Mark Twain’s _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ (1884) (draft)

Plot Synopsis: Youngster Huck Finn runs away from his abusive, alcoholic father, with Jim, a runaway slave. They make their voyage on a raft down the Mississippi River. However, their escape is frequently interrupted as Huck and Jim meet a variety of characters, some honest and most not. As a result of their adventure together, Huck overcomes many of his racial biases about Jim. Huck begins to notice that the unthinking acceptance of the institution of slavery is just another example of ways humans are cruel to one another.

Form: Notable for Huck’s vernacular narration–broadly comic and subtly ironic–the book’s style mimics that of local color / regionalism, which was popular in the period. Genre: Picaresque (rogue) follows the adventures of a lower-class protagonist who exposes a social critique / hypocrisies of the society around him, from 16C Spain and Cervante’s Don Quixote, which Tom references in HF and emulates in its episodic structure.

Author info: Mark Twain (b. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910); known as “the greatest humorist the US has produced” and author of “the great American novel” aka Huck Finn

  • Youth and early years: raised in Hannibal, MS, setting of TS and HF; apprenticed to a printer and worked as a typesetter; contributed to his brother Orion’s newspaper; later worked as a riverboat pilot; headed west to Nevada with Orion in 1861.
  • 1865: published “The Celebrated Jumping Front of Calaveras County,” a tall tale based on a story he heard at the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp, CA, where Clemens worked as a miner. This story brought him international acclaim.
  • 1870: Married Olivia Langdon in Elmira, NY, who came from a wealthy, liberal family. Clemens met Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, William Dean Howells.
  • 1873: moved the family to Hartford, CT, where Clemens would write many of his classic novels, including TS (1876), HF (1884)A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court (1889), among others.
  • 1896: period of deep depression over the passing of his daughter Susie from meningitis.
  • 1904: Wife Olivia dies.
  • 1910: Clemens died of a heart attack in Redding, CT.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s _Doctor Zay_ (1882) (draft)

Synopsis: Waldo Yorke, a Boston attorney, is injured on his horse while riding in rural Maine. He is rescued and transported to town by a stranger, who later turns out to be his doctor. When Yorke awakes from his short coma, he is surprised to find out his doctor, and rescuer, is a woman, Dr. Zaidee Atalanta Lloyd. But, at first Yorke is not only suspicious of his doctor’s gender, but also her role as a mere country doctor: “The thing which worried him most was the probable character of his Down-East doctor upon whose intelligence he had fallen…he thought of some representatives of the profession whom he had met in the mountains, and at other removed from the centres of society” (38). Even though the novel is titled after Dr. Zay, the story focuses much more on Yorke’s psychological development from hyperaesthentic (19C name for a nervous condition) to healthy suitor. As Yorke begins to heal, he not only realizes Dr. Zay’s medical expertise, but also that he is falling in love with her. Soon Yorke makes his feelings known to Dr. Zay, but she resists him until she is eventually worn down by the end of the novel. Dr. Zay demands that she continue her medical practice after the two are married, to which Yorke can’t imagine any other alternative.  Together, Dr. Zay and Yorke, then, form the union of the New Woman and the New Man.

It’s possible to read the novel as a seemingly simple restitution narrative–doctor cures sick patient, then doctor and patient get married and live happily ever after; but, Phelps’s focus on a female homeopathic doctor’s treatment of a male patient provides a “feminist alternative to both mainstream allopathic neurology and traditional gender practices” (Swenson 101). Yorke’s transformation from sick to well demonstrates, according to Swenson, how Phelps “uses homeopathic neurology to oppose conservative medical and cultural practices by championing the radical figure of the female physician, by challenging gender roles for both women and men, and questioning the relative merits of marriage and career for women.” Dr. Zay is recognizable as a New Woman not only because of her chosen profession, but also her style of dress, her resistance to Yorke’s continual romantic advances, and overall, her characteristic independence. Yorke, on the other hand, is not a New Man until Dr. Zay cures him.

Early Yorke fits a male stereotype of his time: he is an elite urban male, out touring rural Maine because he has nothing better to do; he is unambitious and directionless. [I wonder too if Phelps uses the name “Waldo” to draw on the reputation of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his high-minded, abstract appreciation of nature to critique Yorke’s lack of touch with the material world. After all, it’s when Yorke is out appreciating nature’s loftiness that he realizes he’s hungry and falls off his horse.] Yorke is aware of his own shortfalls, and diagnoses himself for Dr Zay, describing his “[i]nherited inertia” and how he has “[s]uccumbed to his environment. Corrosion of Beacon Street…Native indolence, developed by acquired habit. Hopeless correlation of predestined forces. Atrophied ambition. Paralyzed aspiration. No struggle for existence” (166). To which Dr. Zay responds, “I should rather call it [a case] of hyperaesthensia…Superfluous, and therefore injurious, sensitiveness. You experience a certain scorn of the best into which you know yourself capable of resulting” (167-8).  Thus, it’s clear part of Phelps’s work is to critique, and cure, this particular social-cultural construction of maleness through the homeopathy provided by a New Woman.

Yorke, in the early sections, is what 19C readers would have recognized as “over-civilized.” At the time, people worried that nervous disorders were the cultural product of the nation’s “evolved superiority,” but ultimately threatening to future generations. It’s not difficult here to see the logic of degeneracy and eugenics. Before healing, Yorke is described as lacking energy and vitality, which plays into the late 19C fear that illnesses like Yorke’s could threaten the “future race.” It makes sense, too, that Phelps invokes this rhetoric, in bolstering her call for the ultimate union between the New Woman and the New Man.

Instead of prescribing large doses of strong medicines, which allopaths practice, Dr Zay’s homeopathy involves providing subtle remedies derived from natural sources, such as chamomile, aconite, and carbo. The occasional tablespoon of brandy and nightly conversation are what cause Yorke to begin to fall in love. In this way, as Yorke’s body begins to mend itself, he also becomes more and more susceptible to Dr. Zay’s politics and way of life. Slowly, over time, romance becomes part of Dr. Zay’s remedy.

Overall, the novel is one of the first to depict 1) a female doctor, 2) the feminist conflict of career versus marriage, while also offering 3) a romantic view of the rural, homeopathic physician, at a time when modern medicine was taking shape and becoming more standardized and clinical in urban settings. In this way, the novel has often been compared with Sarah Orne Jewett’s A Country Doctor (1884).

Britt Rusert’s Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (2017)

  1. Question/Problem: How did Early African American writers respond to 18th and 19th century discourses of racial science?
  2. The Answer: In Chapter 1, Rusert close reads the anti-racist writings of Benjamin Banneker, David Walker, James W.C. Pennington and James McCune to illuminate how they responded to and rebutted  the racist writings, and monogenism, of Thomas Jefferson (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785, 1787) and other similar thinkers of the time. In Chapter 2, Rusert focuses on the writings of Robert Benjamin Lewis (Light and Truth, 1844) and Hosea Easton, and reads these authors’ use of biblical stories to disrupt the racist ideology that was used to justify slavery. In Chapter 3, Rusert builds ideas about the “politics of visibility” by investigating Henry “Box” Frown’s theatrical performativity.  Chapter 4 provides Rusert’s most engaging and unique readings: she examines Martin Delany’s Blake ((1859, 1861–1862) and his use of “extraplanetary bodies” to critique racism and slavery. Rusert demonstrates how “the immeasurable, vital force of blackness challenges the scientific imperative to separate and classify the ‘races of mankind'” (176). In Chapter 5, Rusert focuses on the African American educator/activist Sarah Mapps Douglass, who was known in the antebellum parlors/classrooms of Philadelphia. Douglass was an important figure of “Black respectability” (198). Rusert describes how Douglass worked to provide discourses of respectability that then gave Black women access to “medical authority that was increasingly being denied to them in the home by mid-century amid the beginnings of medicine’s professionalization” (199-200). Throughout these readings, Rusert identifies three kinds of “fugitive science”: 1)  oppositional, or work to explicitly intervene in scientific discourse, 2) practical, or work that helps instrumentalize science and technology in ways that advance emancipation, and  3) speculative, or the science that imagines the unimaginable and pushes scientific inquiry beyond possibility.
  3. Method: Rusert describes an archive of the shadows, of “African American science writing in the antebellum period” (8) that is often overlooked; this is the archive of fugitive science. Fugitive science is amalgamate, innovative, subversive, “dynamic and diverse archive of engagements with, critiques of, and responses to” (4) the antiblack racial science of the long nineteenth century. Theoretically, Rusert bolsters her methodology with Foucault’s The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966). Fugitive science is a counter-science, propelled by a “subterranean politics and furtive insurgency” (17) that confronts the “scientific” racist ideologies. Thus, Rusert reminds us that science, and knowledge, is an “assemblage of difference fields and practices that could be dismantled, reassembled, and redirected” (132).
  4.  Principles and Assumptions: Rusert defines “science” broadly, in order to point to the emergence of racial ideologies as early as the 1600s that were then used to deploy metaphors of excavation and laboratories. In this way, Rusert, demonstrates how “black actors transformed the spaces of the everyday into laboratories of knowledge and experimentation” (4). Ruserts expansion of “science” includes conjuring, performance, astrology, mysticism, mesmerism, and imaginative speculation: “The term pseudoscience routinely works to exclude both nonprofessional and non-white practitioners from the field of knowledge production while discrediting valuable knowledge systems of the indigenous and the enslaved, including conjuring, astrology, and other forms of mysticism…I consider a number of fields, from phrenology and mesmerism to conjuring and astrology, as legitimate knowledge systems since they were valued and taken seriously by the writers, intellectuals, and performers under discussion. Early African American practitioners repeatedly questioned the very definition of science, radically expanding its boards while presenting themselves as vital scientific agents who had the power to manipulate and experiment with the objects of the natural world” (6-7).
  5. Dialogics. Sharpe, C. In the Wake. (2016); after Susan Scott Parrishs’s examination of the significant role that enslaved and indigenous peoples played in the production of British metropolitan scientific knowledge. // too many to list
  6. Purpose: We must rethink the ways we define, recognize and engage with science and knowledge. How do we delimit these categories, as well as the categories of our own intellectual activity? “By taking science more seriously in African American studies, and by recognizing the dynamism of natural science in the antebellum period, new light may be shed on the origins and contours of early African American cultural production, particularly the permeable boundaries of and surprising cross-fertilizations between what we today rigidly\ categorize as “art” and “science” (21).



Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) (draft)

Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), writer, lecturer, public intellectual, feminist, and poet; born in Cambridgeport, MA, and died in ship accident off of Fire Island, NY; one of the most influential literary figures of her day.

  • 1839-1840 Fuller conduced a series of conversation “classes” for society women in Boston on social, literary, historical, and philosophical topics.
  • 1840-1843 Fuller edited the premiere journal of American transcendentalism, The Dial, which Emerson supposedly never compensated her for. Fuller didn’t identify as a transcendentalist herself, although its influence is apparent in her work.
  • Her most famous work is Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), which was first published in The Dial in 1843 as “The Great Lawsuit. Men Versus Men, Women Versus Women,” which Fuller then expanded into book form.
  • Fuller also wrote essays on the unfairness of marriage, abuses in asylums and prisons, and African-American and woman suffrage.
  • 1846 Fuller sailed to England and became the first American female foreign news correspondent. She met many famous writers include George Sand, Matthew Arnold, William Wordsworth, not yet (but they would meet later) Elizabeth Barrett because she was busy eloping with Robert (!!)
  • 1847 Fuller went to Rome where she met and fell in love with Marchese Ossoli
  • 1850 The couple sails home to American, but dies in a shipwreck. Fuller’s manuscript on the Roman Republic was lost.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845)

Synopsis: Recognized as the first American feminist work, Fuller voiced for women’s rights and equality with men; only then could man truly “transcend” to divine status, she argued. Fuller expresses an especially critical view of marriage, explaining that the idea of marriage, “has been inculcated on women for centuries, that men not only have stronger passions than [women], but of a sort that it would be shameful for them to share of even understand” (page). While feminists today would certainly find Fuller’s arguments essentialist and her use of the metaphor of slavery to describe sexism lacking ethics and nuance, her writing offers one of the earliest American critiques of the social construction of gender. Women will never be able to rise up because it’s simply not in the 19C social construction of what a woman is and capable of doing. Fuller explictly debunks this myth with her examples of historic, great women, and her savvy argumentation and pluck.

Interesting thing #1: As was common in her day, Fuller uses a lot of head/heart/soul metaphors, especially in critiquing the faulty logic of the genders’ separate spheres. I wonder if her argument that together man (head) and woman (heart), only as equals, will form a divine union, challenges the legacy of Cartesian dualism’s privileging of the mind/soul over the body.

Imagining a hypothetical conversation between man, woman and the divine, man asks, “Am I not the head of my house?” to which the divine/the unnamed (standing in for Fuller) responds, “You are not the head of your wife. God has given her a mind of her own.” Man responds, “I am the head and she is the heart.” The divine answers, “God grant you play true to one another then. I suppose I am to be grateful that you did not say she was only the hand. If the head represses no natural pulse of the heart, there can be no question as to your giving your consent. Both will be of one accord and there needs but to present any question to get a full and true answer. There is no need of precaution, of indulgence, or consent. But our doubt is whether the heart does consent with the head, or only obeys its decrees with a passiveness that precludes the exercise of its natural powers, or a repugnance that turns sweet qualities to bitter, or a doubt that lays waste the fair occasions of life. It is to ascertain the truth, that we propose some liberating measures.” (19)

Here and throughout, Fuller represents the male and female as “two sides of the radical dualism,” perpetuating their essential distinctions between the rational man and the intuitive woman. Consciousness and the mind have traditionally belonged to the male, and intuition and spiritual to the female in Cartesian, but by melding them together in their union, Fuller challenges this foundational modern concept.

Interesting Thing 2: Fuller’s conception of the body-mind-soul relationship is much more material than Emerson’s (who doesn’t really account for the body, other than eyeballs).  Fuller was influenced by what we know term the major pseudosciences of her day, spiritualism and mesmerism (animal magnetism), which to her materialist approach to feminine individualism. Based in transcendentalism, Fuller’s conception of mind-body-soul links the mind and body explicitly. Fuller even believed illness, particularly female “sickness [was] the frequent result of this overcharged existence” (WNC). Rachel A. Blumenthal in “Margaret Fuller’s Medical Transcendentalism” argues that Fuller’s conception of female madness grants women genius, fancy, and intellect, rather than disabling them further. While Blumenthal bases this major claim on little evidence from Fuller, she does provide insight into Fuller’s possible influences from physiological psychological and spiritualism of her day, which offers an interesting, alternative account of the body-mind-spirit discourse offered by other canonical thinkers of her day.

Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic (1963) (draft)

Foucault, in my own words!

While we might assume modern medicine progressed naturally out of the Enlightenment, Foucault disagrees: “The clinic—constantly praised for its empiricism, the modesty of its attention, and the care with which it silently lets things surface to the observing gaze without disturbing them with discourse—owes its real importance to the fact that it is a reorganization in depth, not only of medical discourse, but of the very possibility of a discourse about disease” (xix).

In The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeaology of Medical Perception, Foucault describes what led to the development of modern medical perception (which includes medicine’s professionalization, the “birth” of the institution of the clinic, and “the medical gaze”). By historiciizing medical discourse from late 18C scientific, political and philosophical texts (see Ch 1, 2 & 3), Foucault locates the aftermath of the French Revolution as the site of major epistemological change. During this time of cultural upheaval, medical knowledge shifted away from its privileging of theory, nosology (the classification of disease), superstition, and treatment of the aristocracy only, towards emphasizing the importance of experiential learning and practice, and treatment of the general public.

Put simply, the French Revolution demanded basic human rights for all people. All institutions were questioned, including medicine: how could the hospital better serve the people? Before the French Revolution, European doctors held more of a priestly role in two ways: 1) they incorporated metaphysical and superstitious ideas into their medical practice, and 2) they mainly served the aristocracy. But by the onset of the 19C, physicians began taking more interest in public health. Through post-Revolutionary reforms, medicine sought more experiential learning and practice, with the clinic forming as the locus of medical treatment for the masses.

Overall, Foucault criticizes the myth that the modern medical practice as we know it grew organically out of the Enlightenment. Instead, Foucault argues that the modern clinic arose from a re-organization of knowledge amidst the political, economic, and philosophical disruptions caused by the French Revolution, which then changed cultural understandings of treating and caring for the sick (Ch 4 & 5). Through French political legislation, hospitals and universities began restructuring in the 1790s. Now an institutionalized space, funded by the government, Foucault argues, “The clinic figures, then, as a structure that is essential to the scientific coherence and also to the social utility and political purity of the new medical organization. It represents the truth of that organization in guaranteed liberty” (70).

But what exactly made the modern physician a champion of truth and liberty? (beginning of doctor-as-hero myth?) Foucault coins the term, the “clinical gaze” to signify a new medical practice based in empiricism in which symptoms are observable (ch 6 & 7). The disease is a text that makes itself legible on and throughout the body and its tissue: “in clinical medicine, to be seen and to be spoken immediately communicate in the manifest truth of the disease of which it is precisely the whole being. There is disease only in the element of the visible and therefore state-able” (95). Foucault describes the clinical gaze as providing “unmediated access. Theory is either absent or silent to allow the truth of the disease to express itself at the bedside” (107). Thus, the clinical gaze freed medical knowledge from the artificial confines of the rigidity of nosololgy.

(But the clinical gaze also doubly acknowledges the patient as subject and subjugated by medicine’s empirical analysis.) Is this not a thing until Discipline and Punish (1977)?

Aside: Right now I’m most interested in the clinical gaze and how I can trace it throughout literature, particularly how it might influence representations of the body-mind relationship. Typically, and what I made of the term before reading Foucault, the clinical gaze describes the distance, or gap, between healer and patient. The healer, usually physician or doctor, uses the clinical Eye to observe, diagnose, and treat the patient’s illness. Thus, the gaze literally objectifies the patient, eliminating their complex human identity. This might explain, for example, the legacy of women’s pain not being taken seriously, as well as why “invisible” illnesses and conditions have historically been de-legitimatized, diminished, or even dismissed by the clinical gaze because such conditions do not produce observable, visible pathology.  Thus, the clinical gaze has had devastating effects on people with disabilities, and together with medicine’s empirical infatuation with normalcy (see L. Davis), we can see how the medical model of disability was born in the 19C. It wasn’t until the late 20C that social conditions were seen as impacting and even determining and defining health, ability, disease, and disability. 

Anyway, The Birth of the Clinic seems a bit more like straight-forward history than Foucault’s other work. I wonder what I need to read instead.

draft: Ch 8 & 9: Foucault argues pathological anatomy + the medicine of the clinic produce new way of thinking about disease and death: “It is not that man falls ill that he dies; it is that man may die that he is susceptible to disease” (155).

ch 10: describes how the clinical gaze affected medical knowledge through a study of fevers, looking specifically at the differences in practice between Bichat and Broussais.

In sum, The Birth of the Clinic is interested in investigating the archeological rupture between taxonomic/nosological classical medicine (which classifies and considers diseases as containing an essence according to the model of natural history) and modern clinical medicine (based on pathological anatomy, capable of making the essence of the disease disappear, replacing it with the sick body as its object). In other words, death and disease, and the corpse, make the healthy body visible. Most of what we know about the healthy body comes from the study of dead, diseased bodies. In this way, modern knowledge shifted from the ideal and esoteric to the finite, the human.


Some interesting reads:

  •  Pryce, Dr. Anthony. “Contemporary Sociologies – Foucault, Power and Surveillance.” City University London. Web. 27 Oct. 2011
  • <>.
  •  Shapiro, Johanna. “(Re)Examining the Clinical Gaze Through the Prism of Literature.” Families, Systems, & Health 20 (2002): 161-70. Print.
  • David B. Morris, “An Invisible History of Pain: Early 19th-Century Britain and America,” J. Clin. Pain. 14, no. 3 (1998): 191-196.
  • Tony Walter, “Body Worlds: Clinical Detachment and Anatomical Awe,” Sociology of Health & Illness 26, no. 4 (2004): 464-488.
  • Chris Philo, “The Birth of the Clinic: An Unknown Work of Medical Geography,” Area 32, no. 1 (2000): 11-19.
  • Kirsti Malterud, “The (Gendered) Construction of Diagnosis Interpretation of Medical Signs in Women Patients,” Theoretical Medicine & Bioethics 20, no. 3 (1999): 275-286.
  • John C. Long, “Foucault’s Clinic,” Journal of Medical Humanities 13, no. 3 (1992): 119-138.
  • Joanna Latimer et al., “Rebirthing the Clinic: The Interaction of Clinical Judgment and Genetic Technology in the Production of Medical Science,” Science, Technology & Human Values 31, no. 5 (2006): 599-630.


Whitman’s temperance novel _Franklin Evans, or or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Time_ (1842)


Title page, Reprint edition. The snake imagery on the title page refers to not only the “sin” of drinking, but also the embedded tale, “The Death of Wind-foot” within the novel.  It’s possible Whitman compiled Franklin Evans from other stories he was working on at the time, including a text that would later become the “Windfoot” short story and would be published separately.  In the tradition of historical romance, the “Windfoot” passage relays the tale of an Indian chief’s feud with a rival tribe and their kidnapping and murder of the chief’s son. The story represents the negative effects of alcohol on Native Americans, and thus sets Whitman’s novel as beginning with the myth of the “vanishing Indian,” which later allows Evans to distinguish his own change of course from drunkard to upstanding temperate leader as racially, and morally, superior.

Whitman’s Franklin Evans (1842) will not make my official reading list for exams, but I did just finish it as a title on my preliminary list. What’s probably most interesting about the novel (Whitman’s first!) is he ironically wrote it on a three-day bender merely to turn a profit. Temperance novels were wildly popular in the 19C, especially in the 1840s with the concurrent Washingtonian Movement. Whitman published the novel in a special issue of The New World, and it was also later serialized in 1846 over twelve issues in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (all of Whitman’s fiction was originally published in New York periodicals).

Synopsis: Franklin Evans,  a naive farm boy, leaves Long Island for New York City in search of opportunity. Easily influenced by a wealthy man he meets on the carriage to the city, Mr. Colby, as well as other young bachelors, Evans is introduced to the drinking halls, taverns, and musical theaters of the debauch city.

Evans descends into the lifestyle of a drunkard, degree by degree, causing the the death of his two wives and loss of employment. Evans’s second wife, Margaret, a “creole,” he meets as a slave on a Virginian plantation, later murders Evans’s blond-haired, blue-eyed mistress, Mrs. Conway, before Margaret commits suicide. Yet by the novel’s end, Evans reforms his ways, becomes sober, and leads a model, temperate life.

Interesting thing: 1) In generic fashion, Whitman uses the language (and literal depiction) of slavery as a metaphor to depict the evils and dangers of intemperance. Just like early passages from Leaves of Grass depicting (and personifying) enslaved voices, Whitman erases slavery & race from later editions of Franklin Evans. Ed Folsom has argued Whitman’s erasure of race achieves the effect of “a spectral black presence both haunts and energizes [his] work” (“Erasing Race”).

2) In Franklin Evans, alcoholism is treated as a moral failing completely within the individual’s control to avoid or overcome. This conception of illness was common at the time for conditions that were aligned with “sinful,” derogatory behavior. Alcoholism was also associated with non-white, lower-class people. “True” gentlemen and ladies rarely suffered from alcoholism, unless they had some blemish to their pedigree. In this way we can see both biological determinism and moral policing as shaping the conception of the “disease” of alcoholism at the time and well into the early and mid-twentieth century (with a legacy still observable today).




Sharon Cameron’s “The Way of Life by Abandonment: Emerson’s Impersonal” in Critical Inquiry, 25 (1), 1998

  1. Question/Problem: “Grant that personal identity does not matter is equivalent to, or has the consequence of, supposing that ‘if tomorrow someone will be in agony [it is] an empty question whether this agony will be felt by me,’ of seeing that ‘if I am about to lose consciousness, there may be no answer to the question ‘Am I about to die?'” (RP, p. 280). What would it mean not to care if pain were your pain, to find the question empty? To find unanswerable the question of whether the loss of consciousness would mean your death? These are the central questions raised obliquely, one might even say unconsciously, by the centrally recurring idea of the impersonal in Emerson’s essays” (Cameron 1-2). How can we take Emerson’s overall invocation of heroics (the American romantic tradition of the individual face-to-face with tragedy/the divine/contingency) seriously when his writing voice is so impersonal?
  2. The Answer: Cameron argues that such indifference is at the peril of calling its own authority into question: “Thus I claim that the deficiency in Emerson’s representation of the impersonal lies peculiarly in the missing sense of a person” (4). Overall, Cameron is dissatisfied with Emerson’s delivery of what he’s preaching for. While many have made the argument that  Emerson’s detached, omniscient voice/style  allows for him to practice what he preaches, in terms of demonstrating “The human mind cannot be enshrined in a person,” Cameron worries this actually works against the logic of his arguments. Towards the end of the essay, Cameron writes, “What one wants in Emerson is the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of material self-interest. In addition, one wants something to separate those statements that enlarge the idea of (one’s own) interest from those that annihilate the idea of (another’s) interest” (25). Cameron criticizes Emerson’s failure to acknowledge the singular, and therefore material social difference, as what dissociates Emerson from the American heroic tradition. While Emerson calls for a face-to-face confrontation with the divine, Emerson’s impersonal gets in the way. Whitman’s, Melville’s, and Dickinson’s American heroic, whose demonstrations of the individual face-to-face with tragedy, contingency, and  the divine, provide more accurate/personal depictions of what Emerson argues for, and which is NOT what his impersonal voice/style ever reaches in achieving.
  3. Method: Cameron mostly takes issue with the logic of Emerson’s arguments and the logic of his chosen voice/style, rather than making a political or aesthetic/formal argument.
  4.  Principles and Assumptions: Part 1 of essay: Cameron examines the mechanics of impersonality / how persons come in contact with the impersonal. Part 1b: examines Emerson’s analysis of the way the body & mind counterintuitively demonstrate impersonality. Part 2: considers the features of the person who is expounding impersonality, arguing there is a connection between the anonymous voice of the speaker (in the essay) erasing evidence of personality. Part 2 & 3: consider series of concerns that threaten to produce a devestating critique of Emerson: Is Emerson’s idea of the impersonal ethically illegit? Delusional? From what point of view could one give up the personal perspective of one as a limited self? [???] Part 3: looks at “The Poet” as the relinquisher of the individual in order to draw upon “great public power…by unlocking at all risks his human doors.” While public power requires indifference to persons, Cameron argues that such indifference is at the peril of calling its own authority into question: “Thus I claim that the deficiency in Emerson’s representation of the impersonal lies peculiarly in the missing sense of a person” (4).
  5. Dialogics: Disagrees with Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984), in which he claims there is no special personal identity, distinct from our bodies and brains, which an individual identity can be found. Ultimately, Camerson turns to Levinas for “a person’s resistance to the idea of impersonality…Suffering is occasioned by the friction of feeling oneself a person….where such a feeling is shown to be unfounded. There cannot help but be resistance to the idea of the impersonal since the consequences of the impersonal destroy being the only way we think we know it” (30-31).
  6. Interesting thing: There is a really weird Emerson eyeball passage (No, not THAT eyeball passage!) Cameron briefly analyzes to show how Emerson’s “allegiance to the universal is immediately articulated by a glance of the eyes” (11). From “Behavior” (1860):
    1. “There are asking eyes, asserting eyes, prowling eyes; and eyes full of fate, –some of good, and some of sinister omen. The alleged power to char down insanity, or ferocity in beasts, is a power behind the eye. ‘Tis very certain that each man carries in hi eye the exact indication of his rank in the immense scale of men, and we are always learning to read it. A complete man should need no auxiliaries to his personal presence. Whoever looked on him would consent to his will, being certified that his aims were generous and universal. The reason why men do not obey us, is because they see the mud at the bottom of our eye.”

Cameron doesn’t do much with the passage, except to show that this seems to be a moment where Emerson’s impersonal crosses with the personal. Cameron describes how Emerson’s essays often “dramatize contradiction” (10). This is what he does instead of narrative. Cameron reads the above eyeball passage as “differently epitomized…the impersonal is set against ‘the fury of personality.”’ Thus, Cameron argues the eye is not simply an index of behavior, but becomes the standard for evaluating how the personal aligns with the universal.  But I’m not completely satisfied by Cameron’s reading. To me, Emerson’s broader interest in not only the “transcendent eyeball,” but the materiality and symbolism of eyeballs, (as well as shape, see “Circles) encourages his to press this passage further: Should readers focus on the eye seeing, or how we perceive and look at the eye? Are we more concerned here with our perception of eyes, or what the eyes are actually doing??

Guess I need to go read “Behavior.” Right not it seems the only real reason Emerson is interested in the person at all is so the idea of the individual person can be exploded.




Emerson / Birth of American Transcendentalism (draft)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882, born in Boston, MA)

  • main figure of American Transcendentalism
  • Unitarian minister until he professed he did not believe in communion as a sacrament and refused to deliver it to his congregation
  • traveled to Europe and met Carlyle, Wordsworth, Coleridge, all who then influenced Emerson’s development of American Transcendentalism.
  • best known for his 1836 Nature, collection of essays:
    • Overarching theme: demands originality and calls to repair the rift between self & nature
  • Critical debates:
    • Some scholars feel there’s a major shift in “young” Emerson vs. “old” Emerson, with his later writing as valuing materiality more than his earlier essays (CITE).
    • Read Sharon Cameron’s “The Way of Life by Abandonment: Emerson’s Impersonal” in Critical Inquiry, 25 (1), 1998.

What is American Transcendentalism?

  • 1836-1860 New England movement in literature & philosophy, developed in response to Orthodox Calvinism and rational Unitarianism; called for faith to center upon divinity of humanity and natural world
  • Influenced by Eastern (Indian Hinduism & Chinese Buddhism, Confucianism) philosophies, German philosophy (mostly Kant), English authors above
  • Prominent American Transcendentalists included Thoreau, the Alcotts, Margaret Fuller
  • Best expressed in “Nature” (1836), “Self-Reliance,” and “The Over-Soul” (both 1841), and by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854)
  • Basic beliefs: 1) God is immanent in all individual human beings; 2) individual intuition is the highest source of knowledge; 3) (overly) optimistic views of individualism, self-reliance, and rejection of traditional authority

Emerson Essays:

“The American Scholar” (1837)

  • Synopsis: Phi Beta Kappa (rich white male students with high GPAs) oration at Harvard, calling for independence from European cultural leadership. The speech’s beginning (para. 1-7) explains Emerson’s belief that the scholar is “Man Thinking,” a key function of the whole human being. Next, Emerson discusses the influence of nature (para. 8 & 9), the influence of the past and books (para. 10-12), and the influence of action on the education of the “Thinking Man” (para. 21-30). Lastly, Emerson consider the duties of the scholar and the scholar’s role in contemporary America (para. 31-45).

“Nature” (1836)

  • Synopsis: Emerson attempts to solve the problem of humans not fully accepting nature’s beauty: people are distracted by the contemporary world’s demands. Consists of 8 sections, each offering a different perspective on the relationship between humans and nature: Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit and Prospects. Emerson explains in order to experience human “wholeness” with nature, we must separate from the flaws of society. Solitude is the single mechanism through which we can fully engage with nature, via writing: “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.” In nature a person finds its spirit and accepts it as the Universal Being. He writes: “Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see…”
  • key quotes: “Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.”
  • Interesting things:

“Self-Reliance” (Published 1841, then 1847 in “Essays”)

  • Synopsis: Rely on yourself for knowledge and guidance;
    • Importance of self-reliance (para. 1-17)
      • Think for & trust yourself. Individual experience > book knowledge; intuition > others’ opinions; childlike wonder > status quo; do not conform to external pressures; better to be true to an evil nature than behave “correctly” (influences Poe & Hawthorne); highest truths unattainable through language; consistency retrains independence and growth (influences Whitman and Dickinson); language works when it doesn’t work–theorizing can never be truly transcendental (in this way Dickinson seems more transcendental than Emerson himself)
    • Self-reliance and the self (para.18-32)
      • embrace of misinterpretation, ambiguity, spontaneity, instinct, intuition
    • Self-reliance and society (para. 33-50)
      • criticism of contemporary society, i.e. traveling (lolz); favors bucolic life; focuses on 4 social arenas: religion and its fear of creativity, culture and its devaluing of individuals, the arts as teaching imitation only, and society’s false values and obsession with “progress”
    • Conclusion: criticizes property and fortune; take risks and look inside yourself for peace
  • Key quotes: “Trust thyself.” // “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines…to be great is to be misunderstood.” // Lack of self-reliance becomes “a disease of the will” or “a disease of the intellect.”
  • Interesting things: 1) language works when it doesn’t work–theorizing can never be truly transcendental (in this way Dickinson seems more transcendental than Emerson himself) 

“The Poet”

  • Synopsis: (will study this essay when I get to Whitman)
  • Key quotes: “For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word or a verse and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem. The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the nations.”  // “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem, a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”
  • Interesting things:

“The Over-Soul” (1841)

  • Synopsis: What is the Oversoul? Human beings’ participation in the monisitic unity of creation, same for rocks, plants, animals, as it is for human consciousness. Themes: (1) the existence and nature of the human soul; (2) the relationship between the soul and the personal ego; (3) the relationship of one human soul to another; and (4) the relationship of the human soul to God. Without attempting any systematic doctorine, this essay serves as a work of art, like poetry, offering personal insights & lofty, abstract lyrics.  Beliefs presented: (1) the human soul is immortal, and immensely vast and beautiful; (2) our conscious ego is slight and limited in comparison to the soul, despite the fact that we habitually mistake our ego for our true self; (3) at some level, the souls of all people are connected, though the precise manner and degree of this connection is not spelled out; and (4) the essay does not seem to explicitly contradict the traditional Western idea that the soul is created by and has an existence (?) that is similar to God, or rather God exists within us.
  • Key quotes: “We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.” // “Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending int us from we know not whence.”
  • Interesting things: 1) How does this conception of over-soul interact with the body-mind relationship? How does Emerson conceive of the body-mind relationship? 2) “All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but ani- mates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but
    uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie,—an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed.” Seems like Emerson’s “soul” is similar to Descartes’ conception in their immateriality, despite Emerson’s claim to want to unify the self & natural (material?) world. But while Descartes associates the soul with personal will, Emerson describes the soul as “impersonal,” and as “alien energy.” The private will is overpowered by the common heart / over-soul.

“Circles” (year)

  • Synopsis: Emerson uses the shape of the circle3 as a metaphor for life and as an organizing principle. The circle repeats without end in nature, in the individual, in society, and ultimately serves as an emblem of our connection to God.
  • Key quotes: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second.” (Hey, how cool that our eyes are the same shape as the earth.) “Throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world… [E}very action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but ever end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens” (para 1).
  • Interesting things: How do Emerson’s “circles” / uses of geometric and spatial metaphors differ from Dickinson’s? Emerson’s circle-metaphor seems both 2-D (cycles/timelines) and 3-D (perspective from within circle/circumference), while Dickinson’s seems primarily 3-D. Emerson believes, “There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us!” while Dickinson seems more interested in finding and tracing the boundary of the sublime and challenging it. 2) “Fear not the new generalization. Does the fact look crass and material, threatening to degrate thy theory of spirit? Resist it not; it goes to refine and raise they theory of matter just as much.” Does the divinity “refine and raise” the “theory of matter” Trying to come up with materialist theory vision of transcendentalism. He likes the idea of that–notices resistance to it. 3) Asymptote: “The last chamber, the last closet, he must feel was never opened; there is always a residuum unknown, unanalyzable. That is, every man believes that he has a greater possibility.”
  • Interesting thing #1.5

“Compensation” (1841)

  • Synopsis: In general terms, this essay explains Emerson’s theory of karma, or in other words, a balanced compensatory system of actions and consequences. Emerson finds this dualism in nature, man, and society: “Whilst the world is thus dual, so is every one of its parts. The entire system of things gets represented in every particle. There is somewhat that resembles the ebb and flow of the sea, day and night, man and woman, in a single needle of the pine, in a kernel of corn, in each individual of every animal tribe.” “The same dualism underlies the nature and condition of man.”  Or in other words, Newton’s third law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
  • Interesting thing #1: If the universe is mapped out as such a perfectly balanced system, what room does this leave for human will and intervention? Injustice? The personal? Pain and suffering? In this way, “Compensation” seems to be the root of Emerson’s idealism, but is it that simple?
  • Interesting thing #2: Emerson claims the body corrupts the intentions of the soul: “The soul says, ‘Eat;’ the body would feast. The soul says, ‘The man and woman shall be one flesh and one soul;’ the body would join the flesh only. The soul says, “have dominion over all things to the ends of virtue;’ the body would have the power over things to its own ends.”  Emerson views the mind/soul as superior to the body. Distancing the spirit fro the body way is the only way to practice transcendence. In “The Poet,” Emerson reiterates, “[W]e were put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan to be carried about; but there is no accurate adjustment between the spirit and the organ.” Thus, Emerson say the body as a only mere vessel to the spirit.
  • Interesting thing 3#: Emerson writes, “The radical tragedy of nature seems to be the distinction of More and Less. How can Less not feel the pain; how not feel indignation or malevolence towards More?” Here, as throughout the entire essay, Emerson demonstrates the opposing, compensatory binaries that hold the universe in perfect, natural balance; however, such structuralist binaries also uphold normate structures, such as male/female, white/Black, healthy/sick, able/disabled. In this way, it seems what Emerson hopes to “compensate for” is the erasure of human difference. For example, Emerson fails to account for a spectrum of embodiment, for exceptions to the rule.  Rosemarie Garland Thomson finds the figure of the “invali” in two of Emerson’s essays, “Self-Reliance” and “Fate,” but in “Compensation” Thomson critiques how “Emerson’s atomized self demands an op-positional twin to secure able-bodiedness” (Extraordinary Bodies, 44); thus, Emerson’s “invalid” is defined again the liberal individualism of self-reliance and his ideal, compensatory universe.  While the disembodied I/eye is Emerson’s “More” and can compensate for “Less,” isn’t this instilling a prosthetic, or a disability-as-ability ideology, therefore, again erasing the experience and materiality of human difference?
  • Interesting thing #4: In “The Way of Life by Abandonment,” Sharon Cameron reads Emerson’s treatment of the soul as “free of particulars, good or bad; personality is a consequence of that liberation” (7), in response to Emerson’s: “The soul is not a compensation, but a life. The soul is.  Under all this running sea of circumstance, whose waters ebb and flow with perfect balance, less the aboriginal abyss of real Bing. Essence, or God, is not a relation, or a part, but the whole.” Here, Emerson describes how the soul is not part of the drama of “More or less”; it exists outside/beyond the realms of inequality and material, circumstantial condition (which directly opposes Disability Studies).

“Behavior” (1860, revised 1876, from The Conduct of Life)

  • Synopsis: Emerson’s use of the term “behavior” coincides with “manners,” which he defines as “the visible carriage or action of the individual.” He describes how nature’s truth is made visible through the body’s “silent and subtle language.” Emerson celebrates “the wonderful expressiveness of the human body,” especially the eyes, which he describes as “another self.” For Emerson, the eyes are the most universally legible and revealing means of human interaction. Throughout the essay, Emerson puts genuine behavior/manners (i.e. self-reliance, integrity, honesty, directness, sincerity, self-control) vs. mere public display of conformity/social airs/wealth, beauty, genius: only the genuine has the potential to overcome: “all the observances, yea, and duties, which society so tyrannically imposes on the rank and file of its members.”
  • Interesting thing: In “The Way of Life by Abandonment,” Sharon Cameron reads Emerson’s “Behavior” for how “allegiance to the universal is immediately articulated by a glance of the eyes” (11). For Emerson, “the communication by the glance is in the greatest part not subject to the control of the will. It is the bodily symbol of identity of nature. ” Thus, the eyes don’t necessarily reveal the unique personality of the individual; instead, they reveal what Cameron describes as the “degree of discrepancy between the ‘generous and universal’ and ‘the future of personality.'” For Cameron, the eyes  and “reveal beyond [personality]… impersonal register of value identically legible to all.” So, for Emerson, the eyes reveal something like the universal truth, that isn’t evidence of the individual, but of the oversoul, if that person has access/transcended to that level. So, for Emerson the eyes here seem to be again further evidence of the body’s baseness, in relation to the superior mind/soul. But Emerson’s transcendent eyeball, the eye/I, represents the oversoul. IS this slippage intentional??!

Choosing Note-taking Methods

I’m starting this blog to hold myself accountable in taking quality notes for my PhD qualifying exams in English: 19C American literature (major field) and Disability Studies/History of Disability & Medicine (minor field). These posts can also keep me organized and serve as a reference for other students who happen to stumble upon this blog.

For my primary sources (novels, short stories, plays, speeches, memoirs, poems, etc.), I’ll use the following format to document my reading:

1. Synopsis of 3-5 main characters & conflict/resolution, list of 5 “interesting” analytic/argumentative things, and discussion of 5-page passage for close reading. (According to my peers, the 5″interesting” things might be the most useful aspect of my note-aking, so that I can prepare something substantive and somewhat original to stay about the text during my exams. Additionally, I will adapt this for form. For example, for poetry, I will focus more on content and form than characters and plot.)

2. Choose the 5 interesting things and/or passage as falling under one of my “centers of gravity” / key terms (10-15 “centers” I create based on themes of my reading list–examples might include “narrative prosthesis,” “hysteria,” or “historical romance”).

3. Identify at least 2-3  important critical secondary discussions of the primary text, ideally related to my chosen “centers of gravity.”


For my secondary sources (scholarly arguments from articles, chapters, books, etc.) (adapted from Dr. Jim Phelan):

On Reconstructing Critical Arguments

  1. Question/Problem: What is the central issue driving the inquiry? What is taken for granted and what is up for grabs? Sometimes the problem will be identified explicitly in the first couple of paragraphs, but not always.
  2. The Answer: The thesis or “paraphrase-able argument,” which may or may not be stated explicitly in the essay. The answer can generally be summarized in a sentence or two–and it should be put in terms of the question.
  3. Method: This part of the reconstruction has two components: A) the organization and progression of the essay’s argument. What are the steps of the argument and how do they relate to each other? What is the controlling logic that governs the choice of just these steps in this particular order? B) The kinds of reasoning employed (i.e. divide and conquer, research study — qualitative or quantitative, literary analysis–close reading).
  4.  Principles and Assumptions: The theoretical underpinnings of the argument, either explicit or implicit.
  5. Dialogics: What discourses is the essay seeking to respond to? ANd is the dialogical stance one of “No” (my predecessors got it wrong, “Yes, but” (there’s partial truth in their work, but they got some key things wrong), or “Yes, and” (they did some excellent work that provides the foundation for me to build on it in these ways).
  6. Purpose: The larger point or significance of the essay, the answer to the “so what”? Question. The purpose can often be expressed in a form such as this: “In light of this argument, the critical conversation should change in the following ways.”