Sunday, January 16, 2011

Here Come the Transcendentalists!

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:


    Life is real!   Life is earnest!
     And the grave is not its goal ; 


    Dust thou art, to dust returnest, 
        Was not spoken of the soul.

We also read "The Children's Hour," and I told them the horrifying story of how he watched his wife, Frances, burn to death in his own home.  I had that from then on.

2. Ralph Waldo Emerson


My students read a selection from "Self-Reliance."  Honestly, the only thing I can really remember from it is "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."  We also read "What is Success?" which is a lot more fun.

3. Henry David Thoreau


Of all the transcendentalists, I learned the most about Henry David Thoreau.  Coming into this assignment, I thought of him as a self-righteous figure who wrote some not-too-exciting prose.  While those perceptions of him might not have been entirely inaccurate, they missed the point about what made this man so important.  Thoreau put his money where his mouth was, and every time I look at this famous daguerreotype of him staring out at me, I can't help but feel that he is challenging me to do the same.

Thoreau did spend that night in jail.  He refused to pay his poll taxes for at least six years running.  He was  a conductor on the underground railroad and did everything he could to stop slavery (short of grab a hand ful of shotguns, as John Brown did.  Thoreau was a pacifist, but he admired Brown for his gumption.)  In his most memorable act of defiance, he simply checked out of society.  He went to Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and built himself a cabin on the water's edge.  He lived there for two years, writing, observing nature, and searching for the correct way to live.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."


4. Walt Whitman


Oh, old Walt ain't that bad.  We read "I Hear America Singing" and "Oh Captain, My Captain," as well as a lot from "Song of Myself."  (Christ, does that one ever end?)  I must say I was taken aback by the eloquence of these lines:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see
and remark, and say Whose?

Pretty good stuff.

In conclusion...

In conclusion, this blog post has taken me nearly a week to write.  If you have read it thus far, then I must say salud to you for sticking with it.  Could it be that transcendentalism, like Fugazi, is just too much work to enjoy?  

As we were finishing Thoreau the other day, I asked my students to rank what they had just read on a scale of 1 to 10.  I explained to them that when I was their age I didn't particularly love the transcendentalists, and that it was okay to rank them as a 1 or a 2.  To my surprise, many of the kids gave them 8s and 9s.  When I called on one of my students in the last period of the day, he answered with a "100."  And he wasn't kidding.






1 comment:

  1. Why doesn't Emerson have a beard?

    This will always be one of my favorites:
    "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

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