October, 1993 Archive

The American Scholar: An address to Sigma Tau Delta and the English Club

Thursday, October 21st, 1993

“Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: I greet you on the recommencement of our literary year….We do not meet for games of strength or skill, for the recitation of histories, tragedies and odes,…for parliaments of love and poesy…nor for the advancement of science…Our occasion is simply a “friendly sign of the survival of the love of letters amongst a people too busy to give to letters any more. As such it is precious as the sign of an indestructible instinct. [In the hope that this love will thrive and persist,] I accept the topic which not only custom but the nature of our association seem to prescribe to this day–the American Scholar. Year by year we come together to read one more chapter in his biography. Let us inquire what light new days and events have thrown on her character and her hopes.”

Those, roughly, are the opening words of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard on August 31, 1837,” thereafter published under the title of “The American Scholar,” and venerated ever since as a classic document in both the realms of literature and of education. What am I doing getting up here in an academic robe and mouthing them as if they were my own?

Well, just as it was to Emerson, the title of this talk was given to me as one appropriate for the occasion. Thomas Patchell, your new president, invited me to speak on this topic at two oclock in the morning at McCarthy’s bar last June 4, after the cleanup of the English Department’s Year End Bash. I was too exhilirated or too tired or too drunk to say no. But from a more sober perspective there is a certain appropriateness. Though this is not Harvard, but Cal Poly, and though our meeting is sponsored not by Phi Beta Kappa but by Sigma Tau Delta, the Cal Poly English Honor Society, we too are celebrating the recommencement of the literary year and the survival of the love of letters in a less than congenial environment. And though the audience facing me tonight may not include the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and William Henry Dana, just back to Cambridge after his famous sea voyage to the Central Coast of California, it couldn’t be any more challenging to me than the one Emerson faced 156 years ago. He tells us that the custom of his audience prescribed that the speaker read a chapter in the biography of THE American Scholar. But since I’m a little short of Ralph Waldo’s measureless confidence, I’ll scale back the assignment and limit my scope to a chapter in the biography of the one American Scholar I feel qualified to talk about, myself. That will require about as much transcendental ego as I can summon up.