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Ralph Waldo Emerson


Review of McMillin, T. S. Our Preposterous Use of Literature: Emerson and the Nature of Reading. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Books should be read in the same spirit as nature should be read, as "biotexts." Ah, but what is the ideal reading of nature (and thus books), especially for Americans today? That's a question which McMillin addresses indirectly, but one which perhaps only a devoted rereader of Emerson's Nature and "The Method of Nature" can grasp. To have more questions than answers, questions which continually open into new questions, is much of what this book and its vision of Emersonian (of Emerson as defined by Emerson) reading is about.

Much of this book carefully dissects the many ways that Emerson has been misread and foreclosed, forced into cultural, biographical, and literary theses, by those who knew him as well as later writers and scholars, most of whom are safely dead or retired. Few writers have been "consumed" and repackaged as much as Emerson still is, to some degree. Yet few of these readers/critics have managed to suggest the rich and slippery complexities of Emerson's words as McMillin does in his final chapter, "Toward a Natural Philosophy of Reading," following in the steps of Stanley Cavell and, of course, Emerson, who left many clues on what creative rereading and interpretation should be.

Midway through the book, the parallel between reading nature and texts begins to emerge:

[Texts] are lively, unstable, contradictory, and thus comparable to the text of nature or the world we survey. Hence a method of reading the results in a conquest of a text's nature is perhaps analogous to our understanding and use ("wise" or otherwise) of nature itself. A closer look at some of the way this conquest proceeds might enable a critical method of interpretation that treats text (and nature) differently. Instead of promoting a practice of reading that masters the subject, consumes the text, and tends toward the end of interpretation, an alternative, "natural" reading would attempt a lively, responsible, continued consideration of the nature of a text in such a manner as to propagate that nature. [p. 87]
McMillin's "natural philosophy of reading" is ambitious, provisional criticism involving three elements:
Movement--in and through the biotext, foregoing settlement for the necessary journey from bivouac to bivouac; transfer between these bivouacs or perspectives and literary texts, which opens up a better view of the perspectives themselves, the texts to be perceived, and the intervals traversed by the interpreter. Vision--of the vistas afforded by movement, making shift, and transfer; of ways of seeing as well as visible phenomena, of the directions in which we might move next and of the action necessary to go that way, of the time and space of our movement and the results. Participation...actively moving and seeing, taking part in reading but also acknowledging one's part in reading; "the action of partaking" in text and biotext....Given these elements, reading becomes a thoroughly textual, contextual, and intertextual experience, a thinking of and in the biotext, a thinking between text and biotext, between perspective and text, and a thinking onward from the contexts in which meaning occurs. [p. 135]
He elaborates on this philosophy by considering Emerson's great essay on "Experience," which acknowledges the transitoriness of life and interpretation, celebrating moments and expanding into the future. There is much to be learned by "untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility," as Emerson says in "Prospects." It becomes clear--to this reader, anyhow-- that reading Emerson, as with the reading of nature, means being prepared to be surprised, to keep learning and finding new meanings, to find new connections, to never fool ourselves that we have "mastered" his texts--preposterous uses of literature perhaps, but isn't that why we read and teach?

Ann Woodlief, Fall 2003