American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson

Parnassian Categories

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parnassusIs there a list of important works of nineteenth-century American literature that no one reads or talks about? Ralph Waldo Emerson’s anthology, Parnassus (1874), must reside high there a different sort of airy reach than the one he meant by that title.

After C19 and the poetry seminar organized by Virginia Jackson and Michael Cohen, I began to wonder about the tradition of English poetry as understood in Victorian America. Who did they love, and who did they respect without love, and who did they care about not one little bit? Perhaps someone has already answered those questions.

Lacking time to investigate this issue, I did pull Parnassus off the shelf, to see what poetry Emerson loved, respected, allowed himself to forget. Emerson, of course, was not the only anthologist in this period, was not even the only poet anthologist (Bryant and Whittier also made treasuries of verse, and Longfellow the more peculiar Poems of Places). Nonetheless, Emerson is as close to a central figure as one might find among the anthologists, and his treasury is the one I happened to have on hand. Perusing his contents, however, I found myself drawn from his list of names to the categories under which the names were gathered. A fascinating itinerary, truly, and perhaps a better clue to the nature of his canon than the canon itself.




Home.Woman.Love.Friendship.Manners.Holy Days.Holidays.




Man.Virtue.Honor.Time.Fate.Sleep.Dreams.Life.Death.Immortality.Hymns and Odes.











Good Counsel.Supreme Hours.

At C19, Emerson was cited as a crucial figure in the replacement of “poetic genres” with “the genre of poetry,” a critical turn that Virginia Jackson influentially analyzed as “lyricization”: “the progressive idealization of what was a much livelier, more explicitly mediated, historically contingent and public context for many varieties of poetry,” such that poetry and lyric become conflated terms  and the lyric of this conflation a particularly attenuated version of the genre.[1] In this respect, it might be useful to think of Emerson’s Parnassian categories as the road not taken on the way to lyricization. Genres are included (hymns, odes, ballads, songs, satires), but intermixed with modes (the contemplative, picturesque, comic), themes and subjects (nature, history, personal life), functions (religion, storytelling, counsel), and affects (pathos, humor, terror). The categories are not quite distinct and not quite coordinated, so that what we have is a messy attempt to sort the objects of an idealization according to their piecemeal pleasures, even as that form of appreciation is discounted as trivial.

In his preface, Emerson writes:

The poet demands all gifts, and not one or two only. Like the electric rod, he must from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects, down to the earth, and into the wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures: his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen and handled. His fable must be a good story, and its meaning must hold as pure truth.

The sphere and cube are ideal forms, pure as the poets of Emerson’s Parnassus. In the end, however, they are not the right categories for the poems.


1 [Back to text] Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 21, 2016 at 3:27 pm

“the others have only knelt at her feet”

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In 1860, one Simeon Carter, “a Wood Choper by profession,” wrote a fan letter to Emerson:

Being housed with a bad cold & a cut thumb for a few days I have been reading your Essays for the 2nd time, I have to laugh right out, or make some exclamation of surprise evry few moments, they are just as fresh evry time you them them up as the Bible is. I call them concentrated Poetry, or a cargo of Poetry in bulk. It dont make any odds where you begin to read whether at the beining midle or end, They are rather too rich diet for ‘evry day.’ but if a Wood Choper cant digest them I dont know who can, for I believe smart exercise in the open air is about as necessary for the digestion of thought as for pork and beans….

The letter was printed in the Harvard College Bulletin in 1979 along with a few others to Emerson that touch on Leaves of Grass (the others are from a Harvard undergraduate, a geologist and Presbyterian clergyman, and a gentleman philosopher–this last James Eliot Cabot, who became Emerson’s editor. But the letter from Simeon Carter is the most interesting, in part because it’s the sort of response I associate with Whitman’s own reception, and Thoreau’s, more than Emerson’s. Here is what he writes of the other two men:

Is Thoreaus cabin yet alive? I should judge from what little I have read of him that he was one of the untamed. I have never read his book “Walden” but I swam across walden pond one day, some years ago, just to see what I could do and a fine pond to swim in it is. I have lately got hold of a book with which I am delighted, viz. “Leaves of Grass” by Walt. Whitman, and I must just whisper, Ralph, look well to your laurels or this uncouth bawler will slide them off your brows. He is a new man, he is fresh, he has been in the real presence; he has embraced the Goddess naked, while the others have only knelt at her feet, kissed the tips of her fingers, & some few, her lips. His Egotism is admirable, equal to that of Jesus, hear him, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” “My voice is Orotund sweeping & final!” Could anything beat that? we are all groping in shadows, he takes hold of the reals. God bless him! I should like to hug & kiss him.

The article containing this , by Eleanor M. Tilton, is freely available online, in volume 23, number 3 of the Bulletin. Begins here.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 3, 2015 at 9:40 pm


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1856 daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau (image by way of the Thoreau Society)

Hawthorne found Thoreau “ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners”; while Alfred Munroe, a schoolmate, in later years recalled, “He seemed to have no fun in him.” But seeming only went so far; Mary Hosmer Brown: “During his father’s illness his devotion was such that Mrs. Thoreau in recalling it said, ‘If it hadn’t been for my husband’s illness, I should never have known what a tender heart Henry had.'” This perhaps explains Elizabeth Hoar’s remark, recorded by Emerson: “I love Henry, but do not like him.” Not contradicted by Whitman but turned at an angle: “I liked Thoreau, though he was morbid.”

(Some choice bits from The Quotable Thoreau.)

American Hybrids

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Working backward in time, from the near present to the 1830s, by a combination of free and accidental association, in order to think forward: less a method than a way of passing the time — history as bookshelf, browsing as historiography.

American Hybrid (2009)

For a short time after its publication there was a lot of controversy over American Hybrid, a Norton anthology that made the claim — I guess I should say makes; it’s still in print — that poetry is no longer a matter of warring factions; the best poets now pledge no allegiance, it said — says — but jump sides at will. Or would if there were sides (which there are) (are not).

Let those parenthetical equivocations stand in for a fairer representation of the anthology’s own, which are not so much contradictions as uncertainties. For the purpose of the anthology has never been clear to me. I mean its editorial purpose, since the work is the work, produced for reasons — conscious and unconscious — of the authors’ own, which may or may not correspond to the imagination of the editors.  But what was that imagination? Did the editors intend to produce an historical account of the literary present, or an aesthetic theory, or a manifesto? By what criteria should I judge their labor? And how strictly should I judge?

My choice has been to take the anthology as something more personal and more effervescent than a history, theory, or assault: I see it instead as lending substance to a mood, and in this regard its success is much less qualified, as the substance is not a matter of accuracy, coherence, or influence, but richness and suggestion.

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University. The caption comes from Emerson’s 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address, slightly misquoted: “They are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great man.” (Click on the image for a larger view.)

The stumbling block for me (not that anyone is asking) is the title, which was meant to draw luster, I suspect, from postcolonial theory, where hybrid has become something of a master trope for the aftereffects of colonial relationships (and by extension the more symmetrical forms of engagement that occur between groups, ideologies, etc., which is how American Hybrid uses it). Associated in particular with Homi K. Bhabha, the trope of hybridity highlights the generative possibilities of such relationships, conceptualizing “an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on … the ‘inter’ — the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space — that carries the burden of the meaning of culture.”[1] That hybrid is a trope is often forgotten, however, though not by the editors and publishers of American Hybrid — witness the flag-waving butterfly on the cover, each of its wings coming from a different breed. A hybrid literally is the offspring of two different species, and it has, for much of its history, carried a negative association when applied to human beings (I think, for instance, of Ezra Pound’s Fascist propaganda, which refers sneeringly to “hybrids of the Anglo ghetto” ).[2] Postcolonialism is explicitly a critique of racism, so its redemption of the word is at once polemical and contextualized. Neither is the case with American Hybrid, which is unfortunate since some of the controversy over the anthology was owing to its “whitewashing,” as Craig Santos Perez put it, of American poetry and hybridity as concept. In any case, hybrid is not a trope I particularly like, no doubt for personal reasons: I am one generation removed from the eugenic nightmare of Nazi Germany (about which my father, a survivor, has written at length).

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University. The caption comes from Emerson’s Nature (1836): “I expand and live in the warm day, like corn & melons.” (Click for a larger view.)

I should distinguish, though, between two versions of the trope, each of which is adopted in the anthology. Innocuous to me is the metaphor of poem as hybrid, especially in the horticultural form David St. John adopts at the end of his brief introduction (the second of two; the other, much longer, is by his co-editor, Cole Swensen):

I am persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based upon plurality, not purity. We need all of our poets. Our poetry should be as various as the natural world, as rich and peculiar in its potential articulations. The purpose of this anthology is to celebrate these exquisite hybridizations emerging in the work of all our poets. Let the gates of the Garden stand open; let the renaming of the world begin again.[3]

There is a certain confusion here — the Adamic citation at the end hardly points away from the fantasy of purity; and the slippage from “poets” to “poetry” does suggest that the former are the stock from which the latter’s “exquisite hybridizations” are produced — but to speak of poetry as cultivation, evoking a “Garden” of verses, is to till the very idea of culture in its most venerable form.

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University. The large speech bubble comes from an attack on Transcendentalism by Andrews Norton: “Those may here become aware of the venom of the serpent who have only been admiring its bright colors & glittering eyes.” The serpent is George Ripley, who had answered one of Norton’s earlier attacks. The other bubbles read “Is that the Transylvanian?” and “Monstrum horrendum ingens informe &c!!” The caption comes from Lalla Rookh: “Some flowers of Eden ye still inherit, But the trail of the Serpent is over them all.” (Click for a larger view.)

The other version of the trope appears in Swensen’s introduction, and the genetic aspects are there highlighted. She speaks of “writings and writers that have inherited and adapted traits,” and refers to her poets as “THE NEW (HY)BREED.”[4] Like St. John, moreover, she ends on a reference ill-matched to her announced aims. In her case, the reference is a citation of Mallarmé, “to give a purer sense to the language of the tribe.”[5] Impurity, I should think, would be a more appropriate goal in this context; and since the poetic legacies at issue for Swensen were earlier defined nationally (as French or English in origin), I find myself thinking about the purity of “the tribe,” which cannot be the last thought she wanted me to have.

I hasten to add that I see no malignant design in this troping. It is just something I do not care for, hence my sensitivity to it; and when the anthology appeared, it kept me from sharing in the mood.

I am not entirely sure why I am going into such detail about my response to the anthology (or rather, my reasons for not responding), except that I came across a modernist precedent for the anthology’s conceit, which in turn suggested another precedent from the nineteenth century, and I did not think I could talk about these precedents without sorting out my original feelings. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 2, 2012 at 11:27 pm

Poems of Places 12

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From Poems of Places, vol. 27, America: Middle States (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Fire Island, N.Y.]

Alfred Leslie, The Telephone Call, 1970-71,
part of a cycle originally called The Killing
of Frank O’Hara
(image via Isola di Rifiuti;
see also Leslie’s website)

I am tempted to call Fire Island the most haunted spot in American literature: two notable writers met their end there, one at sea, the other on land — and these were gruesome deaths as well. In 1850, Margaret Fuller drowned just offshore. Her body was never recovered, but others from the same ship — including that of her son, Nino — washed onto the beach where Frank O’Hara would be struck by a jeep in 1966.

O’Hara died young — he was 40 years old — and before the great majority of his writing had seen print. This surely added to the sense of emergency that attended his loss. According to O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, three of the poet’s friends — Kenneth Koch, Frank Lima, Larry Rivers — took possession of the manuscripts in fear that they would be destroyed or disappear.

Fuller, also 40, had published more extensively than O’Hara (three books and a great many uncollected essays), but in her case an important manuscript did disappear: her history of the Italian revolution, in which she participated as a director of one of Rome’s hospitals during the street fighting. The copy of her book that Fuller carried across the ocean sank, and no other copy ever came to light, despite the assiduous searching of her friends. From letters, and from Fuller’s dispatches for the New-York Tribune (the same newspaper for which Marx would later write), we have a good sense of what she witnessed. But what she learned after, and what she withheld, and what she made of it all in hindsight, these are gone for good.

The gruesome facts of O’Hara’s death were not set aside or forgotten in the grief over his loss. His death came in a hospital after 40 hours of intense pain, and O’Hara’s friends were witness to that suffering. Larry Rivers was especially graphic in his eulogy, evoking O’Hara’s mangled body for the assembled mourners: Read the rest of this entry »

falling into a lump, or flowing in waves

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It is time, indeed, that men and women should both cease to grow old in any other way than as the tree does, full of grace and honor.
— Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century

But men and women aren’t trees, and Margaret Fuller wasn’t fated to enjoy a graceful old age.

In July of 1850, when she was 40 years old, Fuller’s ship from Europe, the Elizabeth, struck a sandbar within sight of Fire Island. The sudden jolt loosened Hiram Powers’ statue of John C. Calhoun, which was lashed in the hold, and the marble tore a hole through the hull. With the tide rising and a heavy storm coming down, the ship began to take on water at an alarming rate.

Fuller might have saved herself by swimming to shore with the aid of a sailor, but she refused to leave her husband — who couldn’t swim — and she refused to be separated from her two-year-old son, who couldn’t be carried in the rough sea.

When Emerson heard the news of Fuller’s drowning, he sent Thoreau to search for her body and effects. Some of Fuller’s manuscript material was recovered, but her book on the Italian revolution — she and her husband had been participants — was lost forever in the waves. Years later, in Cape Cod, Thoreau wrote:

Once … it was my business to go in search of the relics of a human body, mangled by sharks, which had just been cast up, a week after a wreck. …

Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them. … There was nothing at all remarkable about them, and they were singularly inoffensive both to the senses and the imagination. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my snivelling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it.

Thoreau also died young. Emerson, the oldest, lived longest, to the very edge of his 79th year, though he suffered from dementia in his last decade, forgetting words and friends and then himself. After 1872, he wrote little, and then nothing, rereading his old journals while evincing a great contentment, sinking slowly into oblivion. In his last series of lectures, The Natural History of the Intellect, he wrote of memory:

Without it all life and thought were an unrelated succession. As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump, or flowing in waves.

I like to think of my scholarship and poetry as autonomous activities, with occasional points of crossing. Most of those points are marked in pencil in my books. Sometimes, I try to gather them up, to make a line, to make a text. The text above was written for a poetry reading in New York, with Fanny Howe. I’m not sure why I thought it was necessary, or even a good idea, but I wanted to set the three quotes alongside my own work, much of which recently loops tangentially from hospital and nursing home. Fuller’s dream, Thoreau’s appraisal, Emerson’s accedence: three incommensurate stances I’d like, somehow, to reconcile.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 6, 2010 at 8:42 am

Parker’s Kaleidoscope

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Theodore Parker at Age 39

In 1859, no longer able to speak from a pulpit (he had TB), Theodore Parker wrote a long letter to his congregation, in effect an autobiography. It was published as Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister, a book precious in its succinct eloquence, and surely one of the earliest retrospects on a revolutionary period.  A premature retrospect, one might say, except that Parker, 49 years old, knew he was dying.

But the letter is not just a retrospect. Parker is also concerned here to set forth theological and political principles. At one point, he slyly notes that these principles often went disguised in literary drag. Only in this disguise, he implies, could his ideas be shared freely in public. Why? Because literature is a sphere apart, valued for its independence from worldly strife. Or rather, it operates under the illusion of that independence.

For Parker, the illusion is intrinsic to literature’s social function, a function he describes in terms Stuart Hall might embrace. An early member of “the party of resentment” (Harold Bloom’s derisive name for those who would reform the world through culture), Parker believed that literature is not simply an expression of social forces, but one of the ways those forces gain legitimacy. He also believed that literature’s ability to do good — which is to say, its ability to question legitimacy and so reshape society — is kept in check by the powers and authorities that control its dissemination. Read the rest of this entry »