Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’

Founding Fathers

February 4, 2010

I’ve been reading a book called The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture by David Shi. It’s an overview of some of the movements in American history that have resisted materialism and striven to live a more meaningful life. I haven’t read much American history. I never find it absorbing. I keep wanting to like Jefferson, but invariably end up indifferent to him. As far as I can tell, all the Founding Fathers had an aristocratic mentality. Their main concern was for the privileged. They come off as pedantic stuffed-shirts obsessed with commerce. None of them seemed to have recognized the horror that the country was perpetrating on the Native Americans, which says to me that, morally speaking, they were deficient. None of the early American movements are of any interest to me until the Transcendentalists and Walt Whitman. They’re the first Americans whose approach and beliefs I’m able to relate to at all. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and company were the founding fathers of the America I would like to live in.

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Progress Report #1

November 10, 2008

I’m working on a book, and I aim to make occasional progress reports on it in this blog. Its working title is Street Song. I started writing it a little over two years ago, and I think I have at least another three to go. (Someone asked me why it’s going to take so long. My spontaneous reply was, “Because it has a lot of layers, and I want it to be good.”) It’s difficult to say what this book is about—although I know very well what it’s about. It’s just difficult to say it. I usually tell people that it’s about the years that I spent living on the streets in North Beach, which is a neighborhood here in San Francisco. But that’s only one part of it. If I had to sum up the book in just a few phrases I would say,

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

There are two works by other writers that serve as inspiration for this book. One is Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and the other is the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. At the front of Tropic of Cancer, Miller quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:

These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly. 

That passage fascinated me. I was twenty years old and a big reader who at one time read nothing but novels. I’d wanted to be a novelist, but had become dissatisfied with the form. I didn’t think novels were true enough. Emerson made me wonder why anybody should write fiction when you could write creatively about real life. If only you had the courage—and a real life…I liked Miller’s attempt at putting Emerson’s idea into practice. I was especially impressed by his decision to abandon everything and descend penniless to the street, making his way solely by his wits. It seemed a courageous thing to do. Today, I find Tropic of Cancer difficult to read. I don’t like his contempt for other people, nor the crudeness of his lust—both of which I think were exaggerated. But I still find his vision for the book strong.

I discovered Astral Weeks around the same time as Tropic of Cancer. For a long time, it was my very favorite work of art. (I prefer Han Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems now.) I loved the vividness of the world Morrison created. It was both real and poetic in a way that made me think he had actually seen beneath the surface of reality. I loved the story: the movement of a boy out onto the streets and his maturation. And I loved the theme of romantic love taken to the level of mysticism.

Street Song will be nothing like Tropic of Cancer or Astral Weeks. Back In the days that I lived for art’s sake, the two works pushed me in a certain direction. From there I took off on my own. I expect to do three drafts. I’m currently on the second draft, chapter four, which is about a solo trip I took to Europe when I was seventeen.

More some other time.