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Emerson and Thoreau Lost in the Twilight of the 21st Century

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“That course wouldn’t be approved by the university’s curriculum director today,” said my former thesis advisor when I paid him a visit a quarter of a century later after completing my Masters in English degree at Northern Michigan University.

He was referring to an elective class that I had eagerly sat through with him when he taught it. It was simply called “Emerson and Thoreau,” and I was attempting to jog his memory after all this time, reminding him of what he had said during the first session of that course: “If anyone in here believes this will help you to get a good job after graduating, then you might as well pack up your things, walk out the door and cancel so you can get a full refund while you still can. You’d be more successful entering the retail garment industry and selling women’s foundations.”

Yet in spite of his candor, he still had a chair in the English Department. In fact, he was now the director of the newly created and popular Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing although he had only ever published one book during his entire academic career, a nonfiction account of a summer he spent secluded in a cabin in the north woods of Minnesota. I was as surprised to still see him working there as he must have been to see me, the late blooming prodigal student who nearly drove him insane debating the revisions regarding my thesis.

We sat in his office and peered through the years at each other and I couldn’t help but think, as I’m sure he did also, what the hell I was doing there and how academia had changed so much since our younger days.

“All my students seem to be only interested in writing mysteries,” he said finally with a sigh and then added, “I remember teaching that class. There were some very good students in it including you.”

“And you taught me the importance of carefully choosing words,” I gushed back, not having the courage to admit that I had finally begun writing my first novel, a mystery. He was running late for class and there was little left to be said between us. The end of an era had passed. He had conformed to popular demand and had been adequately rewarded and soon to be retired and I was on the verge of selling out and becoming a crime fiction writer.

No time or reason for contemplating Walden’s Pond or essays by Emerson anymore. American Literature was now firmly standing in the Twilight, trapped in the firmament between the seemingly brief burst of philosophical and optimistic sunlight generated by long dead authors and the shadow world of vampires and fantasy romance created by Stephenie Meyer, Anne Rice, Amanda Hocking, and others of their ilk.

Somewhere in between along the way, something had changed. In fact, many things had changed–American culture, its taste in literature, technology, the publishing industry and writers who have seemingly succumbed to sensationalism in order to survive.

When I got back home and began to pound away at the keyboard to attempt to make a dent in this strange, new universe by creating a novel that would most likely end up in the dustbin of obscurity, I resisted the urge to email my former professor and remind him of another thing he said in class that struck me before life’s realities had permanently transformed my unwavering idealism so long ago: “If everybody starts writing and publishing, then you might as well just throw your hands up in the air and say ‘what’s the use’!”

But I didn’t. Instead, I girded my compositional loins and boldly forged ahead and completed the first of four novels that poured out of me in a short, two year span. Vampires and zombies be damned! I’m working at channeling Emerson and Thoreau even if I have to exorcise a few demons along the way because it’s what I lived for and what I know best.

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About John H. Byk