Beliefs and Integrity (Emerson/Thoreau/Gornick/ThisIBelieve)

This week’s readings were concerned with expressing morals, and values. As Gornick explains in “The Situation and the Story,” it is often very difficult for a memoir to unabashedly express a person’s beliefs. The most interesting reading for me was Emerson’s journal excerpts. I may have also enjoyed Thoreau’s journal entries if I could better decipher them. In addition to the assigned readings, I also searched for two essays concerned with morality on This I Believe.

Gornick differentiates certain qualities a memoirist must develop for his or her narrator. We must understand why a narrator is speaking, as well as who the narrator is. It is difficult to develop a narrator, because in the case of the memoir, without them, there is no story. Effectively, the narrator is our imagination – it chooses what angle we view the memory, what we leave out, what we embellish. It is also difficult to project (or even realize) our own faults onto the narrator, as there is no fictional character to hide behind. But the challenge doesn’t end there. Once we realize our flaws, and can openly write about them, it is important to transform “low level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required to…be of value to the disinterested reader.” Gornick’s point is useful for me as a student in a personal statement class, because I need to work on my narrator. Of course, the persona of the narrator changes with each memory, but I need to work on transcending the narrator beyond a storyteller. The narrator should be one of the reasons a reader is invested, a source of entertainment, reflection, as well as storytelling.

Emerson’s journal entries were concerned with a range of topics, including education, science, religion, feminism, truth, and race. He comments on his opinions, his observations of the unfolding social events, and even witticisms. From this collection of seemingly disjointed excerpts, it is easy to imagine what kind of values Emerson must hold. You can see that while religion seems to play an integral role in his writing, science is clearly the omniscient force. This is stated explicitly, as well as implied when he uses nature in his metaphors. You can also sense his frustration and disgust at the widespread acceptance of racial policies, such as the fugitive slave act. Thoreau’s journal excerpts were more difficult for me to decipher, but it is clear that he has very strong notions about education. He finds education to be like sandpaper, rounding out the rough edges of an individual. On page 93, Thoreau writes, “what does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free meandering book.” Based on my experiences, I tend to side more with Emerson’s values than Thoreau. Education, especially once I reached college, provided the rough edges, and allowed me to meander. But I understand that my perspective is separated from Thoreau’s by more than 150 years, and with that comes circumstances and traditions that are foreign.

In addition to the required readings, I also read an essay from This I Believe entitled “Does My Need to Belong Outweigh My Integrity?” In it, author Kristine is critical of a society that condones racism, segregation, and disassociation. However, she identifies herself as part of that society. It’s an essay that serves as a roadmap for Kristine to reexamine her integrity. Oftentimes, society (Kristine included) will turn look the other way towards injustice. This essay struck me, because I often feel like this too. We all want to feel courageous, but I always have this horrible, gnawing sense that something is stopping me. Kristine and I both need to identify what is impeding that courage and work towards reviving or reinventing our integrity.

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