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

“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.

When Patch mentioned it I remembered nothing about Emerson’s essay except the title, but that in itself was bait. The word, “scholar,” has always been highly charged for me and I welcomed the chance to reflect on it.

That word has suggestions of both antiquarian quaintness and state of the art currency. Its first definition in the OED is that of “a learned and erudite person, especially in the classics.” It calls up images of old men in black robes, scholastic doctors and Oxford dons, sage authorities who stroke their chins and offer final judgements on arcane questions. Closer to home, I think of “scholar” as an honorific title denoting status as a college professor or as someone whose work has been published in a professional journal. For years I thought of “scholar” as applying only to people whose books and articles I read in the library, a bit like one might think of the term athlete, musician or artist. O no that can’t refer to me. I remember on the day I got my first article accepted, looking into the mirror and saying to myself, “Now, you are a scholar.” No matter that I was earning my living at the time as a tree trimmer. I had been received into the guild of those in the know. But that make-believe only lasted a few days, and today ten years later, it still feels utterly presumptuous to think of myself as a scholar in that sense. To deserve it I would have to become really learned, to write several books, achieve wide notoriety.

But the dictionary reminds us that there is another meaning of scholar that counterbalances some of the pretension of those images. A scholar is not only a master, but a “pupil of a master,” that is, a student. This slightly archaic definition may call to mind images of young boys at tall desks giggling behind their hands or getting their rear-ends paddled, but more often it conveys the sense of a person who loves school, who is hungry for knowledge, who is eager to learn, who has what Zen monks call “beginner’s mind.” In this sense I see scholars in front of me in my classroom everyday, from the young mechanical engineering major who cant get enough literature courses to the seventy year old returning student who always wanted to know more about Milton and Shakespeare. Or I think of Chaucer’s familiar description of the humble, impovershed scholar in the Canterbury Tales, who had to borrow money from his friends to buy expensive books, and lived a contented life without position or preferment because “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.”

Given these two senses of the word–both professor and student, expert and acolyte–all of us gathered here tonight share the name of scholar. The purpose of Emerson’s address and of this one that I am modelling after it is to explore what this word means, to seek an identity for the people to whom it applies, people whose identities may yet be in the process of formation.

Emerson begins his quest in the broadest possible context, by considering what the scholar is in relation to Humanity–what he calls The One Man, and what I’ll update to The Human Being. The scholar is the human being as a thinker. In a sense, all people are scholars and scholars partake of all other identities, but in fact, society has fragmented the human essence into many separate partial capacities, and tends to differentiate scholars–the learners and the teachers–from those who do other things–the artists, the politicians, the businesspeople, the soldiers. “The scholar is designated intellect,” says Emerson, that is, the scholar is one who lives the life of the mind. For the scholar, thinking is not merely an instrumentality dedicated to solving problems or achieving results. It is an ongoing activity as natural and necessary as eating and loving.

The life of the mind is largely invisible and unobserved. It goes on late at night in rooms with yellow lights or flickering screens when all other windows are darkened. It unfolds on walks up a canyon with a dog for company. It flashes at a moment of discovery in a library stack, it bubbles in the water where a swimmer does laps. Emerson’s scholar brings to my mind Rodin’s famous statue of The Thinker–a seated figure, but one whose muscles are flexed, whose limbs are twisted, who burns more calories than a hod carrier or a dancer in his inward furnace of struggle and concentration. He doesn’t wear a robe, he’s not affiliated with any institution or culture, he could be a cave man or Einstein.

Having defined the essence of the Scholar as the Human Being Thinking or intellect, Emerson now places the scholar in context. “Let us see him in his school and consider him in reference to the main influences he receives,” he says. If thinking is the scholar’s activity, what is it that inspires the thought? Emerson’s school is neither college nor curriculum, both of which he had forsaken at the time he gave this address. Real education is provided by three sources: Nature, the Past and Action.

Nature for Emerson is the world as it is given. Human intellect depends upon the intrinsic intelligibility of reality. Physical laws and processes, energy flows, biological ecosystems, the human body, society, language–the world at large is one of inexhaustible potential meaning. That infinite repository of system and order is evident to anyone who walks on a beach, stares at the stars, watches insects, climbs a tree.

Without the order in nature to stimulate and reward the activity of the mind, thinking would proceed in futile circles, significance would remain elusive, facts and things would remain discreet, fragmented, random. Instead, because of the intelligibility of nature, says Emerson, “the ambitious soul sits down before each refractory fact; one after another reduces all strange constitutions, all new powers, to their class and their law and goes on forever to animate the last fiber of organization, the outskirts of nature, by insight.” My own contact with this nature began early. Though I grew up in the concrete maze of upper Manhattan, my haven was the cliffs and oak groves of Fort Tryon Park, and on weekends my parents would take me to the end of the bus line for the beginning of hikes and picnics on trails along the Hudson River. From the time I was five, they sent me away to summer camp where I where I started collecting rocks and minerals, salamanders and tadpoles, butterflies and flowers and where I learned to ride a horse and milk a cow and feed a goat. It was those experiences that planted the seeds of confidence in the intelligiblity of the world in my mind and that still maintain it despite the fashionability of various modern scepticisms. As far as I can tell, any problem that can be formulated can eventually find a solution. Even the most radical of deconstructionists attempt to make deeper sense of what they proclaim to be the nonsense of traditional thought and language.

The second form of school for Emerson’s Scholar is the Past–human history and culture as it is preserved and conveyed in various artifacts, but primarily in books. And despite the alleged replacement of books by other media today, as I reflect on the vagaries of my own past as a scholar, my involvement with books has been the central motif in that personal history.

In his “theory of books,” Emerson distinguishes three values in the proper kind of reading. First of all, in books one finds dead fact transmuted into quick thought, perishable life transmuted into durable truth. Books process the world through the mind of one thinker and make it more accessible to others. To those imprisoned by their circumstances, they open doors to far flung reaches of reality. For me as a child and adolescent, reading was an antidote to my frustrated sense of limitation and boredom. Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels and the National Geographic Magazine opened my prison. Then it was the dozens of histories and biographies in the Landmark Books series. The books I encountered during the first year of college took me further–the works of Homer, Plato, Dante, Montaigne, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Freud–now to both outer and inner worlds that were remote and yet familiar.

The second educational value of books for Emerson is the intimacy they create between minds. “…the best books,” he says, “…impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads…There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said.” The books I read put into print experiences that I had but never dared to articulate. Their authors provided me with an intimate company I aspired to and treasured. They conferred a status sorely lacking in my real world social life. To each other we confessed our secrets–our most hideous fears, our most exalted aspirations–and we challenged, critiqued, debated and revised each other’s views.

In these conversations, I partook of the third value in books that Emerson praises, their power to stimulate. The mental effort it took to sustain conversation with such giants continually stretched my capacities. Comparing and contrasting, detecting lines of influence, spotting issues and assumptions, discovering multiple meanings and subtexts and allusions, deciphering intricacies of poetic diction and form, of narrative structure, of metaphorical correspondances rendered the page a labyrinth or a musical score. “One must be an inventor to read well…,” says Emerson. “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.”

By the beginning of my sophomore year in college, these three aspects of engagement with books strongly shaped my inner life. While writing a paper explaining the parable of the cave and the metaphor of the line in Plato’s Republic, I followed his argument right out of the world. If material reality was an illusion both masking and derived from the higher reality of ideal forms, so the many forms themselves must mask and be derived from a single form, in which all ideals–beauty, truth, pleasure, justice, and goodness–ultimately converge. The impact of grasping Plato’s principle of intelligibility–the principle that Emerson makes so much of in this essay–knocked me to the floor as I was sitting at the typewriter trying to complete the assignment.

A few months later, after I had read a detailed history of the Holocaust of the European Jews from which my parents had barely escaped, I was studying Thucydides’ account of the breakdown of order and meaning during a period of revolutionary civil war on the Greek Island of Corcyra in the fifth century B.C. That, coupled with my efforts to deal with Machiavelli’s arguments about the goodness of cruelty and lies in political life, plunged me into an existential funk that contradicted but never neutralized the Platonic ecstasy. My reality, like that of fellow scholars, Dante and Hamlet and Emerson, like the Thinker’s, was both Heaven and Hell.

My emotional life was also affected by the inheritance of the past–in books I read and in music I heard. Wagner’s operas, Thomas Mann’s fiction, Keats’ Odes, and a peculiar piece of literary criticism on Medieval romances called Love in the Western World transformed my beginner’s experiences with sex into voyages on stormy seas where love and death converge.

During my senior year, pursuing a curiousity about unusual states of consciousness stimulated by reading Romantic poetry, I wrote an explication of Coleridge’s drug-induced dream poem, “Kubla Khan,” for King’s Crown Essays, my college’s Journal of Undergraduate Literary Criticism. At this time the curiousity remained purely academic, but as college graduation approached I feared that much too great a proportion of my learning was coming through books. I had spent my summers in outdoor work and travel, but that was not enough. Like Emerson, I began to feel “There is a grave mischief” in the excess valuation of books. “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books…Hence instead of Man thinking we have the bookworm.”

Books meant a great deal, but I refused to be a bookworm. When a Harvard professor working for the Peace Corps recently created by President John Kennedy came to my campus to recruit liberal arts seniors, I eagerly applied. Though I’d been recommended for a fellowship to do graduate study in Europe, the prospect of going to Gabon, former French West Africa, following in the steps of Mr. Kurtz and Dr. Schweitzer was much more appealing. I needed to pursue my education by getting out of school. Action, says Emerson, forms the third component of education. “[It] is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen into Truth.”

The Peace Corps training that summer promised lots of action. We were up at five in the morning for phys. ed., spoke only French during meals, attended classes all day on language, economics, African Culture and International Relations, mingled with members of the dipomatic corps from all over the world, and stayed up late doing homework, having been told that our final selection to go abroad was largely dependent on our ability to learn. But that turned out not to be the case. Halfway through the training program, I was called into the director’s office and told by a man from the CIA that I had been weeded out and would have to leave the campus within 24 hours, because I was too intellectual and didn’t have the right attitude toward authority. My reply that I had been recruited with the slogan, “we want people who are intellectual and who question authority,” didn’t make him change his mind.

I returned home assured by my teachers and the program’s director that the decision would be appealed and that I was certain of being returned to the group, but a few days later I received a draft notice into the army. This was not the kind of action I had in mind. I applied to graduate school again and was rescued by a last minute readmission. But when classes started in September, I felt imprisoned by a government that ruled by hypocrisy, secret surveillance and a grand plan that had just come to light. In an internal memo entitled, “Channelling,” the head of the Selective Service System wrote that in requiring specified deferments, the draft was an effective way to control young men by forcing them either to stay in school or to find an occupation in defense work. While pursuing my appeal in the hope of still going to Africa, I worked on my first graduate paper. It was on Kafka’s The Castle, the story of a fellow my age who was trying to make his way through an inscrutable bureaucracy that confused and controlled his life. After Kennedy was assassinated that November, I abandoned the appeal, and though I worked and worked on the paper I couldn’t come up with a coherent interpretation of what was blocking the hero, and I had to take an incomplete in the course.

At the time of Kennedy’s death, English departments were still quite conservative, and a strong generation gap opened between graduate students and faculty. In our classes we were reading works like “The American Scholar,” and yet we were being trained to fit into the very system of bookishness and professionalism Emerson says is inimical to true scholarship. The desire to find education in action expressed itself in various student political organizations that were forming at the time–the student non violent coordinating committee, the students for democratic society, the free speech movement. Throughout my time in graduate school I pursued what I thought of as real scholarship, my real education, outside and often in conflict with the institution protecting me. At the same time, I was trying to integrate what I was learning into the established curriculum, to improve the system, and to get ahead within it.

First came drugs. In the spring of 1964, Ken Kesey and The Grateful Dead were distributing them on the Stanford campus. For someone who had been fascinated with the visionary poets to have sure-fire access to experiences those writers found almost inexpressible seemed like an amazing educational opportunity. At a time when middle class drug use was not yet perceived either as recreational or as destructive, those experiences reinforced my intellectual conviction that everyday reality was a more or less conventional construct subject to power and fashion. But as they undermined the authority of the official view, they sent me in search for alternative guides to the real–Eastern sages, religious mystics, visionary artists as well as contemporary Emersonian gurus like Aldous Huxley, Gary Snyder and Alan Watts. It was most gratifying to legitimate my own illegal activity and utterly disorient my authoritarian professor with a seminar paper praising the drug experience in the words of canonical authors like De Quincy, Baudelaire, Keats and William James.

After my first year in grad school, I spent the summer studying for language qualifying exams in Old English and Latin. This seemed once again like jumping through hoops rather than learning, but I compensated by doing it in New York’s East Village, living together with my former college girlfriend and hanging out at the Peace Eye Bookstore run by an anarchist poet and lead guitarist for the rock group, The Fugs. After my second year, I spent the summer teaching English at a segregated black college in Nashville. This too felt like real education and at the same time a struck a blow at several establishments, since I assigned the novel Invisible Man, which paints a devastating picture of the corrupt and anti-educational adminstration of just such a college.

The intervening year had been devoted largely to protests against the escalating Vietnam war. Some graduate students got together to establish The Free University of Palo Alto, a counter institution with a catalog of several dozen courses offering our version of what scholars study, for example, Blake’s prophecies, Revolutionary movements in Latin America, Native American mythology, and race relations in the United States. My roommate and I put together a class called Tradition and the Radical Imagination. Fifteen to twenty people met twice a month in our East Palo Alto house to discuss books that were current and challenging, books that drew upon traditional learning to arrive at radically unconventional ways of seeing and acting in the world. They included The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Wretched of the Earth, Understanding Media, The Human Condition, One Dimensional Man, The Little Red Book of Chairman Mao. These we felt were books that mattered, books that changed us, books that encouraged us to act.

Preparing for comprehensive exams during the third year of graduate school took second place to mounting more actions against the war and the university’s institutional affiliation with the armed forces carrying it out. But I was also beginning to recognize that my captive stay in academia was heading to a conclusion, and I had reasonably good prospects of finding a teaching job if I bit the bullet and finished my thesis. I was still vulnerable to the draft, and there was nothing but teaching I imagined I could do. So I had to find a topic for a scholarly dissertation, a 250 page term paper that supposedly would break new ground in research and be thoroughly documented. I both resented and feared the task, but I decided to look through all my papers and notes to try to discover an area of enough interest to me to warrant the mammoth effort. Finally I arrived upon the idea of pastoral–the literary convention of the search for a better life lived close to nature in the countryside, the poetry of innocence.

At first I collected as many texts both literary and historical as I could find which imagined that fantasy, largely a life without sexual repression lived in accordance with what Freud called The Pleasure Principle. There were plenty of examples of this in writings about the Golden Age, Gardens of Eden and Adonis, Bowers of Bliss and other forms of what the official scholars classified as libertine pastoral. Then there were the chronicles of sixteenth century religious sects like the Adamites and the family of love who walked around naked and practised group love, or like the Oneida community in 19th century America who practised a kind of tantric yoga to achieve religious transcendance through a control of sexuality. To me this was all fascinating and not just in an antiquarian sense. But finally I had to narrow my search to a standard literary period, a set of canonical authors, and a clearly defined topic that had not yet been researched. With regret I had to acknowledge that the better writers who treated the praise of innocence usually set it against a critique that pointed out its shortcomings, and so I settled on the debate between innocence and experience as my subject of investigation. That debate seemed to reflect the unresolved dilemmas of my own life, which at the time expressed themselves as a painful and protracted case of writer’s block. Though I’d found a topic, it was clear that I was not making what was called “acceptable progress toward completion.”

Nevertheless, in my fourth year of graduate school I was offered a job teaching English at my undergraduate Alma Mater and I married Jan, a a fellow student I had met the previous year in a Free University poetry seminar. Moving into the role of an assistant professor felt just like becoming a grad student four years earlier. I should have been celebrating, but it didn’t feel right. I identified myself more with my students than my colleagues and was offended at all the professional pride and posturing I encountered, partly because I hadn’t yet paid my own dues and partly because I hated the university’s institutional support of the war. I continued to read and teach the classics, but I could bring more conviction to the analysis of Bob Dylan songs and Beatles movies. My only scholarly writing was a pair of articles on the influence of Blake and the Bible on the work of underground cartoonist R. Crumb.

The first spring I taught at Columbia, 850 students took over four university buildings to protest the university’s sponsorship of defense department research on counter-insurgency warfare tactics in Vietnam and its building a college gymnasium on public parkland in Harlem. Jan and I joined them and went to jail, where I felt like a good Emersonian scholar, a modern-day abolitionist, a socratic lover of wisdom back on the track of combining learning with action. That summer we pitched our tent at Total Loss Farm, a newly formed hippy commune in Vermont. It was a true pastoral setting, an old farmhouse and barn at a remote intersection of dirt roads where dozens of young people came and went freely. We lived out of the garden and orchard, went skinny dipping in the Beaver Pond, made music and theatre around the campfire. During most of the mornings and afternoons I worked desperately to finish at least one chapter of the dissertation while Jan banged away at the portable typewriter transcribing my notes inside the tent.

The next fall the chapter came back with my advisor’s expressions of disappointment over its inadequate scholarship and unproven claims. Its central focus was Edmund Spenser’s set of pastoral dialogues, The Shepheardes Calender. After all that work, I still hadn’t found the solution to the specific research problems I had set for myself. Why are all the many characters in it either adolescents or old folk? And how is it that the collection’s central protagonist, a melancholy youth on the verge of adulthood, suddenly turns to an old man on the verge of death in the final segment of the poem? After that setback I knew the jig was up. I was unable to continue writing, and without a completed Ph.D., my contract would be terminated soon. In June 1970, shortly after the Kent state massacre of students protesting the expansion of the war into Cambodia, Jan and I sold our furniture and packed our provisions into the Ford Econoline van we had fitted out as a camper. We took a book on edible plants, another one on organic gardening and five thousand dollars to buy land. I started to burn the note cards and drafts of my dissertation, but then had second thoughts and stashed them in a closet in the home of my parents. We headed to Canada. Finally commencement. For the first time I was getting out of school and into a world where I could be a real scholar, a shepherd instead of a bookworm.

For the next nine years we lived on an old homestead at the end of Highway 101, six hours north of Vancouver British Columbia. My reading of pastoral literature prepared me for the glories of springtime frolics with baby children, baby goats and ducklings on the pond showered with apple blossoms, and also for wet stovewood, leaky pipes, sick kids, and poverty. My teachers in that school were the same ones that Shakespeare’s Duke Senior found in the Forest of Arden:

The seasons difference, as the icy fang

And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind

Which when it bites and blows upon my body

Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say

“This is no flattery; these are counsellors

That feelingly persuade me what I am…

There the debate between innocence and experience played itself out yearly in the contrasts between spring and fall, summer and winter. There, again to quote Shakespeare,

…our life, exempt from public haunt,

[Found] tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

Sermons in stone and good in everything.

Emerson follows Shakespeare as he describes the scholar’s education through action: “…Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors…to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perception….Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom.”

During the first three years of living really close to the bone, the learning curve was steepest. After surviving on less than subsistence farming, scavenging dumpsters and junkyards, odd jobs, and shift work in a lumber mill, I found my way back into teaching: first a summer camp for kids, then adult basic education and later university transfer courses at a local satellite of a community college, where Jan worked as an administrator. After eight years, we had two children, steady income, a comfortable house on a lovely farm in a community we took part in developing. But once the problems of survival were overcome, we both felt a hunger for more education.

I retrieved my old dissertation materials and started thinking once again about the research questions. Why was the pastoral world populated only by youthful swains and lasses and by craggy old folks. Why were there no middle aged adults or parents? I found the answer in my own feeling of having exhausted the motives that drove me to the fringes of the civilized world. At thirty five years old I no longer felt a nostalgic yearning for youth. Now I wanted to be a grown up and live in society. The homestead in the country was a great place to come back to in old age, but I was ready for the city, the university, a world of expanded challenges and opportunities, the place for adults, not adolescents or retirees. Now I could also understand why at the end of The Shepheardes Calender and many other pastoral works, the young protagonist leaves the idyllic setting in search of “fresh woods and pastures new.” Rather than about reverting back to childhood, pastoral was really about passing through that reversion as part of the process of growing up. For me the next stage in the process was to leave the countryside, report my findings, and complete the dissertation.

The war was over and Reagan was about to be elected president. The university I had spurned opened a path of reentry. We lived in cheap graduate student family housing with our two kids. Jan found a job as assistant dean, I spent two years reading in the stacks and typing in a tiny closet of a study. Difficult work, but no more so than building a house or patching a fence. Book learning was now a romance of detective work and creativity. I wanted the knowledge of the past to better understand what was happening in my own life. I scoured facsimiles of medieval manuscripts to trace the history of the verse debate poem, I mastered the paradigms of renaissance rhetorical training manuals, I searched out medical treatises on geriatric and adolescent psychology in the seventeenth century. I finished five long chapters laying out my general theory of the developmental psychology of pastoral before returning to the specific explication of The Shepheardes Calender. It was not until I got to the last page of my commentary on the last of its twelve eclogues that the answer to the riddle that had eluded me for so long suddenly revealed itself. The aged boy who dies at the end is not the character of the narrator, but only his youth finally hitting the dust and making room for his reborn young adult identity to grow. I couldn’t keep this insight to myself. I ran next-door shouting Eureka, and insisted on explaining the whole argument from scratch to our neighbor, Maggie, who, nine months pregnant, smiled and nodded and said she understood until I was ready to calm down.

Eighteen years after entering graduate school, I received the degree in 1981. Now that I wanted to be a conventional scholar, there were no jobs. Instead, I found occasional sections of composition to teach in community colleges, short term editing assignments, and an alternative career path as an arborist. But I was hooked on writing–mining the dissertation for articles and revising it into a book, turning out reviews, conference papers, ghost writing projects. “A strange process too,” says Emerson, “this, by which experience is converted into thought as a mulberry leaf is converted into satin. The manufacture goes forward at all hours.”

Three years later the University once again came to my rescue, with a temporary job as a lecturer teaching freshmen in the Stanford Western Culture Program. Though clearly in a marginal position among academic superstars, I was ignited by the constant contact with minds that were much more powerful than mine. Having outgrown my interest in pastoral, I groped for a new research project that could sustain motivation over a long period. I remembered the classical model of the writer’s career. The young poet should work in pastoral and then take on a commitment to epic, the major endeavor of the prime of life. Epic was defined by large scope and by its heroic and political subject matter. Its protagonist was the warrior, the political leader. Politics once again was rearing its head in my life. Reagan was rattling missiles at the Russians, Helen Caldicott was lecturing on the immediate threat of nuclear war, Jonathan Schell had just published the Fate of the Earth. By chance I came across a pamphlet by Desiderius Erasmus written in 1518 called “The Complaint of Peace” which analyzed and critiqued the Machiavellian war policies of European monarchs. I persuaded my colleagues to include this work on our Western Culture reading list and started getting curious about the existence of other anti-war literature during the early modern period. I remembered Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida as surprisingly modern in its hostility to war and its mockery of militarism. I started looking for other traces of pacifist culture in classical, medieval and early modern civilization and found that there was evidence of suppressed anti-war traditions most historians ignored or denied. Such evidence could possibly weaken the authority of militaristic thinking in general, could lead to the discovery of significant new texts and unfamiliar interpretations of old ones. This was a project that could generate grants and publications, job opportunities and advancement, as well as goodness and truth.

Soon after I found this long-term project, I also found a permanent job at Cal Poly as a regular member of the faculty, where I now play out the official role of American Scholar. Looking back five years, I can construe that transition as a happy ending to my academic melodrama. But there are ways in which my present situation is neither happy nor, hopefully, an ending. Starting every new project is frought with terror. Writing requires inordinate amounts of time and patience. It usually takes years to get what one produces into print, and by then what once looked significant can appear trivial or derivative. And though scholarly writing is by and large easier to get published than most other kinds, very little of it actually gets read, and usually by only a few people who rarely provide feedback. One often asks oneself the social value of one’s efforts. Should such activities be supported by funding bodies? Wouldn’t one be better off using free time either for recreation or for community service? And then there’s the question of what’s next? With the security of academic tenure, does one find a new external sources of motivation, does one plunge into another messy form of action, does one revert to being a bookworm?

Emerson addresses some of these questions in the last section of his essay, entitled The Scholar’s Duty. That duty, he says, is simply to enlighten:

“to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances…. [The scholar] plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. …he is the world’s eye. …In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach, and bide his own time–happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly.”

Carrying out that duty means to isolate oneself, to be mentally independent, and self-confident enough not to need much recognition. One side of me says this is false idealization–my search for truth is sponsored and guided by the institutional framework of punishment and reward, promotion and status. But another side of me accepts Emerson’s claim that the scholar’s mission is self-sustaining. I find that claim confirmed in the story of my own life which I’ve recited to you tonight, a story in which I’ve discovered that my earliest experience of being a scholar is now the one to which I want to return. Rather than translating my personal concerns into literary and historical research projects, as I’ve done since returning from the woods, now I want to go back to where I was as an undergraduate in relation to books and letters: use them to widen the horizon, communicate with distant minds, stimulate my dormant imagination. Rather than speak in an impersonal voice to prove myself learned to colleagues and to wield authority over students, I want to find a voice in which to address you all as fellow scholars, fellow searchers, here tonight, after hours, in a voluntary meeting of the minds, practising together the activity of the Human Being Thinking.

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