of the words—like “higher” and “ordinary”—that his community lived by.

In short, readers who look for rising action and dramatic conflict in the lives of the Concord writers will, on the whole, be as disappointed as when they look for it in their own and their friends’ lives. Henry James was disappointed in looking in on Emerson’s. Five years after Emerson’s death in 1882, James wrote that the Sage of Concord “led for nearly eighty years a life in which the sequence of events had little of the rapidity, or the complexity, that a spectator loves.” Not quite true. And yet the lives that most of us lead, most of the time, are as undramatic.

But there is complexity and rapidity outside of dramatic events, and the scale of our passions, alternations, affairs, and adventures need not be grand—Lewis and Clark in the Louisiana Purchase, Christopher McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness, or Jon Krakauer on Mount Everest—to be consequential. Louisa May Alcott, for example, worried that she’d exposed herself in her first novel, which begins with an epigraph from Emerson and contains the first fictional treatment of Thoreau. “I felt very much afraid that I’d ventured too much & should be sorry for it. But Emerson says [and here she quotes from “Self-Reliance”] ‘that which is true for your own private heart is true for others,’ so I wrote from my own life & experience & hope it may suit some one & at least do no harm.”

I avail myself of Emerson’s encouragement and Alcott’s hope—I, who probably live, most of the time, on the convictions of other people’s courage. Having lost two brothers, one to a car accident and one to AIDS, and having been to the funerals of nine relatives and close friends before I turned twenty-five, my unrequited fantasy is to save someone’s life. “Ahead of” that, as the newscasters say of scheduled events, the texture of my daily life is as common as the texture of the daily lives of the Concord circle, with this difference: they kept turning their texture into text.

These Concord writers might be described, in our vocabulary, as co-dependent, passive–aggressive, grandiose control freaks. But I prefer Emerson’s terms for himself and his friends: they had “a savage rudeness”; they were “extortionate critics”; they were “exacting children”; they were “victims of expression”; they were “terrible friends.” Each of them took to heart the injunction of Emerson’s Aunt Mary Moody: “Scorn trifles, lift your aims: do what you are afraid to do.” Most of the time, their doing took the form of speaking, reading, and writing. Emerson writes, his wife writes, his children write; Thoreau writes, his mother and sisters write; Alcott writes, her father and mother write, her two sisters write; Hawthorne writes, his wife, son, and daughter write; Margaret Fuller writes—and Ellery Channing writes, wondering why Thoreau cares so much about being a writer.

When Thoreau died in 1862, Channing, his walking companion and first biographer, asked questions about him that are still arresting:

I have never been able to understand what he meant by his life. Why did he care so much about being a writer? Why did he pay so much attention to his own thoughts? Why was he so dissatisfied with everybody else, etc.? Why was he so much interested in the river and the woods and the sky, etc.? Something peculiar, I judge.

Not peculiar, I judge. Like you and me, the Concord writers knew how brief and intermittent the moments of reconciliation between the theory and practice of life are. Like you and me, they sensed, as Emerson puts it, “a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.” Unlike you and me, the Concord writers diligently recorded and revised those brief moments in journals, letters, essays, poems, stories, conversations, and novels. In doing so, they qualified their ordinary days. If my moments of clarity are no less deep, and my days no less ordinary, why should my power to reconcile them go unused? Why should anyone’s?

The Concord writers are most useful to me when I get back from vacation, when I’m at work again, when I’m at home again, because I want to keep a channel open between the ordinary and the extraordinary in my daily life. To a greater degree now than in the period between 1830 and 1860, our Waldens are hemmed in by our Concords, our natures by our cultures, our wildness by our business. But the difference is only of degree, not of kind, as Emerson, writing in 1860, makes us recognize:

The young people do not like the town, do not like the sea-shore, they will go inland; find a dear cottage deep in the mountains, secret as their hearts. They set forth on their travels in search of a home: they reach Berkshire; they reach Vermont; they look at the farms;—good farms, high mountain-sides: but where is the seclusion? The farm is near this; ‘tis near that; they have got far from Boston, but ‘tis near Albany, or near Burlington, or near Montreal. They explore a farm, but the house is small, old, thin; discontented people lived there, and are gone:—there’s too much sky, too much out-doors; too public. The youth aches for solitude. When he comes to the house, he passes through the house. That does not make the deep recess he sought. ‘Ah! now, I perceive,’ he says, ‘it must be deep with persons; friends only can give depth.’ Yes, but there is a great dearth, this year, of friends; hard to find, and hard to have when found: they are just going away: they too are in the whirl of the flitting world, and have engagements and necessities. They are just starting for Wisconsin; have letters from Bremen:—see you again, soon.

And so we are again asking the questions the Concord circle asked: “Where do we find ourselves?” “What do we mean by our lives?” For answers, “Americans are embracing the kinds of self-reliance that Emerson wrote about a century ago,” according to the CEO of Roper Starch Worldwide. “Consumers have decided that they need to rely on themselves, their families, their communities and ad hoc networks of people to get ahead.” The Roper Starch CEO has a more expansive and inclusive sense of self-reliance than many Americans do.

In the Concord circle, as in ours, there is constant commerce between Walden and Concord, between how life should be and how it is. There is also a healthy recognition of the discrepancies between the two. The Concord writers were careful observers of their own and each other’s difficulties in reconciling the “promise” and the “performance” of life—a reconciliation that can never be complete or lasting. “The squirrel in leaping from bough to bough makes the forest one tree,” Emerson wrote on a good day. On a bad day, he compared himself to a caterpillar who’s reached the end of his twig and throws his head from side to side.


I wanted to be eighteen at thirteen; twenty-one at eighteen; thirty at twenty-one. At thirty-one, I was fourteen.

I’ve been told I flirt with everybody, and I think it’s flirtatious to be told so.

Among pleasures, I rank chess with miniature golf—right up there with eating bay leaves and moving furniture.

I’ve cared for peanuts.

I come first: that’s how it is.

I’ve classed myself up where I don’t belong and can’t stay.

I break up relationships so that I can smoke.

I can’t hear myself called “a man.” I never call myself a man, or think of myself as one, and I’m surprised when I’m called one.

I saw T.S. Eliot once. He was funnier than I thought he’d be. His lecture didn’t quite end. He smoked. Nobody went up to him, so I did. He told me of a version of “The Waste Land,” printed in Independence, Missouri, that he preferred above all other Eliot, as most Elizabethan, most dramatic. Someone had a copy of it, he said; I’d read that someone did, I said. I told him that I’d be facing questions about him in my orals. He smiled. He asked if I had one of those pocket notebooks that he could write my parents’ address in. I did, and handed him one. As he set it down to write in, someone poured a bowl of soup on his head.

I find it relaxing to listen to reason and to read it in operation. I can’t reason, but I can appreciate it.

I can’t seem to describe anything without joining or quarreling. I’m full of premature intimacy.

I never flinched from the finish line. It was always the starting block.

I can see some happiness that may not involve pleasure, but not much, and some pleasure that may not involve happiness, but again, not much.

I accuse the poets of creating insensitivity and neglect.

I forgive myself for thinking Jethro Tull was the guy who played the flute, for mispronouncing Nietzsche and Goethe.

I am the site, as they say, of an argument over change—whether it’s better to abandon or suffocate it.

I get into the earth’s pants.

I have in my head this upper-hand.


When I read Emerson and Thoreau, beginning in 1983, in graduate school, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, I had no high religion, no wild nature (fourteen delicatessens, steady traffic, strip-malls, a park, a polluted river), no ancient learning, no wife, no children, no domestic servants, no lecture engagements, no visitors, no close neighbors who kept journals they let me read. I didn’t write from dawn until noon, like Emerson, or talk the day and half the night away, like Bronson Alcott. I’d read for fourteen hours some days, but write only notes. Emerson and Thoreau walked daily, sometimes for hours, fifteen or twenty miles; I might walk for an hour, once a month, or run for thirty minutes, or ride my bike for two hours, two or three times a week. Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, and Fuller would visit each other for hours or days; my friends and I visited each other occasionally. Emerson and Thoreau have reputations as hermits, but my friends and I were cloistered monks in comparison, isolated in our studies, too busy to talk, too preoccupied to get together and discuss our work. The Concord writers ran into each other daily, ate pie together, gardened, exchanged books, read each other’s journals and letters, attended each other’s lectures, organized readings for their guests, met for conversations in each other’s houses, skated together on Walden Pond or Concord River, traveled together to Boston.

I had affairs, due dates, friends to go to bars with, occasional lectures to attend outside of classes. I gave poetry readings, maybe two or three a year, and presentations in class. I taught two or three composition courses a year. I had a family 2000 miles away and an uncle I was very close to an hour away in New York, where I’d spend a hundred dollars I couldn’t really spare every weekend I went in. As Emerson said, if you think the senses are final, try to live by their law for a day. I couldn’t last an hour in their jurisdiction before the mercury of guilt and regret would start to rise.

I read Emerson and Thoreau for the metaphors, the syntax and diction, the wild expression, the literary allusions, the punning, the quotations. It wasn’t long before I was working on Emerson’s responses to the reformers all around him. They were “anti-money, anti-war, anti-slavery, anti-government, anti-Christianity, anti-College”; they were for the “rights of Woman,” the cold-water cure, the vegetarian diet. Emerson would listen to them when they came to his house to talk about their causes and projects, but he would not subscribe. Instead, he would describe the reformers in his journals after they left. The reform movement itself was deep and universal, but the reformers were “annoying” and their results, “for the present, distressing.” “Reform,” Emerson wrote in his journal at the end of May, 1838,

always has this damper, that a new simplicity can be preached with equal emphasis . . . on the simplicity it preaches. Thus when we have come to live on the fruits of our own gardens, & begin to boast that we lead a man’s life, then shall come some audacious upstart to upbraid us with our false & foreign taste which steadily plucks up every thing which nature puts in our soil & laboriously plants every thing not intended to grow there. . . . Then too will arise the society for preventing the murder of worms. And it will be asked with indignation what right we have to tear our small fellow citizens out of the sod and put them to death for eating a morsel of corn or a melon leaf or a bit of apple . . . . In the same age a man will be reproached with simony & sacrilege because he took money of the bookseller for his poem or history.

What was my interest in Emerson’s impatience with—in terms not then current—self-sufficient farmers attacked by proponents of native species (macrobiotic diet), attacked in turn by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? I wanted to simplify my life. And so I was discovering what Thoreau would make the cornerstone of Walden: that simplicity in the conduct of life is an extravagant proposition.

It took me three or four years to realize that I was trying to reform my life. Along the way, I quit drinking, using tobacco, and doing drugs. I started and broke off relationships. I had affairs. I flirted with people and projects. I proposed this, that, and the other dissertation, sometimes to myself, sometimes to friends, and several times in writing to a committee. On the wall over my desk I pinned up an index card with a line from Hamlet on it: “O, reform it altogether!” Like the players Hamlet is responding to, I had so far undertaken my reforms “indifferently.”

My moods didn’t believe in each other. I wanted to quit graduate school one week and finish my dissertation the next. I would become an actor. I would be a freelance writer. I would get a job as an editor at a New York publishing house. I would move to Montana and work on a dude ranch. I would write a groundbreaking dissertation on Emerson or Frost and get a tenure-track appointment at a prestigious university. I would marry a rich woman. I would get hit by a bus while riding my bike, and my troubles would be over.

In 1990, after three years of this swaying, I entered a rehabilitation ward on campus, the first of its kind in the nation. I had started smoking pot again, and I couldn’t seem to stop. Nor could I make any progress on any of my various projects: the dissertation, the collection of poems, the autobiography. An affair had turned out miserably, and I had broken up a four-year relationship.

Through daily therapy, I began to see how Emerson’s skepticism about reform had justified my own reluctance to change. I could reform, but it wouldn’t do any good. I was bound to fail. It wasn’t in me to “reform it altogether.” It was against my constitution, and I had Emerson’s authority to back me up. I had better things to do. At the same time, I was disgusted with myself. Knowing better, I wasn’t doing better. I was echoing Emerson, who found his own attitude toward reform cold, weak, vain, pedantic, and hypocritical.


We already have a perfectly inadequate language for talking about ourselves.

At the wedding, Pete’s father, a prominent cardiologist who rarely spoke more than three or four words at a time, took me aside. He had a bashful, gentle smile. He was always preoccupied, and almost always dressed in his hospital greens, sometimes with his surgical mask around his neck. He’d come home, get a half-gallon box of ice cream from the freezer, grab a spoon, and head into the living room. He’d turn on the TV and recline in his big chair. He’d nod at us. “Pete, Mark.” An hour later the box of ice cream would be empty on the floor and he’d be asleep, the TV on. He was a big supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but I doubted he believed in much but his work and the grounds around his house. When he took me aside at the wedding and asked what I was doing, I told him. He thought about it for a minute, and then said: “If you want to write, you have to be educated. That means you have to travel. Go to Africa, northern Africa especially.”

What’s nice we said and repeated, to no effect.

“Left-handers are secreted among us to keep us straight,” Bob said one night.

It pays to pace yourself to your listener’s pace, but not much.

Juke box at the Corner Pub, Denver, Colorado, June 17, 1986: Dave Mason, “Only You Know and I Know”; Danny O’Keefe, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues”; Pure Prairie League, “Amy”; Sly and the Family Stone, “Hot Fun in the Summertime”; Simon and Garfunkel, “Cecilia”; Strawberry Alarm Clock, “Incense and Peppermints”; The Association, “Everything That Touches You”; Rolling Stones, “Jumpin Jack Flash”; Doobie Brothers, “Listen to the Music”; Jethro Tull, “Sweet Dream”; Bob Dylan, “I Want You”; The Guess Who, “American Woman”; The Eagles, “Lyin Eyes”; Roger Daltry, “Say It Aint So”; Jerry Jeff Walker, “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance”; Cream, “Crossroads”; Dave Mason, “Shouldnta Took More Than You Gave”; Van Morrison, “Brown Eyed Girl”; The Allman Brothers, “Blue Sky,” “Aint Wastin Time No More”; Bread, “I Wanna Make It With You”; The Who, “I Can See For Miles,”; The Chambers Brothers, “Time Has Come Today”; Janis Joplin, “Down On Me,” “Bye, Bye Baby.”

“By your lonesome,” my mother would say. “All by your lonesome you went out to play?”

For William James, in any case, the thunder came first, then the lightning.

Poets from Michigan. We have to hear them say “heart,” “art,” “dark,” “scarred.”

A poet’s first poems usually get printed in the back of the last book, the posthumous one.

One of T. S. Eliot’s voices says, “I gotta use words when I talk to you.” One of mine says, “I gotta talk to you when I use words.”

Did Emerson ever take questions from the audience?

Hic jacet in precepio. Englished: My jacket’s getting wet.

Without books, there’d be very few writers.

There are more distemporaries in any given period than contemporaries, and in literary history there is no contemporary like a distemporary. T.S. Eliot couldn’t get over Dante or the Jacobean dramatists. Petrarch lived among the dead, denying the gulf between himself and Cicero, as Dante denied that between himself and Virgil. Eliot taught this distemporaneousness again, and his readers found the experience more direct than any direct experience they were having. Samuel Johnson in his “Life of Addison” said what Eliot says in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: the dead are what we know. Without Addison, says Johnson, you can’t attack Addison. And way back before Johnson, Themistocles: “I had been undone, had I not been undone.”

Most writers don’t know when to take the horn out of their mouth.

We don’t say, “Show me the gossip.” Reading is gossip. It’s seeing, too, maybe, but not through the eye.

Let’s break the cycle of poetry.

“I took one look and I was fractured,” says Doc Pomus. Love at first sight doesn’t fix or complete anything.

Writers often feel that there’s nothing they can think or feel or say that hasn’t already been thought, felt, or said. That sense isn’t unique to writers, but most non-writers are only too happy to repeat others and themselves.

It’s surprising how many people believe that poets have “deeper feelings” and are “more creative” than they themselves have and are. Imagine how that makes me feel.

Thoughts, if believed in, if prejudiced enough, become actions. They must partly fail as actions, and partly survive by actions. As actions, they become perishable, local, conventional. A book is such an action. The act of writing fails the thought, but the book results, and becomes a resource, a reminder, a remainder.

A writer’s desperation is seldom quiet.

The fact that someone else writes poetry affects the person who finds it out. Of course, that person will then say that he or she once wrote, or would like to write, a poem, but is now or was then hindered by one of two things: not being good with words, or not being prone to deep feelings. The latter is less often admitted than the former, but some way is found to say it. The poet addressed must then discount deep feeling as a hindrance without marking up diction as an advantage. But if the poet addressed has deep feelings and a way with words, he or she will be at a loss to encourage a dull talker.

“As” is as important a word as any.

Even Jesus Christ, Erasmus points out, used the insanity plea to get his people off the hook: “They know not what they do.”

From William James, who got it from his wife, who got it from reading Kipling, who got it from Thucydides: civil order and the amenities of social life have for their ultimate sanction nothing but force. But I need only ask my neighbor to get his dog to stop barking to see that for myself.

The “internal evidence” of a text is our estimate of ourselves in reading it.

An essay should be a small-claims court: no lawyers allowed.

“I’m gonna tell on you.” All writing has that form—a telling, and a you. The reader wants to be told on, but can shut the book at any time.

I’m trying to perform in all these formulas.

Emerson is a superficial writer. “In skating over thin ice,” he says, “our safety is in our speed.” “We live amid surfaces, and the art of life is to skate well on them.” This is the foundation of transcendentalism: that Emerson liked to watch boys skate on the Concord River.

The religion of Emerson’s age was briefly the literary entertainment of ours. Harold Bloom was at one extreme and John Updike at the other. Bloom thought he was Emerson; Updike thought he was beyond him.

Why did William James hate poetry and read Whitman? James didn’t like fluency. Known for his image (which Alexander Bain had used twenty years before) of the stream of consciousness, James nevertheless preferred the zig-zag, the transition, the perch, the flight, the interruptedness, the torn-to-pieces-hood, of thought.

William Ewart Gladstone’s card read: “Wild Agitator, Means Well.”

When Dylan Thomas sent “How Shall My Animal” to Henry Treece, he covered it with a note: “I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me, and my enquiry is as to their working, and my problem is their subjugation and victory, downthrow and upheaval, and my effort is their self-expression.” That’s nearly perfect for William James, if not for Thomas, and for me. For anyone.

Poetry. Buy some, read some, weep.

People wonder how to start a poem. I wonder how to start a business, a family.

An author is on top of a mountain in a ski area. The slopes are cut. Some are more graded than others. There are the most difficult runs, the more difficult, the easy; there are places off-limits; there is timber to bash; there are cliffs to jump, there are trails to avoid.

According to Virgil, “Men must not turn bees,” animasque in vulnere ponunt—“and leave their lives behind them in the wound.”

Poets who cry at their own poems are worse than comedians who laugh at their own jokes.

Jim Guetti was the cowboy professor, the maverick who shot Freud and Derrida in a barrel and plugged Wittgenstein, Stevens, and Frost. He drank scotch at ten in the morning and said “No, no, no” to enter every conversation.

I begin to think poets have about as much relation to their local environment as the members of the Houston Symphony have to Houston.

Good poems have friction coefficients and wave functions, whatever they are.

“Woman gotta have it, where she wants it, when she wants it,” said Bobby Womack. So said William James of the pragmatist.

“You’re always cursing and you’re always praying and you’re always making love.” That’s what Carlos Santana says about playing guitar.

Aldous Huxley begins his novel Eyeless in Gaza by quoting from Ovid: “Five words sum up every biography. Video meliora proboque; deteriora sequor. Like all other human beings, I know what I ought to do, but continue to do what I know I oughtn’t to do.” I might translate it thus: “I see the better way, take the worse.”

I can be one of four combinations, according to Frost: common in writing, common in experience; uncommon in writing, uncommon in experience; uncommon in writing, common in experience; common in writing, uncommon in experience. Doesn’t that about cover it?

Once: took a voice lesson, searched for Whitman manuscripts, snorted heroin, pulled boats across the Rock River, picked up windfall apples, sacked potatoes, shot a .44 magnum, parasailed. The list goes on and on.

With Frost, the principle of motion counter to the source is the principle of composition.

Daniel Harris in his teaching gave me these words for life: colloquy; terrible; elegy; connect; armed. They came from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Lowell, E. M. Forster, and Doris Lessing. Daniel would say: “You don’t want to say; you are saying.”

Emerson says somewhere that if Shakespeare’s Folio had been published a few years earlier, we may not have had Plymouth Rock. Similarly, I imagine Emerson staging a production of Hamlet in Concord—and nobody comes. Even Thoreau stays in his cabin.

The only way out is through, said Frost; the nearest way is the foulest, said Bacon.

How can you tell a pragmatist? By sentence openers: “The fact is”; “The truth is”; “It isn’t the case that”; “The bottom line”; “Clearly”; “For my purposes here”; “Not”; “Of course”; “Obviously”; “Undoubtedly”; “Surely.” In other words, anyone who talks is a pragmatist.

Philosophers get their best material from the uninitiated.

We’re a long way from Quintilian’s definition of grammar as “the art of speaking correctly, and the interpretation of the poets.” And from Sidney, who could court Stella in his sixty-third sonnet by suggesting that she couldn’t possibly say no to grammar: it was conception, conjunction, conjugation.

What is this wanting to be a poet? Who thought that up, in this business civilization? The best damned poet in the business did.

Who said, “Teach as if you taught them not/Things proposed as things forgot”? Franklin or Pope. Columbo teaches in that fashion too, doesn’t he? A poet detects occult sympathies. But you never see in movies or TV dramas poets going through rooms detecting things, noticing things—as in Columbo, where we learn that nothing was lost on the detective. And the only writers we’re shown on TV are perps, confessing in pencil on legal pads.

What the author put in, we want out; what the author left out, we want in.

William James spent so much time writing the philosophy of moral holidays that he never took one.

There’s the notion, as Charlie Rose would say, that a good writer must be a bad person. There’s the notion that, if you’re a good person, you can’t be a good writer. There are other notions. Allen Ginsberg, asked if he was an “icon,” said, “I’m only a poet, a coward and a jerk, like everyone else.”

Do poems have to be followed through on?

Remember what the song “Walk on the Wild Side” does for you. What is it that it does?

John Jay Chapman’s whole impulse, even in his insane advocacy of sacrifice, is to kill silence, to demolish the pressures against the mouth, the lungs, the throat; to let the ear be full of hearing. “Teach me, O Lord!”—that was his mantra. “Cresict sub pondere virtu”—that was his motto.

If Emerson doesn’t disappoint you, you weren’t born to be disappointed.

A look at the bibliography at the end of a monograph ought to be enough to convince anyone that one author didn’t write the book.

I walked with Robert Frost and Richard Poirier. Frost has read my two Raritan poems (he likes one of them, “Accumulations”). I tell him “But shame on us” in the other one, “The China Syndrome,” is like a tone in his “Once By the Pacific.” He’s big, vigorous, strong. He walks ahead of us. He has a pocket notebook like mine with poems in it.

Every day my brother was dying of AIDS I went upstairs to type.

Academic, he said. You know what that means: consequential, practical, useful, productive, important. But not yet.

The two roads that fork in the wood—no two roads have done more harm than good.

The number of possible sentences may be “countably infinite,” but there are not that many ways to say things and not that many not to.

There ought to be a book called The Mean Spirit, and there is.

“The Look of Love,” “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Promises, Promises,” “Close To You,” “Walk On By.”

One of the reasons we don’t read and write is that we listen to music (and watch movies). We see Ferlinghetti come on and do his thing in The Last Waltz and realize that poetry can’t hold a candle to Van Morrison, The Band, Joni Mitchell, even Neil Diamond. Poetry’s important, but music’s important, exciting, and fun.

What is the condition of music to which all art, Pater said, aspires?

Resources of Happiness

In 1820, at the age of seventeen, in his last year at Harvard, and ten months after he began keeping it, Emerson wrote in his journal:

Different mortals improve resources of happiness which are entirely different. This I find more apparent in the familiar instances obvious at college recitations. My more fortunate neighbors exult in the display of mathematical study, while I after feeling the humiliating sense of dependance & inferiority which like the goading soul-sickening sense of extreme poverty, palsies effort, esteem myself abundantly compensated, if with my pen, I can marshal whole catalogues of nouns & verbs, to express to the life the imbecility I felt.

The passage already indicates the strength of Emerson’s leading aim in life: to “improve” his “resources of happiness.” Writing will be his means of doing so. His raw materials will be his feelings—of humiliation, inferiority, imbecility. Emerson will pay himself in the coin of expression, “whole catalogues of nouns & verbs.” He will be self-employed. Twenty-one years later, in 1841, he will publish the essay by which he is still chiefly known—if he is known.

“Self-Reliance” is a return on Emerson’s investment. From the alloy of humiliation and poverty, he has forged the steel of happiness: “the Napoleon temperament.” He writes in his journal on May 1, 1838:

The advantage of the Napoleon temperament, impassive, unimpressible by others, is a signal convenience over this tender one which every aunt & schoolgirl can daunt & tether. This weakness be sure is merely cutaneous, & the sufferer gets his revenge by the sharpened observation that belongs to such sympathetic fibre. As even in college I was already content to be “screwed” in the recitation room, if, on my return, I could accurately paint the fact in my youthful Journal.

The passage of 1838 repeats and varies that of 1820. Revenge and painting replace compensation and expression; the economic metaphor gives way to the artistic, though the latter was implicit in the phrase “to express to the life,” rendered here as “accurately paint.” In both cases, the journal is the business, and Emerson is reinvesting his profits in it. In both cases, too, the life Emerson leads—the life of feeling—is the work, and writing the means by which that passivity is processed into “happiness,” now more modestly called “convenience.” Where most workers are “content to be screwed” for the sake of the paycheck, Emerson is content to be screwed for the sake of the “Wide World,” which is what he called his Journal, that “savings bank” from which he has been drawing the funds for his essays. His best writing, as in the opening of the late essay called “Fate,” preserves the antagonism between his “sympathetic fibre” (daunted and tethered by his Aunt Mary, or by Louisa May Alcott, then a schoolgirl) and the apathetic fiber of “the Napoleon temperament.” He never forgets that “a man must have aunts & cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have barn & woodshed, must go to market & to the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter & sleep & be inferior & silly.” A day after writing that in his journal, he wrote this: “Sometimes I am the organ of the Holy Ghost & sometimes of a vixen petulance.”

In the effort to “improve resources for happiness,” Emerson takes revenge on what makes him unhappy. And what made him suffer the most, it appears, was to be silenced. The experience of being unable to speak when cornered is common enough, and so is the experience of finding the words later, when they’re no longer timely. But most people, having failed to find the right words at the right time, let go and forget soon enough; they don’t make a habit of repeating the experience in a journal. But then, most people don’t think of writing as expression—still less as compensation, or revenge, for being unable to speak well on demand. And yet most of us solve the problem in our daily lives in the same practical way Emerson did: by avoiding situations likely to dumbfound us.

Emerson did not improvise his lectures; he read from prepared texts. Nor was he known as a great talker or a great conversationalist. But his style is a spoken style; we hear him talking when we read him. He talks in a recitation room of his own devising, and we enter in the midst of an ongoing examination. “We are here,” he writes in “The Uses of Great Men,” “to put our own interpretations on things and to put our own things for interpretation.” In this predicament, Emerson can be dogmatic, absolute, hyperbolic, litigious, and peremptory; in short, relentless. His usual mood is imperative–interrogative, and yet his imperatives don’t quite command:

Look into its eye and search its nature, inspect its origin—see the whelping of this lion.

His interrogatives

What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim?

don’t quite question. His indicative mood,

There is One Mind common to all individual men.

which doesn’t quite indicate, would be subjunctive or conditional for most of us, and yet his subjunctives

If we could have any security against moods!

don’t quite set themselves against fact, and his conditionals

I would be content with knowing, if only I could know.

ignore conditions. His positive degree is superlative

Great is the soul, and plain.

his superlative normative

Each man seeks those of different quality from his own, and such as are good of their kind; that is, he seeks other men, and the otherest.

and his comparative tragic:

The radical tragedy of nature seems to be the distinction of More and Less. How can Less not feel the pain; how not feel indignation or malevolence towards More?

Nor are his infinitives

To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.

quite infinite. For Emerson, the present is already a place where things happen that don’t:

Balances are kept.

A man passes for what he is worth.

It’s a demanding grammar. Add to it his apparent indifference as to whether we’re persuaded by it, and we can understand why a Calvinist preacher named Father Taylor thought that if Emerson went to hell, the devil wouldn’t know what to do with him.

When he calls students to “the unproductive service of thought,” Emerson is baffling; but so is a society, his no less than ours, that prefers to that “service” “any living productive of ease or profit.” Like the Napoleon temperament he never secured, Emerson is insufferably commanding; but then he is at thought’s service, not ours, and there is a price to pay for that honor. When the Cherokee Indians were being forced from their land onto a reservation, Emerson wrote a letter to President Van Buren. The writing of it was “degrading and injurious” to his constitution. “It is like dead cats around one’s neck,” he wrote in his journal:

It is like School Committees & Sunday School classes & Teachers’ Meetings & the Warren Street Chapel & all other holy hurrahs. I stir in it for the sad reason that no other mortal will move & if I do not, why it is left undone. The amount of it, be sure, is merely a Scream but sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.

And sometimes reluctance is better than vehemence. In passages like this, we can see what Emerson meant when he said that in all his essays he preached only one doctrine, “the infinitude of the private man.” Emerson doesn’t enter the fray to test the waters for an upcoming campaign, or to bring others to the cause. What degrades and injures the Cherokee degrades and injures him, and he speaks in that spirit. His first word on the subject is his last. He would rather not be writing a letter to President Van Buren. As it is, the intrusion proves useful to him, sharpens his observation. He puts it another way in “Prudence”: “We write from aspiration and antagonism as well as from experience.” Emerson registers a protest with Van Buren, and contents himself after that antagonism by recording what it was “like” in his journal. It is like all the other things he has to do as a father, a husband, a neighbor, a citizen of Concord and the United States. It is like pulling weeds in his garden, which he also complains of as unfitting him for writing. As a body, Emerson is content to suffer, to be screwed—but only if, as a writer, he can take it as a legitimate expense. He is nothing if not scrupulous (“Balances are kept”).

Emerson may have aspired to be “like a block of marble during all the great events of his life,” but he lived and breathed his own convenient tenderness. Knowing “that men are superficially very inflammable but that these fervors do not strike down and reach the action & habit of the man,” he had to work at keeping his “action & habit” imperturbable. He imagined an “unsounded center” again and again: as a block of marble, a hand, a “zero degree of indifferency.” But it was human contact—poverty, dependence, humiliation, degradation, shame, grief, nakedness, bareness—that kept him in touch with his impassive core, which was in fact his “irritable texture.” It may be, as Chapman thought, that Emerson knew “human sentiment mainly in the form of pain. His nature shunned it; he cast it off as quickly as possible.” But a man certain that his weakness is only skin-deep would hardly congratulate himself on taking revenge when he suffers from it—and in writing, where revenge is touchless and affordable.

Emerson wanted instead to be as finished as a sculpture, like the one he writes of in “History”:

composed of incorrupt, sharply defined, and symmetrical features, whose eye-sockets are so formed that it would be impossible for such eyes to squint, and take furtive glances on this side and on that, but they must turn the whole head.

The classic features of anyone’s thought are hard to square with the romantic, in which one is a “fragment,” an unsettler of all things, someone always “in transition,” shooting gulfs and darting to aims. And Emerson doesn’t try to square or reconcile the two, doesn’t “resist duality, complexity,” and doesn’t accept it, but loves repose as much as walking, and no sooner praises the one than wishes for the other. Because it is all good, ultimately, for him—the blurry, the furtive, the partial; the defined, the incorrupt, the whole: Emerson gives each its due.

I like Emerson’s ecstatic stability, when he has it both ways, all ways. I’m put off when he tells me that I’m fixing him “to his last position, whilst he as inevitable advances,” that he knows and I’m impossible, that he’s deep and I’m “superficial”:

I play with the miscellany of facts, and take those superficial views which we call skepticism; but I know that they will presently appear to me in that order which makes skepticism impossible.

Emerson seems to have wanted, and feared, to “play with the miscellany of facts,” to abandon himself to the “lovable madness of Individuality,” and to the available rules of life, the “Actual Order of things.” But he held out for something undaunted and untethered. He says so directly, in his third person:

He is content with just and unjust, with sots and fools, with the triumph of folly and fraud. He can behold with serenity the yawning gulf between the ambition of man and his power of performance, between the demand and the supply of power, which makes the tragedy of all souls.

And I am on his side again, content in his way, beholding and serene—or, as we might say, apathetic and disengaged. I do my thing, and the fraud, the injustice, and the tragedy go on, good to make content with. To which Emerson says:

Things seem to tend downward, to justify despondency, to promote rogues, to defeat the just; and, by knaves, as by martyrs, the just cause is carried forward. Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, yet, general ends are somehow answered.

A lame conclusion. And yet, what general trends in any era of the past two or three thousand years has Emerson not accurately rendered? “Man helps himself by larger generalizations”; certainly Emerson does. When it comes to generalizing, he can’t be bested. But what are “general ends,” and what facts, details, and circumstances does the word “somehow” cover? The downward trend of Emerson’s sentence is not answered by its conclusion. But what answer am I looking for? What else but suicide, when the actual order of things hasn’t changed in 130 or 1300 years?

Emerson’s analysis is repeated daily in all media. But most people wouldn’t follow Emerson in saying that knaves and martyrs make equal and indifferent contributions to the just cause. Marxists might allow the point, and so might Buddhists; but Christians? The man on the street? Yes, the man on the street will say—years later, if everything works out—that if he hadn’t been fired from that job, he wouldn’t have gotten this one: that “everything happens for a reason.” (The “reason” is never specified.) Emerson called the mode or mechanism or energy involved here “the moral sentiment.” And in the concluding paragraph to his essay on “Montaigne; or, The Skeptic,” he suggests that we can “learn” it:

Let a man learn to look for the permanent in the mutable and fleeting; let him learn to bear the disappearance of things he was wont to reverence, without losing his reverence; let him learn that he is here, not to work, but to be worked upon; and that, though abyss open under abyss, and opinion displace opinion, all are at last contained in the Eternal Cause.—

“If my bark sink, ‘tis to another sea.”

Translations of this idea are available in hundreds of Self-Help, New Age, Devotional, and Business paperbacks. But nobody knows where “the Eternal Cause” is contained. Emerson didn’t—and so kept looking. “I, who have all my life heard any number of orations and debates, read poems and miscellaneous books, conversed with many geniuses, am still the victim of any new page.” The next speaker, the next book, the next sermon, the next day—Emerson kept looking forward to life, certain that its value “lay in its inscrutable possibilities; in the fact that I never know, in addressing myself to a new individual, what may befall me.”

On Argument

Mike and I argued tonight about what it means when a court finds someone liable. I hate arguing. Mike seemed to be saying that a person who is found liable is also found guilty. Now, in writing just that much about our discussion, I may not have gotten down accurately what Mike said. He may have been saying, “ergo” instead of “also”; “ipso facto” instead of “ergo”—if there is a practical distinction between those two terms. He may have been speaking of what had to go on in the minds of judge, lawyer, and jury in order to find someone liable; I may have been countering that what goes on in the minds of those people isn’t the issue; that, simply, a finding of liability is not necessarily a finding of guilt, or culpability (a word I brought in), or responsibility for the crime and its consequences. Mike asked me for a case. I didn’t have a case, but I said I knew of cases where a defendant was found liable for damages, but not guilty of the tort from which the damages arose (which seems to me now as absurd on the face of it as it did to Mike then).

I said that I thought this was a legal distinction, and that I was trying to describe a position, not to endorse it. That is, if someone pays me damages in a case involving a car wreck in which I was injured, I might therefore take that person to be admitting guilt, or responsibility, for the accident. Even as I write that, another way to put what I said occurs to me: our legal system finds someone liable, not responsible; the word responsible doesn’t have the legal standing that the word liable does, think what I may about that. “Liable” is the tip of the iceberg, which has a deep historical mass beneath it, in which the further or related question of guilt or culpability may be bound up, but the court deals with the tip only, by an agreement to which I was not a party; nor does the legal system allow me to change the rules of the language game played in the court.

The law has its terms. Those terms are also used in daily talk, but they can’t simply or easily be substituted for one another (“He looks guilty”; “I felt guilty”; “We find the defendant guilty”), except by the process of discourse that goes on in that courtroom: the way one may and may not ask questions; inferences one can and cannot make; evidence that may or may not be introduced; what can be stipulated, objected to, allowed, sustained, and so on. Behind all of that is both a theory and a more or less continuous string of cases, out of which precedents have been established, confirmed, overturned; out of which decisions have been made, appealed, upheld, overturned, and so on—adding to, taking from, and building up the practice and the theory of law.

The theory and the practice of law have been developed case by case; but the cases have also been decided based on beliefs, assumptions, axioms, rules, canons of behavior; and all of this mass has been put together by persons in various historical, social, economic, and, for lack of a better word, unclear or indeterminate circumstances—by which I may mean only what was long ago said: that the human condition is conditioned by probability, which the language of the law recognizes in the phrase, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Which may mean, doubt is part of reason, is reasonable—but not all the time. Some things, like the fact of this crime, and that someone must have been responsible for it, and someone has to be held responsible for it, are beyond a reasonable doubt.

I wanted to stop the argument Mike and I were having with facts—which are the things lawyers are always trying to put into evidence and prove beyond that reasonable doubt. Mike insisted, and I did not want to believe him, that even if I found a text stating what I thought to be the case—that we find people liable without also necessarily finding them guilty—the question would not be settled. I reluctantly agree to that, here and now, as I write. I told Mike repeatedly that I agreed with him, in a certain sense, that a man who is found liable is also guilty. The distinction I made is that he is not, in the language and system of the law as we know it, found guilty. He is found, as the verdict puts it, liable. No more, no less. In another context, this is why a man who is found not guilty of a crime can feel vindicated, even though he did commit the crime, and got off on a technicality. (The technicality is always for the other guy, just as the rhetoric is always what the other person speaks, while I speak the truth.) Mike, I think, agreed with me on this.

So what were we arguing about? Were we arguing? If I hadn’t been guilty of arguing, I wouldn’t be considering a plea of no contest to the charge (brought by me) that I argued. Or, as I put it to a lawyer who told me to plead Not Guilty many years ago, “I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t guilty.”

Mike and I ended up fighting, and our fight ended with my hands around Mike’s throat and his around mine.


I’ve worked at several things without understanding them—furniture, smoking, curing, editing, thinking. Even reading.

I got up sad again. I got upset again. I’m a cat’s back of a man.

And then there was the woman in the leather shop in Rome. I wrote her a longish poem in Italian. Turns out she was French.

Leon Russell, the Tom Wolfe of boogie woogie, in his white suit that doesn’t clarify him, accompanying on piano his digitized samples of five more pianos and a nasal organ, wore us out with his carney.

Remember the appetite you have: the summer heat of New York can’t curb it. Cigarettes can’t. Liquor doesn’t. But you’re twenty-three.

In South Africa, “all” citizens are promised “some” water “for ever.” It was out of the question to promise “Plenty, for all, for ever.” It wasn’t even feasible to legislate “Enough, for all, for ever.”

Saving has many acceptations: avoiding, preventing, keeping, sparing, cutting, hiding, conserving, withholding. What does one save by not having children? Parents can’t save the children they have.

There are towns I go through thinking, “I could have been born here,” and towns that think as I go through, “He wasn’t born here.”

Television chefs never clear their plates. They never fill their plates. They never, in preparing a dish, empty their mixing bowls of all that’s in them or use every last diced or chopped garnish from their little white cups. They never eat; they take a bite. They never get their white clothes dirty or cut their fingers. Are Nathaniel Hawthorne and I the only ones who find such fastidious nonchalance intolerable?

A student came to my office one day and spoke better than she knew: “How did you get into this . . . box?”

Let’s stop saying people go to wild places to enjoy the wildlife. They go to enjoy themselves.

The girls I grew up with didn’t wear makeup, as a rule. On those rare occasions when they did, the beauty of their faces startled me.

One knows what it means, to be grounded, and yet one wants to know what it means to be grounded.

If the first thing I think of when I meet a man is how long he spent putting his cap on backwards and crooked, that’s the end of him.

Ownership and neighbors can’t give anyone on my street any satisfaction: all of us rent, and we don’t know each other.

When my students accuse me of being boring, they seem to mean, for the most part, that I speak in complete sentences.

Some men must bolt their chest on in the morning. The rest of their body walks, leans, and turns, but their torso is dead.

There are linguists who say that practically every sentence spoken is a new sentence, never uttered before. But most conversations seem like most other conversations, and it’s easy to suppose that nobody has said anything new for a thousand years.

Can’t we all get along? “Everybody’s different” is the general answer, “You don’t know me” the particular.

I resist the idea that I’ve ever manipulated anyone. Of course, I’m no different from anyone else in this. What is manipulation? It doesn’t have anything to do with hands anymore, unless we’re chiropractors, massage therapists, physical therapists, surgeons, or mechanics. Manipulation is handling people with words.

Self-expression in this country is mostly a function of stepping on the gas.

They park in the parking lot at the park and stay in the car.

Some mountaineers speak of mountains as “alive.” When a mountain climbs a man, let me know.

On TV, the only people we see writing are those who’ve just confessed to a felony.

Feel is a long word.

We praise a person for being a poet until we read something of his or hers that doesn’t rhyme or make sense. Then poetry is not quite so noble as it just was, and the vague memory of an old poem by a famous poet whose name we can’t recall supplies enough poetry for a lifetime.

The people who respect poetry more than they read it are better off that way.

We used to say, “No, thank you.” Now we say, “I’m good.” Because we are. We all are.

I like your forward pudency, your vivid reticence.

Museums, galleries, and people who apply fresh paint recognize the desire to touch, and psychologists, Latin poets, and cell biologists recognize “reagibility,” the desire not to be touched, the instinct to draw back from being touched. William James called it “the primordial property of all living matter.”

The figures of speech poetry prides itself on abound in newsletters, advertisements, white papers, annual reports, and the sports page.

The deeper you go, the more weight there is on top of you.

Asskissing is the bad faith of backbiting.

An old woman, an immigrant, her accent still strong, at her corner store in San Francisco, the day Chief Justice Renquist died: “He was very sick. Yes, very.” I said he should have resigned. “No,” she said, “Never give up your chair. He had a very good chair. Here, all over the world, why you going to give up a good chair? Powerful chair. Good money. Nobody ever does this. The Pope didn’t. Not even the Pope. I have never seen any leader give up his chair. Why? Why you going to give up your chair? Let them fight over it after you die. What you care? Die in your chair. All over the world, not just here. Die in your chair.”

Cocktail hour in our house never rolled around. It snapped into place.

Lipstick’s tenacious. Hobart dishwashers can’t get it off.

Nothing in a liquor store’s as clean and distinct as the cashier’s cigarette burning in the ashtray.

Cigarettes may be a waste of money and a bullet to the heart, but loneliness is heavier and they relieve it.

The boy’d come home, he’d muddy the waters, the father’d put him in the doghouse.

“Let me tell you how that is,” a man on the 24 bus in San Francisco said, as we looked at a house whose side had been tagged. “It’s like this. It’s the parents, you see, not the kids. It’s the parents not teachin’ the kids the difference between wrong and right. The parents got to teach the kids. Now, I painted a house here a while back. Finished it up, everything was fine. I get a call. Some kids is painted it all up with graffiti. I said that wasn’t on me, but I had to go back and slap two coats on. Now, if those were my kids did that, I’d take em down. Baddest thing ever happened this idea you hit your kids you go to jail. My kid’s six foot one. I told him he was goin’ out to be home by midnight. He come in at one. I whacked him, took him down. Didn’t know what hit him. Six foot one, two ten. I ain’t no six one two ten. My wife come out. ‘You done killed your son! You done killed your son!’ Hell no, he’s just knocked out. Next day he come to me. ‘What’d you hit me with?’ he says. Never mind what I hit you with. You gonna do what I say next time? ‘Yes, Daddy, I’m never gonna do that again.’ You’re damn straight. I love him, but I’ll take him out.

Rain, fresh as a hostess.

It’s a heart-shaped, then a store-shaped world.

Orchards of Moab, peach orchards, the rock around them blush as a peach. Water belched in the irrigation pipes. Out came the blue light of tubes from trailer windows. Meadowlark on sage, turkey buzzards. Up by Delicate Arch, an ant locked onto a grapefruit seed. A boy said he thought the arch would fall “in forty days . . . No, fifty.”

An ouzel gets his courage up in deep knee bends by the river. The Utah juniper finds whatever hold it can in simple water.

The malathion works its wonders, the deerflies to behold.

The antlion makes a hoof with the soil she digs up behind her down, gnats, atoms as I’ve seen them diagrammed—some bigger than others, where the water’s bigger—deerflies, but no deer—hooves of Ovaltine, the front part Jeffers said the wolf in its violence makes sharp. As they advance the desert, white sage by white sage, the black-throated sparrows sing cover me, cover me, cover me.

He’s making going-to-sleep-marks in his book.

I know men who get closer to urinals than to other men.

In AA, they say “take” a drink. I never said that. I had a drink, got a drink, wanted a drink, bought a drink; I even drank a drink. But I never took a drink.

My parents liked to say, “Let’s get with the program” and “That’s all there is to it.”

Always, the bus ingests more of the line trailing down the steps than would have seemed possible.

Nothing sleeps soundly anymore; some little nerve is always quaking.

The pigeon-toed appeal of the lead vocalist fades with the backbeat, and there is only the R.E.M. whine, the inveterate Eddie Vetter authenticity.

Take the English professor who became a bodyworker. By what twists and turns? Born, 1959; Bachelor’s Degree, 1982—over twenty years unaccounted for. Birth to BA in two lines, to PhD in two more. It could be nine years, slippery years, between BA and PhD; seven to ten years is the average, in the humanities. That’s three law degrees or one medical school. Nine years: a long run for a San Francisco restaurant or an above-average NFL lineman. But the CV is silent about thirty years.

When I help non-native speakers come up with a word or a phrase, I’m three times as inventive in their behalf as I would be in my own.

Arthur Mann, the historian, was careful to say that he would not, could not, give me advice. “I give no one advice, not even my children.” He would, however, make one “observation.” “The happiest moments I have seen people have,” he said, “—and this is an observation, not advice—have come when they did something they had to do.” And then he added: “I’m talking about happiness in work, not in friendship or love.”

It’s always a little painful to hear intelligence, the lack of it is so soothing. Casual intelligence, in particular, can be staggering.

Walking is the most expensive thing some people do with their bodies.

It’s not surprising that the word “shit” is so commonly and frequently used. A family of four produces twenty-one pounds of it every weekend.

The highest point in New Jersey is a plane landing at Newark.

There’s a lot of picking up and dropping of prepositions lately. Since when do we “discuss about” or “explain about”? Since when do we “comment” something instead of commenting “on” something? Since when do we “have issues around” something?

Just after O.J. Simpson was arrested, the TV ran bits of interviews he did. In one, he says he was raised to “Do unto others.” That’s all he said. It was as if he didn’t know the rest of the sentence. He just kept repeating, “Do unto others.”

People who laugh all the time have no sense of humor.

Other people’s language delivers me to myself as mine never can.

Some would say that experimental theater, lyric poetry, and performance art don’t have a popular audience because story’s too deep in us—story in the sense in which Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, uses the word: “I understand why creative people like dark, but American audiences don’t like dark. They like story. They don’t respond to nervous breakdowns and unhappy episodes that lead nowhere. They like their characters to be part of the action. They like strength, not weakness, a chance to work out any dilemma. This is a country built on optimism.”

Many people who were born gifted, but not prodigiously, no more realize their gifts than those of us who were born without them, but not prodigiously.

At the Phoenix airport, I kept hearing the announcer say “carowsal,” followed by a number. It soon dawned on me that the announcer was mispronouncing the word “carousel.” Nobody seemed to mind.

It could be said of many more things than alcoholism, that there is no cure, only arrest. Mallarmè said it of poems.

As for alcoholics, maybe it is better that they stick to their experience, strength, and hope than, with their penchant for exaggeration and formula, turn to their ideas, opinions, and beliefs. “I spilt more than you drank,” says the old alcoholic to the college freshman. Mendacity and absurdity have been better served.

In the Western, the hero has to keep reminding himself what it is he came to do and why; which he does by saying what he didn’t come to do and not asking why.

One thing is missing in my relationship: another person. That’s why I feel so bewildered. I need a cataclysm.

I met a woman crossing the Irish Sea who told me she lost her husband to the ocean. She leaned over the rail. I leaned over with her and we watched the white foam wake off the wake. The ship’s engines kept a thud going in the ribcage, made the jaw drop to talk. It was dark. An old man tried to light a cigar. Others in the sultry cabins off the promenade slept on their sweaters and dreamed of things they wouldn’t remember. French girls danced to Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, and we sailed and we sailed and we sailed.

“There are human relationships,” Bernard Berenson told a friend, “which make one think of an hourglass; one extreme point of contact, a point through which barely a thread passes. Often sexual relationships are like this: take away that point and there is nothing else, nothing human, in common.”

The thing priced at $2.99 costs $4.05.

Rare days, when all men’s pants fit.


Manic people act as depressants.

One can be quick to realize and slow to learn.

The beaver doesn’t cut through every tree it gnaws.

First turbulence, then abruption, then extrication.

All assistants are subject to change.

Everybody wants you when you’re up and in.

One’s person and one’s character are not the same. When the person leaves, the character remains to be slandered.

An experienced and particular man hates another man with less experience and more particularity.

A smile can be one of the most difficult things to look at.

Sometimes the least is all you can do.

Families look good on photographic paper.

One can never know too little and one should often know too much.

The more means we have of staying in touch, the more chances we have to disappoint each other.

When the other guy runs the stop sign, we want a cop there; when we do, we don’t.

The reasons people have for being good at something never sufficiently account for how good they are at it.

It’s a hard world to be happy in—a little bit me, a little bit you.

We get involved in our misunderstandings.

We skip over many things to say anything.

Love likes a passive energy.

Death doesn’t come first. Life is the seashell on the mountain-top.

Every -ism is vulnerable. Each rests on what Louis Hertz, writing of pragmatism, calls an “iceberg of submerged convictions”—the habit-forming ones.

Literature exists only when people are reading it.

Emergencies clarify our best guess as to what we’re here for.

We do the nothing we can do for the nothing we can do.

Where connection is implied, a gap yawns.

Nothing works more immediately with people than numbers.

People shouldn’t talk to people who aren’t present in the presence of people who are.

Advertence is as much a crutch of art as inadvertence.

The spider is unwilling to make a long story short.

All remoteness is proximate, at some point.

The real is what the hands get dirty.

Reason proceeds one soliloquy at a time, ad hominem ad infinitum.

The first things to find in a new town are a not-too public toilet and a parking space.

Oh, to be poor and bare and beggarly! But not where life is expensive, and not where life is cheap.

One feels twice but thinks once.

That things have a point, we make it a point.

Family is the hardest habit to break.

The worst trace, however slender and recessive, is that of innocence.

Suggestion can be more poisonous than assumption.

The grammarian’s funeral brings the grammarian to life.

Fences make imaginary lines more imaginary.

No habit can be broken without another being fixed.

More accurately, we don’t learn and grow every day. We don’t even try very hard not to.

We praise intelligence until it’s used on us.

Ideally, ideas are perpetual wellsprings. In practice, they terminate in us; we are the tone they take; they are the phantoms of our attitudes.

All value comes down to tactile values—to whether, how, and how much a thing rubs you.

“Savvy” is the word one party uses to avoid saying that the other party knows what the game is.

Some herbs work without crushing, but not many.

We have nothing better to do than be incomplete.

Sometimes you have to bite the bullet you dodge.

We speak swallowingly.

It’s not that there is none, but that there are too many, and many are as good as none.

The Normal Load

After almost twenty years of teaching composition and literature, I doubt that I can do my own assignments. I’m no longer sure of being logical, rational, rigorous, sympathetic, organized, or careful; no longer confident of any words, rules, or methods, either for teaching or for writing. I can’t use the word “development” or the word “clear” with any conviction. And that goes for the words “thesis,” “argument,” “concrete,” “specific,” “experiential,” and “organized.”

I’ve made hundreds and hundreds of comments on student papers. Most students don’t want them, and yet most students say they want them. Composition “specialists” have done research to see what use students make of teachers’ comments: the more there are, the less students respond to them. The researchers therefore recommended that fewer comments be made. This finding should come as no surprise. Making comments on papers takes time, and professors have no time.

What kinds of comments are most useful? Those addressing a student’s argument, its organization and development. This helps, when there’s an argument to address. It doesn’t help when, instead of an argument, there’s a tissue of formulaic thinking negligently expressed, paragraphs of every length and no relation, sentences that don’t formulate, words misused and misspelled, quotations mangled, and typos in every line.

I’ve tried circling or highlighting one good idea in a paper. Students feel shortchanged. I’ve tried marking typos, correcting grammar, revising sentences, rearranging paragraphs. Say I find a “thesis statement” buried in the middle of a five-page essay. I’ll write, “Why don’t you start with this?” But I don’t have time to read the revised versions of twenty-five five-page papers; nor do students have time to revise. They didn’t have time to do the first draft—which in many cases is the only draft, and so the final draft. When students see their final drafts marked as though they were no more than notes for a rough draft, they tend to get discouraged. That’s what the professors who did the research into comments knew before they started: that teachers and students alike are discouraged by writing, by what’s called “the writing process.” It makes cowards of us all.

Since 1987, students in my classes at Rutgers, Mills, San Francisco State, the University of San Francisco, University of Colorado, Shanghai University, Sterling High School, and College of Saint Mary have accused me of many things—even, occasionally, of “making them think.” They accused me of talking slowly, dressing poorly, not washing my hair, boring them. They said I was disorganized and digressive. They told me that I didn’t explain things, myself included; that I changed things, chiefly the syllabus. They accused me, above all, of not telling them “what I wanted.”

When I told my students that I wanted them to be “personal” in their writing, they asked if they could use the pronoun “I.” Permission granted. They then retailed the latest slogans about freedom, independence, and individuality, paying only the scantest attention to the words of the writer they’d been asked to respond to. I then discussed their having resorted to commonplaces, formulas, clichés, dead metaphors—terms which had no reality for most of them.

To the student who wrote, “A close reading of the following passage provides deeper insight into some of James’ notions of truth, experience and perception,” I wanted to say:

James’s passage is the “deeper insight” you’re supposed to read closely. It is certainly “deeper” than anything you go on to say in the two pages of your essay. The trouble begins immediately, when you write, after quoting the passage, “From my limited understanding of James, ‘finite’ shouldn’t have any association with the term ‘experience.’ Finite in its literal sense means having bounds, limits or being subject to limitations. Experience cannot really be said to have any limitations.” If experience cannot be said to have any limitations, what can?

I wanted to say such things; but, apart from being mean, they would have been useless where the following formula reigned: Whatever students write is their opinion, and whatever I say in response is my opinion, and both are valid, and no discussion is welcome.

On the other hand, perhaps that student was saying something unusual, something she hadn’t known she could say, something the saying of which surprised her? No such luck: what she was “really” trying to say above she in fact went on to say: “Experience is what gives our life fulfillment, knowledge and a spirited enjoyment.” James, she thought, was being “negative.” He had just told her that there were limits to what she could do. She thought not. “Everyday,” she wrote, “every week and every year, life leads us down a different path.” Yes, life is wonderful. You can do anything you want to. Life is what you make it. As it happens, this attitude is fundamental to the spirit of William James’s pragmatism. Minus death, of course—that sense of the word “finite.”

I once asked my first-year composition students to write an essay on how they learned to read and write. In conjunction with the assignment, I asked them as a group to make a list of the rules they were taught to write by. Most of the items on it can be traced to high school, but some go back before that, to junior high and even to grade school. Perhaps all of them derive from the manner children are taught to adopt in the company of adults: to be seen, not heard.

It isn’t surprising, then, that so many college syllabi now promise credit—anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the final grade—for showing up. I’ve quoted Woody Allen to students: “Ninety percent of success is showing up.” No student, on hearing this, has asked that I change the distribution accordingly, so that written work counts for ten percent of his or her final grade and “attendance and participation” for ninety. Most students simply equate coming to class with participating in it. And most students would rather be seen than heard, since they’ve been trained to sound like this:

Rules for Writing

  • Always have an introduction, body, and conclusion.

  • Always have a thesis. Make sure the thesis is stated in the introduction.

  • Never use a sentence like, “In the following essay I will ...”

  • Always write in ascending order of importance.

  • Don’t write an essay in first person.

  • Don’t use “you” to address your reader.

  • Never use contractions or informal speech.

  • Use at least one quote per paragraph.

  • Never begin a sentence with “but,” “because,” or “and.”

  • Never start a story with a quote or dialogue.

  • Sentences should not be longer than three lines.

  • Always have at least five paragraphs in an essay.

  • Always have smooth transitions between paragraphs.

There are twenty-three more, but you get the idea: students are taught to forget how to talk when they write.

That’s one way of putting it. Another is to say that students think of writing as something other than talking. It isn’t their fault. Perhaps they don’t think of writing as a form of communication at all. They think of it as a set of rules, do’s and don’t’s, alwayses and nevers—the purpose of which is to give the teacher what he or she wants. It follows that school for them is neither a place of study nor of instruction, but a place where you get “the right answers” or you “bullshit” your way around them.

“At first I wasn’t going to say anything,” a student without his paper told me one day, “because I figured if the rest of the class did the assignment, one of two things was possible. Either they got the assignment and I didn’t, or they were bullshitting and I didn’t want to bullshit.” I suggested there might be other possibilities. “Could be,” he said.

One of my habits was to begin class by saying, “Are there any questions or comments?” (In ten years, maybe twelve questions and six comments.) One day, I knew I wouldn’t have to ask that question. Four students had formed a group; they were talking to each other. They had their books open—not their psychology textbooks, not their nursing textbooks. They were gesturing with their thin little Dover editions of William James’s Pragmatism. They were fomenting something, and they didn’t stop, as usual, when I came in.

“We’re English majors,” one of them began, “and we don’t know why we’re reading a philosophy book in this course. This is an English course, right? It’s required. But we don’t know exactly what it is. I mean, what’s ‘Junior Seminar’? What are we supposed to learn in here for our major? What’s the goal of this course?”

Another person spoke up.

“I mean, Pragmatism isn’t exactly a story. I’m a drama major, with a minor in English, and in the other courses I’ve taken, there’s like a theme that connects the stories. But I don’t see a theme here. It’s like, Pragmatism, and then Coriolanus, which is Shakespeare, and I like Shakespeare, but this isn’t one of my favorite of his, I mean I probably wouldn’t pick it, but that’s okay, and then there’s the Cavalier poets or whatever, and Maud Martha, and I just don’t see what the point is, why we’re reading this stuff. And yeah, I don’t know what ‘Junior Seminar’ is either, just that it’s required.”

Hadn’t I written a syllabus? Hadn’t I read it aloud and asked if it were clear, if there were any questions about it? Hadn’t I, that first day, said again both what I’d written in the course description and what I hadn’t been able to say at the time I wrote it? Here, three weeks into the course, I was being asked to “go over” what I thought I had done a pretty good job of “covering” the first two days of class. How did I respond? I said something along these lines: Like pragmatism, “Junior Seminar” is hard to define. Its definition depends on the temperaments, interests, and specialties of the professors who teach it. One colleague is committed to theory, and so she treats the course as an introduction to various theories of literature—how it’s written, how it’s read, what its relations are to social, political, and economic structures, and so on. Another professor treats it as an advanced composition course, a workshop in expository writing. Another, a specialist in Renaissance literature, is finishing a book on the institution of marriage in Shakespeare's late plays; that’s why there are three of Shakespeare’s late plays under the heading “Required Texts.”

I’m losing them, losing the tension the class began with. I straighten up: “The English Department hasn’t decided what Junior Seminar is supposed to accomplish. Any university English Department is really three departments: literature, composition, and creative writing. ‘Comp’ can be further divided: core comp, business and technical writing, and remedial or developmental writing. So can creative writing, into fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. And so can literature, into theory and literature. There is no consensus. I was given no guidelines. There is no pre-set syllabus, common to all sections. Each professor has to choose according to his or her interests, habits, and concerns. As for me”—and here I reach for the piece of paper I’m required to hand out on the first day—“I tried to say what this course is about in the syllabus here.”

I try to say again, in different words, what the “goal” of the course is, but without using that word. At some point during my new definition, I break off: “As for a goal or goals, I’ve never had a goal in my life. I don’t know what a goal is.” Most of the students laugh at this. When I recount the story to a colleague later, she says she can’t believe I’d say such a thing, by which she means she doesn’t think I should. It undermines my authority, and it undermines hers.

After half an hour, I still haven’t answered the other two questions. I’ve alluded to them, I’ve suggested that I’m addressing them, but they’re slipping away. My students want one-sentence answers and they tell me as much. They want to know what I want. I turn to William James. I suggest that we are “doing” what James is “talking about.” I say that James once defined pragmatism as “a method for conducting discussions.” Then I say that James discusses the problem of definition in Pragmatism, and I have us turn to the appropriate passage in the chapter we’re supposed to be discussing. Only five of the seventeen students have done the reading, which doesn’t surprise me. Most students read for two reasons: to confirm what they already know and to see what happens next. I close the book. “Don’t you feel the impulse to define for yourselves what you’re doing here—not as majors satisfying requirements, but as persons?”

That night, I call Reg Saner. I ask how it stands with him after thirty years of teaching. He tells me that I will never see on the faces of the two or three students I will reach in any class a sign that I have reached them. I tell him about Junior Seminar and James and the definitions. He laughs. He’s teaching a similar course. He asks students how it feels to read Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes.” They don’t answer. He feels like saying, “If you’re there, just show me some sign. Knock on your desk.” But he doesn’t. “We’re a dying breed,” he says.

A week later, I call Richard Howard. He isn’t home. I leave a message saying that I’m in the middle of reading twenty-five student papers, close readings of a passage from James’s Pragmatism; that I’m losing my sense of proportion, that the meanings of words and phrases are leaving me; that I don’t know what the old terms mean anymore; that the writing is abominable. I tell him I’m afraid to make comments, don’t know where or how to begin. I tell him that I heard he gave students A’s as long as they came to class on time. I say I’m considering the practice myself.

Over the years, I’ve thought of offering to give students A’s at the outset, so that we could get down to work, or C’s, which is what Thorsten Veblen used to do. If a student was bold enough to ask for a higher grade, Veblen would give it. But something always holds me back—as if I, who got a mess of A’s I didn’t deserve, could alone raise the “level of education” or lower the “rate of grade inflation” by being cavalier or arbitrary about grading.

A foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds, I have sometimes given bad papers A’s because there was one good sentence in them, sometimes graded easily at the beginning and gotten tougher as the semester went along, and sometimes given C’s and D’s at first and A’s and B’s at last, when I’ve abandoned hope.

Perhaps it’s a question of who I want to be ashamed in front of. Some students hate to have their grades inflated, to get an A where they expected a B-, but they are rare: incipient graduate students, they need accomplices. More commonly, students dislike me for assigning them too low a grade. I give them a B-; they deserve a D; they expect an A; I get called into the Dean’s office.

I like to think all students are moderately gifted, but many aren’t—not as students, anyway. They come to my office to talk about their papers. I listen. I hear the good things they’re saying, but I read none of them in the paper. What they’ve just told me is better than anything they’ve written down and turned in. I can count on the fingers of one hand the students who’ve left my office and returned with a successful revision. They haven’t heard themselves. They haven’t heard me.

E. H. Gombrich, the art historian, monitored Nazi radio transmissions in London during the war. They were hard to hear. He realized that “you had to know what might be said in order to hear what was said.” Most of my students know what might be said. The trouble is, they hear what might be said, not what is said. So they go home and change a few words. Then they expect their same five paragraphs to meet a happier fate. “But I got A’s in high school,” they say. Well, I want to say, you shouldn’t have. And you shouldn’t have been taught that everything you read is a story and everything you write should have five paragraphs.

Inadvertently, I give vivid demonstrations of the bad habits I’m asking my students to break. I become inattentive, prolix, illogical, abstract, vague, confused. Today I wanted to say, “Well, if nothing else, close reading will give you more control.” I am trying to be practical, to demonstrate a single benefit of the useless study of literature. But I can’t pronounce the word “control” eulogistically. I can’t sound “positive.” I can’t specify what it is they'll have more control of. Nothing I say seems to apply to them. I can see it in their eyes: my words are dribbling down my chin.

After class one day, I found myself walking behind three of my students. They were talking about how to study for the exam. “I suppose we should look at the passages he talked about in class,” one said. “Yeah, but which ones? He moves around so much. I mean, it’s whatever floats his boat.” I smiled at her accuracy: I improvise. Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever left the classroom satisfied. I leave with things I meant and never meant to say unsaid, and not simply because I don’t write the lectures I give. I never have written them. I’ve admired professors who have, but I’ve admired more those who haven’t. I want to know my material so well that I never know just what I’m going to say, and never quite say what I have to say the way I want to say it.

My students want me to know what I’m going to say. They want me to have what a high school teacher whose class I visited called “Sets” and “Closes.” They want me to say where I’m starting from and where I’ll end up. It’s the standard formula for expository writing: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them you told them.” I don’t know what to make of it. The students who say that they know what to make of it promptly demonstrate that they don’t.

What students know best is that nobody has any time. Many of them work 20-, 30-, or 40-hour weeks at their jobs. Wanting to get their money’s worth from school at $2,000 to $10,000 a semester, they take, on top of their work schedule, at least fifteen hours of classes, often eighteen, sometimes even twenty-one. “The normal academic load for undergraduates,” the university catalogues tell them, “is fifteen units per semester.” They stop reading at that point. I read them the next sentence on the first day of class. “Two hours of preparation for each hour of regular class work should be expected.” I tell them I expect them to do at least that much preparation. They laugh. Later, when they ask me what I want, I forget to remind them: two hours of study for every hour of class.

“So you’re saying you want just our opinion?” No, that’s not what I’m saying. And there’s no “just” about it. It’s a hard thing to have, your own opinion. What you usually have is another’s opinion, another’s courage, another’s conviction. “Then what do you want?”

Two weeks before the end of the semester, the student who’d struggled with the passage from Pragmatism raised her hand and said, with eyes wide open, “You mean there’s a meaning behind every word on the page?”

Teaching isn’t rewarding. And, with a few exceptions like that, neither is learning.


I believe in what comes between us—language, for lack of a better word.

You’re a funky little media whore.

She’s lucky. Her father reads Hegel and her mother’s decisive.

I went out with him so he’d stop telling me he loved me.

If I see you, how can I put you into words?

Is that baby a lap or a ticket?

I want to see every face on the train.

I don’t have time for purposes here.

I never pined to see livestock go at it.

Your character right now is going through a major eating disorder story arc.

Contempt breeds loneliness.

It will change your life—without changing the way you live.

If I’m old enough to be your father, then you’re old enough to think for yourself.

That has all the inner-ear marks of soul.

Any of you here from the voice world?

Tell us more about your matriarchal culture, Mister.

I’ll see you maybe in a bit if you’re still here.

Where did you learn to loom like that?

That dog sure has a nose for bomb components.

Yes, it should be “true” and “real” and “relate” to you. Don’t get me wrong. But you still need to do your homework.

No more anaesthetic revelations.

You might as well compare yogurt and stereos.

I volunteer where I grow.

Some people are too smart for my own good.

He scolded me roundly. He was a husky little so-and-so.

Administration was always my love.

Most of them had decent personalities.

How many books have you got under your belt?

You won’t shirt-up for my team.

I don’t care if it’s faith-based or tomato-based.

I booted up in horror.

Let’s break off some peace talks.

Aren’t all people little people, big picture?

That’s a complaint-driven organization.

She heard him drive up apologetically.

How many dams have you built in the stream of thought?

Where will our hope get us, who take no time to wash our lettuce?

We are the loss-leaders.

It’s simple. Ford wants to be your car company.

Hump the sacral cruet.

It’s a round world and a level waste.

I want my own button-front floral dress.

I toy with purity.

Burn a higher grade of midnight oil.

Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.

I don’t have time to tell you what’s wrong with this.

Disingenuous? You bet.

But he’s weak as a metaphysician.

If it weren’t for popular music, I’d kill myself.

How much ligature per verb?

Maybe another phrase would be stronger here than “with a vengeance.”

It was a structure I was compelled to do.

Yesterday I faxed her in South Africa.

That’s ferocious sour cream.

You remind me of yourself, which is too bad.

You’re touching me just to feel your own body.

Are you getting up inside yourself?

You seductive little son of a bitch.

To market to market to buy a fat pig.

Every time we hear the name Orson Welles, are we to genuflect and bless ourselves?

We need a little more doubt and despair to conquer all this security and hope.

Let’s not cross any bridges before we’re hurt or cry before we come to them.

Our collective crassness makes me gasp.

As much as I love you, I don’t love you anymore.

Are you going to talk about listening now? I’ve heard it all before.

No, I’m not an angel, I’m a demitasse.

They don’t give the tie to the runner anymore.

If you’re reluctant to make a pledge, then make a pledge reluctantly. Don’t let us talk you out of your reluctance.


My memory is like a grizzly bear: it doesn’t love fresh meat.

Like Penelope, I never quite refuse—or so my suitors, never quite successful, like to say.

The difference between a man near orgasm and a man just past orgasm is the difference between a mountain and a molehill.

Where the river slowed, its surface showed like a polished floor.

I feel like a knuckle stained with ink.

Good Christians are like good translators: there’s an original to be truer to than one would care to be.

The chipmunk at a standstill, like a pile of leaves.

Towels white as coconut.

As some women have to have their labor induced, some men have to have their experience.

Having an orgasm is like recalling a word you know but couldn’t remember.

I’m full as a parking meter.

People with no clothes on are as sad to see as beds without linens.

A dove is like a stone wall; a pigeon isn’t.

Her skin was soft, like moistness built into a cookie.

The geese take off like hunting trophies.

Her skin was barkish and furry, and she was green underneath.

The glue of resentment.

Summer unrolls from the bolt.

Like those fabrics that come out of the washing machine almost dry enough to wear, there are people who can’t be trusted.

I’ve never read a book that I couldn’t put down, or a person.

The relation between the alcoholic and the alcohol is like the relation between the reader and the book, as John Jay Chapman describes it in “The Danger of Reading”: “Let a man remember while reading a book that he is playing chess with a mortal disease. Let the man strike first, or the book will have him. The man has this advantage, that he can put the book in the fire. But the book has the brains, the experience, and above all, the wind and tenacity. The book never tires, it is always fresh. Now if books are approached in the spirit of hostility, there is much good in them.” And it may be that alcohol has rarely been approached except in that spirit; that alcohol is that spirit.

Edmund Wilson had a name for his cock: “my club.”

A good sentence should be like an Indian longhouse, plenty of room for relations.

We came together like elevator doors, touching first with our sensors.

It is not on earth as it is in heaven—which is the whole point of heaven.

He had an ego like a rear-view mirror. He thought everyone was closer to him than anyone really was.

Communism was a text like Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. The scholarly apparatus of capitalism overwhelmed it.

Oh, he had a voice like an ax.

Elvis Presley’s “I’m in love/I’m all shook up” is like Jackie Wilson’s “Looka Belle, Looka Belle.”

“Mood Indigo” has in it “Satin Doll,” “Glory of Love,” “My Shy Violet.”

Use a rhyming dictionary? That’s like trading a rake for a leaf-blower.

Some theorists work ideas as taffy machines work sugar.

No creature as cocky as a wrestler, as bunched in form, movement, feature. If a penis were an athlete, it would be a wrestler.

I like poems with a low neck, so that all their cleavage shows.

We are but farmers of ourselves, Donne said to Woodward.

No man is a horn section.

As Dick Van Dyke came out of Stan Laurel, so Jim Carrey, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short come out of Dick Van Dyke.

The voices of Allen Ginsberg and Stephen Sondheim rhyme.

In a group of 300 people, no person really looks anything like another. Often, though, the first thing said when two people meet is how one looks like someone the other knows. But that’s all it is, a likeness.

It’s impossible to speak literally, even when you’ve just defecated and there’s no toilet paper. “Shit!”

Scotch tape like a Granny Smith apple.

The first hit off a new cigarette: fresh asparagus.

Your mouth smells like geranium; how can I resist?

A man likes to look at a woman’s ass, and it looks the better the more he can see his hands on it.

Chewing the sandy skin of a slice of pear––the host on the roof of my mouth until mass is over. I show Him to my brother with my tongue, drag Him off there like peanut butter.

Then there’s the feeling of pissing put on the feel of coming.

The sand in Dingle Bay was like the foam of Guinness.

It feels like a lamb, if that’s how a lamb would feel, my grandmother would say, checking the exaggeration to see what thrift was in it.

Nothing like a wet tongue in your mouth when you don’t want it.

It smelled worse than cigarette smoke in a toilet stall.

What does it feel like when you’re in voice?

Is one to buck up just to hunker down?

“My shit was all elaminated.”

Horse apples and dirt can give off a scent of blue cheese, as can watermelon and cigarette smoke.

You can hear a nice sound when the horse, rising to the jump, brings dirt up with his hooves and it patters against the rail.

Raspberry opened in the mouth, the floor of a corral, mint around the hooves.

That’s like eating a slice of pizza from the crust to the tip, or a banana from the side to the center.

Fat? You’re skinny as saffron.

I knew the inside heel of a shoe to give off a banana aftertaste.

Milk being poured always looks plentiful.

The tree that smells like cat food, that smells like cough medicine.

The pencil shavings in the rye toast.

He smells like a burnt-out lightbulb.

A laundered Oxford shirt sometimes gives off cilantro.

I want to be the chin cloth when she plays her violin.

Bad coffee tastes like caper brine.

Into a cup I’m moving around the surface of light slips.

Nowhere, Doing Nothing

Emerson, according to his friend Ellery Channing, “was never in the least contented. . . The Future,—that was the terrible Gorgon face that turned the Present into ‘a thousand bellyaches.’ ‘When shall I be perfect? when shall I be moral? when shall I be this and that? when will the really good rhyme get written?’” Emerson had an answer: “In a remote hereafter.” We are that remote hereafter, for the time being; we are Emerson’s terrible “Future,” and we are no more contented than he was, or than Channing was with what he called “the Emerson cholic.”

In 1964, Stephen Emerson Whicher, a lifelong scholar of his subject, called Emerson, for all his “forty-odd volumes,” “impenetrable.” In his own prime, from 1830 to 1860, Emerson could count on his audiences and readers to call him mistaken, heterodox, and confused. And yet Emerson rarely, if ever, laments being misunderstood. He had an audience, mostly of young men and women of all ages, and he seems to have been able to write anything and everything he wanted to—to get what he called “entire utterance,” “complete utterance,” or “clean utterance.”

Emerson always seemed to be on stilts, one of his contemporaries said, and Emerson thought it “a good remark.” It helps me to see him, but not much. If all reports of what he was like are run together and averaged, Emerson seems to have been a fairly boring but sometimes exasperating man. He resembles Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the scrivener, but in a very limited way. Bartleby is taciturn, direct when he speaks, and well mannered. That’s all we know of him. Bartleby is self-evident, Emerson’s favorite state of being. He gets by without asking, and without telling but one thing, that he prefers not to. This infuriates, and fascinates, Melville’s lawyer–narrator, who can’t understand Bartleby, much as Emerson fascinated and annoyed his associates. Bartleby’s motives can’t be known, his means can’t be seen. Because Bartleby is so provokingly stable and secular—a regular bureaucrat—he is mysterious. “No visible means of support,” Melville’s narrator says: “there I have him. Wrong again: for indubitably he does support himself, and that is the only unanswerable proof that any man can show of his possessing the means so to do.” Bartleby doesn’t boast of self-reliance, yet he is self-reliant—or, to use one of Emerson’s synonyms, “self-supporting.” Bartleby doesn’t rely. “I like to be stationary,” he says, and moves so much that no one can hold him to anything.

Emerson, too, liked to be stationary; he was a home-body who walked daily, no matter the weather, and frequently traveled out from Concord in all directions to give his lectures. Emerson defined a hero as one who is “immovably centered.” Bartleby and Emerson are immovable centered. In being so, they unsettle people. How? In effect, Bartleby writes “whim” on the lintels of his doorpost, as Emerson does in “Self-Reliance,” but has only the one whim: he prefers (positive) not to (negative). Bartleby stands for his truth. What truth? We don’t know. It seems to exist without means, and it seems to be his entire life. In the words of William Sedgwick, quoted by Coleridge, words that Emerson thought were “excellent”:

I judge it ten times more honorable for a single person, in witnessing a truth to oppose the world in its power, wisdom, and authority, this standing in its full strength, and he singly and nakedly, than fighting many battles by force of arms, and gaining them all. I have no life but truth: and if truth be advanced by my suffering, then my life also.

Bartleby, as Emerson seems to have, does his thing, won’t do another’s, acts without acting, persists, will not subscribe or compromise. Like the reformers of the 1830s, among whom the transcendentalists figured, Bartleby is the fanatic of a dream of no-government and non-resistance, but doesn’t appear fanatic. Instead, like Emerson, Bartleby appears inscrutable. I offer Bartleby to those who wonder what Emerson, or an Emerson, might have been like to be with, to be around. And Bartleby was no free creation of Herman Melville’s imagination; he was partly drawn from life. If you read Emerson’s Journals, his essay called “The Transcendentalist,” or Noyes’s history of socialism and utopian movements in America; if you read Bronson Alcott and Jones Very, not to mention Thoreau, Ellery Channing, and lesser-known writers of the era, you can’t but think that Bartleby stalked New York, Boston, Concord, Salem, and Pittsfield.

Emerson told his English audience in the early 1850s that he had “never seen in any country a man of sufficient valor to stand” for the truth of no-government and non-resistance. I doubt that he would have recognized himself in Melville’s Bartleby. Emerson didn’t recognize himself in Hermann Grimm’s 1867 novel, The Unconquerable Powers, which his daughter read aloud to him, and in which Grimm even quotes from Emerson’s 1836 essay, Nature. William James, in Germany when The Unconquerable Powers was published, reviewed the novel. James caught the portrayal of Emerson, as a man named Wilson—that “superior mind” who found himself “equally at odds with the evils of society, and with the projects that are offered to relieve them.”

This is Channing’s Emerson again, dismissive of both the problems and the solutions. Nothing measured up. “All is mere sketch,” Emerson wrote at thirty-six, “symptomatic, possible and probable for us; we dwellers in tents, we outlines in chalk, we jokes and buffooneries, why should we be talking? Let us have the grace to be abstemious.” This is the tone of what Channing called “the Emerson colic,” adding: “Thoreau had a like disease. Men are said never to be satisfied.” But Channing hadn’t discovered and set down in his journal anything about Emerson that Emerson hadn’t discovered and set down in his journal, which (by 1873, when he published his biography of Thoreau) Channing had no doubt read around in, any number of times. The Concord writers passed their journals around to each other. Perhaps Channing had in mind entries like the following, which Emerson dated September 12, 1839:

How to spend a day nobly, is the problem to be solved, beside which all the great reforms which are preached seem to me trivial. If any day has not the privilege of a great action, then at least raise it by a wise passion. If thou canst not do, at least abstain. Now the memory of the few past idle days so works in me that I hardly dare front a new day when I leave my bed. When shall I come to the end of these shameful days, & organize honour in every day?

Or this one, from 1841:

“What are you doing Zek?” said Judge Webster to his eldest boy.


“What are you doing, Daniel?”

“Helping Zek.”

A tolerably correct account of most of our activity today.

Emerson and his friends never tire of asking what “to do” means, what an “action” is, what “work” is; how to spend a minute, an hour, a day. One day in the summer of 1848, when Thoreau and Alcott were at Emerson’s, building him a summerhouse, Thoreau said something that impressed Emerson enough for him to record it in his journal. “H.D.T. said, he was nowhere, doing nothing.” Emerson heard something representative in the remark, which is as striking now as it was then. We are, in fact, always somewhere, doing something. But the way we’re somewhere, doing something, often suggests that we’re “nowhere, doing nothing”—and perhaps the better for it.

Some of us want to be unconscious to the same degree that Emerson and Thoreau wanted to be awake. Recently, a woman spending a Saturday at Walden Pond, her three children in tow, was asked by a New York Times reporter what the closest thing in her life was to Thoreau’s Walden. “A coma,” she answered. Others seek to arrive at nowhere and nothing—at non-attachment—through meditation, and athletes speak of being in the “zone” and “not thinking” when they’re at the top of their game. Sometimes a state of vacancy is the only adequate response to the way things are, a position Emerson and Thoreau were sympathetic to.

Still, it would be absurd to claim that transcendentalism, in practice, means being nowhere, doing nothing. Such idleness was only “apparent,” as when Emerson said that the essays in his first book were “an apology to my country for my apparent idleness.” Only apparently a penance or amends, his apology was an assertive defense, in the literary sense of that word: apologia pro vita sua. Emerson was pleased that Hawthorne’s early work was selling well “because his writing is not good for anything, and this is a tribute to the man.” When the Concord writers advertise their idleness in their essays and prefaces—as Hawthorne does in Mosses from an Old Manse and The Scarlet Letter—they are proposing new definitions of “work” and “action” to their working readers.

Like Emerson, we are disappointed with the way things are, and we would complain, but nobody would listen. I don’t listen when people complain that Emerson didn’t include any Americans in his Representative Men, that he didn’t write Representative Women; that Fuller could have written a better Women in the Nineteenth Century; that Hawthorne should have been more democratic and less allegorical in the setting and writing of his romances; that Bronson Alcott should have worked harder, so that his daughter Louisa May and his wife Abby could have had more leisure to write; that Thoreau became too much of a natural scientist toward the end, filling his journal with detailed accounts of the dispersion of seeds. All of these complaints were registered first by the persons concerned. The persons concerned were never satisfied with themselves or with each other.

The Concord writers wanted to be better, purer, wiser, more complete. Emerson writes in his journal on November 9, 1838:

I find no good lives. I would live well. I seem to be free to do so, yet I think with very little respect of my way of living; it is weak, partial, not full & not progressive. But I do not see any other that suits me better. The scholars are shiftless & the merchants are dull.

And William Ellery Channing:

That is my special function, the having and the being of opacity. Dull I came upon the planet, untalented, the one talent still in that tremendous napkin, out of which I have never been able to unwrap it and where it is still like to be for all I can discern through its folds. . . . Still, I shall seek a little longer before I shut up the magic lens called opportunity and utterly hibernate, like the woodchuck whose tracks I do not see all the winter thro. But every animal makes tracks, only some do not come into view. Why even I succeed in making tracks in the snow, and others in walking in them. Methinks, this is the greatest success I ever had in life.

It is as though Channing, faced with the Herculean concentration of his friend Thoreau, and the Promethean aspiration of his friend Emerson, had to find the most evanescent figure for the impression he was making on the world: tracks in the snow. In the care with which he reduces himself to a melting “opacity,” Channing succeeds in making something of himself. Through the process of setting limits to his failure, he succeeds.

Today, Emerson is relied on by business and self-help writers for his wise saws, but Emerson himself never wrote anything approaching a book that might be titled The Seven Habits of Highly Self-Reliant People. It isn’t that he doesn’t have a “message.” He had too many: he announces a message on every page. He can’t be delivered in bulleted lists and Power Point presentations. Nor can instructions be gathered from his pages on how to be an entrepreneur, how to run a business, lead a spiritual life, or become a hero. At best, he wrote a role for actors in search of that character, believing that it never has, can be, or will be cast. The disparity between Emerson’s doctrines and his practice—of “self-reliance,” “compensation,” “the over-soul,” “Nature,” “The American Scholar”—was noted from the beginning, first by Emerson himself, and then by others. The best description of it is Everett Duyckinck’s, from the Cyclopaedia of American Literature, published in 1855:

The characteristics of Emerson are, in the subject matter of his discourses, a reliance upon individual consciousness and energy, independent of creeds, institutions, and tradition; an acute intellectual analysis of passions and principles . . . with a species of philosophical indifferentism tending to license in practice, which in the conduct of life he would be the last to avail himself of.

Such an apparently contradictory and heterogeneous “philosophy” got Emerson lumped in with the transcendentalists; and to the extent that they were interested in the reform of creeds and institutions, they were interested in Emerson, and he in them. But he never claimed to be a transcendentalist or a reformer; he claimed only to be describing their positions, not advocating them. They are all familiar to us: they were “anti-money, anti-war, anti-slavery, anti-government, anti-Christianity, anti-College”; they were for the “rights of Woman,” the cold-water cure, homeopathy, the vegetarian diet.

Emerson listened to them when they came to his house to discuss their causes and projects, but he would not subscribe. After they left, he would describe them—scornfully, sympathetically, humorously—in his journal. They were “annoying,” and their results, “for the present, distressing.” Having found the limits of the reformers, Emerson marked the limits of reform itself: “Reform always has this damper, that a new simplicity can be preached with equal emphasis . . . on the simplicity it preaches. Thus when we have come to live on the fruits of our own gardens, & begin to boast that we lead a man’s life, then . . . . too will arise the society for preventing the murder of worms.” Such reform amounted to constant bickering, incessant conflict. For Emerson, the only reform worth having, the only life worth living, was one without means.

“All reform aims,” Emerson writes, “in some one particular, to let the soul have its way through us; in other words, to engage us to obey.” But reform-minded writers have a problem: the sickness they describe (or their description of it) is more compelling—at least to them—than the remedy they propose (or their description of it). After their exhaustive efforts to make the disease palpable, reformers are invariably asked, “So, what do we do now?” To Emerson, this question too was a symptom of the disease. If the first thing you want to know is what to do, then you are part of the problem. The very idea of remedy needs reforming. Short of this, Emerson’s usual prescription for remedy-mindedness was “patience” or “soul”—waiting, suffering. Patience had the virtue of looking within; it didn’t analyze conditions. But “patience,” as a directive, holds no appeal for those who are tired of waiting and suffering. In “Considerations by the Way,” Emerson follows convention in acknowledging not only degrees of illness, but remedies appropriate to each:

For remedy, whilst the case is yet mild, I recommend phlegm and truth: let all the truth that is spoken or done be at the zero degree of indifferency, or truth itself will be folly. But, when the case is seated and malignant, the only safety is in amputation . . .

This medicine is hard to swallow. The diagnosis is authoritative, but the bedside manner—“at the zero degree of indifferency”—is harsh. What patient would stand for it? “Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep,” Thoreau says in Walden. Emerson agrees. His prescription for moral reform has no content but truth-telling, which he renders in terms of major surgery. Truth is decisive: it cuts off, even when the case is mild. It makes no concessions to the feelings of the patient or to second opinions. What is truth? It’s the way to lose friends and alienate people.

To imagine living such a drastically non-conforming life, even for a day, is taxing. Emerson, like the rest of us, was more complacent in the conduct of his actual life. In fact, he liked best “the strong and worthy persons . . . who support the social order without hesitation or misgiving.” But in his writing, where he practices the reform he idealizes, Emerson repeatedly urges his readers to turn their backs on that order. What gives? Is there no passage between what we call life and what we call literature? Emerson’s answer is inconclusive.

“The use of literature,” he writes in 1841, “is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it. We fill ourselves with ancient learning, install ourselves the best we can in Greek, in Punic, in Roman houses, only that we may wiselier see French, English, and American houses and modes of living.” This is not our current understanding of leverage, a word that our business civilization has diminished the sense of, so that it now functions as a euphemism for debt or as a metaphor for “pressure.” A year later, in “Thoughts on Modern Literature,” Emerson no longer sees literature as a lever: it is now a “heap,” a refuse product of “human intellect” that the “good” reader “must” photo-shop:

Literature is made up of a few ideas and a few fables. It is a heap of nouns and verbs enclosing an intuition or two. We must learn to judge books by absolute standards. When we are aroused to a life in ourselves, these traditional splendors of letters grow very pale and cold. Men seem to forget that all literature is ephemeral, and unwillingly entertain the supposition of its utter disappearance. They deem not only letters in general, but the best books in particular, parts of a preestablished harmony, fatal, unalterable, and do not go behind Virgil and Dante, much less behind Moses, Ezekiel, and St. John. But no man can be a good critic of any book, who does not read it in a wisdom which transcends the instructions of any book, and treats the whole extant product of the human intellect as only one age revisable and reversible by him.

This passage, with its idea that literature, as my students say, “really makes you think,” presents problems for us that the first doesn’t. We don’t, for one thing, talk of “going behind” people’s sayings. We get out in front of what people say; we’re proactive about what’s said. We’re on-message or off-message; what we say “gets traction” or doesn’t. We don’t “go behind” Virgil or Dante or Jesus or the Constitution, especially if we love poetry, or are Christians or patriotic Americans. For us millions of Americans, literature as such has never existed. We couldn’t entertain the “supposition” of its “utter disappearance” willingly or unwillingly. And those for whom literature does exist, particularly in the form of “the classics”? They might rather witness literature’s utter disappearance than suppose its wisdom “revisable or reversible” by them. That’s arrogance, narcissism, decadence.

Not for Emerson. He goes behind the old sayings, the great books. What’s there? The source. Reduction to the source—“an intuition or two”—is what Emerson calls for, but not in our sense of the word “reduce,” which means to shorten, to abbreviate, to simplify. Emerson works with the word as Francis Bacon used it at the end of the sixteenth century, when it meant “to lead back,” “to go back.” To what? To “the infinitude of the private” person. “The whole extant product of the human intellect,” according to Emerson, has its source in what he calls elsewhere “the plain old you and me I left at home.” Reduction to that arouses Emerson, arouses him “to a life in ourselves.” St. John wrote the Apocalypse when so aroused; Dante wrote the Inferno when so aroused; we too can be so aroused. The source is the property of no person; it is open to each and all.

My students never buy this; my father doesn’t; I don’t—except when I do. Most people behave as if they buy it, and will occasionally be caught talking as if they do. In fact, though, most people don’t bother, as Emerson did, to read letters in general or the best books in particular: they go right to transcendence of them, right to revision and reversal. Emerson went over the ground himself; he read all those authors he so frequently names—only to find that his neighbor, the farmer Hosmer, was, as we say, “already there.” Hosmer said things that seemed so alive to Emerson that he left Hosmer to his field, went home, sat down at his desk, and wrote pronouncements like the one above, in which literature is a heap. People like Hosmer, who seem never to read or study or write, say things that Emerson had read in Xenophon or Montaigne or Shakespeare, as if those things came out of the handle of their rake. Emerson seems to have wanted literature to be less like itself and more like Hosmer. Then as now, most people find literature pale and cold; they don’t need to spend their life being disappointed by it. Literature is already irrelevant, always has been. A book should “read” quickly and be gone the next day—whatever. Emerson, contrary to what he often says, found nothing ephemeral in literature; or, rather, he found it perfectly ephemeral, twenty-four-seven. It was always around him. The intuitions “enclosed” in literature were being had “out there” by his neighbors every day. “A heap of nouns and verbs” both provides for and encloses a wide and ancient wisdom.

What Emerson said sounds bizarre, preposterous, and arrogant only because most people don’t cultivate the experiences of reading, writing, speaking, and listening as he did. Emerson wrote for people who couldn’t discount their schooling and their beliefs so deeply as to find what he said uncommon. They got it: “a few ideas and a few fables.” Most of us have that much. A library full of books, like a hard drive full of bytes, means nothing. But Emerson wasn’t most people, and would have been nowhere, doing nothing, without Virgil, Dante, Moses, Ezekiel, and Shakespeare to go behind. He could never get literature out of his system. What seems to have amazed him repeatedly is how so many people got along without ever having gotten it into their system—and yet reached the same conclusions he reached. Perhaps he got his conclusions from them, and reversed and revised his traditional idea of literature accordingly.

In entertaining the supposition of literature’s utter disappearance, Emerson made room for himself and anyone else who wanted in. He entertained the idea of his own utter disappearance—set himself up for it, provided for the arousal of life in his critics that would get them to go behind him to that source from which he, too, could and would be revised and reversed. And Emerson has, like so many writers before and after him, effectively disappeared. He conducted his reduction.

“I know,” Emerson said in “Experience,” “that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think. I observe that difference, and I shall observe it. One day, I shall know the value and law of this discrepance.” The world Emerson thought may not have been the world he thought with. Reading Shakespeare made Concord life look thin; writing about reading Shakespeare compensated Emerson for the “discrepance” between King Lear and Concord, allowed him to observe and keep it, to point it out and work it up. Emerson’s writing made differences that Emerson’s thinking denied the existence of. He “shall” observe the difference, he wrote; that is, he chose to, and would, observe it—in the future, when his writing stood to mark that difference. We are that future. In “A Letter,” published in 1843, he wrote:

A literature is no man’s private concern, but a secular and generic result, and is the affair of a power which works by a prodigality of life and force very dismaying to behold,—the race never dying, the individual never spared, and every trait of beauty purchased by hecatombs of private tragedy. The pruning in the wild gardens of nature is never forborne. Many of the best must die of consumption, many of despair, and many be stupid and insane, before the one great and fortunate life, which they predicted, can shoot up into a thrifty and beneficent existence.

Emerson’s brother Charles, a promising writer, died of consumption; Keats, likewise. And then there’s the prodigality of Charles Dickens, “dismaying to behold.” Closer to home, I think of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, or all of Joyce Carol Oates’s publications: how did they get written? What called them into being? And for what? To be remaindered and forgotten by all but a few, less than a decade after they were published? For Emerson, literature was never less, or more, than a type of nature’s force—not a force of nature. Literature was an image of nature in its purest reduction (whatever that means; a cell?) and in its incessant conduction. Most writers will die and be forgotten; one Shakespeare will stand for them all, will be what they predicted, signs of his power. Most people will die and be forgotten; for them, one Jesus, one Mohammed. For all the mountains and molehills, one Everest. And “every trait of beauty purchased by hecatombs of private tragedy.”

Emerson can be the most unsentimental fatalist, especially when he’s urging himself on to produce “a thrifty and beneficent existence.” The more one reads that passage, the more conventional (life isn’t fair), obvious (everybody dies), and overblown (out of the Many, One will triumph) it sounds. But such is fate, and so is literature, after all. What new demands can be made of either one? Emerson’s impatience with literature was conversant with the sort of reading of it he appeared to condemn. And still he wrote—comparing himself once to a crayon that spends itself completely in making a drawing, and once to a caterpillar that, having reached the end of a twig, throws its head from side to side. His literary practice is so ideal that you don’t want to reform it. You don’t want to do anything with it but keep making it.

Over the years, a number of people have told me that Emerson is boring. How can I have spent so much time on him? The answer is simple: because of how he struck me when I first read him in 1983. He had struck hundreds, if not thousands, of young men and women the same way. To John Jay Chapman, in the 1880s, “it seemed as if Emerson were a younger brother of Shakespeare. No book except Shakespeare’s plays ever gave me such keen delight. I was intoxicated with Emerson.” I found in Emerson the satisfaction of reading what I thought and felt in words I never could have marshaled. I heard him talking; I heard him speaking the way I speak in my head, without stint, without groping; energetically, endlessly, like the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, every one of them eloquent and plain at the same time. But “the voices we hear in solitude,” Emerson wrote, “grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.” In the world, no man or woman talked like Emerson, with that richness of vocabulary, that flexibility of syntax, that power of metaphor, that variety of cadence and tone and sentence. In Emerson, my voice was never faint, the conversation never dull.

When I taught “The American Scholar,” published in 1838, to forty-two first-year undergraduates, I discovered that Emerson had, after almost exactly 150 years, gotten in the way of Emerson: he had set in motion his own erasure. “The last great writer who will fling about classic anecdotes as if they were club gossip” couldn’t get a hearing from students who had been educated under ostensibly Emersonian imperatives—electives, independent studies, practica, internships, personal responses. Emerson was not educated under Emersonian imperatives; to my students, therefore, who were, his gossip wasn’t gossip and his classical anecdotes didn’t compute. Emerson grew up believing that “the roots of our success are in our poverty, our Calvinism, our thrifty habitual industry,—in our snow and east wind, and farm-life and sea-life.” Neither I nor my students subscribed to this belief—and not only because we grew up in a different climate.