EXPERIENCE AND EXPERIMENTAL WRITING: LITERARY PRAGMATISM FROM EMERSON TO THE JAMESES by Paul Grimstad, Reviewed by James Albrecht
 

EXPERIENCE AND EXPERIMENTAL WRITING: LITERARY PRAGMATISM FROM EMERSON TO THE JAMESES
By Paul Grimstad
(Oxford, 2013) x + 176 pp.
Reviewed by James Albrecht on 2014-05-04.

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In this suggestive study, Paul Grimstad explores the experimentalism of four nineteenth-century American writers--Emerson, Poe, Melville, and Henry James. Their attempts to engage composition as a process of experimentation, he argues, constitute a literary "prehistory" of the "pragmatist insight that experience is not a matter of correspondence but of process and experiment" (1).

Grimstad defines the pragmatic aspects of this literary tradition in terms drawn from two of the most influential readers of Emerson--Richard Poirier and Stanley Cavell-- and in relation to John Dewey's model of experience. All three of these thinkers, Grimstad rightly notes, challenge the traditional notion of experience as "a matter of securing correspondence between mind and world" (2). Instead, in the spirit of Emerson, they conceive experience as a process of creative interaction between the human creature and its environment (cultural and natural). Grimstad finds in these descendants of Emerson a tension between skepticism and naturalism. On one hand, he writes, Cavell locates a "skeptical mood" in Emerson's challenge to the "idea of experience to be found in Kant and in the classical empiricists" (4), and Poirier highlights the "linguistic skepticism" in American writers of the Emersonian tradition (2). On the other hand, Dewey naturalistically stresses "the continuity between natural events [...] and the origin and development of meanings" (6). Yet while acknowledging the differences between these competing appropriations of Emerson, Grimstad contends that Cavell and Dewey both stress artistic composition as a process of experimentation. For Cavell (who famously resists subsuming Emerson under a "pragmatist" paradigm), such experimentation embodies a modernist view of composition as "a search for what is going to count as a work of art at all (for both artist and audience)" (13), and as Grimstad notes, this view dovetails nicely with Dewey's naturalistic account (in Art as Experience) of the "work of art" as a process in which "both artist and beholder find conditions for the work's meaning becoming shareable in the set of experiments that have led to the work" (12-13). Grimstad helpfully contrasts these two accounts of experience with the approach of "neo-pragmatists" like Richard Rorty, whose "linguistic turn" posits a more radical separation between linguistic meaning and the non-linguistic aspects of experience.

Of all the chapters in the study, Grimstad's opening discussion of Emerson most clearly extends this theoretical frame. Grimstad neatly links Emerson's thought to the emergence of "transcendentalism" from the Unitarian culture of 1830's New England--an emergence shaped by the competing versions of experience posited by British empiricism and Kantian idealism (17-24). This context helps to explain why Emerson influenced the pragmatists, since --in their models of experience-- both William James and John Dewey sought to avoid the metaphysical dualisms marked out by empiricism and idealism. Drawing on Lee Rust Brown's The Emerson Museum (1997), Grimstad argues that Emerson's practice as an essayist emerged from his epiphanic encounter with Cuvier's cabinets of natural history specimens in the Jardin des Plantes, which prompted Emerson to "treat his journal as a collection of specimens to be arranged into new compositions" (23). Trying to adopt the "method of nature" as a method of composition, Grimstad suggests, Emerson found in nature not a set of static or eternal correspondences, but rather a dynamic and creative process: "For Emerson the experimental writer, experience is no longer the eye-witness report or the bringing of empirical particulars under general categories, but something done and undergone" (26). Grimstad reads the "Divinity School Address"--with its "double assault" on the arid style of Unitarian preaching and on the failure to see the miraculous as immanent throughout nature--as informed and driven by Emerson's ambition to achieve a method of composition that extends the creative methods of nature (25). He then reads "Experience" and "Fate" as expressing a proto-Nietzschean "compatibilist" view that freedom is commensurate with fate, that "while we are implicated necessarily in nature we are at the same time free to affirm that implication in a method of composition" that promises "practical power" (39).

Grimstad's treatment of Emerson complements and extends the approaches taken by Poirier and Cavell. Yet while Grimstad cogently locates in Emerson a theory of compositional experimentalism, he does not succeed, as Poirier and Cavell do, at the (admittedly difficult) critical task of elucidating the stylistic and performative energies of an Emerson essay--of describing the experience of reading one. Nor does Grimstad steadily examine --as his argument might seem to require-- Emerson's many intriguing statements about the processes of writing and about his chosen genres (journal, lecture, and essay); and except in passing, he does not consider the actual changes Emerson made while turning his journal entries into essays. The scope of Grimstad's chapter on Emerson--a very trim 25 pages--is not broad enough to do justice to these aspects of his project (he gives a scant five pages to the magisterial essays "Experience" and "Fate" and to Emerson's kinship with Nietzsche). Fully pursuing these topics would perhaps have required a different book--one wholly devoted to Emerson--but this treatment of him, as intelligent as it is, remains more suggestive than developed.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Grimstad's study is its inclusion of two writers--Poe and Melville--who are not usually or easily incorporated into pragmatic literary genealogies. The chapter on Poe is perhaps the most interesting and original in the book. Here the pragmatic link is Charles Sanders Peirce, specifically his essay on "Logical Machines" (addressing the questions of whether or how far a machine can reason) and his theory of "abductive inference"--abduction being an inference involving an "intuitive guess at a hypothesis" that "comes to us like a flash" and posits a "general category under which some [perceived] particular may be made intelligible," thereby suggesting that "reasoning is ultimately more a matter of observation and experiment than determinate calculation" (47-48). Grimstad argues that Poe's encounter with Johann Maelzel's "chess-playing automaton" in 1836 inspired him to conduct a series of experimental writings that play with the very concept of literary invention. According to Grimstad, the essay in which Poe tries to "infer correctly the workings of" the chess-machine from its outward appearances helped trigger his "invention of the analytic detective story" genre in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841): here the detective Dupin not only uses an abductive leap to solve the crime but also recognizes in the murder the uncanny phenomenon of a sub-human intelligence acting with what appears to be a human intent. Turning then to "The Raven" and "The Philosophy of Composition," Grimstad shows how the poem pursues a closely related uncanny theme--a "non-reasoning creature capable of speech"-- and how the essay (written about the composition of "The Raven") "perversely exacerbates the logic of abduction," offering a rationalistic set of "explanatory categories" that allegedly explain all the oddities of that poem's content and form, as if to "convince his readers that he is himself a poetry-making machine" (60-62).

Grimstad next considers Melville's notoriously exasperating novel Pierre as another example of a radically experimentalist approach to literary composition. According to a story by now well-accepted in Melville criticism, the novel sprang from pique: in the midst of writing what he had begun as a gothic romance, Melville was stung when Moby-Dick was panned by his friend and patron Evert Duyckink, so he abruptly turned the romance into an "allegory of his thwarted career as a novelist" (in Poirier's phrase) and an attack on the aesthetic "criteria of unity and verisimilitude" (67). In Grimstad's words, Melville impulsively turned Pierre into "an unmanageably dense --even 'opaque'--novel about the making of a novel, and one that would irreverently reject the idea that the relation of lived experience to literary form were a matter of documentary accuracy" (68). Here Grimstad contests the verdict of critics such as Hershel Parker, who have judged Melville's mid-course re-making of Pierre a "disastrous last-minute decision that wrecked what would otherwise have been a 'unified' and 'hyper-controlled' parody of the gothic romance novel, amounting for them to the 'greatest single tragedy in American literary history'" (78-79). Grimstad offers a diametrically opposed verdict. Melville's willingness to treat his struggles with the New York literati as "raw material for a fresh burst of composition," Grimstad argues, evinces a radical shift "from understanding the relation of literature to experience as one of documentary accuracy to one in which lived events are continued--altered, intensified--in the process of composition." For Grimstad, therefore, Pierre is not a perversely deliberate failure but rather Melville's "most ambitious novel" (80, 89). But does it thereby serve the agenda of Grimstad's book? While Grimstad makes a compelling case for Melville's daring (if not reckless) experimentalism, he never more than tenuously links the novelist to the genealogy of literary pragmatism.

Linking William James to his brother, Grimstad's final chapter shows how The Ambassadors "takes as its formal organizing principle [...] the central claim of [William's] radical empiricism: that relations are external to, and as real as, their terms" (2). Profoundly troubled by the ways in which language and concepts tend to obscure the transitional and relational aspects of experience, William faulted the stylistic density and proliferations of his brother's fiction. Yet Grimstad argues that "what appears to be a discrepancy in the thinking of the James brothers around the relation of experience to language is in fact the point where they are most in unison" (94), for "the very diffuseness William complained of is the stylistic analogue of radical empiricism," in which writing enacts "experience as the endless composability of relations" (108, 103). Grimstad is on well-trodden ground here, following a number of works--from Poirier's A World Elsewhere (1966) to Ross Posnock's The Trial of Curiosity (1991) and Jonathan Levin's The Poetics of Transition (1999) --that similarly read The Ambassadors as a prime example of the affinities (as well as tensions) between the brothers' work. If Grimstad brings something new to this conversation, it is in showing how the radical empiricism of James's fictional technique illuminates the ethics embodied by his protagonist, Lambert Strether. Grimstad links the familiar dilemma of the Jamesian protagonist--an American whose parochial perspective is challenged by European complexities--to an ethics of cosmopolitanism. Hannah Arendt insisted that cosmopolitanism requires "actively searching out the universal in the particular" while still valuing "particulars in their particularity" (qtd. 111). Citing this dictum, Grimstad argues that Strether--who "is not so much a fixed center of experience as he is more and more absorbed into the ramifying of relations" (103)--develops "a radically empirical cosmopolitanism" that "move[s] from particular to universal through an appeal to the reality and externality of relations," and thus is "not matter of reflecting on universal principles, but of being open to, and freely 'composing' particulars qua particulars" (113, 116).

This lucidly written book reveals Grimstad's sharp intelligence. Adeptly explicating and juxtaposing difficult writers and texts, he offers valuable perspectives to readers interested in any of the authors or works he treats. Nevertheless, I wonder if the book as a whole ultimately adds up to more than its admirable parts. In spite of its sometimes effective concision--as in the chapters on Poe and Melville-- the book is hampered by its tight format, especially in the chapter on Emerson. The topic of pragmatism is also less developed than the title seems to promise. For the framework of pragmatism erected in the Introduction Grimstad leans heavily on Poirier and especially Cavell, and though he briefly considers the pragmatisms of Peirce, William James, and Dewey, he treats none of them deeply. But in his own words, Grimstad claims to offer only a "pre-history" of pragmatism that might just as aptly be termed "modernist"--"not as the back-dating of a period term, nor as a roster of techniques, but as a certain kind of problem germane to composition itself," namely, the experimental "search for what is going to count as a work of art at all" (122, 13). Taken on these terms, Grimstad's separate chapters insightfully show how four canonical nineteenth-century authors conducted proto-modernist literary experiments. If this book leaves the reader wanting more, that desire is surely also a testimony to the quality of Grimstad's scholarship.

James M. Albrecht is Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.


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