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American Literary History 15.3 (2003) 575-591
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On Creating an Unusable Past
Now, it is Biography that first gives us both Poet and Poem, by the significance of the one elucidating and completing that of the other.
Thomas Carlyle, Works XXVII
Early in Our Preposterous Use of Literature: Emerson and the Nature of Reading, T.S. McMillin asks the preposterous question (preposterous: literally, "in the wrong order") "What is Emerson for?" (2). To some this might imply, what does Emerson champion? To McMillin it means, what use does Emerson have, or rather, to what uses has he been put or may he be put?
Using Emerson has been a staple of Emersonian commentary since the biographies, memoirs, and criticism that appeared in the years shortly after his death in 1882 as "different parties with different agendas" strove, in Randall Fuller's words, "to establish their version of an author as a 'usable' ancestor capable of inspiring the present to create a desired future" (98). "Discover, invent a usable past we certainly can," Van Wyck Brooks proclaimed (223), and this is what Emersonians in particular have done, spurred by their instinct that "the definition of America is tied to the definition of Emerson" (McMillin 103-04). Though initially more cultish and sporadic, the use of Thoreau began at about the same time with naturalists like John Burroughs; it burgeoned in the 1960s when "Resistance to Civil Government" was adopted as a text by civil rights and antiwar activists, and it has become nearly ubiquitous with the rise of ecocriticism, though the movement's most distinguished analyst, Lawrence Buell, offers adecidedly measured estimate of Thoreau as "patron saint of American environmental writing" (115).
In the Thoreauvian spirit, I would like to speak extravagantly and say a word for impertinence, or nonpertinence (pertinence [End Page 575] having enough defenders), though cautioned by the example of McMillin I am conscious that any such attempt will likely betray an allegiance to "use" of some other sort. By use I mean (following McMillin) the appropriation of texts to readers' intellectual or ideological ends or simply to their drive toward interpretive coherence. Are we (ab)users of texts by programmatic intent and conviction, by private limitation, by the nature of critical argument, and/or by the conditions of perception itself? Can we have, and should we want to have, a literary equivalent of Emerson's "original relation to the universe" ("Nature" 7) like the one McMillin proposes under the heading of "a natural philosophy ofreading" (see ch. 6, esp.122-25)? Or are there only different degrees and kinds of "use," all of them deficient when measured against an ideal of inclusiveness and balance, but some of them deliberate, some nearly unconscious; some fertile, some impoverishing; some overriding or reifying a text, others encouraging a vital immersion in the life (not simply the words) of the text?
"To read Emerson we must rid ourselves of Emerson," McMillin announces (3), much like Emerson had said that to be agood Christian one must rid oneself of the historical Christ. In one respect or another McMillin finds the entire body of Emerson studies—from Moncure D. Conway to Stanley Cavell—misguided or worse, but his particular bête noire is "biographical or subject-centered criticism," which, "in conquering the nature of atext, limits textual movement, curtails interpretive vision, and impedes a participatory, engaged reading—all in the name of the author and by virtue of the perceived meaning of his or her person" (97). To illustrate his thesis McMillin does not address Emerson's modern biographers—Gay Wilson Allen receives a paragraph, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., a solitary endnote, Ralph...