American Literature and the Composition of Experience

By Nicholas GaskillFebruary 14, 2014

American Literature and the Composition of Experience

Experience and Experimental Writing by Paul Grimstad

EARLY IN “Does Consciousness Exist?” (1904), one of the foundational essays of radical empiricism, William James calls “experience” a “double-barrelled” word. Experience, James explains, connotes both a subjective process and an objective product, both a how and a what. Yet this binary-breaking definition of experience, central to the pragmatist tradition, runs counter to the more common understanding of experience as essentially private and subjective, a mere matter of what one has felt and undergone. It’s this single-barreled notion of experience that has dominated discussions of the term in literary and art criticism, especially in the polemics against affect by Michael Fried and Walter Benn Michaels. Even the postwar philosophers who continued the pragmatist tradition, particularly Richard Rorty and Robert Brandom, dismissed James’s concept as hopelessly vague. It’s against these reductive notions of experience, and in league with James and other classical pragmatists, that Paul Grimstad pitches his arguments in Experience and Experimental Writing: Literary Pragmatism from Emerson to the Jameses. Combining intellectual history and literary criticism, Grimstad turns to the pragmatists and to like-minded American authors to bring “experience” back to its full significance, both barrels loaded, for philosophers and critics alike. 

This is no easy task. To accomplish it, Grimstad opens his study with a discussion of the philosophical debates around experience — starting with the classical pragmatist revision of 17th-century empiricism and moving to the recent briefs against experience by Michaels and Brandom — and then offers four literary-historical case studies that show how the pragmatist notion of experience characterizes the compositional practices of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Henry James. The introduction sets the stage by distinguishing the pragmatist position from the more entrenched account of experience codified in 17th- and 18th-century empiricism: where the latter treats experience as the passive registration of sensations and impressions, pragmatism understands it as an ongoing, open-ended process of inquiry whereby truths are established rather than discovered. In other words, rather than beginning with two separate realms — knower and known, subject and object — and then trying to figure out how they relate, the pragmatists start with the activity of experience and demonstrate how these binaries emerge within the process of inquiry. As Grimstad puts it: 

When the classical pragmatists talk about experience they do not mean getting inner representations to correspond with outer phenomena […] but an experimental loop of perception, action, consequences, further perception of consequences, further action, further consequences, and so forth.

It is within this experimental loop that, as James has it, “Truth happens to an idea.” 

It’s not hard to see how this model, which unites perceiving with creating, aligns well with literary modes of engaging the world. Thus, rather than dwelling in philosophical exposition, Grimstad turns to Emerson, Poe, Melville, and Henry James and argues that each of these figures understood composition not as a matter of working with the raw material of experience (in the sense of “sensory inputs”), or of forging a set of words that correspond with an outer reality, but as a process that continues and intensifies the general dynamics of experience itself. In this regard, and in the spirit of Dewey’s Art as Experience, we might say that Grimstad’s writers present composition as experience rather than about experience. Each chapter demonstrates how a particular encounter or event — Emerson in the Jardin des plantes, Poe at a performance of Johann Maelzel’s mechanical chess-player, Melville reading the reviews of Moby-Dick, Henry James’s engagement with his brother’s philosophy — prompts the creation of a new compositional method or style: Emerson’s process of “writing up” from journal entries to his essays, Poe’s invention of the detective story genre, Melville’s last-minute revisions to Pierre, and James’s attention to relations in his late work. With each writer, Grimstad reveals a creative struggle to make the energies of an event available in a public realm, dramatizing through close readings the loop of perception, action, and consequences characteristic of the composition. For Grimstad, it is this effort to “[word] the world into something shareable and meaningful” that qualifies such writing as “experimental.”  And he sets out to show that this creative sense of “experiment” goes hand in hand with the pragmatist notion of experience. 

In this regard, Grimstad’s book is nothing less than an attempt to rewrite the terms for understanding how “life experience” gets into literature. How is it that the travails of Emerson the man are relevant to our reading of Emerson’s essays? And how can we address such questions without either treating the historical context as the key to the writing or dismissing the relevance of history and biography altogether in favor of that impossible thing, “the text itself”? Grimstad addresses these questions by treating compositional practices as philosophical acts, techniques productive of particular concepts that respond to historically specific intellectual debates. And he argues that in all of his examples, these techniques not only take shape in relation to lived experience but also, in their workings, continue the rhythm of experience itself.      

As such, one of the distinctive features of Grimstad’s work is that, against the grain of contemporary scholarship on 19th-century American literature, his history is more intellectual than cultural. And so when he argues, in the first chapter, that Emerson developed his method of composition — specifically the practice of using his journals as source material to be reformulated in essays and lectures — in response to seeing Cuvier’s Cabinet of Comparative Anatomy in 1833, Grimstad says little about the questions that have engaged other scholars regarding Cuvier’s approach and its significance in mid-19th-century scientific and popular culture. Instead, he concentrates on how Emerson’s stylistic particularity relates to the philosophical debates around the Transcendentalist movement, debates between Lockeans and Kantians, and on how Nietzsche later drew from Emerson’s method in both his attention to style and his doctrine of amor fati. The resulting analysis leaves unanswered the rather straightforward literary historical question of why Emerson’s method of “writing up” should be distinguished from the similar compositional techniques of other 19th-century writers who did not have a vocational epiphany in response to Cuvier’s cabinets; instead, it presents Emerson’s revisions as a literary performance of the pragmatist notion of experience, provoked by specific theological controversies. 

The subsequent three chapters display a similar interest in how literary styles relate to intellectual problems grounded (sometimes tenuously) in historical events. The most interesting is the chapter on Poe, which links that writer’s fascination with “nonreasoning creatures” that appear to be thinking — a talking raven, a murderous orangutan — and with reasoning processes that appear to be mechanical — solving a crime in “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” composing a poem in “Philosophy of Composition” — to the philosophical questions around artificial intelligence. What does it mean to think? The 19th-century prompt for Poe’s investigations of this question — and thus, Grimstad argues, for his invention of the detective genre — is Johann Maelzel’s chess-playing automaton, which Poe wrote about in 1836. Grimstad discusses Poe’s criticisms of the automaton and his accusation, later proven true, that though the machine looked like it was playing chess, it must have been controlled by a human. Grimstad then traces Poe’s pursuit of the issues raised by Maelzel’s machine through the early Dupin stories and “The Raven,” setting the author’s stylistic innovations alongside pragmatist Charles S. Peirce’s writing on inferential reasoning. The remaining chapters carry Grimstad’s investigation of experience and composition into analyses of Melville’s Pierre and Henry James’s The Ambassadors. And like the others, they are at their best when Grimstad is explaining the philosophical contexts and implications of a particular passage or, in the final chapter, of an individual sentence. What ties these four case studies together, then, is not so much a shared theme or literary approach but rather the way that each illustrates the general pragmatist dynamic of composition as experience, and of experience as an experimental process of discovery rather than a matter of correspondence.

Yet despite the book’s ostensible focus on 19th-century American literature, its most valuable contribution is in the field of “literary pragmatism.” For, unlike other pragmatist-minded literary critics, Grimstad takes seriously the criticisms leveled against James, Dewey, and Peirce by analytic philosophers, including those who see themselves as continuing the pragmatist line. In this way he sets the stage for a productive dialogue among literary critics and philosophers. In particular, Grimstad shows how arguments against pragmatism are usually premised around nonliterary ideas of how language works. As he puts it, “[t]he analytic critique of classical pragmatism […] hinges on the idea that language is bound up with justification, and so is something qualitatively different from experience understood as the causal impingements of the senses.” But of course justification is only one of the interesting things that humans do with language, and nowhere is this more apparent than in literature. 

In fact, if we begin with poetic making, then the notion that language is essentially a tool of clarification, rather than an instrument of creative distortion, seems limited indeed. Grimstad’s individual chapters are meant to illustrate this point by casting the innovations discussed above as attempts to seek out the conditions whereby a particularized event enters into public discourse through an author’s compositional innovations. Taken together, then, these case studies show how literary acts of inventive troping — of the sort so carefully described by the grandfather of literary pragmatists, Richard Poirier — provide a necessary supplement to analytic discussions about the game of giving and asking for reasons, demonstrating not only how meaning is bound to such games but also how individual moves can change the rules. 

Yet Grimstad is not content to say that the analytic notion of language is too narrow.  Instead, he sets out to defend the naturalism he finds in pragmatist writers by showing how their double-barreled notion of experience/composition as an experimental process revises the terms of the analytic argument (where language is about meaning and experience is about sensory causes). Experience in this more expansive sense — the feedback loop of perception, action, consequences, and so forth — names the very medium within which meanings are created, as well as the sole site of our encounter with the natural world. And so it also includes the realm of literary composition. I find this to be a fascinating proposition; yet the details of how exactly the pragmatists envisioned the emergence of meaning, and thus of how the literary writers in Grimstad’s study are meant to demonstrate this emergence, are still unclear. As a result, the study is more suggestive than definitive in its account of how the movements “from perception to meaning” in Emerson, Poe, Melville, and James solve or better yet dismiss the analytic gap between causes and justifications.

To be fair, Grimstad hopes to address this concern through his final turn of the “experience” screw: towards the end of the introduction, in a passage drawing on Stanley Cavell, Grimstad writes that experience is not just about process or about the direction of natural events into shared meanings but, more precisely, about the search for conditions of shared meaning. But surely there is a difference between experience as a process of meaning-making and experience as a process of searching for the conditions of meaning-making. And the latter seems a much narrower category than the former, one that involves an especially high level of reflection. My hunch is that Grimstad wants to use this Cavellian point to link his philosophical framework, based on the classical pragmatists, to his readings of American writers. That is, he may simply want to show how particular writers are engaged in a search for the conditions of meaning, or that their works enable such inquiries on the part of the critic, or that literature-as-experience rather than experience-as-such takes this form. But this is never made explicit, and as it stands this part of Grimstad’s recovery of “experience” — pitched as it is to the wider philosophical and critical arguments about the term — strains under the pressure of addressing the analytic criticisms on their own terms, rather than showing how his notion of experience changes the debate. 

On the whole, though, Grimstad’s rapprochement between analytic and literary pragmatisms is an important contribution both to the literary study of pragmatism, in particular, and to philosophical approaches to literature, more generally. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the book is that it prompts readers to consider the fundamental premises behind acts of interpretation, including the nature of the literary object and its relation to historical events. And its individual chapters are full of lucid explanations of the philosophical currents running through and around the prose of Grimstad’s key figures. To be sure, this emphasis on philosophy also makes Experience and Experimental Writing a bit of an odd duck among other studies of 19th-century American literature — and some readers will wish for a more considered explanation of the book’s chosen authors (why so canonical?) or a more historical treatment of the key terms (what about the 19th-century practices of experimental science that played a role in the formulation of philosophical pragmatism?). But Grimstad is not alone in his turn to philosophy, and his work makes it clear that we still have much to gain by focusing on the ways of thinking performed in literature and on the conceptual framework of criticism. In particular, Grimstad’s provocative book promises to retrieve the concept of experience from the disreputable position it holds in literary studies and philosophy, restoring to our critical vocabularies a word capable, in the best pragmatist fashion, of transforming our interpretive habits and stimulating new intellectual inquiries. 


Nicholas Gaskill is an assistant professor in the English Department at Rutgers, New Brunswick, where he teaches 19th- and early 20th-century American literature.

LARB Contributor

Nicholas Gaskill is an assistant professor in the English Department at Rutgers, New Brunswick, where he teaches 19th- and early 20th-century American literature. He has an abiding interest in pragmatism and radical empiricism that has led to several articles, an edited volume on Whitehead, and a book about theories and technologies of color perception in turn-of-the-century American writing. 


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