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- Author: David Herd x
Modern American literature began with a statement of enthusiasm from Emerson's writing in Nature. 'Enthusiasm', in Emerson, is a knowing word. Sometimes its use is as description, invariably approving, of a historic form of religious experience. Socrates' meaning of enthusiasm, and the image of the enthusiast it throws up, is crucial to this book. The book is a portrait of the writer as an enthusiast, where the portrait, as will become clear, carries more than a hint of polemic. It is about the transmission of literature, showing various writers taking responsibility for that transmission, whether within in their writing or in their cultural activism. Henry David Thoreau's Walden is an enthusiastic book. It is where enthusiasm works both in Immanuel Kant's sense of the unbridled self, and in William Penn's sense of the 'nearer' testament, and in Thoreau's own sense of supernatural serenity. Establishing Ezra Pound's enthusiasm is a fraught and complicated business. Marianne Moore composed poems patiently, sometimes over several years. She is a poet of things, as isolated things - jewels, curios, familiar and exotic animals, common and rare species of plant - are often the ostensible subjects of her poems. Homage to Frank O'Hara is a necessary book, because the sum of his aesthetic was to be found not just in his writing, but also in his actions to which only friends and contemporaries could testify. An enthusiastic reading of James Schuyler brings to the fore pleasure, the sheer pleasure that can come of combining, or mouthing, or transcribing.
This introduction presents an overview of key concepts covered in this book. The book is neither a theory nor a history of enthusiasm. What it is, rather, is an exploration of a critical idea: an account of how enthusiasm, as developed in the histories of philosophy and religion, entered and was altered by American writing. To put it another way, what the book offers is a portrait of the writer as an enthusiast, where the portrait, as will become clear, carries more than a hint of polemic. To sketch in the implications of the critical idea, the history of American literature is barely thinkable without its enthusiasts. There are numerous other writers it would have been appropriate to discuss here, numerous other writers who, for varying reasons, might have been named enthusiasts. A linking feature among the writers is the attention they gave to the act of composition.
Henry David Thoreau's epigraph is rich. Thoreau teaches us is that to approach writing and the world through an idea of enthusiasm has radical implications for thinking about, among other things, economy, epistemology and language. Or to put these categories in terms of the present participles Thoreau preferred, Thoreau's enthusiasm has radical things to teach us about 'circulating', 'knowing' and 'deriving'. Thoreau counts himself an enthusiast, or at least as someone who has enthusiasm, in the opening chapter of Walden. Early in Walden, Thoreau deftly positions his enthusiasm between ideas of knowing (cherishing) and ideas of measuring and calculating (reckoning). The problem with enthusiasm is that it renders 'determining oneself' impossible. It is an enthusiastic gesture, except that where for Immanuel Kant there is a more or less violent derangement in enthusiasm for Thoreau, for whom Eastern religions were among the tributaries, enthusiasm is a moment of serenity.
As he was writing Moby-Dick, from February 1850 to November 1851, as he composed the book he felt certain was his greatest work, Herman Melville understood himself to be inspired. This understanding is evident wherever during that period Melville catches himself in the act of composition. Critics have long since understood Moby-Dick in terms of American religion. In American Renaissance Peter Matthiessen understood its presentation of the ongoing crisis in American religion to be central to the novel's achievement. To build on the story sketched out in the introduction, Quakerism, from its inception, was understood as one form among many of religious enthusiasm. One way of thinking about enthusiasm against the religious background being sketched into this chapter is as a coming or speaking through. Melville's language can be thought of in terms of a coming through, his writing itself as being, in some sense, enthusiastic.
Establishing Ezra Pound's enthusiasm is a fraught and complicated business. Fraught because, in all his voluminous writings, 'enthusiasm' is a word Pound rarely uses, and when he does it is without great charge, and typically to derogatory effect. Generally speaking, in fact, 'enthusiasm' features little in high Modernist writing, though Marianne Moore presents an exception. Modernism, as directed by Pound, involved rebranding art as an anti-Romantic, aristocratic activity. Enthusiasm, from this point of view, was a Romantic idea, rehabilitated but also, as Jon Mee argues, regulated in the face of eighteenth-century political suspicions, suspicions recently rearticulated for Modernism by Nietzsche. To complete Pound's analogy, if melancholy was integral to Shakespeare's major work, so distribution should be integral to major work of the Modern age, and The Cantos therefore can be properly understood as a distributive and distributing work.
This chapter shows how Marianne Moore's Comment series articulates a relation to things which takes the form of a circulatory aesthetic, which has a close bearing on her handling of language, and which she names enthusiastic. Her sense of enthusiasm, however, was finely calibrated, taking the outward, projective, transitive form that it did in proportion as her suspicion hardened towards conventional images of creativity. And to get the measure of this, to see how she came to formulate her defining attitude to words and things, it is necessary first to consider the prose she wrote prior to taking up the editorship of The Dial. The double operation - valuing and transmitting - is central to Marianne Moore's poetry, to its key devices and techniques. It is as an enthusiast that Moore gives such thought to the way she displays her materials.
This chapter talks about the enthusiasm with which Frank O'Hara embraced and motivated the New York art world of the 1950s and 1960s, and shows enthusiasm to be a principle of his criticism. The point is to establish enthusiasm as a principle of O'Hara's own creative work. By the example of Jackson Pollock, O'Hara sought new ways of doing writing, the intention of which was a reconfiguration of the relation between writer, poem and world. It is this reconfiguration of writing itself that the author wants to dwell on now, fundamental as O'Hara's changing sense of the act of composition is to questions of audience, content and theme in his work. 'A Step Away from Them', written on 16 August 1956 stands, in this book's account of literary enthusiasm, as a major moment in the development of America's written consciousness; of the consciousness made possible by American writing.
James Schuyler's best writing steadfastly resists a drift towards the transcendental, whose simplifying of the world into signs is what, in many respects, his poetry exists to counteract. A voracious reader, capable of brilliant developments of major Modern writers, Schuyler arrived at a poetry which, in its qualities of sound and syntax, constituted a constantly deft acknowledgement of the way things happen. At his best he achieved a language for the relation between the self and his or her environment, where the self could be appreciated as just another effect. One can well call this poetic enthusiasm, with all the tensions of experiment, mediation and immediacy that phrase implies, with its complications and richnesses of voice. But it is also well to identify it as 'Freely Espousing'; where what the phrase implies is an unfettered utterance, and where the cause is language and its capacity to disclose.
Enthusiasm, it has been argued, is integral to what Modern American literature, in particular, knows; enthusiasm being, as each of the writers discussed here has one way or another understood it, the state of mind in which composition is possible. It is also integral to the circulation of literature, enthusiasm and enthusiasts having been, at various moments, crucial to the renovation and continuation of literary activity. The word for both James Schuyler's 'urge' and Ezra Pound's 'impulse', for the state of mind each associates with writing, has historically been enthusiasm. Enthusiasm fully understood, as an intense, sometimes ruinous relation of the mind to its object, is integral to the creation and the circulation of literature. Modern American writing, in so far as it can be understood to have its foundations in Emerson, had its origins, as he observed, in a fully developed, historically aware, enthusiastic view of the world.