Monday, January 18, 2010

Evaluating Emerson

There's an article by William Major and Bryan Sinche in the Chronicle of Higher Ed right now arguing that, seriously, guys, Ralph Waldo Emerson sucks; we should stop teaching him.

Of the comments (so far there are four), one delights in this iconoclasm and three are shocked and grieved by the authors' failure to appreciate Emerson's genius.

It makes me wonder to what extent it's possible to evaluate a figure like Emerson with any sincerity.

In particular, reading much of the poetry of the nineteenth century requires that I suspend some preferences so as to achieve, or at least to simulate, some kind of immanence to the poetics of the period and genre. Teaching criticism is in part teaching people how to put their like-o-meters on hold to try to understand the text on its own terms.

But for several semesters I've been assigning an evaluative essay, an essay in which the student sets out her own criteria for poetic goodness and evaluates a poem on that basis. This, too, involves putting the like-o-meter on hold (I use examples from television: you may love to watch American Idol, but that's not the same thing as thinking it's good).* I want my students to have opinions about literature, and to be able to back them up. It's all part of the eternal quest to teach the difference between "subjective" and "arbitrary." Major and Sinche get to the heart of the matter: Many students find Emerson confusing and frustrating, or like him exactly insofar as he can be thought to propound orthodoxies with which they already agree ("I believe in self reliance because people should be responsible for themselves" etc.).

Whether or not they approve of Emerson, students' evaluative processes represent a terrifying challenge to the canon. Every teacher has read essays so confident in their ignorance that they have made her despair for humanity. Reading such essays, one thinks, "Ah, get a little more educated and you'll change your mind. Think harder and you'll see that William Carlos Williams knows exactly what he's doing."

At what moment do we say to students, "Yes, go ahead; you are qualified to judge this poet"? Usually it takes a Ph.D. or thereabouts; perhaps with the firmly canonized, such as Emerson, such a moment never comes. As the commenter guygibbs fumes at the Chronicle, "You should both be fired and sen[t] back to undergraduate school yourselves."

This is a real tension in evaluative criticism. We want to think we have no sacred cows, but of course we do have them. And it seems a shame to educate undergraduates primarily in order to inculcate in them a sense that they are not equal to understanding, much less evaluating, the literature that they read. It hardly seems conducive to professing literature; I want my students to become readers, not (necessarily) English Ph.D.s.

But on the other hand, if we believe in our profession at all, then we also believe that there is real knowledge and insight that must go into evaluative criticism. If, as Marianne Moore writes, "we cannot admire what we do not understand," it is necessary to do a little work to achieve understanding. The art of turning off one's like-o-meter is a matter of some study.

What is the difference between fresh innocence and hasty ignorance? This is a question of method.

As for Emerson, Mr. Transparent Eyeball himself, I can do no better than to leave it to James Russell Lowell:
There comes Emerson first, whose rich words, every one
Are like gold nails in temples to hang trophies on,
Whose prose is grand verse, while his verse, the Lord knows,
Is some of it pr-- No, 't is not even prose... (42)

*Of course, I'm cheating when I use reality television as an example, since its popularity is predicated on its badness, or at least its "lowness."

Lowell, James Russell. A Fable for Critics. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1848. Google Books. Web. 18 January 2010.

Major, William, and Bryan Sinche. "Giving Emerson the Boot." Chronicle of Higher Education (17 January 2010). Web. 18 January 2010.


SEB said...

I am totally stealing the concept of the "like-o-meter" and its hold button. This is a major problem in art history too, especially when your students are artists who, in studio art classes, are often expected to evaluate and critique every artwork they see. I need tools to encourage them to stop thinking "this is not a good artwork" and start thinking "what kind of potentially mindbending ideas about art are behind a view where this *is* a good artwork?"

Natalia said...

That's a good way of putting it, K. I might steal your phrasing in turn.

During my first year of grad school I had the (amazing) experience of being part of a poetry reading group in which I was the only non-poet. It was interesting, but also extremely disconcerting, when one of my compadres would sit back, fold her or his arms, and say, "that line does not work." I think it's one of the reasons that many efforts to blend art and criticism have met with difficulty; the two often have vastly different methodological premises. That said, the reading group with the poets was one of my best grad school experiences.

Sharon K. Goetz said...

If you haven't seen it, Burke's post seems relevant in a vague way as well.

I haven't a direct response (surprise).

Natalia said...

Hmm. I can see how that post is related, and it's interesting. But there's a key difference; Burke is arguing that some lit is inappropriate for teaching (because it's hard, etc., which I disagree with), whereas the question I'm pondering is one of evaluation. I think there's a real case to be made that some of Emerson's writing is bad (in fact, some of the outraged commenters at the Chronicle implicitly concede this by admitting that E's social importance was greater than his literary achievement). I don't think that case can be made about Hawthorne! Are you kidding me? In my dream universe, instead of Shark Week we would have Hawthorne Week.

But both Emerson and Hawthorne are so firmly wedged in the "American Renaissance" rubric that these judgments seem to come down to mere liking and disliking, whereas if I were to say that I thought Sarah Orne Jewett was brilliant (which I do), her less-canonical status might give my judgment more consequence, even the appearance of a certain objectivity.

Sharon K. Goetz said...

RSS comment notification failed me. hmm.

Anyway, I agree with the distinction you assert. (I wasn't claiming that your post and Burke's addressed the same topic, merely that his might also offer food for thought.) I even agree with your point about Hawthorne, although--from what I remember dimly of twenty years ago--I hated reading Hawthorne so much that I haven't tried him since!