Monday, January 25, 2016

Thank You SO Much for Reading This part I

Now let's talk about America.

I took a class in graduate school at the University of Memphis (AF) on Ralph Waldo Emerson. The first day our professor explained that we would almost exclusively be talking about reading the works of Emerson with a little bit of Thoreau and a touch of Whitman along the way, and if that sounded like a death rattle to anyone, they had a whole week to drop the class. Then we were dismissed. I think maybe one person dropped, but the rest of us, obsessed with excavating and gluttons for punishment, arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to the next meeting.

If you consider yourself to be an explorer, bitten by the bug of wanderlust, I encourage you to read Emerson’s Nature. It’s difficult and sweeping, but it will change the way you see yourself within the context of patriotism. It will make you love America again. Emerson wrote the American philosophy. He said he was going to do it, and then he did it, and he was revered for it. When he was too old to even speak, crowds would gather at universities, and he would be rolled out in a wheelchair so that the people could just look at him.

I fell in love with Emerson for the first time in tenth grade after reading only brief snippets of his essay “Self Reliance” and a few poems. I scribbled “To be great is to be misunderstood,” and “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” on bathroom walls at rock and roll shows. I watched Dead Poets Society a million times, and a million times I cried whenever I heard someone say “Oh captain, my captain.” Emerson encouraged me to be me, ridiculous and rude, gentle and gigantic, beautiful and terrible, because that was also the story of America.

Studying Emerson in graduate school was inspiring and illuminating. He too grew old and callous, and he too had many shortcomings. Learning everything about a hero is like learning everything about your father. He could make everything okay, pick you up and make you fly like Superman when you were a little girl, but he was also a human being, and, just as you would in your twenties...and thirties, he made a few bad decisions.

Nevertheless, Emerson inspired Americans, young and old, and continues to inspire. He inspired me to begin to dig deeper. He kept talking about all these things that men should be doing in America. He envisioned a new nation whose art and literature were not inspired by the past, rather, they were inspired by the future of a country free of British rule. He told men to go out into the woods, of which there was an abundance at the time, to reconnect with this land that we now inhabited, and to draw from it the language of a new way of living. By philosophizing the problem, “the reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken in heaps, is because [this is a terrible grammatical error, but that’s how he said it, i.e. sic] man is disunited with himself.” He said that in his ground breaking essay Nature, which was, in turn, his solutionizing.

I was in love. He was so right, and I’d always known it. I immediately imagined him alive today, and we totally made out. Then, later, as is often the case, I started to wonder if maybe I had jumped the gun by throwing myself at him right away. I mean, he was saying all this stuff about going off into the woods to regain a concept of what it means to be...a man.

It was 1830s or 40s-ish U.S.A., and men had ample opportunities to explore and engage with the new continent, but women couldn’t connect on a visceral level with Emerson’s ideas because they were not free to strike out on their own. How could half the population of a burgeoning nation transcend if they lived at the behest of the other half. They lived to serve men. Is what I’m saying. It was legal to lock your wife in your room and beat her for being disobedient (for another hundred years). If a woman never married, she lived on the good graces of family members that did marry, as she could have nothing of her own. Thanks, Emerson. Thanks for getting me all excited about stuff you did not even mean for me.

Luckily (or unluckily) my prof told me to read me some Margaret Fuller. The rest, my friends, is history.

Okay. Please come back tomorrow, and I will post part II. Until then:

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