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Allen Mendenhall Interviews James Elkins about Law, Literature, Poetry, and Teaching

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, John William Corrington, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Michael Blumenthal, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy, Writing on February 26, 2014 at 8:30 am
Jim Elkins

James Elkins

AM:  Jim, thank you for doing this interview.  You recently came out with a book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law.  You’ve been researching and writing about lawyer poets for some time now.  What is it about lawyer poets that fascinates you, and what is it about this type of person that makes him or her unique?  In other words, what makes a lawyer poet different from a doctor poet like, say, William Carlos Williams, or a banker poet like T.S. Eliot?

JE:  I first got interested in lawyer poets about 12 years ago when I was introduced to the work of a southern writer, John William Corrington. I found Corrington’s life and work fascinating, and was puzzled by the fact that he was an accomplished poet—as well as a novelist—when he took up the study and practice of law. I had trouble getting my mind around the fact that Corrington was a poet and a lawyer. One reason was that I held some of the usual stereotypes of lawyer and poet. These endeavors—poetry and law—don’t look, at least according to the stereotypes, as if they have much in common. Lawyers and poets appear to us as different as day and night. I was intrigued by this idea of one person embracing such different—or seemingly different—endeavors. When I decided to write about Corrington, I knew I needed to think through this idea of being a lawyer and a poet, a poet and a lawyer.

My fascination with lawyer poets lies in how our iconic images of lawyer and of poet are put to the test when we think about one person writing poems and practicing law. There is, I think, something intriguing about the joining of such differing enterprises in the life of a single person. I don’t want to claim that there is anything unique about lawyer poets, or that the joining of law and poetry creates a unique kind of person. What is unique is how the idea of a lawyer poet changes our sense of who we are as lawyers (that is, those of us who are associated with the legal profession), and how, when our legal colleagues turn out to be poets, we have an open invitation to read their poetry, and for many of us, that means a pursuit of a genre of literature we thought we had no need to pursue.Lawyer Poets

AM: I want to come back to Corrington in a minute.  He’s someone I’ve grown to admire, and I have you to thank for introducing me to his work.  First, though, I’d like to discuss your book, Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law.  You published several lawyer poets in it.  How did you decide which poets and poems to include? 

JE:  I discovered the work of all the lawyer poets whose poems appear in Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law during the decade that I tried to identify all the lawyer poets in the U.S., from the first days of the republic. It got to be something a bit more than a research project. I simply wanted to know every lawyer I could identify throughout our history that had taken up with the muse. Along the way, I began to collect a rather substantial list of contemporary lawyers who write and publish poetry. I started reading the poetry and then began to publish the best of what I found in the Legal Studies Forum, a journal I’ve edited for over 15 years now. I might note that most lawyer poets do not write poems about the law and the practice of law and I did not seek out law-related poems. We have a long history of legal verse and most of it is rather bad. What I found in the work of the lawyer poets I was publishing was an occasional poet and an occasional poem about the practice of law that sounded right to me. After publishing the work of lawyer poets for a decade, I found, looking back on what we had published, that the lawyer-related poems held up quite well. And, I found that they looked still more interesting when they were collected and laid out poem to poem. It dawned on me that I had published the best lawyer-related poems in the past 50 years, and that the poems deserved their own anthology.

AM:  One of the poets in the anthology is Michael Blumenthal.  Is he still teaching at West Virginia University College of Law?  I don’t think I ever heard the story about how you two connected.

JE:  When I first got started on the lawyer poets work, I was corresponding with Marlyn Robinson, a reference librarian at the Tarleton Law Library at the University of Texas School of Law. Marlyn compiled a short list of lawyer poets for me, and she mentioned that a poet named Michael Blumenthal, who was then living in or around Austin, had once been a lawyer.

Blumenthal was one of those lawyers, like Archibald MacLeish and John William Corrington, who become lawyers and then realize that what they really want to do is to follow their literary pursuits. I began reading Blumenthal’s poetry and it became clear that he was by no one’s estimation an amateur. In fact, his poetry was so good and his abandonment of the legal profession so apparent, that I didn’t try to connect him for fear that as a major poet he would have little interest in being identified as having any association with the legal profession. And to complicate matters, whenever I did give thought to contacting Blumenthal, I found that he was a poet who seemed to have no permanent home.

I continued to read Blumenthal’s poetry, and then moved on to a collection of his essays, a novel, and a memoir. There is, I think, something rather daunting, at least for me, in trying to contact a major writer. Then, one day, I was working with a Canadian writer on an introduction to a memoir of Roma Goodwin Blackburn, a Canadian lawyer, when she happened to mention Michael Blumenthal. I asked her how she knew him, and she said she had recently corresponded with him to obtain permission to quote one of his poems in a book she was writing with her husband. I told her that I had been wanting to contact Blumenthal but could never quite track him down (not adding that I hadn’t really tried all that hard). She told me he responded to her request promptly and seemed a pleasant enough fellow.

If I have the time right, that was probably in 2005. I sent off a note to Blumenthal and found not only that he was pleasant but seemed interested in the fact that I had found my way to his poetry by way of the fact that he had once been a lawyer. We continued our correspondence, and I decided to devote an issue of the Legal Studies Forum to Michael’s work.

In 2007, we published Correcting the World, an issue of over 440 pages of Michael’s poetry, essays, and fiction. Michael had not, in 2007, when we published the LSF issue devoted to his work, fully addressed, in any of his writings, his decision to leave the legal profession and take up his life as a literary man. I asked if he’d be willing to do that in an essay for the LSF issue, and to my surprise he agreed to do the essay. I talked the powers that be at the law school into inviting Michael to the law school to present his essay, “The Road Not Taken-Twice.”

At this point I still had not met Michael, although we had been working on the LSF collection of his writings for over a year. Michael’s presentation was quite engaging, and it dawned on me that we needed a stronger literary presence at the law school than I was able to provide; what we needed was a poet-in-residence. And now, the delicate part: Would Michael have any interest in thinking about a visiting appointment at the law school? I knew that he was moving from university to university as something of an itinerant professor holding endowed visiting positions, and I thought we might interest him in a stop at the law school. To my surprise, he seemed intrigued by the idea, and the next thing I knew, Michael Blumenthal was a visiting professor at the college of law. He has now been a colleague for several years, and I’m now even more convinced that every law school needs a lawyer poet in residence.

AM:  Do you ever try your hand at poetry?  I’ve found that, for me, it’s hard to read a lot of poetry without trying to write it myself. 

JE:  I will have to admit that I am not a poet. And yes, there are times, when I’m reading poetry, that I imagine that in some reincarnation I will end up, somewhere down the line, as a poet. I’ve written a few poems, and I’ve written just enough to know that poetry requires experience and skill that I do not have. I admire the poets I read enough to know that I need to leave poetry to those who are driven or led, in some way, to be poets. My friend and colleague, James Clarke, a rather prolific poet and retired judge in Canada, has encouraged me to write poetry but I take his suggestion to be a gesture of friendship that discounts the steep learning curve that I’d face as a poet.

AM: I can relate.  I once hoped to gain the experience and skill to become a poet, but I gave up at some point.  Do you ever feel lonely working on poetry and the law?  What I mean is, do you ever feel as if you’re going against the grain, doing something different and even unappreciated by some in the legal community?

JE:  My work with lawyer poets has, from the beginning, been an exhilarating endeavor. And I must say, I have not experienced the work in a lonely way. Initially, when I began to identify the hundreds and hundreds of lawyers who had turned to poetry throughout history, I had the sense that I had descended into a vast underground cavern populated by the most exciting unknown persons you could imagine. John William Corrington (who died well over a decade before I discovered his work) was only the first of these exotic—and yes, I think, initially it felt like I was dealing with some exotic creature, something like a hilltribe elder from a remote village in Burma. I felt like I had stumbled onto a new world and a new way to think about “law and literature.” Law and literature had become, in my discovery of the lawyer poets, an introduction to lawyers who practiced literature, just like they practiced law. One doesn’t feel lonely living amidst these wonderful ghosts!

Then I began corresponding with contemporary lawyer poets. I didn’t have all that much success in inducing them to talk about their lives as lawyer poets (with a few notable exceptions, Michael Blumenthal being one of them), but I did find that lawyers were interested in talking with me about their poetry. If I had not started publishing the poetry of lawyers in the Legal Studies Forum, things might have taken a turn toward the lonely. I began to spend considerable time reading poetry and trying to figure out how to think about what I was reading and how to talk to poets about their work. Keep in mind, I did not grow up reading poetry, and with the exception of Wendell Berry and Robert Bly, had really not read poetry. So, novice that I was, I was entering a new world and that produced its own excitement. As the years rolled along, I found that I had been befriended by poetry, and that poets were becoming my friends. I mentioned my friendship with Judge Clarke, and this is a friendship that arose from my efforts in publishing his poetry. A similar thing happened with Michael Blumenthal, who is, as you know, now a colleague. There are countless other friendships of just this kind—built around our regard for poetry—that working with lawyer poets has made possible.

Do I think of my work as going against the grain? In all honesty, I don’t. I see my work with lawyer poets as being another expression of the rich history of lawyers engaged in literary enterprises. My work is not against the grain, it is the grain.

Am I concerned that this work is unappreciated by the legal academic community? I can’t say that I am. In an essay, “Why Write?” that appeared in the Journal of Legal Education last year, I noted that “Law teachers dance to the beat of different drummers. We are driven by different visions of legal education as we adopt, adapt, and advocate a law school’s regime of training.” I’ve never let what my colleagues do (or think they are doing) confine my vision of what a lawyer’s education might be, or what it should be. If I had sought appreciation for any of my work as a teacher, I would have given up writing many years ago. In fact, if it were appreciation that drove me, I would never have undertaken my work with lawyer poets.

AM:  You’re right: it is the grain.  I agree completely.  And I’m glad you mentioned your essay “Why Write.”  I read it recently and was planning to ask you about it.  In fact, it was that essay—and in particular the line about “a note of sadness”—that brought about my previous question.  What I wanted to ask you about, from the essay, was your colleague’s assumption—I think you refer to him as “Randy”—that everyone in the legal academy is writing for the same reason.  Your point, I think, is that all writing has a rhetorical purpose: sometimes it’s to persuade; sometimes it’s to explain; sometimes it’s just a tedious exercise to gain tenure; and sometimes it’s to delight and explore.  Some of us can’t help writing.  I sometimes find myself at the kitchen table, and instead of enjoying my meal I’m panicking because this is time I could spend reading and writing.  I was wondering if you could say a little more about this colleague’s assumption and whether it’s systemic or shared by many others.

JE:  In my Journal of Legal Education essay “Why Write?” I was puzzled by a colleague’s notion that he had somehow failed as a scholar because legal colleagues didn’t pay what he thought was enough attention to his writing. My colleague assumed that if you write about a legal doctrine in an informed way the world—that is judges, legislators, law professors—would take note of the work. I found my colleague’s assumption that when we write the world should pay attention to us a bit puzzling. I had always assumed that for the most part what we publish in law reviews gets little or no attention. Most of us don’t write law review articles that are celebrated for changing the law or offering new perspectives on the law.

In my case, much of my writing has been about legal education. I never had any notion that in writing about legal education my colleagues were going to change the way they think about legal education and legal training and begin to rely upon me for guidance. Consequently, I had the sense that in my writing—and I’ve written far more than most of my colleagues—I wasn’t trying to change the world, so my writing did not depend on an appreciative audience. Why, then, should I bother to write? I remember talking with one of my law school professors about writing—who was both prolific and recognized—when I first went into teaching. I knew when I decided to teach that I’d have to write and publish law review articles. I knew, following the scholarship of the professors that I had in law school, that some of them were scholars (and writers) and some of them were not. I was curious, when I talked with Robert Sedler, who had been my teacher in conflicts and in constitutional law, what prompted him to be so prolific as a writer. Bob Sedler told me something I’ll never forget: “Jim,” he said, “the reason I write is that I’ve been puzzling over something and I’ve been reading what has been written about it, and I realize that what I really want to have said about the subject, said in a way that responds to my concerns, has simply not been written. I write to compose something that I would have found valuable and interesting if someone other than I had written it.”

I think Bob Sedler’s notion has left an indelible imprint on my thinking: I write to say something in a way that I think it should be said. Now, does this mean that all of my writing is exquisite, and the answer is clearly no. When I revisit my older work, I have no doubt that what I wrote could have been said better. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that I said it as best I could; I made a down payment in the writing in living up to Bob Sedler’s notion that you write because you want to say something in a different way than what you find that has already been written.

I don’t think I said, and I didn’t mean to imply in my essay, “Why Write?” that my legal colleagues all write for the same reason. Quite the opposite. I assume that my colleagues write for many different reasons. There are undoubtedly some colleagues who write only because the job requires it (and, unfortunately, after they get tenure, some colleagues manage to get away with writing little or nothing at all). Other colleagues write because they want to think of themselves as scholars. This idea of being a scholar never quite caught on with me. For the first decade or so after I started teaching, I wrote to address a particular problem or concern, often something in or about my teaching. Then, somewhere along the way—and I think this came as I began to teach literature and narrative jurisprudence courses—I began to think about writing as writing, or as you put it, writing as a rhetorical endeavor. I wasn’t writing in the rhetorical sense of trying to persuade anyone to adopt my ideas (and yes, there is always something of that whenever we write), but writing as an experience of writing and writing in furtherance of the idea that if I paid particular attention to how I write, I might actually be a writer. I confess that I am far more drawn to the idea of trying to be a writer than to the fantasy of being a scholar.

AM:  There is no doubt in my mind that you are a writer, and I’ve always enjoyed the way you locate readers in particular settings, no matter what the topic of your essay is.  There’s one essay you wrote that begins by talking about how you’re sitting at home waiting for the mail to arrive, and then you head out to the mailbox once the mail arrives.  It’s that sort of thing—very subtle—that I’ve always admired in your work. 

One of the reasons I went to West Virginia for law school was because I had read your essays when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with my life.  I was an English major, so it didn’t take me long on Google—or whatever interface or browser we were using in those days—to find your work.  I remember thinking, “law school can’t be all bad with people like this in it.”  I even remember emailing you before I went to law school, and you and I talked about a number of things. 

As for scholarship, there are those who write about others, and those who write so that others will write about them one day.  You fall into that latter camp, I think.  One day, people will be writing about your essays and thinking about your approach to pedagogy. 

We should probably be wrapping up soon, so just a couple more questions.  Since we’re on the topic of pedagogy, I’m wondering about your thoughts on the future of legal education.  It seems that every week now there’s a major article lamenting the decline of law schools or highlighting some law school “scam” or scandal.  Many people are predicting that several law schools will cease to exist in the not-too-distant future, and there can be no doubt that there is an overabundance of lawyers, that law school and law school textbooks are too expensive for most young people, and that the legal job market is very tough today.  How does all this impact the future of the legal academy?   

JE:  Allen, I remember quite well our correspondence before you took up the study of law. That kind of personal interaction with a prospective student is unusual. In other disciplines, students often seek out particular teachers and attend schools because of a desire to study with a particular teacher. Law is unusual in that sense. Students go off to law school with the idea of studying law and becoming lawyers; they don’t think all that much about who their teachers will be and the differing conceptions that their teachers have about law and the practice of law. I know that you came to law school with the idea of studying both law and literature, and I know just how rare that situation is. Most students with a literary interest expect to put their literary work on hold while they are in law school. If they made me King of legal education for a day, I think I’d mandate that every law student be exposed to the idea that the law too is a literary enterprise and can be viewed from a literary perspective, and that a literary perspective might be a prism through which we can see our lives as lawyers with better clarity.

I’m afraid I can’t offer anything new, startling, or subversive on the future of legal education. My focus in the past fifteen years has been on my own teaching, writing, and the make-over of the Legal Studies Forum as a literary journal. Some semesters I have almost no students sign up for my courses, and other semesters they arrive in plentiful numbers. I have never quite been able to figure out how that works. I am still intrigued by how my own teaching works (and what to do when I admit to myself it sometimes does not work). I am still writing about what I teach and how I try to teach it. The more I focus on teaching, the less I think about the future of legal education. I sometimes think we’ve lost our bearings in legal education, but we have been so hell-bent on doing that for some 60 plus years now I no longer see it as a problem that awaits us in the future.

AM: This has been a fascinating conversation, and I hope we get a chance to have another one like it.  It’s been so long since I’ve been back to West Virginia that I’d like to ask about the changes to the law school and how the weather and a few friends have been, but I’m mindful that we’re doing this interview not for my personal benefit, but for the benefit of readers, so I’ll hold off.  We can have those other conversations another time. 

I’ll finish by asking if you could say a bit about what Legal Studies Forum has published lately, and what it has in store for upcoming issues.  Since you mentioned your role in transforming Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, I’d also like to ask you about the history of the journal.  It strikes me that the journal itself probably hasn’t told its own story, and the journal is so interesting and has been around for so long that its story needs to be documented. 

JE:  Allen, I noted earlier in the interview that I had transformed the Legal Studies Forum into a literary journal, and I think that is also a fair description of where the journal is at today. We publish poetry and fiction by and about lawyers, and we have also published memoirs, autobiographical essays, and traditional literary essays (for example, a 2013 issue was devoted to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). This year we are publishing two collections of poetry (two issues of the journal, each issue devoted to a single poet), a novel, and an issue of miscellany that focuses on “Lawyers and Literature.”

You asked about the history of the Legal Studies Forum. I have been tempted for a good many years now to write what I know of the history of the journal, and having failed to do so, I have tried to encourage some of those who were involved in the founding of the journal to write the history and have been unsuccessful on that front as well. The history of the Legal Studies Forum is of interest to me because the journal has played a rather central part in my life as a writer and as a teacher. Maybe this interview will get me back in the notion to work on the history.

The Legal Studies Forum (LSF) got its start in the mid-1970s as a newsletter of a newly formed organization called the American Legal Studies Association (ALSA). ALSA has, unfortunately, been defunct for a good many years now, and the remaining remnant of that old organization is the journal.

LSF first appeared as an ALSA newsletter in 1976. In 1977, the newsletter became the ALSA Forum and was published under that title until 1984 when it was retitled the Legal Studies Forum, the title the journal still carries. I have given thought on several occasions to changing the title of the journal to reflect its present literary bearings, but I have a fondness for the old title and have never been able to bring myself to give the journal a new name.

The journal slowly evolved from an organizational newsletter into a “forum” that in its published form looked like it had been printed in someone’s basement. It most definitely had a homemade look and that sense of being marginal has followed the journal to this day (and I have done little to have it otherwise). So, the journal didn’t begin as a journal, it began with ALSA, an organization created by colleagues in the Department of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The UMass department of legal studies was created by Ron Pipkin, John Bonsignore (now deceased), and Peter d’Errico, who were trying to escape the business school where they were teaching business law.

The early 1970s was a time when the antinomian streams flowing in the academic disciplines—sociology, anthropology, and psychology—were subjecting the disciplines to challenging changes. We had begun to hear talk of breaking down the barriers between disciplines, and we were beginning, in the mid and late 1960s, to see the appearance of new interdisciplinary programs: women’s studies; African American studies; environmental studies. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin developed the idea for a stand-alone Department of Legal Studies that would make it possible for UMass students to major in law the way they would philosophy or sociology. Their approach to legal studies was interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. They wanted to establish a beachhead for legal studies that would stand apart from the kind of vocational training and empty philosophical posturing they associated with legal education. ALSA and the Legal Studies Forum represented legal studies as one of the liberal arts; the study of law was viewed as being a humanistic discipline. Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin, with uncanny foresight, viewed legal studies as an interdisciplinary crossroads with law being a central focus. What the founders of ALSA could not foresee is that legal scholarship (and to a far lesser extent, legal education) would undergo the same kind of sea-change with the arrival, in the late 1970s, of Critical Legal Studies, feminist jurisprudence, and law and literature (with variant strains of legal storytelling and narrative jurisprudence).

ALSA was founded as a home away from home for colleagues who were teaching law in the various social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology) and in the humanities (philosophy and history) who had some reason to identify their work with law as well as with the core discipline that defined their university existence. Some of these teachers were law-trained, and some were not. The folks at UMass begin to think that the legal studies program they were pioneering might be the basis for legal studies programs around the country. The late 1970s was also a time when paralegal programs were beginning to appear in undergraduate studies, and teachers in these programs were looking for an intellectual home base. Interestingly enough, in the early days of ALSA there was a concern that the legal studies movement—and yes, there was some notion that a “movement” was underway—might drift in the direction of paralegal programs, and you can be sure that Bonsignore, d’Errico, and Pipkin had no desire for that to happen. They didn’t discourage paralegal teachers from participation in ALSA, but the ALSA mantra for their own Department of Legal Studies—and for the journal—was always: interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic. That was enough to keep the paralegal folks at bay.

I should note that while the UMass-Amherst folks were always thinking about teaching law outside law schools, indeed, they argued that it was the very fact that law was so often taught only in law schools that underscored the need for a legal studies movement, they were always more than welcoming to the few law teachers that became involved in the organization. I was one of the early “outsiders” to cast my lot with ALSA, but not the first. Wythe Holt, the Marxist legal historian, and a law professor at the University of Alabama, is the only known legal colleague who attended both the first ALSA conference in 1977 and the first Critical Legal Studies conference held at the University of Wisconsin, also in 1977. Wythe published several articles in LSF, with one article appearing in the second volume of the journal when it was then the ALSA Forum. I attended the second ALSA conference in 1978 at Rutgers, and gave my first paper at an ALSA conference in Pittsburgh the following year. J. Allen Smith, at Rutgers law school, one of the old “law and literature” men, was also involved in the early conferences and published several articles in LSF in the early years. (We were doing law and literature articles in LSF before “law and literature” picked up momentum in the early 80s.) David Papke, who obtained a Ph.D. in American Studies (University of Michigan, 1984), now on the law faculty at Marquette University, attended the early ALSA conferences, and served as editor of LSF (1990-1996) before I took over as editor. Judith Koffler, another widely-respected law and literature scholar, appeared at most of the early ALSA conferences.

ALSA failed to survive but it did succeed in one sense: The ALSA conferences were lively affairs, with a degree of informality and a sense of collegial extended family, that made it possible for me, and colleagues like Judith Koffler and Wythe Holt to find like-minded colleagues. (I should note that both Koffler and Holt ended up as visiting professors at West Virginia and both would have remained on the faculty if it had not been for the short-sighted decision-making of my colleagues.) ALSA, and now LSF, have been most successful in helping to create a community for colleagues who think of the study of law as a liberal art.

Is there a “legal studies movement” in existence today? I don’t think so. Have the ideas and ideals associated with the “legal studies movement” found their way into legal education? I think they have. This immigration of ideas has taken different forms: the humanistic legal education movement (1977-1985), the law and literature movement (now commonly attributed to James Boyd White’s The Legal Imagination published in 1973, a movement that gained more attention in the late 70s, early 80s, and has now gained the status as a “school” of contemporary jurisprudence); Critical Legal Studies (CLS arrived in legal education at the same time ALSA was founded, and is now, so far as most of us can see, given up its corporeal existence).

I don’t see anything these days to suggest that anyone is talking about a “legal studies movement.” The one person that persists in writing about “legal studies” is Austin Sarat at Amherst College. In the last 20 years, Sarat, writing about the teaching of law as a liberal art in undergraduate schools, has been a one-man legal studies movement!

Did the “legal studies movement” spearheaded by ALSA change law school training? I think the literal answer is no. What happened in legal education, as I have alluded to here, is that legal scholarship (law reviews/law journals) now routinely publishes interdisciplinary work. In the past four decades (that happen to span the years that I have been teaching), there has been, shall we say, a “greening” of legal scholarship that encompasses the interdisciplinary, critical, and humanistic approaches that my UMass-Amherst colleagues and LSF tried to focus on. Unfortunately, the UMass model for legal studies did not find widespread adoption, and the liberal arts perspective in legal education, notwithstanding the greening of legal scholarship, is still a marginal enterprise.

AM:  Jim, thanks so much for this very interesting, very informative interview.  I’ve really enjoyed this.

JE:  Allen, I greatly appreciate your continued interest in my work and this rare opportunity to present in more detail what I have been trying to do as a teacher, writer, and editor. Thanks for all the effort you have put into making this interview possible.

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Transcendental Liberty

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, Ethics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Property, Rhetoric, Western Philosophy, Writing on January 15, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This essay originally appeared here in The Freeman.

“The less government we have, the better.” So declared Ralph Waldo Emerson, a  man not usually treated as a classical liberal. Yet this man—the Sage of  Concord—held views that cannot be described as anything but classical liberal or  libertarian.

None other than Cornel West, no friend of the free market, has said that  “Emerson is neither a liberal nor a conservative and certainly not a socialist  or even a civic republican. Rather he is a petit bourgeois libertarian, with at  times anarchist tendencies and limited yet genuine democratic sentiments.” An  abundance of evidence supports this view. Emerson was, after all, the man who  extolled the “infinitude of the private man.” One need only look at one of  Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self Reliance,” for evidence of his  libertarianism.

“Self-Reliance” is perhaps the most exhilarating expression of individualism  ever written, premised as it is on the idea that each of us possesses a degree  of genius that can be realized through confidence, intuition, and nonconformity.  “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your  private heart is true for all men,” Emerson proclaims, “that is genius.”

Genius, then, is a belief in the awesome power of the human mind and in its  ability to divine truths that, although comprehended differently by each  individual, are common to everyone. Not all genius, on this view, is necessarily  or universally right, since genius is, by definition, a belief only, not a  definite reality. Yet it is a belief that leads individuals to “trust thyself”  and thereby to realize their fullest potential and to energize their most  creative faculties. Such self-realization has a spiritual component insofar as  “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” and “no law can  be sacred to me but that of my nature.”

According to Emerson, genius precedes society and the State, which corrupt  rather than clarify reasoning and which thwart rather than generate  productivity. History shows that great minds have challenged the conventions and  authority of society and the State and that “great works of art have no more  affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous  impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of  voices is on the other side.” Accordingly, we ought to refuse to “capitulate to  badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” We ought, that is,  to be deliberate, nonconformist pursuers of truth rather than of mere  apprehensions of truth prescribed for us by others. “Whoso would be a man,”  Emerson says, “must be a noncomformist.”

Self-Interest and Conviction

For Emerson, as for Ayn Rand, rational agents act morally by pursuing their  self-interests, including self-interests in the well-being of family, friends,  and neighbors, who are known and tangible companions rather than abstract  political concepts. In Emerson’s words, “The only right is what is after my  constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” Or: “Few and mean as my gifts  may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of  my fellows any secondary testimony.”

It is not that self-assurance equates with rightness, or that stubbornness  is a virtue; it is that confidence in what one knows and believes is a condition  precedent to achieving one’s goals. Failures are inevitable, as are setbacks;  only by exerting one’s will may one overcome the failures and setbacks that are  needed to achieve success.

If, as Emerson suggests, a “man is to carry himself in the presence of all  opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he,” how should he  treat the poor?  Emerson supplies this answer:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my  obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell  thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent,  I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is  a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for  them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities;  the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain  end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief  Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar,  it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

These lines require qualification. Emerson is not damning philanthropy or  charity categorically or unconditionally; after all, he will, he says, go to  prison for certain individuals with whom he shares a special relationship. He  is, instead, pointing out, with much exhibition, that one does not act morally  simply by giving away money without conviction or to subsidize irresponsible,  unsustainable, or exploitative business activities. It is not moral to give away  a little money that you do not care to part with, or to fund an abstract cause  when you lack knowledge of, and have no stake in, its outcome. Only when you  give money to people or causes with which you are familiar, and with whom or  which you have something at stake, is your gift meaningful; and it is never  moral to give for show or merely to please society. To give morally, you must  mean to give morally—and have something to lose.

Dissent

Emerson famously remarks that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of  little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Much ink  has been spilled to explain (or explain away) these lines. I take them to mean,  in context, that although servile flattery and showy sycophancy may gain a  person recognition and popularity, they will not make that person moral or great  but, instead, weak and dependent. There is no goodness or greatness in a  consistency imposed from the outside and against one’s better judgment; many  ideas and practices have been consistently bad and made worse by their very  consistency. “With consistency,” therefore, as Emerson warns, “a great soul has  simply nothing to do.”

Ludwig von Mises seems to have adopted the animating, affirming  individualism of Emerson, and even, perhaps, Emerson’s dictum of nonconformity.  Troping Emerson, Mises remarks that “literature is not conformism, but dissent.”  “Those authors,” he adds, “who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants  to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter,  the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional  standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones.” This man  does not mindlessly stand for society and the State and their compulsive  institutions; he is “by necessity anti-authoritarian and anti-governmental,  irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is  precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy.”  He is, in short, an Emersonian, as Mises himself was.

The Marketplace of Ideas

To be truly Emersonian, you may not accept the endorsements and propositions  in this article as unconditional truth, but must, instead, read Emerson and  Mises and Rand for yourself to see whether their individualism is alike in its  affirmation of human agency resulting from inspirational nonconformity. If you  do so with an inquiring seriousness, while trusting the integrity of your own  impressions, you will, I suspect, arrive at the same conclusion I have  reached.

There is an understandable and powerful tendency among libertarians to  consider themselves part of a unit, a movement, a party, or a coalition, and of  course it is fine and necessary to celebrate the ways in which economic freedom  facilitates cooperation and harmony among groups or communities; nevertheless,  there is also a danger in shutting down debate and in eliminating competition  among different ideas, which is to say, a danger in groupthink or compromise, in  treating the market as an undifferentiated mass divorced from the innumerable  transactions of voluntarily acting agents. There is, too, the tendency to become  what Emerson called a “retained attorney” who is able to recite talking points  and to argue predictable “airs of opinion” without engaging the opposition in a  meaningful debate.

Emerson teaches not only to follow your convictions but to engage and  interact with others, lest your convictions be kept to yourself and deprived of  any utility. It is the free play of competing ideas that filters the good from  the bad; your ideas aren’t worth a lick until you’ve submitted them to the test  of the marketplace.

“It is easy in the world,” Emerson reminds us, “to live after the world’s  opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he  who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of  solitude.” Let us stand together by standing alone.

James Elkins and the Lawyer Poets

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Literary Theory & Criticism, News Release, Poetry, Writing on November 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law

James Elkins of West Virginia University College of Law has edited Lawyer Poets and That World We Call Law (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2013), an anthology of poems about the practice of law.  Professor Elkins has been the longtime editor of Legal Studies Forum.  Contributors to the anthology include Lee Wm. Atkinson, Richard Bank, Michael Blumenthal, Ace Boggess, David Bristol, Lee Warner Brooks, MC Bruce, Laura Chalar, James Clarke, Martin Espada, Rachel Contreni Flynn, Katya Giritsky, Howard Gofreed, Nancy A. Henry, Susan Holahan, Paul Homer, Lawrence Joseph, Kenneth King, John Charles Kleefeld, Richard Krech, Bruce Laxalt, David  Leightty, John Levy, Greg McBride, James McKenna, Betsy McKenzie, Joyce Meyers, Jesse Mountjoy, Tim Nolan, Simon Perchik, Carl Reisman, Charles Reynard,  Steven M. Richman, Lee Robinson, Kristen Roedell, Barbara B. Rollins, Lawrence Russ, Michael Sowder, Ann Tweedy, Charles Williams, Kathleen Winter, and Warren Wolfson.

James Elkins

James Elkins
Professor of Law and Benedum Distinguished Scholar, West Virginia University College of Law

Service in St. Paul’s

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on November 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

 

This poem originally appeared in The Echo.

Service in St. Paul’s

 

            —London, 2003

 

Acrophobia turned

upside down:

fear floating away,

gravity deciding

to suddenly

give up.

 

There’s a dome

overhead, a glowing

Jesus over the altar,

and too much space

to pray

comfortably.

 

Imagination

among the scaffolding,

eye to eye with Joseph,

now falling facing up:

heaven does

not seem so high.

Bloom, Poirier, Holmes: What’s the Link?

In American History, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, Western Philosophy on December 26, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence is of a piece with pragmatism as it is manifested in Richard Poirier’s account of poetic influence whereby a poet or writer struggles to overcome the powerful precedent of his or her forerunners.  Poirier goes to great lengths to demonstrate how Emerson’s “superfluity” has to do with Emerson’s anxiety about articulating the phenomenal world in ways that are new.  Like Emerson, Holmes distorts and recasts precedents.  Holmes uses the common law canon much as Emerson uses the literary canon, and vice versa.

Bloom and Poirier are Darwinians, as were most of the classical pragmatists, on the issue of revision and adaptation of forms to fit new social and cultural environments.  Bloom seems to suggest that there are perennial themes and tropes in the work of great poets over time, but that it is the new and creative ways in which these existing categories are expressed that make them great.  The anxiety is in finding new articulation for previously established content and methods.  The poet, then, is like the judge according Holmes: someone who must rely on precedent even as he carves out new spaces for critical inquiry.

Emerson is a milestone figure for Poirier because Emerson struggles with “linguistic skepticism.”  Emerson’s anxiety about expressing new ideas in old forms led him to embrace rhetorical superfluity as a means of compensating for the limitations of his own mind and historical moment.  Emerson was skeptical about the ability of the word or language to summon forth the meanings in his head or the sensations that he felt.  For Poirier, Emerson established what Joan Richardson calls an “aesthetic outpost” against which later writers like Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens wrote.  Emerson facilitated continuity with the past while generating his own tropes on which later American writers would themselves trope.  All of this revision and adaptation had to do with a distinctly American tradition of writing that attempted to break free of the confines of European traditions and express the attitudes and possibilities created by the New World.  Holmes himself turned away from European jurisprudence and embraced philosophical pragmatism, which led to such interpretive tendencies as judicial restraint, deference to state legislatures, rejection of abstractions, and analysis of actual experiences tested and tried in both the economic marketplace and the marketplace of ideas.

What links Bloom, Poirier, and Holmes is Emerson.

My Reading List for 2013

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Law, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Editorial Note (April 15, 2013):  At this point in the year, I have already discovered flaws in this list. For instance, I gave myself two weeks to read Augustine’s Confessions and one week to read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  I should have done the reverse.  Summa Theologica may have required more than two weeks to read, since I found myself rushing through it, and it is not a book through which one should rush.  My schedule has forced me to speed read some texts in order to avoid taking shortcuts.  Some of the texts on this list will therefore appear on my list for next year, so that they get the treatment and consideration they deserve.

2013 will be a good year for reading.  I’ve made a list of the books I’m going to undertake, and I hope you’ll consider reading along with me.  As you can see, I’ll be enjoying many canonical works of Western Civilization.  Some I’ve read before; some I haven’t.  My goal is to reacquaint myself with the great works I fell in love with years ago and to read some of the great works that I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everybody ought to read these works, but I do think that by reading them, a person will gain a fundamental understanding of the essential questions and problems that have faced humans for generations.

Some works are conspicuous in their absence; the list betrays my preferences.  Notably missing are the works of Shakespeare and the canonical texts that make up the Old and New Testament.  There’s a reason for that.  I’ve developed a morning habit of reading the scriptures as well as Shakespeare before I go to work.  If I’m reading these already, there’s no need to add them to the list, which is designed to establish a healthy routine.  What’s more, the list comes with tight deadlines, and I’m inclined to relish rather than rush through the Bible or Shakespeare.

Lists provide order and clarity; we make them to reduce options or enumerate measurable, targeted goals.  Lists rescue us from what has been called the “tyranny of choice.”  Benjamin Franklin made a list of the 13 virtues he wished to live by.  What motivated him is perhaps what’s motivating me: a sense of purpose and direction and edification.

At first I wanted to assign myself a book a week, but realizing that some works are longer or more challenging than others, that as a matter of obligation I will have other books to read and review, that I have a doctoral dissertation to write, that the legal profession is time consuming, and that unforeseen circumstances could arise, I decided that I might need more time than a week per book depending on the complexity of the particular selection or the busyness of the season.  Although I hope to stick to schedule, I own that I might have to permit myself flexibility.  We’ll see.

For variety—and respite—I have chosen to alternate between a pre-20th century text and a 20th century text.  In other words, one week I might read Milton, the next Heidegger.  For the pre-20th century texts, I will advance more or less chronologically; there is no method or sequence for the 20th century texts, which I listed as they came to mind (“oh, I’ve always wanted to read more Oakeshott—I should add him.  And isn’t my knowledge of Proust severely limited?—I’ll add him as well.”).  It’s too early to say what lasting and significant effects these latter texts will have, so I hesitate to number them among the demonstrably great pre-20th century texts, but a general consensus has, I think, established these 20th century texts as at least among the candidates for canonicity.

I have dated some of the texts in the list below.  Not all dates are known with certainty, by me or anyone else.  Some texts were revised multiple times after their initial publication; others were written in installments.  Therefore, I have noted the time span for those works produced over the course of many years.

One would be justified in wondering why I’ve selected these texts over others.  The answer, I suppose, pertains to something Harold Bloom once said: that there are many books but only one lifetime, so why not read the best and most enduring?  I paraphrase because I can’t remember precisely what he said or where he said it, but the point is clear enough: read the most important books before you run out of time.

Making this list, I learned that one can read only so many great works by picking them off one week at a time.  The initial disheartenment I felt at this realization quickly gave way to motivation: if I want to understand the human condition as the most talented and creative of our predecessors understood it, I will have to make a new list every year, and I will have to squeeze in time for additional texts whenever possible.  I am shocked at the number of books that I wanted to include in this list, but that didn’t make it in.  I ran out of weeks.  What a shame.

Here is my list.  I hope you enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

“The Glass Eye,” A Poem by Amy Susan Wilson

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Poetry, Writing on August 22, 2012 at 8:45 am

Amy Susan Wilson is a writer living in Shawnee, Oklahoma. She holds an M.F.A. from Columbia University and her work has appeared in the Southern Literary Review, Southern Women’s Review, Red River Review, and other journals.

The Glass Eye

Acting like you come

to pet my dog Bullet

No Sir Little Missy

you come to lookit

the quarter-sized hole

in my head

where my glass eye lives.

 

‘Jack in the Box Joe’

I call him.

Pops just like Jack

out of his tin box,

or dentures

From my mouth.

Hold out your hand

I’ll drop him to your palm

go on

he won’t bite.

 

Girl, slow your jabbering down.

Did Jack in the Box Joe

ever fall out my head

when he wasn’t supposed to?

 

Three springs back

Tornado Juanita

drove trucks, trailers

Big Lots!

ten counties over;

that wind a noodler’s arm

yanking Joe out my socket,

Joe a catfish

bunkered deep the nest

of my skull.

 

Campground Twelve,

Lake Shawnee,

Jack in the Box Joe plunked

Right smack that

memory foam posture pedic queen

lodged the top

an old oak.

 

Last June

International Youth Rodeo Finals,

lost my eyeball

Expo building.

 

Youth barrel racing

starting up–

old Joe roll behind a saddle stall,

a miracle that loudspeaker,

            Rodeo fans

            we got us one navy purse

            an eyeball turned in

            Anyone missing an eye

            Or lady’s purse

            Go left of Roy’s Funnel Cakes

            Right of Connie’s Chicken Gizzard Wagon;

            Again, anyone lost an eyeball

            Assert to Rodeo lost and found.

 

Jack in the Box Joe

plopped back in

that empty space

in my head

Joe all grateful,

sputters a little

            Thanks Man,

Joe going hippie

on me

sometimes.

 

Do I have to clean him

since he’s made of glass?

Windex, a paper towel

spit-shines Joe

clear as a prize blue marble

or show Corvette.

 

How did I get the nickname

“Eyeball-Satellite?”

Joe and me

we spot rain

good as a NASA satellite.

Rain, sleet twenty counties away,

the glass eye twitches.

 

If Jack in the Box Joe

knew stocks like he knows rain

I’d be rich  

as Wal-Mart clan,

Bentonville area.

 

Did you know Alice Walton

got herself a DUI

Christmas 2012?

Forth Worth ranch,

I-35.

Miss Alice

coulda splatted

like a water bug,

liquor a respecter

of no one.

 

Watch Little Miss Amy Susan;

My eye’s gonna twitch.

Rain our way come this hour.

Best to scoot on home

eat your Mama’s

corndog, okra supper.

 

Oh foo and poo

fiddle stickers to boot,

you think I could make this up?

Joe and me

got to feed Bullet his Purina

I mix with a little Swanson’s

scoot home girl–

beat the rain,

don’t forget

to count your blessings

for all you have.   

Unraveling

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Law, Literature, Writing on July 27, 2012 at 8:45 am

Rose Auslander is a partner at a Wall Street law firm and Poetry Editor of Folded Word Press. Co-editor of the Twitter anthology On A Narrow Windowsill, Rose has read her poems on NPR; her poem “For You Mothers” received a Pushcart nomination; “Oh My” received a Best of the Net nomination. She is a Regular Contributor to Referential Magazine, and her work appears in cur-ren-cy, Right Hand Pointing, Cyclamens and Swords, The Dead Mule, and Red Dirt Review. And she blogs!

The following excerpt, which first appeared here in The Mom Egg, is part of Rose’s upcoming memoir, A Pencil on the Ceiling, about surviving as a pregnant first-year law student nursing her way through her diploma

My infant, my daughter, my beautiful red-blond, blue-eyed child, lies in my arms, in my bed.  An unseasonably cold September afternoon, raining, chill, the chill that seeps into a person’s veins like formaldehyde.  My three-month-old daughter sleeps in my arms; my poor, embalmed arms feel nothing.

I wrap up in the afghan I crocheted for her, the yarn I worked into granny square by square, month after pregnant month, obsessively, mathematically, finding new permutations of pastel blue, pink, yellow and green to draw through into white, infinite borders of white.  I sit wrapped in yarn, unraveling.

How did I ever think I could start with yarn and crochet a garden of colors for a baby?

If only I could sleep, sleep . . .

No, study first. 

Law school.  How did I ever think I could get through law school with a baby at home?

A pile of case books rests on the pillow next to my infant daughter, next to markers of neon blue, pink, yellow and green, and pencils for thoughts, all for my numb hands to try to draw through into white, infinite pages of white.

Come on, just study. 

Or at least color:  Blue for facts (what happened in the world to cause the dispute), pink for procedural history (what happened with the case in the courts), yellow for the holding (what the court decided), green for what I can’t understand.

I drift off into National Business Lists, Inc. v. Dun & Bradstreet, Inc., 552 F. Supp. 89 (N.D. Ill. 1982), sleepily coloring in facts like:  “The customer does not itself receive much of the information contained in the computer data base.”  Feeling much like that customer, it takes me forever to get to the holding, and by that time, I’ve forgotten what the case was about.  I’m stranded somewhere in endless fields of green.

Hoping somehow to get through the hundreds of assigned pages, I try to read cases while holding baby Freddie, nursing her, even changing her.  But I swear, each time she nurses herself to sleep, she sucks more of my brain cells out with the milk.  And the milk/ammonia scent?  A knockout drug for those of us who’ve been staying up until 2 a.m. each night reading cases, and getting up again at 5 a.m. to nurse a baby-who-will-not-sleep.

Why won’t she let me sleep?

By 3 a.m., I put down the books, and close my eyes.  There are still endless unread pages of unintelligible heretofores, theretofores, therefors, and wherefores in every subject.  If I can’t get my brain back from wherever it has gone, I’ll never get to  my environmental law reading, where I’m already dangerously behind.

How did I ever think marking up cases in colors would somehow turn me into a lawyer?

Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett, Part Two

In Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Humanities, Photography on June 7, 2012 at 8:00 am

Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning  photographer and artist who has won first places with National  Geographic,The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland trust and Postal Heritage. Her photography has  been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines  in the United states and Canada. Her art is globally exhibited, having been shown in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and The  Environmental Photographer of the year Exhibition (2011) among many other locations. She was also the only person from the UK  to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus See The Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.

 

 

 

 

Emersonian Individualism

In America, American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Epistemology, Essays, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Santayana, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on April 4, 2012 at 6:48 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay originally appeared here at Mises Daily.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is politically elusive. He’s so elusive that thinkers from various schools and with various agendas have appropriated his ideas to validate some activity or another. Harold Bloom once wrote, “In the United States, we continue to have Emersonians of the Left (the post-Pragmatist Richard Rorty) and of the Right (a swarm of libertarian Republicans, who exalt President Bush the Second).”[1] We’ll have to excuse Bloom’s ignorance of political movements and signifiers — libertarians who exalt President Bush, really? — and focus instead on Bloom’s point that Emerson’s influence is evident in a wide array of contemporary thinkers and causes.

Bloom is right that what “matters most about Emerson is that he is the theologian of the American religion of Self-Reliance.”[2] Indeed, the essay “Self-Reliance” remains the most cited of Emerson’s works, and American politicians and intellectuals selectively recycle ideas of self-reliance in the service of often disparate goals.

Emerson doesn’t use the term “individualism” in “Self-Reliance,” which was published in 1841, when the term “individualism” was just beginning to gain traction. Tocqueville unintentionally popularized the signifier “individualism” with the publication of Democracy in America. He used a French term that had no counterpart in English. Translators of Tocqueville labored over this French term because its signification wasn’t part of the English lexicon. Emerson’s first mention of “individualism” was not until 1843.

It is clear, though, that Emerson’s notion of self-reliance was tied to what later would be called “individualism.” Emerson’s individualism was so radical that it bordered on self-deification. Only through personal will could one realize the majesty of God. Nature for Emerson was like the handwriting of God, and individuals with a poetical sense — those who had the desire and capability to “read” nature — could understand nature’s universal, divine teachings.

Lakes, streams, meadows, forests — these and other phenomena were, according to Emerson, sources of mental and spiritual pleasure or unity. They were what allowed one to become “part and parcel with God,” if only one had or could become a “transparent eyeball.” “Nothing at last is sacred,” Emerson said, “but the integrity of your own mind.” That’s because a person’s intellect translates shapes and forms into spiritual insights.

We cannot judge Emerson exclusively on the basis of his actions. Emerson didn’t always seem self-reliant or individualistic. His politics, to the extent that they are knowable, could not be called libertarian. We’re better off judging Emerson on the basis of his words, which could be called libertarian, even if they endow individualism with a religiosity that would make some people uncomfortable.

Emerson suggests in “Self-Reliance” that the spontaneous expression of thought or feeling is more in keeping with personal will, and hence with the natural world as constituted by human faculties, than that which is passively assumed or accepted as right or good, or that which conforms to social norms. Emerson’s individualism or self-reliance exalted human intuition, which precedes reflection, and it privileged the will over the intellect. Feeling and sensation are antecedent to reason, and Emerson believed that they registered moral truths more important than anything cognition could summon forth.

Emerson’s transcendentalism was, as George Santayana pointed out in 1911, a method conducive to the 19-century American mindset.[3] As a relatively new nation seeking to define itself, America was split between two mentalities, or two sources of what Santayana called the “genteel tradition”: Calvinism and transcendentalism.

The American philosophical tradition somehow managed to reconcile these seeming dualities. On the one hand, Calvinism taught that the self was bad, that man was depraved by nature and saved only by the grace of God. On the other hand, transcendentalism taught that the self was good, that man was equipped with creative faculties that could divine the presence of God in the world. The Calvinist distrusted impulses and urges as sprung from an inner evil. The transcendentalist trusted impulses and urges as moral intuition preceding society’s baseless judgments and prevailing conventions.

What these two philosophies had in common was an abiding awareness of sensation and perception: a belief that the human mind registers external data in meaningful and potentially spiritual ways. The Calvinist notion of limited disclosure — that God reveals his glory through the natural world — played into the transcendentalists’ conviction that the natural world supplied instruments for piecing together divinity.

The problem for Santayana is that transcendentalism was just a method, a way of tapping into one’s poetical sense. What one did after that was unclear. Santayana thought that transcendentalism was the right method, but he felt that Emerson didn’t use that method to instruct us in practical living. Transcendentalism was a means to an end, but not an end itself.

According to Santayana, Emerson “had no system” because he merely “opened his eyes on the world every morning with a fresh sincerity, marking how things seemed to him then, or what they suggested to his spontaneous fancy.”[4] Emerson did not seek to group all senses and impressions into a synthetic whole. Nor did he suggest a politics toward which senses and impressions ought to lead. Santayana stops short of accusing Emerson of advancing an “anything-goes” metaphysics. But Santayana does suggest that Emerson failed to advance a set of principles; instead, Emerson gave us a technique for arriving at a set of principles. Emerson provided transportation, but gave no direction. This shortcoming — if it is a shortcoming — might explain why Bloom speaks of the “paradox of Emerson’s influence,” namely, that “Peace Marchers and Bushians alike are Emerson’s heirs in his dialectics of power.”[5]

For Emerson, human will is paramount. It moves the intellect to create. It is immediate, not mediate. In other words, it is the sense or subjectivity that is not yet processed by the human mind. We ought to trust the integrity of will and intuition and avoid the dictates and decorum of society.

“Society,” Emerson says, “everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Society corrupts the purity of the will by forcing individuals to second-guess their impulses and to look to others for moral guidance. Against this socialization, Emerson declares, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

Emerson’s nonconformist ethic opposed habits of thinking, which society influenced but did not determine. Emerson famously stated that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. What he meant, I think, is that humans ought to improve themselves by tapping into intuitive truths. Nature, with her figures, forms, and outlines, provides images that the individual can harness to create beauty and energize the self. Beauty therefore does not exist in the world; rather, the human mind makes beauty out of the externalities it has internalized. Beauty, accordingly, resides within us, but only after we create it.

Here we see something similar to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism stripped of its appeals to divinity. Rand believed that reality existed apart from the thinking subject, that the thinking subject employs reason and logic to make sense of experience and perception, and that the self or will is instrumental in generating meaning from the phenomenal world. Read the rest of this entry »

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