Small Demon
Jan 242010
 

Vietnam seems very far away at the moment. It’s below zero here and I’ve been running for ten days to catch up from . . . being in Vietnam. In a few days’ time I’ve gone from the leisurely life of a poet in a tropical clime to being a professor of literature living beside a frozen river and teaching, in addition to a class about Vietnam, an American Literature course. The distance, both physical and psychic, is considerable. Perhaps surprisingly, I have felt on top of things in the classroom despite my preparation being a little on the thin side — my students have filled in any gaps I’ve left, bless them. Also, I came home from Vietnam filled with enthusiasm for various projects that I’ll get too as soon as things settle down a bit over on the teaching side of life.

I’m teaching the first half of the American Lit survey, which in twenty years at Clarkson I’ve never done before, and while I can’t work up much enthusiasm for the likes of John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards, we’re quickly moving on to Emerson next week and I’m rereading some of the central essays with real pleasure and greater understanding than previously.(I’ve found Emerson something of a pious pill in the past, I confess.) Emerson sometimes seems tantalizingly like an American Buddhist, but then he starts talking about superior and inferior intellects in a way that seems contrary to the spirit of enlightenment,i.e., that while there may be quick and slow people that all are capable of enlightenment; the slow require “indirect” teaching (rituals and chanting, etc.) while the quick can grasp the truth sometimes from a single sentence or the way light glances off a bowl. Emerson, on the other hand, seems to condemn “the mob” to live their unenlightened lives as best they can — and women as well, though he never comes right out and says this, perhaps because he had lively daughters. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the audience for “Self-Reliance” consists of young men of a certain class.* In getting ready to teach thias essay, I find myself wavering between asking students to defend themselves against Emerson’s charges of conformity and questioning Emerson’s assumptions about the “nature” of the individual. Of course, I’ll do both.

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There is an provocative complication to this observation in “Self-Reliance.” When Emerson compares the “Vermont or New Hampshire” country boy to the effete city boy he seems to be making room for a broader distribution of “genius,” but this strikes me as more of a rhetorical flourish than a heartfelt sentiment; that is, Emerson seems to be using the figure of the farmboy to beat up the city boy a little bit.

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