The Mind on Fire

Ralph Waldo Emerson ... writing instructor? Scott McLemee signs up for a workshop with the sage of Concord.

February 4, 2009

In a lecture, the novelist Robertson Davies once gave a wry characterization of the life of a full-time writer. It is, he said, every bit as gratifying as non-writers usually imagine it to be -- “except for the occasional complete collapse of the will to go on.”

This is quoted from memory (my effort to relocate the passage has not gone well) so the wording may be inexact. But the turn of phrase certainly rhymes with experience -- in particular, the tension of emphasis in “occasional complete collapse,” with its mix of casual surprise and total devastation. I feel less certain that Davies used the expression “the will to go on.” It sounds a bit melodramatic. But then, he was a satirist, and he might well have been making fun of the impulse to indulge in overacted displays of artistic temperament. (Making fun of this need not preclude indulging it.)

Anyone who spends much time trying to put the right words in the right order will accumulate a private anthology of passages like this one: quotations that map the high and the low points on the interior landscape of the writing life. Knowing that others have been there before you is reassuring – if only just so much help.

For Robert D. Richardson – the author of, among other things, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which won the Bancroft Prize for 2007 – one such landmark passages appears in “The American Scholar.” There, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes: “Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views that Cicero, Locke, and bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.”

In First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (to be published in March by University of Iowa Press), Richardson says the line “still jolts me every time I run into it.” I think I know what he means, but the quality and intensity of the jolt varies over time. Reading “The American Scholar” as a meek young man, I just found it irritating – as if Emerson were translating the anti-intellectualism of my small town into something more refined and elegant, if scarcely less blockheaded.

This was a naive reading of a remarkable and (at times) very weird essay. "The American Scholar" is actually something like a Yankee anticipation of Nietzsche’s “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” – with the added strangeness that, when Emerson gets around to pointing out a prototype of the new-model American scholar, the example he gives is ... Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish polymath. Who, when not writing huge works on the natural sciences, spent his time talking to angels and devils and the inhabitants of other planets. WTF?

Rereading Emerson a couple of decades beyond adolescence, I saw that the target of his scorn was meekness -- not bookishness, as such. He was in any case not so genteel as he first appeared. There was a wild streak. There were depths beneath the oracular sentences that made him a kind of cultural revolutionary. You are not necessarily prepared to detect this when reading Emerson as a teenager. Like Bob Dylan says, "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

Richardson’s award-winning Emerson: The Mind on Fire (University of California Press, 1996) retraced his subject’s voracious and encyclopedic reading regimen, which seems to have been tinged with the urgency of addiction. That book was intellectual biography. The new one, which is far shorter, is something else again -- a synthesis of all the moments when Emerson muses over his own process, a distillation of his ethos as a reader and (especially) as writer.

“A good head cannot read amiss,” says Emerson. “In every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides, hidden from all else, and unmistakeably meant for his ear.” Full attention and active engagement are always, by Emerson's lights, present-minded: “I read [something] until it is pertinent to me and mine, to nature and to the hour that now passes. A good scholar will find Aristophanes and Hafiz and Rabelais full of American History.”

Not being prone to foolish consistency, Emerson also maintains that some academic works are incapable of coming to life themselves, let alone revitalizing anyone else. “A vast number of books are written in quiet imitation of the old civil, ecclesiastical, and literary history,” he says. (One may quietly updates this by thinking of comparable 21st century tomes.) “Of these we need take no account. They are written by the dead to be read by the dead.”

By contrast, meaningful writing is an effort “to drop every dead word.” Emerson rules out any effort to rub pieces of jargon together in hopes they will generate sparks. “Scholars are found to make very shabby sentences out of the weakest words because of exclusive attention to the word,” he notes. You don’t say.

The struggle to connect with living currents of thought and meaning should begin with a notebook -- the place to cultivate, as Emerson puts it, “the habit of rendering account to yourself of yourself in some rigorous manner and at more certain intervals than mere conversation.” The important thing is to keep at it: “There is no way to learn to write except by writing.”

This may sound like generic advice, and to some degree it is. But from long years of scholarly attention to the daily progress of the essayist’s labors, Richardson hears the anxious undercurrents in Emerson’s reflections on writing. “There is a strangely appealing air of desperation, finality, of terminal urgency,” he writes, “to many of Emerson’s observations.... In every admonition we hear his willingness to confront his own failures; indeed, he never seems more than a few inches from total calamity. He urges us to try anything – strategies, tricks, makeshifts. And he always seems to be speaking not only of the nuts and bolts of writing, but of the grain and sinew of his – and our – determination.”

When necessary, Richardson points out, Emerson would “just sit down and start writing – anything – to see whether something would happen. He was quick to spot the same trick in others. ‘I have read,’ he noted, ‘that [Richard Brinsley] Sheridan made a good deal of experimental writing with a view to take what might fall, if any wit should transpire in all the waste of pages.”

Kenneth Burke once described Emerson’s prose as a “happiness pill” – that being a common enough assessment, though there is more to the sage than his role as dispenser of transcendental Prozac. It makes some difference to know that the pharmacist also had to heal himself. He cannot have been free from all of the worldly desires felt by lesser writers. The same wishes mean the same frustrations. The challenge is to keep faith with the rest of one’s reasons for writing – the motivations that break through the rubble.

First We Read, Then We Write is worth keeping at hand for moments of occasional complete collapse. I'll end with a passage that now belongs in the anthology, for emergency use:

“Happy is he who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never to the times or to the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale – who writes always to the unknown friend.”


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