The American Scholar: The Preface

William Goodman '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a speech to Phi Beta Kappas in Cambridge entitled, "The American Scholar." The speech covered the influences and duties of the American Scholar, and in true sage writing fashion, Emerson turned academia on its head, attacking the idle, bookwormish culture of the university. Instead of studying and copying the classics, Emerson encourages scholars to start anew and plow their own paths, searching themselves for knowledge and creativity. Introducing the examination of the American Scholar, Emerson said, "Year by year, we come up hither to read one more chapter of his biography. Let us inquire what light new days and events have thrown on his character, and his hopes." Now that 168 chapters have passed in the biography of the American Scholar since EmersonÕs speech, I sought to conduct an updated inquiry into the university studentÕs life.

As I began to write this piece, I started with abstractions, writing the sort of detached, universal philosophy that characterizes Emerson, Thoreau, and other sage writers. However, I found that it would be more effective to bring out my ideas about the 2005 American Scholar through my experiences as the 2005 American Scholar.

Here, I looked directly into the work of Chatwin, Didion, Dillard, and Suleri. All four use snapshots of their experiences to create a narrative, turning specific details into pieces of a larger puzzle with larger significance. I think Didion influenced me the most, and this influence would be fairly obvious to those familiar with her work. In "The White Album," Didion discusses her "cutting-room experience" in the late 1960s, when events seemed to occur without rhyme or reason, tearing apart her sense of cohesion. This idea resonates with me because on the eve of graduation, when IÕm supposed to be looking back and seeing how far IÕve come, I see only snippets of experience. In "The White Album," Didion creates a cutting-room experience in the reading of her text by presenting images as seemingly unrelated flashes. You get a series of independent incidents, and the fragmented structure is crucial to understanding the way Didion felt about this period in her life. My piece takes aspects of this strategy, as I tried to mirror my content and my snippets of experience with my narrative structure.

I also found inspiration in the work of Wolfe, especially his essay, "The Pump House Gang." Wolfe narrates a story as both a character and a detached critic. At times he plays a ventriloquist, writing through the voices of his California surfer subjects, and at other times he plays an anthropologist, writing social commentary about the surfers. His style, especially in his surfer mode, is extremely informal, and he ably mirrors the nuances and humor of spoken conversation. In my piece, I tried to similarly write in different tones, one for the narration of experience, the storytelling, and one for the commentary on experience. Like Wolfe, I included colloquialisms, attempting to draw the reader into my character and my context. I also tried to step back and highlight some of the humor in the situations I describe. Like Wolfe in "The Pump House Gang," I saw a good deal of absurdity in the story I present, and I wanted to give a sense of that detached commentary. This is also similar to the type of humor Suleri uses in Meatless Days, where she pokes fun at her cultural traditions and her way of thinking.

In terms of style, I tried to take on the syntactical devices of Johnson. Although my conversational style in this piece does not fit with the complex, highly wrought sentences Johnson employs, I wanted to use his distinctly rhythmic quality, which is heightened by of paired and tripled phrases, as well as anaphora. I also used parentheses and other asides to break my narrative, much like Suleri, in a type of postmodern recognition of how the text affects the reader. Additionally, I drew on DillardÕs technique of using quotations to support her points in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I think quoting other sources, from classic to pop culture, helped put my writing in context and give it firm ground to stand on.

In the end, I hope my essay leaves the reader at a point that reflects where I am in my life. From four years of college, I have pieces of experience, feelings, and beliefs, but IÕm finding it hard to bundle them together and celebrate their progress. So often we are expected to see the meaning in our experiences, and so often that meaning is hazy. Whether we find that meaning or not, life goes on and experience never ends. I tried to capture this point in my piece.


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Last modified 12 May 2005