|Henry David Thoreau|
The transcendentalists--American geniuses or just stuffy dead white guys? You decide!
The Transcendentalists did not appeal to me when I was younger. Emerson, especially. Emerson reminded me of this guy I knew named John, who drove a Volvo, was in the environmental club, and listened to a lot of Fugazi. He didn’t smoke cigarettes or watch football, and he was always reminding everyone how much of a nonconformist he was. No kidding--he’d come right out and tell you all about it.
John was not a fun guy to hang around with, and I always felt the same about Emerson, Thoreau, et al. I thought their writing was gratuitous and self-indulgent—you’ve got Thoreau, making a career out of spending one night in jail, and then Walt Whitman with his whole “I am large/ I contain multitudes” bit from “Song of Myself.” (Jesus! Did these guys ever write about anything other than themselves?)
When I read poetry, I wanted drama, mystery, and suspense. I wanted Poe and Dickinson, Coleridge and Kipling. Kubla Kahn and Gunga Din and all that.
Let’s do a little experiment here. We’ll put a representative Whitman stanza or two up against one of Poe’s, and you’ll see what I mean:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself
And what I assume, you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass…
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee.
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me...
There on the left are the famous first lines of “Song of Myself” (1855), and there on the right is the opening stanza to Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” (1849). Poe has mystery and conflict where Whitman just has a guy chewing on a blade of grass. Poe’s line seem infinitely more fun, more engaging, more poetic (get it?) than Whitman’s navel-gazing.
It’s not fair to compare these two radically different poems, and I’m probably missing the point about the Whitman, but if you were a high school student like I was, and you were studying poetry of dead white American males from the mid 19th century, you were going to spend much more time on Edgar Allan Poe. And then, when you became a teacher, you would stress Poe in every course you taught, and pretty soon you would forget what Whitman even wrote.
But that’s no way to be a teacher. So this year, I made a concentrated effort to teach the transcendentalists. And guess what! I was wrong! Those opinions I formed when I was a teenager were not necessarily valid after further adult scrutiny. In fact, a more mature reexamining of these writers was beneficial to my students, who had no pre-conceived notions about them. Here’s what I taught them, and how it went over.
1. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Now, Longfellow was not really a transcendentalist at all, but teaching him at the beginning of the lesson helped put a kindly face on the Harvard-bound intellectuals of the mid-19th century. "A Psalm of Life" was easy and optimistic enough to grab their attention, and they especially resonded the stanza that reads: