Sunday, October 24, 2010

Emersonian Blogging

The latest (October 28) issue of The New York Review includes a review of the recent publication of selections from the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson by the Library of America.  The collection consists of two volumes, whose page count runs just shy of 2,000.  Whether or not this selection is representative, it is necessarily sparse:  The Harvard University Press complete edition of The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebook of Ralph Waldo Emerson runs to sixteen “massive” (the adjective selected by Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the current review) volumes.  Neither of these editions is available for search or browsing in digitized form, nor is there any version of this material available through Project Gutenberg.  One can find earlier editions whose copyright has expired through a Book search on Google;  but more impressive (not to mention more useful) is a “digital edition of the Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition, edited and with notes by Edward Waldo Emerson” set up as a Web site by the University of Michigan Digital Library project, whose home page is the source for the above quotation and is marked as last having been updated on March 28, 2006.

None of the twelve volumes in this collection makes any mention of the journals;  but, since this was a digital collection, I decided to try putting it to a test.  I took the first quote from the journals reproduced in Harrison’s review:

Expression is all we want.  Not knowledge, but vent:  we know enough;  but have not leaves & lungs enough for a healthy perspiration & growth.

I decided to use the Boolean search tool on the conjunction of “vent,” “knowledge,” and “perspiration.”  What I discovered was a close approximation of this text in an essay entitled “Persian Poetry;”  and, in the notes for this essay, I found the sentence from the journal (but with “and” in place of the ampersand signs).  In other words material from the journals appears only as notes when relevant.

However, this bears on another observation that Harrison made based on the following quote from the “Self-Reliance” essay:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.

Harrison then says of this sentence:

In this respect the bloggers of our age have more Emersonian genius in them than our analytic philosophers, for good or ill.

My guess is that Emerson might sympathize, but in a qualified way, just I suspect that he would not wholeheartedly support the publication of his journals.  At the risk of sounding too self-important, I would like to suggest that, as a man who could write at the drop of a hat, Emerson used his journals as a “rehearsal studio” for his more serious “writing for public consumption.”  Harrison says the same, but in language free of any reference to my own turf:

His journals were the incubator of his sermons, lectures, essays, poems, and translations, almost all of which received their first transcriptions there.

From this point of view, Emerson probably equated genius with his own method of expressing his thoughts through a process of “rehearsal writing” that would culminate in some form of public distribution, even if only through a sermon.  I would suggest that this is not the way of most bloggers, whose own efforts are guided more by spontaneity and possibly a hunger for eyeballs, without being distracted by more elevated concepts such as “thought” or “belief.”  Emerson was probably fortunate enough to avoid ever having to sit in on a panel discussion;   but I would like to believe that he would easily recognize the “ego-strutting” that dominates such events and would probably have felt the same way about a goodly number of blogs that he might sample today.

I realize that what I am now doing would probably open me up to similar accusations of ego-strutting.  To some extent this would be true.  I have low expectations that what I write here gets very much attention, but I certainly enjoy any reaction indicating that what I have written has actually been read.  (I think about this less on, where I know that certain opinions can end up serving as a magnet for hate mail.)  Still, writing is important to me;  and I see it as a performance skill that is very much in the same category as the performance skills of the musicians about whom I write on  Just as rehearsal is fundamental to the work practices of those musicians, it is equally fundamental to me.  However, while I doubt that many professional musicians would feel very good about rehearsing in public, I find that the openness of my own “rehearsal studio” provides an incentive for choosing every word carefully, even in the most casual of settings.  It would not surprise me if Emerson were just as careful in choosing the words he penned into his journals, not because they might some day be made public but because he knew that they would have to withstand the scrupulous review of that most intense of readers, Emerson himself!  Some might dismiss that as just another form of ego-strutting;  but I prefer to think of it as recognizing a crucial coupling of self-criticism to self-reliance!

1 comment:

Kirk said...

Well, Emerson, like many of the Transcendentalists, shared their journals with others. These were not journals as diaries - not like, say, Samuel Pepy's diary - but rather, as you say, areas for rehearsal. I'd use a different word actually - they were used for sketches. And in Emerson's case, since he was one of the few Transcendentalists who actually published much, they were drafts that he later incorporated into his lectures and essays. (The other main Transcendentalist who did this was Thoreau, but he didn't publish anywhere near as much, nor lecture much either.)

Harrison is a bit confused when he discussed the HUP journals. The volumes are not massive; they run around 400 pages each, with a generously large font that makes reading easy. And they are easy to read, in spite of the editors' marks that Harrison bemoans.

Having recently purchased a set of the HUP journals for my own edification, I was surprised to see that Harrison seems to have merely glanced at them. He also offers little more than commonplaces about the journals, and seems not to care very much. The LoA volumes are excellent - I have them as a subscriber to the series - and for the vast majority of people are more than enough Emerson. But reading the full journals shows much more of Emerson than any excerpts can.