“The Man Thinking Club”

1997 Phi Beta Kappa oration by Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman '74, who becomes editor of The American Scholar at the end of this year, was the 1997 Phi Beta Kappa orator. She spoke about the hazards of cultural politics. Recounting the myth of Procrustes, Fadiman warned against the tendency to reduce literature, or any other form of culture, so that it fits a "skinny little two-dimensional line running from right to left." Although such binary approaches might work for electoral politics, she argued, polarization is the enemy of nuance--the essence of literature. When a piece of literature is fitted to the Procrustean bed, she warned, it is, "as a kind of casual side effect, murdered." This excerpt covers the fourth of five questions, all concerning the role of the literary canon in the "Culture Wars," that Fadiman asked her audience to consider.


What do you do when a work's language leaves you out? That is, if the very words exclude you, let's say because they are addressed to men and you don't happen to be one, should you stick out your tongue and say, "Well, if that's the way you feel about it, I reject you, too"?

To answer this question, I will take as my text another Phi Beta Kappa oration, in fact the greatest one of all time. It was called "The American Scholar," and it seems appropriate to mention it today, because this year's literary exercises mark its one-hundred-and-sixtieth anniversary.

The year was 1837. The speaker was Ralph Waldo Emerson. The audience included James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edward Everett Hale, and plenty of famous people who had only two names. Emerson orated for an hour and a quarter. "Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close," he said. "The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvest." By this he meant that American intellectuals should emancipate themselves from the European tradition and establish one of their own.

Some members of the audience were not impressed. Edward Everett Hale went home and wrote in his diary that Emerson was "half-crazy" and that his speech was "not very good, and very transcendental." But Oliver Wendell Holmes, though not immediately, called "The American Scholar" "our intellectual declaration of independence." And when Thomas Carlyle was sent a copy, he wrote to Emerson, "I could have wept to read that speech, the clear high melody of it went tingling thro' my heart;... My brave Emerson!"

The day I found I had been chosen as editor of The American Scholar, a magazine that takes its name from that very speech, I ran to my bookcase, took down a volume of my brave Emerson, and opened it to his Phi Beta Kappa oration. I expected, like Carlyle, to hear a clear high melody tingling through my heart. Instead, I read the following sentence: "In the right state, [the scholar] is Man Thinking." And my heart sank.

What Emerson meant was that his ideal American Scholar was not an academic but a thinker, a student of life. What I wondered was, when he said "Man Thinking," did he really mean, "Man and Woman Thinking"? In other words, was "Man" one of those capacious linguistic tents that once had room in it for everybody? The way "mankind" was supposed to include "womankind"?

In a word, no. Emerson was perfectly clear about it. We know this because later in his speech he specifically distinguished the scholar from "the protected classes of women and children." Every word in his oration was about men.

So even though Emerson supported women's suffrage and hung out with Margaret Fuller and Harriet Martineau and didn't complain when his wife served leg of lamb 20 days in a row, am I nonetheless forced to write him off as a wicked misogynist and cast from my bookshelf the very speech that gave my magazine its name? No.

If I leave the speech on my shelf, does that mean I am forever excluded from the Emersonian fellowship, forced to press my nose against the glass of American intellectual life, as if the Man Thinking Club were some beer-swilling fraternity that invited me on the premises only on Saturday night? No.

One of the convenient things about literature is that, despite copyright laws, a book belongs to the reader as well as to the writer. The greater the work, the wider the ownership. I therefore have few compunctions about dragging Emerson kicking and screaming into the 1990s, and recasting "Man Thinking" in my mind as "Curious People Thinking."

I will not ask the sage of Concord to rewrite his great oration. He will forever retain the right to speak his own words. But I will retain the right to crash the party. You come, too.

You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

An Authentic Act

Basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith navigates players’ gender and sexual identity, mental health, and other challenging social issues.

Mass Audubon Ushers in the Spring

Exploring nature through Mass Audubon

Blindspot: A Novel

History professor Jill Lepore is the coauthor, with Jane Kamensky, of the historical novel Blindspot, set in colonial Boston.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults