American Renaissance, Education & Philosophy

Anita Patterson: "True Books in a True Spirit"

Inspired by her comments at the Creating Waldens book launch event in September 2009, the Ikeda Center asked Anita Patterson, Professor of English at Boston University, to develop some of the ideas she shared that day into a formal essay for our website. Here, she draws upon her own experience teaching the literature of the American Renaissance to explain her vision of literature as a means for engaging the interior dimensions of learning. Her essay is called “True Books in a True Spirit.”

“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.” Thus wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, a classic of American literature that remains a staple of curriculums everywhere. Ironically, though, universities now customarily demand technical expertise and the ability to retain and convey information far more than they encourage students to read well in Thoreau’s sense. 

Thoreau’s life experiment at Walden Pond nevertheless is an excellent example of how and what we should learn as students of the humanities, and provides clues as to what it might mean to “read true books in a true spirit.” For instance, while at Walden, Thoreau hoed beans, but what he meant to show by this is how relatively little it costs to obtain food for our bodies, and how much more time, thought, and dialogue are required to provide for our spiritual needs, as well as for those of our children and future generations. 

What do we sacrifice when we focus only on the technical and informational aspects of learning? As a teacher of literature, I have done my best to meet Thoreau’s high standard for humanistic education. Not every school or classroom will be a Walden, but we can and should always try, because the benefits for students – and teachers – are many and profound.

The value of such an education is immediately apparent to anyone who has recently spent time in the college classroom. First of all, showing students a path to community and tradition through their acts of reading helps them to overcome their sense of isolation, and to find vast reserves of wisdom accumulated by past generations. Endowed with this new and precious sense of history, they find comfort in the knowledge that the troubles they face today have been – as Thoreau’s mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted to himself in his journal – pondered and recorded in books already on the shelf:  “Literature has been before us, wherever we go.” (Emerson, Journals, volume 7)

It is always a joy to see young people experience the wonderful, surprising pleasure of hearing their own thoughts put down on paper by someone they never met and who lived so long ago. This experience of discovery lifts their spirits, and makes them look forward to their day, instead of dreading it. The task of education is no longer a burdensome, mechanizing routine; it becomes a source of truth, community, and hope.

Viewed in these terms, literature and humanistic education offer much more than a means of communicating ideas over time and space; they also provide students with a cherished, necessary form of spiritual sustenance. “It is remarkable, the character of pleasure we derive from books,” Emerson observed in “The American Scholar”; it is almost as if some mysteriously “pre-established harmony in nature, some foresight of souls that were to be…[prepared] stores for their future wants, like the fact observed in insects, who lay up food before the death of the young grub they shall never see.”  Without the nourishing resources of humanistic education, our powers of discrimination, perception, and taste threaten to become dulled by the shocking inundation of stimuli and routine of modern city life. “See,” Emerson says, “the tragic consequence. The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”

How, amidst all these institutional pressures to compete and achieve, do we help students to become what Emerson calls active souls?

Anita Patterson

Here, as teachers, we are presented with a terrible predicament. How and under what conditions do we best serve our students? How, amidst all these institutional pressures to compete and achieve, the bureaucratic nightmare of the modern university system, the economic crisis, and so on, do we help them to become what Emerson calls active souls? “The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul…. The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of every kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, they say – let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates.” (“The American Scholar”) 

No student can learn or think creatively when he or she is focusing on the next midterm or paper deadline or grade, worrying about their roommate’s drinking problem, or the war in Afghanistan, or catching the bus so that they can get to their job after class ends. But these are all very real and potentially overwhelming concerns, and students feel them now more than ever. So the question becomes: How do we set these pressures aside so we can learn creatively and work to realize our vision of a better future?

Humanistic education is a crucial resource at such moments, because it instills the value of this active soul and, in doing so, teaches students that “success” is not measured by how much money, fame, or power we have over others, but through our ability to give, the way poets do, through innumerable, small, invisible acts of love that contribute to the well-being of the larger community:

Canst thou, thy pride forgot, like nature pass
Into the winter night’s extinguished mood?
Canst thou shine now, then darkle,
And being latent, feel thyself no less?
As when the all-worshipped moon attracts the eye,
The river, hill, stems, foliage, are obscure,
Yet envies none, none are unenviable. (Emerson, “Musketaquid”)

Life in these times is so stressful and uncertain; rethinking the meaning of success is perhaps the hardest but most important lesson of all. Without a sense of our doing anything meaningful, without affirmation of success in this truest sense of the word, we will just give up, resigning ourselves to what Thoreau called lives of “quiet desperation” (Walden). Like all of us, students need to develop a worldview that will help them look beyond shallow measures of success, and thus protect their dignity and self-worth from the incessant, potentially crushing bombardments of daily life. Learning to read well is a step towards having the confidence, independence, and spiritual means they will need to accomplish the new, original plan for living they have invented for themselves.

Finally, literature helps to solve our predicament as teachers by fostering truthful, substantive dialogue in the classroom. After reading a poem together, students learn to share their interpretations, and this is inherently satisfying, consoling and reassuring. They take risks, by moving from veiled, figurative, and oblique statements to those which are more literal, declarative, and direct. They discover confidence that comes with knowing what has been thought and said in distant eras and civilizations; but, equally important, they also learn to acknowledge their own limitations in the arduous task of reading well. 

At their very best, poems speak to us like intimate friends, but they are also enduring monuments that should be approached with a healthy respect for their distance and difference from us, because they always say more than what we as readers will hear at one sitting. We can and should reread them; they are a perpetual source of provocation, suggestion, and renewal. Best of all, they cannot be read just for the plot. Their cadences enforce a restorative pause in our hectic day, leaving us calm and hopeful. Prosody mysteriously ritualizes the poet’s presentation, lending qualities of the sacred to everyday incidents, as Emerson shows in “The Rhodora”:

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods.

Reading great and memorable works of literature, we not only grasp their meaning by seeking out the spirit in which they were written. We also learn, through their example, to speak to each other from the heart.