Edison’s Incandescent Lamp: Taking Robert Frost’s “Literate Farmer” Literally

"What's a star doing big as a baseball?" (Photo (c) Robert Goldwitz)
“What’s a star doing big as a baseball?” (Photo (c) Robert Goldwitz, 2013)

Below is the abstract for a panel paper I will give at the American Literature Association Conference in Boston, May 2013. The Robert Frost Society hosts the panel.

More than just a poem about two men debating the merits of scientific achievement, Robert Frost’s “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus: A Dated Popular-Science Medley on a Mysterious Light Recently Observed in the Western Sky at Evening” is a direct challenge to the reader’s sense of security about his own beliefs. In the poem, a stranger appears at a farmer’s doorstep one night. The stranger asks about the bright light in the sky, which he assumes is the planet Venus. The farmer, however, believes it is an “incandescent lamp” installed by Thomas Edison to lengthen the workday, much to the stranger’s astonishment. Critics suggest the farmer’s references to technology, evolution, and religion indicates he is well read and that he only pretends to believe light is a lamp. He takes this position to mock “the values symbolized by Edison,” including technological advancement, unquestioned faith in science, and an emphasis on thrift. The reader’s own incredulousness over the farmer’s notion that an incandescent lamp is the source of sky’s bright light makes it easy to believe he’s playing the devil’s advocate during the debate.

My alternative reading challenges that analysis by accepting the farmer’s belief that the light is, in fact, an incandescent lamp. The farmer is literate, but he represents a man well read in popular science, as the poem’s subtitle suggests. To support this reading, I contextualize the poem within popular print sources from the 1920s that encouraged faith in science and technology, causing readers to value beliefs and ideas backed up by scientific authority and reject any that were not—effectively closing off other avenues of thought.

In shaping his poetic response to this trend, Frost may have been influenced by William James’s “On a Certain Belief,” where James concludes that when beliefs masquerade as immutable facts, our understanding of the world becomes limited. In the essay, James describes his encounter with North Carolinian farmers who live on deforested land. He believes the scene ugly and depressing, but learns the farmers consider the denuded landscape a symbol of progress. James’s insight is that although his belief contradicts the farmers’, both beliefs are valid. Frost’s poem demonstrates that conclusion by leaving the men’s debate unresolved. Such a debate cannot be decided because what we consider a fact is, at bottom, a belief. Facts—scientific or otherwise—are only true and secure if we believe in them. As such Frost cautions the reader against dismissing another’s beliefs if they do not agree with his own, no matter how ludicrous they might seem. A better position remains open to questions and contradictions that perpetually challenge beliefs, including the ones posited by science.

Keep the Discussion Open or Be a Blob of Jellyfish: “How Do You Define DH?”

On Monday someone on Twitter breathed a sigh of relief that it no longer was necessary to post a definition of “digital humanities” in order to sign up for Day of DH 2012.  On the same day, two people asked me, “What does ‘digital humanities’ mean?” The term is not old news yet, inside or outside academia. And it’s still being defined, even by people who live inside the DH’s deepest inner circles. This is evidenced by the many repeat participants in Day of DH who modified their definitions from last year.

That the term is still being defined is crucial to this field. To cheer over not having to post a definition is an act of closing down the discussion of what a digital humanist is and does and what the digital humanities means. Having a permanent definition is a fabulous way to build a neat, comfortable box around yourself and what you do. You never have look beyond the edges of the box or at yourself, lolling in the box.

Robert Frost wrote many poems in which he explored the catastrophe of certainty. “Etherealizing,” which was published in Steeple Bush (1947), makes this point particularly well:

A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from becoming dry.

This poem is more than a simple critique of evolution, a theory Frost had difficulty accepting because it made the nature sound too mechanistic and determined.  The poem takes the position that receiving theories and definitions of terms without constant interrogation will turn them into codified systems of belief. The risk of never questioning belief or certainty is a “mind … entirely freed” from the body, which lies on the beach like a “blob[ ] of jellyfish” (359). In other words, a mind stranded from its body is like a belief insulated from inquiry and renewed questioning. It is as useless and inert as the soft jellyfish lying on the shore. Beliefs, theories, definitions, and scientific laws eventually change.

Here’s my definition of the digital humanities, which is different from the original one I posted at the Day of DH 2012 site. In that definition, I emphasized discussion as though all DH people do is sit around and talk. I omitted participation in online projects. Here’s a better working definition for me:

  • The digital humanities represent an inclusive, open community that includes students, researchers, teachers, and other people interested in developing online projects and participating in discussions of issues related to the learning, teaching, social, political, technical, economic implications of those projects and the Web more generally. The digital humanities encompass building, collaborating, learning, making knowledge, playing with the imagination, and sharing with others, online and offline.

You can find many more definitions at Day of DH 2012.