Gordis
ENG BC3180y
Spring 2004

 

READING "EXPERIENCE"
AND THE "LAST OF THE ANTI-SLAVERY LECTURES"

At the risk of repeating myself, "Experience," too, is a difficult and in some ways painful essay. In it, Emerson considers, among other things, the death of his young son Waldo. And at many points, the essay seems despairing in tone. It’s tempting to see Waldo’s death as the source of that despair, but once again, the actual history of the essay’s composition complicates that reading. As the note on page 1192 of the Norton Anthology points out, "David W. Hill has shown that some of the more optimistic passages derive from journal entries made after Waldo’s death, while some of the darker passages were first drafted before 1842, so no simple autobiographical reading is tenable." Pay attention, as you read, to the contrast between the gloomier passages and the more positive ones. Do these passages simply alternate, or does the essay move from gloom to redemption?

Consider the essay’s opening carefully. How does the poem that stands as an epigraph relate to the body of the essay? Examine the images of the essay’s first paragraph. How are they similar to those that we’ve seen in the other Emerson texts that we’ve studied? Does this essay seem to mark a significant departure from positions we’ve seen Emerson take elsewhere?

We’ve talked about the problem of isolation in Emerson’s other texts. How does it appear here? Pay attention to the last paragraph on page 1193 (running to the top of page 1194), and to the second paragraph on page 1203 as well.

Watch for other images we’ve encountered before. Circles and spheres abound, as you’ll see on page 1204. Are they the same circles we’ve seen before?

Note also that there are many images of vision and optics. Perception and problems of perception are very much at issue in this essay. What things affect perception here? Pay attention to Emerson’s discussion of mood and temperament. What’s the relationship between temperament and the self in this text? What about the relationship between temperament and mood?

Once you've finished wrestling with "Experience," consider the "Last of the Anti-Slavery Lectures." Emerson wrote in his journal on August 1, 1852:

I waked at night, & bemoaned myself, because I had not thrown myself into this deplorable question of Slavery, which seems to want nothing so much as a few assured voices. But then, in hours of sanity, I recover myself, & say, God must govern his own world, & knows his way out of this pit, without my desertion of my post which has none to guard it but me. I have quite other slaves to free than those negroes, to wit, imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man,-far retired in the heaven of invention, &, which, important to the republic of Man, have no watchman, or lover, or defender, but I.- (Norton Anthology of American Literature 4th ed. 1165)

He has consequently been remembered by many as aloof from the antislavery movement. In fact, though he was suspicious of reformers and of reform movements, Emerson became an active abolitionist in the 1850s. How does his treatment of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Bill in this address relate to the ideas expressed in "Self-Reliance," "Experience," and the journal entry quoted above? How does Emerson present the relationship between the individual and the nation here? What strategies does he use to oppose slavery? What thematic or stylistic continuities do you see between this address and the other Emerson texts that you've read?

You’re doing very well with Emerson so far. Don’t hesitate to see me with questions, and avail yourselves of the bulletin board, too. It’s fine to post specific questions about particular passages.

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