Emerson: Sage, Satirist, or Wisdom Speaker?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a friend to both Carlyle and Thoreau, represents another interesting test case for this theory of genre since an examination of his works suggests some questions of central importance. First, in what ways does this major writer of nonfiction relate to the nineteenth-century sage and his modem heirs? Does my proposed definition of a genre accurately describe his works, or does he write a somewhat different kind of prose or even an essentially different one? Second, if Emerson's writings do not match some of the defining characteristics of the sage's genre, how does this result affect the value of such generic description? Furthermore, does this generic description prove useful when reading other, possibly related, genres?

Many of the sage's concerns and techniques certainly appear in Emerson's writing. He employs a discontinuous literary structure, argument by image and analogy, acts of definition, and visionary promises, and he also uses many techniques to transfer the audience's allegiance to him. Nonetheless, Emerson does not strike one as a sage but as a writer in the ancient wisdom tradition. Two factors or qualities distinguish him from Carlyle, Thoreau, and others who created the genre of the sage. In the first place, the more genial Emerson almost never attacks his audience directly. He avoids directly confronting readers with their faults and flaws, although not because he lacks the satirist's gifts. When I first began to look for identifying characteristics of a possible genre, I thought of those writers who contributed to it under the rubric of "sages and satirists"; that is, I thought of them as those who combined some of the characteristics of traditional wisdom literature with those of satire. One of my colleagues, a well-known authority on the American literary renaissance, asserted that Emerson did not fit my requirements for a practitioner of this putative genre, largely because he never wrote satire. In fact, as I discovered, Emerson frequently employs satire, both its gentle philosophical form and a more traditional pointed one. Emerson certainly matches the savagery of Thoreau and Ruskin when he satirizes the state of English religion:

The religion of England is part of good-breeding. When you see on the continent the well-dressed Englishman come into his ambassador's chapel, and put his face for silent prayer into his smooth brushed hat, one cannot help feeling how much national pride prays with him, and the religion of a gentleman. So far is he from attaching any meaning to the words, that he believes himself to have done almost the generous thing, and that it is very condescending in him to pray to God.... Their religion is a quotation; their church is a doll; and any examination is interdicted with screams of terror. In good company you expect them to laugh at the fanaticism of the vulgar; but they do not they are the vulgar.... The Anglican church is marked by the grace and good sense of its forms, by the manly grace of its clergy. The gospel it preaches, is, "By taste are ye saved." ... It is not in ordinary a persecuting church; it is not inquisitorial, not even inquisitive, is perfectly well-bred, and can shut its eyes on all proper occasions. ("Religion," English Traits, 88~88)

The closing sentences of this passage have much in common with attacks upon religious hypocrisy made by Ruskin and Thoreau, but a difference immediately strikes one: Emerson attacks the English, who are foreigners, outsiders, whereas Thoreau and Ruskin attack their fellow citizens.

The second chief difference that divides Emerson from his friend Carlyle and other sages lies in the fact that, unlike them, he avoids the particular and almost never interprets specific contemporary phenomena. One distinguishing feature of the sage is his ability to unpack meaning after meaning from apparently trivial facts and events, and his characteristic manner of proceeding endows such minutiae with value. Both this manner of proceeding and the attitudes toward reality that make it possible derive largely from the Puritan (or Evangelical) tradition. Specifically, they derive from typological interpretations of the Scriptures which emphasize that both Old Testament history and its fulfillment, both Moses and Christ, have real historical existence.

The first- and second-generation sages all developed within the context of such biblical interpretation, and although none of them ended their careers with anything like orthodox Christian belief, they all retained habits of mind derived from early-nineteenth-century Protestantism. Emerson, in contrast, developed within a New England Unitarianism that denied the importance of both scriptural history and the literal truth of the Bible. Lawrence Buell's fine study of the influence of Unitarian thought upon the American Transcendentalists points to the importance of its "figurative approach to truth. The free and creative use the Unitarians made of scripture and doctrine was a significant legacy to Transcendentalist style as well as thought. Their approach to the Bible was a near anticipation of the Emersonian habit of interpreting its supernatural elements metaphorically."

Unitarian rhetoric anticipates qualities of Transcendentalist prose that distinguish it from that of the sage, such as "the figurative approach to doctrine and (occasionally) language," which, argues Buell, betrays an "impulse to go beyond truth unadorned to celebrate the beauty of truth, an impulse which tends to accelerate as the subject gets more secular, the theological content gets more tenuous, and the writer concentrates more on the appearances or manifestations of his principle than the articulation of the principle itself" (134). The Unitarian tradition, however, does not diverge entirely from the more orthodox Protestant one upon which the sages draw, and the two traditions share many of the same attitudes toward oratory and style. Characteristics that Unitarian rhetoric, Transcendentalist prose, and Emerson's own writings do share with the work of Carlyle and other writers in this genre thus include what Buell describes as typical Unitarian "multiplicity of demonstration, often verging on catalogue rhetoric" and an "intermittent use of rhapsodic as opposed to logical ordering" (134). Defining such literary techniques and both the literary and nonliterary traditions from which they derive helps us read individual works more richly and perceptively, and such an approach also suggests the complex interrelations between individual works, the genres in which they participate, and the traditions that they compose.

The fact that the theory of the sage does not embrace Emerson's writings implies little about its applicability and usefulness since it does not claim to describe all nineteenth- and twentieth-century nonfiction but only a single major strain or form. In fact, as long as it accurately describes a fair number of major works, and I believe it does, the theory proves useful because it can show us how to read and react to them. For this reason, defining the genre created by the Victorian and modern sage has value for understanding other forms of nonfiction as well. Because an approach by means of genre focuses attention upon particular literary techniques, it also helps us better appreciate those devices when they appear in other forms and at the same time it leads us to look more carefully at the way other forms employ alternative, — or even diametrically opposed, techniques.

Twentieth-Century Sage-writing and Other Forms of Nonfiction

The issues that arise when one compares Emerson to Carlyle lead directly to similar problems involving the twentieth-century sages, many of whom do not match every single part of my genre description. We have already seen that the prehistory or antecedents of the sage include the sermon tradition, Old Testament prophecy, and the interpretative tradition associated with both Testaments, and the genre also draws upon satire, both classical and neoclassical, and British and German romantic poetry as well. The formal type tentatively emerges first in Thomas Carlyle's "Signs of the Times (1829) and then appears fully formed in Chartism (1839), Past and Present (1843), and Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). Writings of the sage that obviously imitate Carlyle's works in this genre include many of the major landmarks of Victorian nonfiction, such as Ruskin's five volumes of Modern Painters (1843-60), The Stones of Venice (1851-53), Unto This Last (1860), and his later political writings; Henry David Thoreau's "Life Without Principle" (1854), "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854), "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1859) and his other antislavery papers; and Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1869) and Friendship's Garland (1871). Twentieth-century works that exemplify this developed phase of sage-writing include D. H. Lawrence's Twilight in Italy (1916), Sea and Sardinia (1921), Etruscan Places ( 1932), and The Fantasia of the Unconscious (1923); Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night (1968), Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), and Of a Fire on the Moon (1971); and Joan Didion's Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979).

Twentieth-century practitioners of this mode produce works that differ in some significant ways from those of their predecessors despite major continuities of theme and technique. They still concentrate upon the same basic subjects, which include concerns to define the human, to restore the powers of language, to warn against the danger to man of technology (or mechanism), to examine the possibility of achieving heroism or the human ideal in a modern age, and above all, to read the Signs of the Times to save the audience from potential disaster. Furthermore, the same emphasis upon interpretation, definition, and prophetic warning appears in twentieth-century instances of the genre. Two obvious differences, however, distinguish Victorian from modern writings of the sage. First, because Carlyle, Thoreau, Ruskin, and Arnold shared with their audience a thorough knowledge of the Bible and the interpretative traditions by which it was most commonly understood, they could salt their works with complex, often witty, allusions to them. Such scriptural allusion, which conveniently authenticated the sage's claims to high seriousness, also created a sense of community between the sage and his audience, even when he no longer held to any orthodox Christian belief. In fact, the use of such methods not only borrowed some of the preacher's prestige and authority but also tended to reassure the sage's audience by disguising how unorthodox some of his ideas might be. Now that writers and a major part of their audience barely know the Bible at all, these techniques of sophisticated allusion have fallen by the way.

Second, modern practitioners of the form tend to place much more emphasis upon creating credibility by informing the reader about their weaknesses and shortcomings. Although Victorian sages frequently open lectures, essays, or books with a pose of humility. they quickly assert their superiority over the audience. Modern sages, in contrast, may inform their readers more specifically about personal weakness and also enter into intimate details of health and behavior. Part of this different approach and tone arises from the way Victorian and modern attitudes toward knowledge diverge. Although the Victorian sages admit that they live in an age of transition and shaken belief, they nonetheless claim to have a clear view of the issues, and this confidence assists their enterprise, which involves first winning a hearing from their audience and then gaining its credence. Although both Victorian and modern authors who write in this mode face audiences equally skeptical about their controversial interpretations, the modem audience is far more skeptical about the possibility of attaining any true knowledge at all, and therefore initial assertions of confidence will alienate it. Modern sages therefore necessarily present themselves as groping toward the truth.

Thus far we have considered only writings of the sage that exhibit a full repertoire of characteristic literary devices, but a considerable amount of interesting twentieth-century nonfiction turns out to use many, though not all, of the same devices. Therefore, after setting forth the range of devices that characterize the writings of the sage, I shall briefly discuss contemporary work that employs some of them. The writings of Germaine Greer, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Hunter Thompson, and many of the New Journalists exemplify work that benefits from discussion within the context provided by my notion of this genre. Such an approach, I must emphasize, is intended to permit us to read these and other works of nonfiction more perceptively and more enjoyably and not to create a means of separating the sage's wheat from the chaff of other associated forms.

Some Remarks on Methodology

Since the preceding discussion of sage-writing might seem to employ a potentially puzzling mixture of historical and ahistorical approaches, let us observe in what ways it follows historical method and in what ways, or on what occasions, it does not. To begin with, what does one mean by historical approaches to the study of literary genre? To this query I respond that there are at least five ways of locating the individual genre in history, the first and most basic of which takes the form of making a descriptive definition. Since the conception of sage-writing I have advanced concerns already existing works rather than an ideal exemplar — what Carlyle and Thoreau wrote rather than a prescriptive formula for the genre — it is historical, indeed inevitably and essentially so. The second historical approach to genre that I have employed investigates its sources and origin, a project the previous pages have carried out by pointing to the derivation of the sage's techniques from sermons, satire, and Scripture. A third approach, which this study does not much employ, examines the specific situation that occasioned an individual work, and a fourth investigates the more general reason such works appear in a particular society and at a particular time. The fifth historical approach, which this work does not follow, studies a genre's transmission from work to work and author to author, concentrating on the influence of one author upon another.

Elegant Jeremiahs relies primarily upon the first two of these approaches, the first because it is fundamental to all others and the second because it offers a clear, convenient means of carrying out the first. Strictly speaking, however, genre definition does not require explanations as to how genres arise or how they are transmitted between individual works and writers. The assertion that one can apply generic description to works written in different times and places at first glance might appear ahistorical, but it is not and only appears to be so because this notion of sage writing is itself somewhat novel. Writers on lyric poetry and the novel rarely feel obliged to trace the exact heritage of specific techniques or themes, just because they assume the existence of genre and the fact of generic transmission. This book purposely does not examine the influence of Victorians upon each other and of Victorians upon moderns. It makes little attempt, for example, to prove that Carlyle influenced Thoreau or that Didion and Mailer consciously drew upon their nineteenth-century predecessors, and it does not do so for several reasons. A full study of influences and confluences, such as David DeLaura's Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England, is more than double the size of this work. But length is not the only or chief argument against trying in this book to map influences and interrelations: Doing so distracts from the main issue and can disguise weaknesses in theory. If my conception of sage-writing provides a useful way into the writings under consideration, some of which are not usually considered together, then it works, whereas if it does not, then assertions of influence and source studies become meaningless as a means of proof.

In fact, if this description of the genre created by the sage offers a useful approach to both nineteenth- and twentieth-century writings — to, say, certain works of Carlyle and Mailer — then it has produced important results whether or not one can demonstrate specific lines of influence and inspiration. I would claim that a situation in which one could not find any evidence of such influence of Victorian upon modem authors would prove particularly interesting for an examination of this genre, since it would suggest that specific social, political, and literary situations generate specific kinds of writing — that similar contexts prompt the weaving of similar texts. Although I do not believe that such a situation obtains here, the origins of both ancient Greek and medieval European drama in religious ritual show that such a possibility is not as outlandish as it might at first seem.

Before continuing this examination of the sage's writings, I want to make clear another aspect of the approach adopted in the following pages. To describe the genre of the sage, I have chosen to concentrate upon examining those techniques that, when taken together, constitute this literary form. I have therefore not organized the individual chapters in this book around themes, authors, or individual works. Instead, each of the following chapters examines a single technique or group of closely related techniques and provides examples of them. Each chapter begins with instances drawn from the writings of the Victorian sages — and I include the American Thoreau under this rubric — and then offers additional ones taken from twentieth-century authors, particularly when these more recent authors modify or give their own coloring to the sage's techniques. With the exception of the first chapter, which concerns itself largely with the prophetic pattern that only the Victorian sages employ explicitly. each devotes approximately equal space to nineteenth- and twentieth-century examples.

Although such an attempt to define the genre created by the writings of the sages ultimately aids in interpreting individual works (since genre rules and genre recognition determine our rules of interpretation), the following pages do not concern themselves largely with interpreting entire works or even long passages from them. The passages cited serve chiefly as a means of setting forth a useful taxonomy of the techniques that define and limit this literary form. My approach will be to examine passages that exemplify one or more techniques of the sage in order to define those techniques, chart their contributions to the genre, and indicate their intended effects upon the audience. In making such descriptive analyses and analytical descriptions, one quickly encounters instances of what I take to be a central axiom "of literary form, one that applies with equal force to the individual work and to its interpretation — all facts in a work, all facets of a work, are multidetermined, and therefore no one explanation of any literary phenomenon suffices. In terms of this attempt to make an accurate description of the congeries of techniques that make up the genre of the sage, this axiom of multideterminateness suggests what indeed turns out to be the case; namely, that individual techniques simultaneously participate in various regions of our taxonomy: Individual techniques, such as the use of bravado interpretation or grotesque set pieces, frequently also function as a means of satire, defining language, or both. Few individual passages provide examples of only one technique or of a technique used singly.

At the same time that the following chapters thus set out to describe the individual techniques that together comprise the writings of the sage, they also point to the roots of such techniques, and hence of the genre, in other often extraliterary genres (or ones that readers today tend to consider extraliterary, such as sermons, biblical commentaries, and the Bible itself). Although individual techniques rarely remain completely unmodified when they appear in the writings of the sage, the roots often appear quite easy to perceive, and this fact suggests two important points. First, it is the combination of these literary and rhetorical strategies that constitute this genre rather than any particular one of them; and second, each of these techniques has roots in another genre or genres. In other words, each technique provides a necessary and sufficient — but by no means unique — "cause" of this genre. For example, ethos, the appeal to credibility, provides what I take to be the one essential technique, one that is the result or effect of all the other techniques of the sage working in combination, but it is by no means unique to the writings of Carlyle and the other creators of this form, as indeed its very name, taken from the old manuals of rhetoric, indicates. Nonetheless, as we shall observe, ethos in the writings of the sage differs from that in other literary forms, if only because it becomes the major effect and not merely a subsidiary or contributing one.

As the reader will gather from the preceding descriptions of method, I do not intend this study of the sage to be encyclopedic, and I have omitted from discussion many obvious examples of Victorian and modern sage-writings. Similarly, although it is possible that works of writers outside the Anglo-American tradition, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, and E. M. Cioran, have much in common with this genre, I have chosen to concentrate upon its English and American inventors and some major instances of twentieth-century practitioners of the form. By surveying the techniques that characterize this genre, I hope to clarify the implicit rules for reading it. If we can ascertain the proper way to read the writings of the sages — the way, that is, the works themselves indicate we shall also attain to a better understanding of individual instances of the genre, its relation to other literary forms, and the history and development of nonfictional prose.


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Last modified 14 July 2008