Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing by Michael Magee. University of Alabama Press, $27.50.
Reviewed by Rodney Koeneke
Michael Magee is out to save democracy. His Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing uncovers the hidden nerve structure that connects Ralph Waldo Emerson to Harryette Mullen via figures as dazzlingly diverse as John Dewey, Amiri Baraka, Kenneth Burke, Ornette Coleman, William Carlos Williams, Paul Goodman, Frank O’Hara, William James, Susan Howe, and Ralph W. Ellison. What Magee sees as the link between them is a practice he calls “democratic symbolic action”: an insistence that the meaning of democracy--its yen for heterogeneity, improvisation, and collaborative experiment--be enacted at the level of the sentence. Through a lucid riff on the pragmatist tradition, he reminds us that the search for a relationship between aesthetic practice and political action so central to contemporary poetics has been an ongoing obsession in American letters since at least the 1850s.
Pragmatism is the Kevin Bacon of American literature: scratch any writer in the last couple centuries who’s looked for a uniquely U.S. voice and sooner or later you’ll find an engagement with our only homegrown philosophy. Even Ezra Pound, in the deeps of 1940s Rapallo and Fascist dreams, could summarize the whole Modernist constellation of experiment as simply “Pragmatic Aesthetics.” What’s fresh about Magee’s study is the way he shows pragmatism as growing out of a profound engagement with African American culture: the product of blacks and whites together trying to find sense in the paradox of a democracy with slaves.
The book begins with a brilliant rescue operation on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Magee takes the oracle of Concord by the heel and pulls him down from the Transcendental aether, through the latter-day self-empowerment folderol of Oprah and Dr. Wayne Dyer, to ground him in the heat and muck of Emancipation politics on the eve of the Civil War. The slavery debates of the 1850s make civic life under George W. look like a Mormon sockhop, and Magee argues that Emerson’s growing involvement in the abolitionist movement galvanized his politics in ways that fundamentally changed both his prose and his sense of self. The propaganda that made slavery defensible in terms of freedom or constitutional rights drove Emerson to deepen his notion of a ‘liminal self’; a subjectivity alert to the contextual basis of meaning, the dynamic instability of language, and the need for novel ways of speaking to address a social world constantly making itself anew. Magee connects these ideas to Emerson’s late style, full of suggestive indirections and syntactic leaps that invite the reader’s collaboration in the making of meaning. As the Civil War ground on, this ideal reader increasingly began to take shape for Emerson as the African American soldier. “American genius finds its true type,” he famously announced in 1864, “in the poor Negro solider lying in the trenches by the Potomac with his spelling book in one hand and his musket in the other.”
Emerson’s conviction that terms like ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’ turned to “bilge water” at the hands of pro-slavery interests has an uncanny parallel in our present day Iraqi adventure, and Magee does a deft job bringing Emerson’s insights about the democratic possibilities inherent in language into the 21st century. He shows how Ralph W. Ellison fuses a pragmatist approach to writing (via Kenneth Burke) to the African American tradition of jazz improvisation in Invisible Man; how Amiri Baraka and the “Poetics of the Five Spot” fueled O’Hara’s sense of the poem as “a heterogeneous inclusiveness”; and how contemporaries like Susan Howe and Haryette Mullen continue the practice of literature as a form of emancipation that lies at the heart of the pragmatist tradition. A bias toward contingency, process, polyvocality, indeterminacy and improvisation over fixed meanings, classical ‘finish’, universal truths and the transcendent subject has been a staple of avant-garde writing for nearly a century; Magee shows how these qualities flow directly from an American habit of working to see what democracy might mean when it’s extended to other forms of cultural life, and how that effort in turn connects to black music in rich and surprisingly direct ways. His analysis of Emerson’s dirge for the mixed-race 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and of O’Hara’s close but respectful attachment to the new black music pouring out from the Civil Rights-era Village, lend especially strong struts to his thesis that “pragmatism survives most unexpectedly, and therefore most startlingly, in black music and contemporary experimental poetry.”
One strength of Magee’s study is the sense he gives that he’s not just “onto” something but “into” something: not splitting hairs over academic definitions but out to make pragmatism do work in the present. Since L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E there’s been a certain guardedness about equating writing experiments with social change, and given where we are now it’s reasonable to wonder whether a new way of writing ever really changed the world. Magee makes me rethink what I mean though by ‘world’, and why the social dynamics in a jazz performance or a poetry reading or in the myriad invisible exchanges that take place between readers and writers aren’t just as real a measure of democracy as a hijacked presidential election. When you’re into the moment, going on your nerve and riding along with whoever you can find, freedom is always somewhere in the room. The great gift of Emancipating Pragmatism is to remind us that those contexts still exist, that democracy’s happening around us all the time.