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The List

The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing

Robert E. Belknap
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The List
    Book Description:

    "I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house," wrote Henry David Thoreau inWalden.In creating this list, and many others that appear in his writings, Thoreau was working within a little-recognized yet ancient literary tradition: the practice of listing or cataloguing. This beautifully written book is the first to examine literary lists and the remarkably wide range of ways writers use them.Robert Belknap first examines lists through the centuries-from Sumerian account tablets and Homer's catalogue of ships to Tom Sawyer's earnings from his fence-painting scheme-then focuses on lists in the works of four American Renaissance authors: Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau. Lists serve a variety of functions in Emerson's essays, Whitman's poems, Melville's novels, and Thoreau's memoirs, and Belknap discusses their surprising variety of pattern, intention, scope, art, and even philosophy. In addition to guiding the reader through the list's many uses, this book explores the pleasures that lists offer.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12719-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xx)
  6. 1 The Literary List
    (pp. 1-35)

    When Randall Jarrell considered the pages of ecstatic listing inLeaves of Grass,he described them as “little systems as beautifully and astonishingly ordered as the rings and satellites of Saturn.”¹ This analogy is fitting not only because it evokes the stratification implicit in Whitman’s lines—and the sometimes barely perceptible orbits the poems fulfill—but also because it suggests the sense of wonder the lists can arouse in readers. Most of us are curious about why a disorderly array of interplanetary debris orders itself so gracefully in the heavens; even when we have heard the accounts and theories of...

  7. 2 Emerson “Each and All”
    (pp. 36-72)

    Lists appear with great frequency throughout American literature. Sometimes they are incidental or minor, sometimes they carry considerable artistic and intellectual weight. Most of the lists of the early literature of North America are practical in character: in 1519 Hernán Cortés inventoried the rich trove of gifts given him by the Aztecs; in 1607 George Percy matter-of-factly catalogued the deaths of members of the Jamestown colony; in 1620 William Bradford registered the terms of a peace treaty; in 1624 John Smith documented the possessions of various Indian groups and their trades with the early colonists; in 1643 Roger Williams recorded...

  8. 3 Whitman “Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next”
    (pp. 73-119)

    Whitman’s technique of accumulating and unfurling seemingly effortless, potentially endless lists has been considered by some critics a sign of his limitation as a poet and by others an indication of the essence of his genius. On the negative side, the detractions have been blunt. “I expected him to make the songs of the nation, but he seems content to make the inventories,” Emerson once wrote, belittling Whitman’s poetic accomplishments and retracting his earlier praise (for example, from his letter of July 21, 1855: “I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of...

  9. 4 Melville “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method”
    (pp. 120-167)

    Whitman’s style is unquestionably unique, but there is nevertheless a certain resemblance betweenLeaves of Grassand Melville’sMoby-Dick suggestedby the long, rhythmic lines, with their occasional ramifications, that are common to both works. In his Preface to the 1855 edition ofLeaves of Grass,Whitman wrote of how “the rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs or roses on a bush.” His allusion to natural subdivisions, and the implicit suggestion of the ease, confidence, and flawlessness with which they occur, aptly suits...

  10. 5 Thoreau “These statistics, however accidental and therefore uninstructive they may appear, as they have a certain completeness, have a certain value also”
    (pp. 168-206)

    In my introduction I observed a distinction between literary and pragmatic lists. When it comes to authoritatively ordering the variety of things in the world, the scientific categorization of natural history is perhaps the epitome of the pragmatic list. The work of Linnaeus and others in classifying the components of the living world by means of language enabled an astounding variety of literal listings. Every species in Noah’s Ark could be named, and subsequently the natural world could be gathered in professional and scientific ways. The scientific method of classification introduced a new modality into the practice of compilation. Finely...

  11. Extracts A List of Literary Lists
    (pp. 207-224)

    “Another secret, my dear. I have added to my collection of birds.”

    “Really, Miss Flite?” said I, knowing how it pleased her to have her confidence received with an appearance of interest.

    She nodded several times, and her face became overcast and gloomy. “Two more. I call them the Wards in Jarndyce. They are caged up with all the others. With Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach!”

    “I wonder, now, if I was divided up and inventoried,” said [Augustine St....

  12. Notes
    (pp. 225-238)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-246)
  14. Index
    (pp. 247-252)