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Friday, February 13, 2009

The Mind on Fire - By Scott McLemee

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?


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