Tuesday, March 03, 2009

lecture at All Souls Church -- Feburary 26, 2009

First, thank you all for coming out on a Thursday night. I’d also like to thank Carlos Martinez for setting up this event, and Jim Yacopino for the introduction. It is a thrill to be here. In preparation, I was reading a bit on your congregation and the Emerson Circle. Besides being a little humbling, it was wonderful to read about the variety of voices and perspectives you’ve had come speak here. It’s an exciting honor to add mine to such distinguished company.

As was mentioned in the introduction, I was an English teacher for 9 years before I became a writer. Well, I guess I was a writer all along, but it took a stroke of luck for me to become a book author. In the spring of 2004, after much deliberation, my wife and I decided it was time for me to take a break from teaching and chase my dream of the writing life. I submitted my resignation to the school where I worked and was prepared to spend a year trying to start a career as a freelance writer when, merely a week later and literally a month before school ended, a colleague emailed me. He wrote that a friend of his was starting a publishing company and was looking for a writer in New England willing to take on a book project. Did I know of any writers in New England who might be interested? I just so happened to be a writer in New England willing to take on a book project. When I found out that it was to be a literary travel guide, I could not believe my luck. Well, that turned out to be this book and I had so much fun doing this one that I decided to do one on Ireland’s Literary Revival, (which is here), and one on England’s Lake District Poets, (which is still in the works).

Before I go much further, let me take a moment to explain a little about the series. The ArtPlace series explores the interaction between art and place. The books look at the places where artists and thinkers lived and worked, and how those places affected them. It also examines how that artist's legacy affects and changes the very landscapes that helped sparked their creativity. The Transcendentalist book is the 3rd in a series of seven which includes Dorothy Parker's New York, John Steinbeck's California, Flaubert's Normandy, Matisse's South of France, Michelangelo's Rome, and my second book, the Ireland of the Irish Literary Revival.
Because I got involved with the series at the beginning, I was able to do two things: write the type of book I would buy and write the type of book that I would teach. Although this book makes no claims at academic or scholarly argument, it does provide a unique way in -- a way to explore Transcendentalism in a way that is accessible and hopefully engaging. And because you already have such a rich and detailed picture of Emerson, I’ll try to focus my remarks a bit more on those around Emerson. And, given your patience, I will also talk a little about my process in putting the book together.

I started my research process by looking around for a few concise definitions of Transcendentalism. One of the first definitions I found came from a minister named Father Taylor, who was a friend and colleague of the Transcendentalists. He defined Transcendentalism as “a seagull with long wings, lean body, poor feathers, and miserable meat.” Not very helpful.

The writer Rebecca Harding Davis characterized the followers of Transcendentalism in her book, Bits of Gossip, as “hordes of wild-eyed Harvard undergraduates and lean, underpaid working-women, each with a disease of the soul to be cured by the new healer.”

Even Nathaniel Hawthorne, got in on the act in his Mosses from the Old Manse, describing Concord as “a poor little country village infested with such a variety of queer, strangely-dressed, oddly-behaved mortals.” Sounds a bit like Amherst to me.

It’s not surprising that when the British novelist Charles Dickens came to Boston and inquired about Transcendentalism, he was told that “whatever is unintelligible would certainly be transcendental.” Clearly, these answers were not going to help me, so I went to the town of Concord, and to an old house by the river. The river is the Concord River (near the famous North Bridge of the Battle of Concord) and the house is now called, The Old Manse.

As many of you know, while Emerson lived at the Manse with his mother, he wrote Nature. The challenge with which Emerson opens the book is remarkable:

The forgoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?

Then follows an Emersonian, and therefore Transcendentalist solution: go spend time in nature, and see what new ideas this brings. They will surely be more powerful and enticing than ancient philosophy and dusty theology.

Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us, by the powers they supply to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?

It seems particularly telling that Emerson wrote these words, with their central metaphor of “the flood of life,” looking out at the river from the window of his study. As he states, however, “to go out into solitude [to achieve our ‘original relation’], a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.” Emerson made good on this premise by going out daily to walk the hills, forests, and meadows of his chosen town of Concord. He let neither the elements nor the demands of society keep him from his walks.

Emerson is also clear about the benefits of the move into nature:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- a mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

It was in these passages from Nature that Transcendentalism first came alive for me, and I structured the book around what I view as Transcendentalism’s central quest: to forge an original relationship with the universe or, as Emerson puts it, to behold “God and nature face to face.”

So, what quickly became interesting to me was how this group of writers, philosophers, poets, activists and dreamers conducted their quests. Where did they go for that “face to face” interaction? How does one forge one’s own unique relationship with the universe? This idea became the central theme of my book: where did the Transcendentalists go in New England and what did they do there?

Obviously, they came here, to Concord. They came to visit and converse with Emerson. They came to walk the paths and trails around the town and draw inspiration from the trails. Or, as Hawthorne did, stare lovingly at his garden watching the melons grow. (No kidding, he wrote in American Notes): "I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had not taken part in the process of creation." It’s little surprise the practical, no-nonsense farmers of Concord wondered about him.

Hawthorne came to Concord after his marriage to Elizabeth Peabody’s younger sister, Sophia. By that time, Elizabeth was an ardent admirer of Emerson and an important Transcendentalist in her own right, but more on her later. The Hawthornes arrived in 1842 and moved into the very same house where Emerson wrote Nature. Emerson himself had bought another house on the other side of town seven years earlier. While at the Old Manse, Hawthorne wrote prolifically, took long walks in the woods, rowed on the river in a boat he bought from Thoreau, and, yes, stared mooningly at his garden.

Bronson Alcott also came to Concord…repeatedly. He came, with his wife and four daughters, and lived in a number of houses in Concord, including one he eventually sold to the Hawthornes, and another that still serves as an Alcott museum called The Orchard House. Alcott’s quest to behold Got and nature face to face was most successful in his educational endeavors, schools he started in Boston and on the grounds of The Orchard House. In Boston, Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore on West Street was another place the Transcendentalists went to develop forge that relationship with the universe. They spent time here bouncing ideas of each other and searching for a better way before wandering up Tremont Street to School Street and the Old Corner Bookstore and the Parker House hotel. Among the ideas battered around the downstairs of Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore was for a utopian society created out of Transcendental optimism and a utopian theory called Fourierism. Brook Farm, in the Boston suburb of West Roxbury, Although Brook Farm literally went up in flames after seven years, its promise of a more balanced, Transcendental agrarian life enticed the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, all of whom regularly visited. Hawthorne did join but quickly realized his unique relation to the universe did not include milking cows.

Perhaps the most well known method to forge an original relationship to the universe was to move to Walden Pond and attempt to “front only the essential facts of life” as Thoreau did from 1845 to 1847. His experiment in living the Transcendentalist quest, along with the record of it we know as Walden, has had perhaps the greatest impact of any of the Transcendentalist writings.

It is regularly quoted as the defining text for a wide variety of philosophical movements and radical thinkers...or just to sell t-shirts and yoga-tapes. I've even seen Walden quoted in a review of new electrical gadgets like cell phones and iPods.
But my favorite story of Thoreau’s influence is about a shy, lanky Irish boy whose father read Walden to him in the mornings before he trundled off to school. On summer vacation in the west of Ireland, this same boy then dreamed about moving to an island in the middle of a lake and living like Thoreau.

He even picked out the perfect island and spent a night reconnoitering it. As it turned out, the boy never lived out his dream, but he did write a poem about the island. The poem is called “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and the boy is the Novel prize winning writer William Butler Yeats. As a side note, I will talk about that story and much more tomorrow night at the National Arts Club.

My central theme of a “quest” helped me through the writing of the book, but I also had to take the photographs that accompany the text. And in taking those pictures, I tried to be Emerson’s eyeball. I tried to see all and vanish into nothing. Not an easy trick standing on the Boston Common in the middle of a busy afternoon. But I tried.

And, after the book was published, and I was putting together an collection of photographs from the book for an exhibition at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, I realized that Transcendentalism was more than just a quest to create that unique place for one’s self in the universe, it was also a way of seeing the universe -- not just looking, but truly seeing. The Transcendentalists were both unfailingly dedicated to the careful study of the natural world and unequivocal about the benefits. Again, from Emerson's Nature, I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me." And Henry David Thoreau challenges us, with his usual play on words, to go beyond looking to really seeing: "Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer."

It is perhaps no surprise to this crowd that the person who was met that challenge and was clearly much, much more than a student seemed to prefer more the journeys of the imagination. Like William Wordsworth and Emerson before her, Emily Dickinson was greatly inspired by what she had seen. As someone who actually had to travel to Cambridge for uncomfortable eye treatments (at which the doctor forbid her to write and even took her pen from her, forcing her to use a pencil she must have snuck in), vision is not something Dickinson takes lightly. Like her predecessor, the visionary British poet William Blake, When Dickinson does turn her eyes to something, she sees it as well as something else: From that "narrow fellow in the grass" to the trains she saw from her bedroom that

"lap the miles,/And lick the valleys up
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop – docile and omnipotent –
In fact, she recognizes the power of her imagination to create riches from what she sees:
‘Tis little I could care for pearls
Who own the ample sea;
Or brooches, when the Emperor
With Rubies pelteth me;

Or gold, who am the Prince of Mines;
Or diamonds, when I see
A Diadem to fit a dome
Continual crowning me

And even when her circumstances did not allow her to use the actual sight of something as a jumping off place, Dickinson is still satisfied (and rightly so), with seeing things in her mind.

I never saw a moor
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given

When Thoreau went to Walden, he said it was to "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Although Dickinson never walked the shores of Walden Pond, or even went to Concord, she clearly lived deliberately, fronted the facts of life, and lived her life to the fullest. And even though she was never invited to one of the famous conversation groups Emerson held at his house, when Emerson extolled his audience, "to see God face to face," Dickinson knows the way. In fact, where others put their eyeballs (transparent or otherwise), Emily puts up her soul:

Before I got my eye put out,
I liked as well to see
As other creatures that have eyes,
And know no other way.

But were it told to me today,
That I might have the sky
For mine, I tell you that my heart
Would split, for the size of me.

The meadows mine, the mountains mine, --
All forests, stintless stars,
As much of noon as I could take
Between my finite eyes.

The motions of the dipping birds,
The lightning’s jointed road,
For mine to look at when I liked, --
The news would strike me dead!

So safe, guess, with just my soul
Upon the window-pane
Where other creatures put their eyes,
Incautious of the sun.

And perhaps that is the best place for us to end, with our souls upon the window pane." I believe it is the best way to create what Emerson called "an original relation with the universe" -- something that Dickinson, perhaps more than Emerson himself, or even Thoreau, was able to do through her vision, her imagination, and her poetry.

Thank you so much for your time and wonderful attention. I would certainly love to hear any questions or comments you might have, either now or later. I will be posting the text of this talk at http://openpage-openroad.blogspot.com/ as well as information about my upcoming events and books. I will turn on a slide show of photographs to run as I sign books.
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