Choosing to Be Human: American Romantic/pragmatic Rhetoric in Ursula K. le Guin's Teaching Novel, Gifts

By Rochelle, Warren G. | Extrapolation, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Choosing to Be Human: American Romantic/pragmatic Rhetoric in Ursula K. le Guin's Teaching Novel, Gifts


Rochelle, Warren G., Extrapolation


Richard Erlich argues in Coyote's Song: the Teaching Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin that Le Guin's fiction is, as his title says, fiction that instructs, and that there are lessons for her readers in her stories. She wants her readers to know certain things--or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she is arguing for a certain way of seeing and knowing the world and this certain way can change the world, if applied--and possibly, save it. I argued in Communities of the Heart (1) that Le Guin's argument or rhetoric is that of Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and C.S. Peirce--American romantic/pragmatic rhetoric, which is a rhetoric of choice, of the contingency of knowledge, of the mediation of the tensions inherent in binary thinking, of valuing the rational and the irrational, and of choosing the third way. What I am going to examine here is how Gifts exemplifies this rhetoric, and then, what is this novel's particular argument--what is its particular lesson for the reader. It is my contention that Gifts echoes "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" as it examines the rhetoric of choice, of choosing process, and not just product as having value--the means to an end do matter, and that this is a lesson that must be learned. The lesson taught is the same: choose to be human.

First, just what is this rhetoric of choice and how does it connect to Le Guin's teaching novels, and to Gifts, in particular? American romantic/pragmatic rhetoric is a term coined by Roskelly and Ronald in Reason to Believe: Romanticism, Pragmatism, and the Teaching of Writing (1998). They define their term by studying the history of its component parts: "the history of romanticism and pragmatism" (3), both of which began in the 19th century, in Emerson's American romanticism. According to Cornel West in The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989), Emerson "prefigures the dominant themes of American pragmatism," as he saw a way to embody the "ideal in the real" (9, 10). As Roskelly and Ronald argue in Reason to Believe, "Emerson's romanticism meant that he took his ideals for realities, believed them to be part of real and possible action" (56). Emerson saw an "inseparable link between thought and action, theory and practice" (West 10)--a cardinal connection later reiterated in pragmatic philosophy by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, (2) and John Dewey.

Emerson further explores this connection in his essay, "The American Scholar," in which he calls for the scholar to be an integrated part of his world--to its past in books, to the natural environment, and to life itself--a life of participation in which one's actions have meanings and purpose. The scholar lives in a greater community in which, as Roskelly and Ronald describe it, the "powers of the individual are not separable from the powers of the group, of the culture in which the individual resides" (57). The self, then, that celebrated aspect of American romanticism, is a part of the whole and is integrated into a whole made of other selves. The action of one, the experiences of one, affect and resonate in others' experience. Self and Other together make community. This unity in duality, this connection between self and other, community and individual, is a "guiding principle" of American romantic/pragmatic rhetoric. Yes, this is a paradox, and one that Emerson himself did not work out. (3)

This working out--or the testing of theory with practice--was left to others. Perhaps the best-known attempt to test out Emerson's ideas was that of Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). He takes Emerson's ideas in "The American Scholar" to heart and retreats to Walden Pond for two years, 1845-47, just outside Concord, to become "man thinking." Walden (first published in 1854), is often considered to be a symbol of the romantic vision of the isolated poet, in full retreat from a loud and intruding world. It can, however, be seen as rather the opposite. As Roskelly and Ronald argue in Reason to Believe, Walden can be read as a "pragmatic experiment .

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