Sunday, 23 November 2014

Heroic Reading in Emerson and Thoreau

On Thursday 20th November, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome Dr. Lloyd Pratt (University of Oxford) for the fifth seminar in the 2014-15 series. Pratt is the author of numerous articles on American Literature, African American Literature, and Literatures of the American South, and he has written two monographs: The Strangers Book: The Human of an African American Literature (forthcoming) and Archives of American Time: Literature and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (2010), which was a Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title for 2010. His talk today on “Heroic Reading in Emerson and Thoreau” draws on the research he has been doing towards a third monograph, and concerns the traditions of reading that different sorts of readers, within and without academia, bring to the writings of Emerson.

Pratt introduced his talk by explaining his interest in two supposedly distinct types of reading: the in-depth, learned analysis which is the bread-and-butter of literary criticism (what Thoreau called “heroic reading”), and the reading done by readers who aren’t expertly trained to read (or, “common reading”). Pratt expressed a concern that heroic, academic reading is fundamentally undemocratic, because it requires that language and writing is fully accessible only to a select few. Pratt’s important contribution to the ongoing discussion about the politics and methods of reading is to acknowledge the importance of nineteenth-century writers like Thoreau who tread this ground before, and whose writing seems to anticipate the major talking points in the contemporary debate.

In true American Studies-fashion, Pratt began by describing the cultural and historical roots of contemporary academic practice. In post-WWII America, the G.I. Bill was passed, opening up university education to veterans of the war. The peculiar structure of university education in the United States meant that a student doing engineering would also have to take a literature course. The intersection of these two circumstances thus meant that Humanities professors were suddenly faced with rooms of students without any literary-education, to whom they had to teach the likes of Milton and Pound. To solve the problem, the methods of close reading which were privileged by the New Critics in Britain were brought across the Atlantic, where they could be used effectively to teach large groups of students the art of reading, closely, the ambiguities and techniques in an isolated bit of text. 

The problem for teachers now, Pratt explained, is how to prevent these reading practices, and thus the liberal arts more broadly, from becoming wholly inward-facing, divorced from an appreciation of cultural and historical context. New schools of literary study like the “New Historicism” have arisen as an “antidote” to the New Critics’ close reading, but it is difficult, Pratt explained, to remedy the very techniques which so usefully level the playing field. Unlike the New Historicists, whose methods are unsustainable for “common readers” outside of academia, close reading as a teaching practice is democratic: it gives reading to everyone. 

Returning to Thoreau, then, Pratt closely read a section from Walden. The written word, writes Thoreau, “is the work of art nearest to life itself”: it is “universal” and can be “breathed from all human lips.” Thoreau also writes, however, that books can “be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line […] It is worth the expense.” For Thoreau, Pratt suggested, the word is at once full of meaning, requiring only a reader’s presence for that meaning to come to light, and yet it can also be empty, absent of meaning unless a reader with sufficient training brings their experience to bear on it. Thoreau seems to hold two incompatible ideas about reading at once. 

Pratt similarly moved between two different sorts of reading. As Pratt pointed out, it is only through his own close reading of Thoreau’s passage – a technique which he learned through a university education – that he can appreciate the tension between the two seemingly incompatible positions. From this self-consciously close reading of Walden, Pratt then shifted (and pointed out his shift) into a different, more “common” register, as he discussed the personal life of a female reader from the American South called Blanche Chenault Junkin, a mother of four and someone who spent time in a mental hospital. Blanche had a very active engagement with Emerson’s writings: she quoted, selected, and rearranged them into a small book called Through the Year with Emerson (1923). Her reading is not heroic in Thoreau’s sense, but the question that Pratt asks of his audience is whether it is less valuable? Does the act of rearranging debase Emerson’s writing?

In an essay on the “Common Reader,” Virginia Woolf quotes a passage from Dr. Johnson: “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices […] must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.’ Woolf writes that common reading “bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man’s approval.” The common reader reads, says Woolf, for their “own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” Pratt suggested that Woolf and Blanche beg a number of questions: what does it mean to read in a common way? Is the common reader a poor reader? Is the heroic or the common more valuable, and are they irreconcilable?

Much to the audience’s delight, Pratt revealed at the end of his talk that Blanche was in fact his great-grandmother, whose book first introduced him to Emerson’s writings. Coming at the end of a talk which was marked by Pratt’s self-conscious interrogation of his own reading practices and their roots, this was a fitting conclusion: it highlights the fact that our methods of reading are necessarily inherited. Pratt noted that as an undergraduate he went to a public university which only existed due to nineteenth-century land grants and New Deal funding. Like the veterans of WWII who were taught close reading, Pratt’s training – like most academics’ training – was only possible thanks to various unpredictable historical and cultural circumstances, and both his academic and familial ancestors. The talk invites us to be more conscious of our own reading practices, to recognise that we are the inheritors of long histories, and that the way we approach texts is not the only way, and perhaps not the most valuable.

By Jamie Redgate
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Prof. Philip Horne (University College London): ‘Henry James and Emily Dickinson: a Puzzle.’ This is in collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and forms part of the ‘English Visiting Speaker Series,’ co-sponsored by the Andrew Hook Centre. It will be held on Thursday 4th December 2014 in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5.15pm. All very welcome!