The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing

The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing

by Robert E. Belknap

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“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 in Walden. In creating this list, and many others that appear in his writings, Thoreau was working within a little-recognized yet ancient

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“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 in Walden. 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.

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"The only study of its kind to focus exclusively on the list and list-making in American Romantic writing, and the first to give full attention to its multifaceted literary design and various aesthetic and philosophical motives. Readable and engaging, it should appeal to students and those interested in the topic of the list generally."—Alan Hodder

"Against the tyranny of rankings, Robert Belknap proposes a more democratic taxonomic system: the list. A spirited account, centered on Melville, Whitman, Thoreau, and going back to the Sumerian tablets."— Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University

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The List

The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing
By Robert E. Belknap

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Robert E. Belknap
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10383-0

Chapter One

The Literary List

When Randall Jarrell considered the pages of ecstatic listing in Leaves of Grass, he described them as "little systems as beautifully and astonishingly ordered as the rings and satellites of Saturn." 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 inter-planetary debris orders itself so gracefully in the heavens; even when we have heard the accounts and theories of experts, we still marvel. Whitman's lines, whether we understand their organization or not, similarly fill us with wonder. In their motions, their inclusions, and their exclusions, they seem to be continuously in play, tumbling but controlled.

Whitman was a great lister, a writer who experimented with the list and exploited its capacity to accumulate elements and yoke together phenomena. Because of its generative qualities-because it can be considered shapeless it has the capacity to spark endless connectionsand inclusions in a multiplicity of forms-the list is a device that writers have frequently employed to display the pleasurable infinitude of language. Faced with the great variety of its uses in literature, how can we best define what the list is?

At their most simple, lists are frameworks that hold separate and disparate items together. Lists are plastic, flexible structures in which an array of constituent units coheres through specific relations generated by specific forces of attraction. Writers can build these structures so that they appear random or create them so they seem to be organized by some overt principle. The versatility of these structures has without doubt led to their use throughout history by both literary and nonliterary, utilitarian compilers. Indeed, one would need the prodigious talent of Callimachus, who organized and catalogued the vast holdings (some 700,000 volumes) of the great library of Alexandria, to completely categorize the uses writers and compilers have found for the list form. Although an exhaustive listing is beyond this discussion, I would like here to survey the use of the list in literature in order to illustrate its advantages as a literary construct, present terminology useful for discussing it, and examine the literary heritage of compilation that the four main authors of this study-Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau-inherited and on which they left their lasting marks.

A complete discussion of the list must cover all its aspects. These include the sorts of elements that make up its constituent parts, how the compiler arranges these parts, and what circumstances occasion a particular arrangement. We need to explore the nature and function of both literary and nonliterary compilations, as well as listing devices that have been used both pragmatically and artistically. A list of listings would include the catalogue, the inventory, the itinerary, and the lexicon. Lists differ from catalogues in presenting a simple series of units, without the descriptive enhancement a catalogue usually provides. The catalogue is more comprehensive, conveys more information, and is more amenable to digression than the list. In the inventory, words representing names or things are collected by a conceptual principle. In the itinerary, actions are ordered through time: the continuum of a single motion may be subdivided into discrete elements, or narrative in general may be conceived of as an elaborate listing of a series of events. In the lexicon, words are inventoried with their definitions, ordered and arranged for ease of accessibility.

Other pragmatic listing forms that find rhetorical use include the invoice and the last will and testament. Many writers exploit or elaborate upon listing techniques to achieve a particular effect: the suggestion of plenitude, of rapid motion, or of the joyful concatenation of a number of possible mixtures of language.

Both pragmatic and literary lists are organized to display information. As repositories of information, they are meaningful to those who read or access them. Connections between elements in a list may be readily apparent or vague and indistinct, depending on what role the list is intended to serve. On the one hand, a list may fulfill a reference function, acting as a resource in which information is ordered so it can be swiftly and easily located. On the other, a list may convey a specific impression; its role is the creation of meaning, rather than merely the storage of it. In such a way a writer might present numerous entities to a reader, setting them side by side in display, or might particularize an individual object, indicating its components or qualities. A list like Edmund Spenser's celebrated catalogue of trees from the first canto of The Faerie Queene, for example, serves multiple purposes. Taking shelter from a storm, Una and the Red Crosse Knight survey the wood:

Much can they prayse the trees so straight and hy, The sayling Pine, the Cedar proud and tall, The vine-prop Elme, the Poplar neuer dry, The builder Oake, sole king of forrests all, The Aspen good for staues, the Cypresse funerall. The Laurell, meed of mightie Conquerors And Poets sage, the Firre that weepeth still, The Willow worne of forlorne Paramours, The Eugh obedient to the benders will, The Birch for shaftes, the Sallow for the mill, The Mirrhe sweet bleeding in the bitter wound, The warlike Beech, the Ash for nothing ill, The fruitfull Oliue, and the Plantane round, The Carver Holme, the Maple seeldom inward sound. [1.1.8-9]

Here the list structure is relevant to the theme of its occasion: the list is an economical way to get the couple lost, and its effect is to simultaneously suspend and advance the narrative of the poem. As the list develops, we, like the two characters "led with delight," penetrate deeper into the forest, distracted by the game of arboreal identification. The close packing of the species reflects the density of the wood, but the lack of sensory description reveals the Knight's failure to attend to his surroundings, and Spenser's application of epithets to each species reveals the hero's complacent preoccupation with humanity's supposed mastery over the natural world.

The lines conclude with our hollow realization of his mistake, ironically juxtaposing the anticlimax of the Maple's inutility with the climax of the unretraceable path. The unsound center of the tree forewarns of the monster lurking within the "shady grove," the allegory of human hubris. In addition its deliberate construction (A. C. Hamilton notes that Spenser arranges the trees in stanza 8 by their height), the list serves to associate the poet with other poets who have assembled well-known catalogues of trees: Ovid, Virgil, and Chaucer. Placed near the beginning of the poem, the compilation proclaims Spenser's position in poetic tradition; the setpiece announces, as Anne Ferry writes, the poet's place within a "subliminal catalogue of immortal names." When Whitman and Thoreau continue the tradition by constructing their own lists of trees,as we shall see in the "Song of the Broad-Axe" and the opening of the "Baker Farm" chapter of Walden, respectively, they do so in new and original ways.

When we search for information in a utilitarian list, we are satisfied when it is organized by a sensible principle. The literary list, however, is complex in precisely the way a pragmatic list must not be. In a literary work, lists and compilations appeal for different reasons. Here we do not hunt for a specific piece of information but rather receive the information the writer wishes to communicate to us. There can be great satisfaction in the search for order in a list, whether that feeling be due to an appreciation of explicitly patterned artistry, a delight in unforeseen and unexpected combinations, or the writer's invitation to the reader to generate his or her own sense of meaning, to piece matters together in whatever way seems right. Emerson, inspired by the Transcendental "convertibility of every thing into every other thing," acknowledges this invitation, writing in "The Poet," "Bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind" (E, 455). In a sense, we all take up the invitation: a modern neurological view finds that the human brain "looks for ways to lower the entropy of a collection of items by reducing the number of ways in which they can be arranged.... If the items display no obvious relationships, no discernible pattern, the brain will invent relationships, imposing some arbitrary order on the disorderliness of the material."

Nonliterary lists must have a practical composition in order to be useful, but literary compilations, though they generally have some inner logic of form, have no such obligation. For the critic there is thus the ever-present danger of interpretive overdetermination. Eager to decipher the disorder that is evident in the open, suggestive nature of the list, the critic who strives to find meaning by making coherent messages from these loose formations can err badly. As Dr. Johnson noted of one commentator's praise of a connective order found in Pope's Essay on Criticism-an order the author himself had not intended-the result may be "a concatenation of intermediate ideas such as, when it is once shewn, shall appear natural; but if this order be reversed, another mode of connection equally specious may be found or made." Conscious of the danger Dr. Johnson warns of, the critic nevertheless may find it rewarding to apply the same investigative rigor given other elements of a literary work to a writer's use of lists and listing strategies.

Lists consist of arrangements of entries and have been used for varied purposes throughout history. Lists enumerate, account, remind, memorialize, order. Lists take a number of sizes, shapes, and functions, ranging from directories and historical records to edicts and instructions. Francis Spufford, who has put together a beautiful (but incomplete) collection of literary lists, asks whether lists are simply too various to have a character. He writes, "The separateness of the extraordinary variety of ways of using lists inevitably raises an uncomfortable question-whether 'lists' are at all a unified category of literary endeavor or whether 'a list' is only a name for something completely determined by what is put in it, like a paragraph."

In an effort to manage this great variety William Gass suggests a good general taxonomy of three basic families into which lists can be categorized. He defines these families according to their different degrees of organization. First are lists built without a formal organizing principle that take shape as elements emerge "out of thin air" or as objects are come upon, either from pressed memory ("what did I need today?") or, as at a police station, items are removed from a suspect and inventoried. Gass's second category of list includes everything arranged by a particular principle: alphabetically, numerically, hierarchically, geographically, chronologically, and so on. In the final category are lists that are built through an externally imposed system, as the structure of a table of contents of a book, for example, is dictated by the sequence of the book's parts.

In contrast to the pragmatic list, however, the literary list must be allowed an additional category that is neither truly random nor strictly principled. Writers present these textual lists to their readers much as they do other aspects of literature, such as rhyme or plot-to mark off the literary from the nonliterary. By design, these unrolled lists may begin according to a specific principle, but they may show build, movement, or deviation as they progress. Alternately, they might spiral into their own constellations of form for which there is no identifying label. Some literary lists have their own traditions from which to abide by or depart-the roll call of leaders in epic poetry is a cardinal example-and their appearance has an aspect of tradition. Others represent deliberately the informal, makeshift, or random aspects of experience. The literary listing is thus a quite different entity from the pragmatic list since its craft of composition pushes it, as Stephen Barney writes, "beyond the minimum requirements of listing into ornament."

Patterns of listing have been identified and conceptually categorized, however. In the sixteenth century, Henry Peacham recorded many of these strategies in his catalogue of rhetoric The Garden of Eloquence.

Congeries-A multiplication or heaping together of many words signifying diverse things of like nature. Conglobatio-When we bring in many definitions of one thing, yet no such definitions as do declare the pith of the matter, but others of another kind all heaped together, which do amplify most pleasantly. Dinumeratio-When we number up many things for the love of amplifying. This differeth from Congeries, for Congeries heapeth up words, and this sentences. Distributio-When we dilate and spread abroad the general kind by numbering and reckoning the special kinds; the whole by dividing it into parts ... the General into the Special (which distributeth to every person his due business). Enumeratio-When we gather together those things into a certain number, which straightaway we do briefly declare. Expolitio-When we abide still in one place yet seem to speak many things, many times repeating one sentence, but with other words and figures. Incrementum-When by degrees we ascend to the top of something, or rather above the top; that is, when we make our saying grow and increase by an orderly placing of our words, making the latter word always exceed the former.... In this figure, order must be diligently observed, that the stronger may follow the weaker, and the worthier the less worthy; otherwise you shall not increase the Oration, but make a mingle mangle, as doth the ignorant, or else make a great heap, as doth Congeries. Ordinatio-A figure which doth not only number the facts before they be said, but also doth order those facts, and maketh them plain by a kind of definition. Partitio-When the whole is divided into parts. Synonimia-When by a variation and change of words that be of like signification we iterate one thing diverse times.

The list form is the predominant mode of organizing data relevant to human functioning in the world, from financial transactions to knowledge of tides. Lists consisting of sequential signs appear as early as 3200 B.C. and mark the distant origin of a means of communication that will develop into written language. Listing itself developed in numerous ways worldwide, though most systems were initiated to establish a reliable means to store information necessary to record commercial exchanges or property ownership. Schemes of accountancy and record keeping provided for the mechanical collection and retrieval of data with the "reasonable" amount of unambiguous exactness necessary for trade and administration. Codification of quickly learned and easily performed systems facilitated transactions, becoming increasingly organized as economic, civic, and religious life became more complex.


Excerpted from The List by Robert E. Belknap Copyright © 2004 by Robert E. Belknap. Excerpted by permission.
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