Meditating on the Transcendentalists
Many immigrants are joyful to find themselves in America, and with good reason. As a high school immigrant with many reasons to feel dislocated, I was ambivalent.
This excerpt is set during the Vietnam War, when the protests against it were raging. Two characters appeared in previous excerpts: Doug drove the car when we met a friend at the train station, and Perry was the bookworm with whom I shared Latin-based jokes. It is our junior year.
My current English teacher, Mr. Munro, sitting as always on the front of his teacher’s desk, was leading a discussion about the ongoing street and campus demonstrations. He was ancient. Fifties? Sixties? Not old enough to have lost his libido, but old enough for his libido to repel us. Our first indication had been his assigning the front desks to the girls with shapely legs. Seated at the desk next to the door to simplify my arrivals and exits, I was daily chagrined to find myself the front row’s trousered exception.
Today’s topic was “On Civil Disobedience,” the essay in which Henry David Thoreau argued for the role of conscience. He’d written it in 1846 after spending a night in jail for refusing to pay the poll tax associated with the expansionist war with Mexico. Mr. Munro saw Thoreau’s appeal to conscience as attempting to reconcile Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seemingly contradictory concepts of self-reliance and the Over-soul. While self-reliance promoted individual autonomy, the Over-soul included all of us in something larger. As filtered through Mr. Munro, Thoreau agreed that we all answer to a higher authority—call it the law—but asserted we still have the right to decide what that law should be.
Addressing the class, Mr. Munro posed the question, “Is Thoreau correct in saying the individual has the right to disregard laws he considers unjust?”
Gail, a vocal feminist and Christian whose place next to me in the front row told me she had a fine pair of legs, bumped my desk in her eagerness to volunteer. “The more fundamental question is whether law is a social need or a mystical code from God.”
For Doug, her reference to God was a red flag to a bull. From the back of the room, he boomed, “Actually, the real fundamental question is whether God exists in the first place, which, by the way, she doesn’t.”
Gail retorted, “Nothing is more stupid than dismissing God.”
For once on the same side as Doug, Perry shot back, “People might think anyone who believes in God is stupid.”
I couldn’t help but join in the laughter. But I didn’t agree with Doug or Perry, any more than I did with Gail. I felt God’s existence could neither be proved nor disproved, a namby-pamby position that would have had the unprecedented effect of uniting Doug, Perry and Gail against me.
There was a grin in Mr. Munro’s voice as he moved the discussion along. “I submit to you that conscience is related to conditioning. We grow up being told what is right and what is wrong. Does that suggest anything about the origin of conscience?” And so we went from philosophy to behavioral psychology.
I was hamstrung by a sense that all this anguishing was a tempest in an American teapot. For all Thoreau’s philosophical arguments about the role of conscience in society, his sojourn in Walden seemed to me an exercise in escapism. While he was hanging out with the birds and the trees, Charles Dickens in England had been addressing the all-too-real problems of industrialized society.
Besides, I’d never heard of these Transcendentalists in England, as if any thirteen-year-old would have. If that was the true source of my resistance, it was homesickness in disguise. Mr. Munro was on to this homesickness, although he apparently interpreted it as arrogance. He almost never called on me, even when I raised my hand. One time he did, even though I hadn’t volunteered, he asked if I’d read Gone with the Wind. I hadn’t.
“Well, I’ve read The Forsyte Saga,” he retorted. Everyone knew about John Galsworthy’s novels because of the long-running dramatization on Channel 13. His tone accused me of being too arrogant to read what he himself deemed a third-rate American book, but less scrupulous when it came to a third-rate British one.
It wasn’t only homesickness that put me off the Transcendentalists. There was also Emerson’s celebration of self-reliance. American culture was permeated with the conviction that people could go it alone, while I came from a country that emphasized social cohesion. I’d benefited from the National Health Service, which made everyone share the costs of medical treatment. Moreover, without sight, I could have no illusions about pure self-reliance. I owed my ability to handle school to my teachers, the students who read and otherwise assisted me, and my parents. My dependence on others wasn’t unique; just more obvious, different only in degree from the dependence we all had on each other. Sighted drivers needed someone to build the cars and someone else to maintain the roads. Dependence, I told myself, was all about appearances. Except in my darker moments, I knew appearances mattered.
I will be abroad for the next month and plan to post my next excerpt around July 26. To read all my memoir excerpts to date, along with other recent posts, please go to the blog page of my website here. Thank you to all of you who follow my blog and who sometimes comment, online or off.