“What we are? and Whither we tend?”: The Emerson Society at 20 Wesley T. Mott Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Reprinted from Emerson Society Papers 23 [Spring 2011]: 1, 13-15.)
In 1841, Emerson stated that the “main interest which any aspects of the Times can have for us, is . . . the light which they can shed on the wonderful questions, What we are? and Whither we tend?” (CW l:182) The “main interest” of this paper is to assess What—as an Emerson Society—we are, and Whither—as a community of Emerson scholars—we tend. First, a backward glance at how the Emerson Society came to be and what we’ve accomplished in twenty years.
In the beginning—July 1988—several Emerson, and a couple of Alcott, editors (Joel Myerson, Harry Orth, Ron Bosco, Al von Frank, Dan Shealy, Doug Wilson, and I) converged on the Houghton Library for two or three weeks. After nine-hour days poring over manuscripts, in conversations over coffee and other beverages, it struck us that several societies were devoted to the study of American authors (notably Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and Twain—indeed, the venerable Thoreau Society was founded in 1941); none, however, was devoted to the figure with whom these writers creatively engaged, and without whose example and encouragement, of course, Thoreau would never have come to anything. An unspoken ideological and professional identity crisis underlay these discussions, for here were editors inclined to textual, historical, and biographical scholarship, immersed in the archival remains of great writers, at a time when our more fashionable colleagues had announced the Death of the Author as a critical construct.
The stars for an Emerson Society continued to align the next June when the Cal State Symposium on American Literature met in San Diego to form an American Literature Association (ALA), described with refreshing simplicity as “a coalition of the societies devoted to the study of American authors.” Though my subsequent West Coast trips were three-day treks on Amtrak, I was then fog-bound at the Worcester airport. But Joel Myerson and others represented a prospective Emerson Society. And as we shall see, our destiny was to be closely linked with that of ALA.
First, to be a legal, functioning body, we needed a constitution and bylaws. The Emerson Society has achieved something of a reputation for order and efficiency, half a dozen newer author societies actually having consulted our founding documents. But let me come clean. I’m no lawyer, and in the fall of 1989 I corresponded with John Idol and Julian Mason of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society and talked with my WPI colleague Kent Ljungquist of the Poe Studies Association— to all of whom we owe an enduring debt of gratitude—and I shamelessly adapted their constitutions and bylaws to our needs. Kent, who was then editing the Poe newsletter, also advised in creating our newsletter; also from WPI came design expertise from the publications office, a founding grant from the Research Development Council, and the first of an annual twenty-year printing subvention from WPI provosts. I sent proposals to the MLA for a founding panel and for a small room in which to hold our organizing meeting at the December Convention in Washington— but was told tersely that MLA was bursting with special societies and that there was no room for us. The MLA program indeed was engorged with groups whose topics have made the Convention the annual butt of ridicule in the national media, calling to mind the comic strip in which Calvin tells Hobbes, “I used to hate writing assignments, but now I enjoy them. I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! Want to see my book report?” Hobbes reads the title: “‘The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes.’” Relishing the sound of his own words read aloud, Calvin declares, “Academia here I come!” So MLA had no room for THE essential U.S. cultural figure, the focus of what Larry Buell in 1984 had termed the “Emerson Industry.”
A handful of us decided to meet undercover anyway at MLA. Getting the word out required a PR campaign—word-of-mouth, published announcements, and fliers placed at strategic locations at the major conference hotels. I will never forget (nor will they) the humiliation my teenage children, Sarah and Natt, had to endure when—already at the age when they’d rather not be seen in public with their parents—Sandy and I required them to wear Christopher Cranch “transparent eye- ball” sweatshirts—not only at the conference hotel but during their entire stay in Washington. A surprising twenty-seven joined the clandestine founding meeting in Joel Myerson’s suite, where we elected officers and an advisory board; named our newsletter and chose Doug Wilson editor; passed bylaws; established dues; charged the officers with refining the Constitution; and agreed to offer two panels at the first annual ALA conference in San Diego the next May.
I will spare the bloody details of the months-long process of incorporation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and of obtaining 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS. Suffice to say that Joseph Heller doubtless based the title of his classic anti-war novel on a similar experience—for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts required that an organization be able to demonstrate tax-exempt status in order to incorporate as a non-profit, while the IRS required that an organization be incorporated to achieve tax-exempt status. Ignoring this technicality, I first applied to the Massachusetts Secretary of State, and on May 30, 1990 we were officially incorporated. It was awkward that, as the society’s first Secretary/Treasurer, I could take notes and write correspondence but couldn’t balance my own checkbook. Fortunately, my late father, a banker and accountant, set up our society’s Account Book in a form that meets stringent IRS requirements. On July 3 I mailed our application to the IRS, and after endless phone calls, revised forms, and months of silence, we were officially tax-exempt.
What have we got to show for ourselves in twenty years?
• In the Spring of 1990 we published the first issue of the semiannual Emerson Society Papers, a four-page account of our organizational meeting, upcoming events, and list of founding members.
• Also in 1990—having been snubbed by MLA—we formally voted to join the ALA, and that May in San Diego we presented two sessions at the first annual ALA conference, which we have done every year since. We were one of 32 societies—27 of them devoted to individual authors—comprising the original ALA. We did hold our first annual meeting at the MLA convention in Chicago in December 1990 (in twelve months our membership had ballooned from 27 to exactly 127!), but we’ve held every other annual meeting since then during the ALA conference.
• Soon we also became a staple at the Thoreau Society Annual Gathering, which is, as Emerson wrote of the Chardon Street Convention, a sort of “omnium gathering” for all shades of Transcendentalists and other odd ducks. In 1991 we staged our first contribution to the Thoreau Society Jubilee, a panel on “Emerson & Thoreau,” at the Concord Museum. Not wanting to be embarrassed at our first appearance in Concord, we hoped to attract 30 people. But more than 200 packed the auditorium and balcony— well over the fire-code limit—and staff turned away dozens more with free museum admission as consolation. Since then, we’ve usually occupied the prestigious Friday evening slot at the Annual Gathering, presenting a panel, lecture, or other special program in Concord every July except in 1995, when the Thoreauvians celebrated the sesquicentennial of Henry’s move to Walden.
• With founding gifts of books and other scholarly materials from the estimable Harry Orth and Mert Sealts, we established an Emerson Society archive, now housed at the Thoreau Institute’s Henley Library in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a half mile from Walden Pond. This growing collection includes books, offprints, maps, pamphlets, materials used in preparing some Emerson editions, and business records of the society.
• We provided a subvention to Columbia University Press to prepare the cumulative index for Eleanor M. Tilton’s four supplemental volumes of The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we are acknowledged in that distinguished edition.
• We promoted and contributed funds toward publication of the first biography of Emerson in Russian, by Nikita Pokrovsky.
• Over many months in 2003, in Concord, Cambridge, and Boston, we conducted the bicentennial observance of Emerson’s birth. Led by the indefatigable Ron Bosco and Joel Myerson, the society sponsored exhibits, a lecture at Harvard by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, and a major conference at the Massachusetts Historical Society that culminated in the monumental book Emerson Bicentennial Essays. During the conference, on 26 April, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association (RWEMA) opened the doors of the Emerson House to us, and the Concord Museum hosted us at a gala reception. (Conference goers almost didn’t get from Boston to Concord that day when our bus driver made a beeline from the Mass. Historical Society to the Southeast Expressway and headed for Concord, New Hampshire!) In an email message, RWEMA president Bay Bancroft, declaring the entire Bicentennial “a true festival of minds and ideas . . . executed with great success,” confessed that for her the highlight was seeing Bush on that rainy April afternoon “aglow with—positively radiating—the ardent interest and enthusiasm of our distinguished RWE Society guests, as they took dusty books off shelves, sat in the old study on parlour chairs and sofas, talked animatedly in groups, and basked in the ‘freedom of the house.’ It was a high moment for the old house, and one that gave all of us on the RWEMA great pleasure and satisfaction!”
• On May 25, 2003 we joined in the Emerson Family’s official 200th birthday party for Waldo at Bush. This happy celebration epitomized the cordial collaboration we’ve enjoyed over the years with the Memorial Association, and especially the kindness and generosity of the late David Emerson and his daughter Bay Bancroft.
• Over the years we have produced a founding sweatshirt and three editions of widely noticed T-shirts featuring the Cranch “transparent eye-ball.” (The refined good taste of this classic was supplanted by a more flamboyant tie- dyed product designed for the bicentennial by Joel Myerson!)
• Also in 2003, adding Webmaster to his list of titles, Joel unveiled our handsome web site, which features not only our history and programs, but also delightful Emerson ephemera and links to other Emerson resources. As of this spring, the site has had almost 40,000 hits.
• My most gratifying professional moment since our founding occurred in the Fall of 2003, when I was sharing with my dear undergraduate advisor at Boston University, Millicent Bell, my excitement about an upcoming term teaching in London. I happened then to be President of the Emerson Society, Millicent President of the Hawthorne Society. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, she thought, if the societies could do something in London together on Anglo- American literature. It seemed a castle in the air, but Millicent hosted an exploratory meeting at her Boston home. Our guru Joel Myerson represented this society, and soon our Elizabeth Addison, Phyllis Cole, Jennifer Gurley, Bob Habich, and I joined the planning committee with representatives from the Hawthorne and Poe societies (coincidentally, the two who aided in our founding more than fifteen years earlier). The outcome was one of our greatest accomplishments—the conference “Transatlanticism in American Literature” at the University of Oxford in July 2006. It was the first conference planned jointly by the three societies and our first, and to date only, program outside the U.S. Forty-three Emersonians were among the 170 participants from 18 countries who presented 143 papers at 48 sessions.
• Since 1993 we’ve recognized Distinguished Achievement in Emerson scholarship with an award that’s been presented to sixteen scholars and four institutions.
• In 2004 our Board created a Special Projects Committee to reach out to community-based projects and deserving scholars, creative artists, and innovative teachers. The next year we presented our first Graduate Student Paper Award—a way both to recognize emerging talent and to enable gifted grad students to defray the cost of presenting a professional paper at ALA — and also to enable us to engage with our future colleagues in the Emerson vineyard. It has worked, for conspicuous among our honorees are Leslie Eckel, now a tenure-track faculty member and a member of our Board, and Jessie Bray, who serves on our Special Awards Committee.
Lest this seem a self-congratulatory laundry list of Emerson Society achievements —which it most certainly is intended to be—let’s return to the question, Whither we tend?
• From 27 founding members gathered in Joel Myerson’s MLA suite in 1989, we have grown to a steady average of more than 200 members a year. Truly international, we have had members from 21 countries. On a chastening note, these numbers reflect a continuous influx of new members, balanced by disappointing annual attrition. We need to better retain members as well as attract new ones.
• ESP has grown from a 4-page informational sheet to a 12-16-page illustrated potpourri featuring refereed scholarly articles and notes, book reviews, an annual Emerson bibliography, and abstracts of conference papers. There is, however, a downside to ESP. For as Joel observed a few months ago, those old conference photos give sobering evidence that some of us have, well, matured during these two decades.
• Among his many contributions to the society, Bob Habich has brought our accounting system into the Electronic Age.
• Our web site has just been transferred from the University of South Carolina to our new Webmaster, Amy Earhart.
• In the wake of our pioneering Oxford conference, we’ve broadened our global outreach—a priority of Phyllis Cole during her presidency (2004-05). We’ve featured panels on Emerson in global contexts and panelists from other nations, and we’ve elected international Emersonians to our Board. Represented by Todd Richardson and Dan Malachuk, we are now preparing another joint conference with our old Hawthorne and Poe friends, to be held in Florence, Italy, on June 8-10, 2012.
• Though, in an age of sometimes nutty theory, the Emerson Society was conceived by Emersonians inclined to archival and textual scholarship, and dedicated to the proposition that literary scholarship is somehow about authors, we’ve always been open to all theoretical approaches—a fact reflected in the marvelous range of younger scholars who present papers, write articles and book reviews, and serve on our board and committees.
• Finally, none of these things would have come to pass without the financial generosity—as well as talents—of so many of our members. For all of our twenty years, our annual dues have remained $10, keeping membership in reach of virtually everyone. Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to receive a couple of large gifts and annual subventions. But most important, scores of our members keep joining at Contributing, Sustaining, and Life levels—which is why, even with a modest dues base, we have a robust treasury that enables us to do all we do to spread the word about Emerson.
Before the Emerson Society was founded, Kent Ljungquist mused that members of author societies, and the societies themselves, reflect the character of their authors. If I can reconstruct it after twenty years, his theory went something like this: Hawthorneans are brooders, who probe one another’s secret motives; Melvillains are a boisterous lot who at conferences seek out cakes and ale at unsavory waterfront establishments; Poe enthusiasts peevishly cling to perceived slights and obsessively plot revenge against each other; Thoreau Society is an oxymoron—Thoreauvians always need something to protest yet paradoxically are content only when sauntering alone, where their colleagues are nowhere to be seen. Well, Emerson was brilliant, original, sociable, engaged with important causes, a “balanced soul,” as my undergraduate American lit survey professor, Edward Wagenknecht, called him years ago. I constantly hear—both from our ranks and outsiders—that Emerson Society members are just like this. All the jokes about self- reliance aside, over twenty years we’ve become a community of scholars, encouraging one another’s work; engaging critically but usually collegially with one another’s papers, manuscripts, and publications; celebrating one another’s achievements;and mourning the passing of mentors and friends. In short, we’ve become a sort of family.
So where do we find ourselves? In Emerson studies as in life, “All things swim and glimmer.” But the Emerson Society has become stable ground—a base of professional identity, intellectual energy, and friendship—“some principle of fixture or stability,” in Emerson’s phrase, even in a world of endless seeking.