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Writers Behind Barbed Wire

In response to:

Emerson Behind Barbed Wire from the January 18, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

I feel I must respond adversely to [Lewis Mumford’s] sharp criticism of the Harvard edition of Emerson’s journals as well as to his general statements about “the mock-scientific assumptions governing the pursuit of the humanities today.”

Mumford acknowledges that the Belknap edition was intended for scholars. Yet he feels that despite the general excellence of the edition (in its annotation, collation, typography, use of original manuscripts, and so on), “the editors have made him [Emerson] unreadable.” According to Mumford, “they have lost nothing except Emerson and the many potential readers who have been prevented by this automated editing from having direct access to his mind.” Mumford concludes that the real culprit is not the editors, but “the Academic Establishment of which they [the editors] are part.”

It seems to me that Mr. Mumford’s usually excellent judgment is called into question in this case. The Harvard University edition was intended from the outset to be the scholarly, definitive edition of Emerson’s Journals. Unfortunately, the price of these volumes had to be high. But are not all books skyrocketing today? The Harvard volumes may seem exorbitant in price but they are no more expensive than other comparable books. Moreover, there are more than ten inexpensive paperback editions of Emerson’s writings, by such excellent authors as Alfred Kazin, Mark van Doren, Robert E. Spiller, Reginald Cook, Brooks Atkinson, and Stephen Whicher, among others—all these editions permit the non-scholarly reader to come into direct contact with Emerson’s mind; to sense the quintessence of his tremendous presence and to have direct access to his mind. Like the Yale Boswell or the California Dryden, the Harvard Emerson was intentionally aimed at a limited audience: an audience of specialists in American literature who need and who will indeed cherish this superb labor of love and sweat.

So far as the mock-scientific assumptions governing the pursuit of the humanities today are concerned, Mumford’s charge is unwarranted. The humanities are today more varied in the type of persons interested in them than ever before. It is therefore thoroughly understandable that one segment of these interested persons—the scholars—should wish a scientifically prepared text. This does not imply that all scholars have lost their “humanizing” qualities, nor that the entire academic establishment has lost its values and gone berserk.

Experts in American literature, like all other experts, are either humane or not humane; they possess the mind of Emerson or do not; and the scholarly presentation of the Harvard edition will have nothing to do with shaping their over-all humanity.

G. S. Rousseau

Leverett House

Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.

Lewis Mumford replies:

The questions that my review has raised turn out, I fear, to be too far-reaching to be handled through an exchange of letters. About the performance that occasioned the review there is, it seems, on Mr. William Gibson’s own statement, no serious misunderstanding on either side. Perhaps, indeed, we understand each other too well! Mr. Gibson and Mr. Rousseau have only reaffirmed the general philosophy that my review, taking the edition of the Emerson Journals as a case in point, sought to challenge. Naturally, I am gratified, though not surprised, to find Mr. Edmund Wilson at my side; and I am equally delighted to have Mr. Lewis Leary’s qualified academic backing. But if I attempted to answer Messrs Rousseau and Gibson further, I would only in effect be restating the argument they have rejected. Now I take it for granted that, in the field of literary scholarship, there is room for a wide variety of temperaments, interests, and aims. What I quarrel with is the fact that the sterile canon of judgment used in editing the Journals is rapidly leveling down this variety, by making mechanical replication and scrupulous non-selectivity the main criterion of scholarly merit. Unfortunately, as Mr. Wilson points out, the people committed to these principles are favored by the rich Foundations, and in turn, as professors and heads of departments, they perpetuate their principles in selecting and promoting their younger colleagues. And it is really no answer for Mr. Gibson to say: Ah! but this is precisely the kind of scholar whom this new edition of Emerson’s Journals is designed to serve. What I am earnestly begging the academic community to ponder is the probable results of their method upon the personal development and literary judgment of the next generation of scholars, who are in effect being conditioned to give the major share of their time, their energies, and their thoughts to the minutiae of scholarship, and who will eventually lose all interest in the form and content and purpose of literature, except as an excuse for exercising their professional expertise. If I have ventured to say the first word on this subject, it is because I know that the last word must be said by those whose assumptions I have questioned. It is not for me, but for the academic community, to carry this discussion further.

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