Jul 3, 2013

Emerson, Thoreau, Georgian Bay

Northern Rim of Lake Huron, Blind River, Ontario

Ten days ago I returned from a four-day, thousand-mile drive along the east side of Georgian Bay in Ontario, then back down I-75 from Sault Ste Marie to Detroit. If you can’t picture Georgian Bay, it’s fair to think of it as a sixth Great Lake, attached to the east side of Lake Huron. 
In the car I listened off and on to Professor Arnold Weinstein lecturing on the transcendalists, Emerson and Thoreau, whose love of nature suited the drive through rural Ontario. I’ve been trying to find a way to write about that landscape and those writers for more than a week, with no luck, so I’m turning it over to reader input: what is your most or least favorite idea or quotation from Emerson or Thoreau?  
The one I remembered from college was Thoreau's line, “I’d rather sit alone on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” I guess my aversion to cities and conspicuous consumption had already kicked in at age 20. 

On the other hand, I've learned to take some advantage of what cities can offer, and I consume more than is necessary:  life without central air and a reliable TV clicker is not worth living. 

From Emerson’s “Circles” here’s a short passage I find fascinating from a thinker who usually seems determined to get beyond surfaces into transcendence and essences:  “Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. . . . We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them."  The "true art of life" is not to penetrate into areas more lofty or more mystical than surfaces, but only to skate well on those surfaces. I wonder what Wordsworth would have said.

I’m also struck by those lines' play against our expectations. If life is not “intellectual or critical,” then what is it? Air-headed? Moronic? Stolid? Superficial? Obnoxious? Republican?  

No . . . .  It’s . . . “Sturdy?” 

Sturdy! How the hell is sturdiness the counterpart or antithesis to the intellectual or the critical?  Sturdy like a boulder? Sturdy like a cow? Sturdy like a linebacker? Maybe it begins to make sense after all. Then I begin to imagine cow, rock, and linebacker ice skating . . . . 
For cooler, sturdy skaters
I've imagined a conversation at Jeremy's Country Restaurant and Convenience Store. Someone has just referred to himself as an intellectual, to which I’ve applied an Emersonian response:  “Intellectual? You, Sir, are no intellectual!  You, Sir, are . . . sturdy!  I knew an intellectual once. An intellectual was a friend of mine, and you, Sir, are no intellectual. You, Sir, are _________ !"


Or is this the sturdy, skillful skater?
Well, I’m charmed and fascinated by all that, but for me, here is the primo study question for me:  Do I, and should I, live in a way that would pass muster with Emerson or Thoreau? How? Why? And so what? 
Also remember the original question:  what is your most or least favorite idea or line from either of those two 19th century American icons, who hoped for an American literature free from European shackles? Was it just a teen rebellion against authority, or was it meaningful, or was it both? 

If you’ve left your copies of Emerson and Thoreau at Danny’s Donuts—again!—or at Jeremy's Country Restaurant, you can look for quotable quotes here, but I hope you're ashamed:


It’s wrong to reduce important and thorough--if troublesome and sometimes snotty--thinkers to a few of their aphorisms, but there’s only so much time and space here. Also, these two writers are so fond of the aphorism, the quick-hitter, the bumper sticker, the cookie’s fortune, that I feel permitted to begin there, but it’s only for starters.   


bettertry said...

Banjo needs to chill out . . .

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I suppose this comes a little later, but when I was in Junior college, we were required to take a literature class. I made the horrendous mistake of choosing Puritan literature (Moby Dick, Hawthorne and the sermons of Cotton Mather) It completely poisoned the well for me. I just wasn't able to embrace Emerson or Thoreau. I do recall something I found in Whitman, but what, I can't remember now

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I wouldn't mind more pictures of the lake - stunning

Banjo52 said...

bettertry: You flunked anger management school. Why can’t I? Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Except for the word, rage, that’s just about completely irrelevant). But seriously—

PA, this is now to you, as well—

There is enough condescension in Emerson and Thoreau to prevent them from entering the diplomatic core. So, PA, that might be an additional reason you had no luck with them as a youngun. They’re difficult, they’re verbose, AND they often say or imply that other people in the neighborhood, including their readers, are dolts, mercenaries, tools. Maybe we are tools, but we still don’t want to be addressed as such. Our dolthood is our little secret with ourselves.

Combine that tonal problem with the unusual thinking and lifestyles the two advocate, and maybe the wonder is that they’re still regarded—accurately, I think—as important geniuses.

Banjo52 said...

PA, I might just oblige you with more lake pics. Give me some time.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Lake photos are great. Who knew???
When I taught high school, the Junior English classes all studied the transcendentalists. It was fun to see the students attempt to change their lives as they absorbed.

My favorite has always been the Emerson one about the age of a woman. I'd resent being called an old fiddle - he'd be transcended by my pout.

Nice post, and thanks for the link to the quotes. I'm taking notes this time!

Anonymous said...

What's kind of fun is that Thoreau and Emerson would try to out-sanctimonious each other. For example, apparently Thoreau was in jail for refusing to pay a portion of his taxes, on moral grounds, and Emerson came to visit.

"What are you doing in here?" said Emerson.
"What are you doing out there?" said Thoreau.

Louisa May Alcott's father was a transcendentalist and lived off his daughter's earnings. From a young age he taught her to believe that he, the father, was all that and a bag of chips.

Ken Mac said...

sounds like a blissful journey

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