The List The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing Robert E. Belknap

Publication date:
11 Oct 2004
Yale University Press
272 pages: 210 x 140mm
3 diagrams
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A literary critic lovingly explores the ancient practice of list-making in literature

“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. Increating 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.

Robert E. Belknap is instructor of English at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

"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