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Literary society honors professor

Adam Llorens | Monday, September 17, 2012

English professor Laura Walls’s fascination with the life and teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson began at age 12, when she stumbled across an antique volume of the transcendentalist leader’s “Essays: First and Second Series.”

“[Reading the book] gave me a kind of permission to really think for myself and listen closely to what other people were saying,” Walls said. “I was getting a lot of messages at the time about conforming and doing what everybody else does. I began taking seriously the fact that here was a voice that said, ‘Dig below and you can think for yourself.'”

Today, the decorated scholar is widely considered an Emerson expert, as evidenced by her recent acceptance of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society’s 2012 Distinguished Achievement Award. She said she continues her mission of “helping Emerson teach students today” through her work at Notre Dame.

But Walls said she still learns from Emerson’s writings because he is “somebody you just can’t leave alone.”

When faced with a complex problem, she looks to the thinker for guidance.

“He’s a brilliant writer who’s never satisfied with the second or third answer,” she said. “Every time you’ve got it all down pat and you’ve got all the answers, you come back to Emerson and it makes you think of something you’ve never thought of before, and you’re unsettled again.”

Although Emerson and his writings always fascinated Walls, she said she began her freshman year of undergraduate studies at the University of Washington as an intended biology major.

“However, I had this realization towards the end of my freshman year that what I was doing in the lab wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life,” Walls said. “This upsetting, Emerson-type moment made me ask about science itself, about what it was and what it did.”

Just as she did in her youth, Walls said she returned to Emerson’s work once again, this time consulting his most famous essay, “Nature.”

“After rereading this work, I switched my major to English and decided to pursue the Emersonian project of thinking through the nature of things,” Walls said.

In 1987, Walls began teaching and working toward her Ph.D. in English at Indiana University, where she was able to reconcile her differing academic interests.

“I got interested in history and philosophy of science at Indiana,” Walls said. “I discovered there how I could put my two lifelong interests of science and literature together.”

A former faculty member at the University of South Carolina, Walls said she came to Notre Dame last year because of the high prevalence of “moral and intellectual seriousness” at the University.

“Emerson was originally a minister, and religion was always important to him even though he left the ministry when he was younger,” Walls said. “He wanted to redefine religion for the modern world, so I was really intrigued at the thought of teaching Emerson and the American transcendentalism movement at Notre Dame.”

The idealism present among Notre Dame students reminds Walls of her own beliefs, she said.

“I get a sense that students really do want to change the world and make it a better place,” Walls said. “Idealism has always been a part of me, and Notre Dame is one place where my own intellectual and teaching ambitions are a good fit.”

Since her Emerson Society recognition, Walls has continued working on a biography of Emerson’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau.

“We know a lot more about his life in the last 15 to 20 years through research, and surprisingly, there hasn’t been an extensive biography of him for decades,” Walls said. “I thought it would be a really good time, given I have spent a great deal of time on him, to write down what we now understand of his life story.”

But the voice that sparked Walls’s 12-year-old imagination continues to inspire her, and she said she hopes her students experience the same powerful inspiration in their own academic pursuits.

“I think young people today need to make this world their own, and once you really think a meaningful thought through and own it yourself, then it really is yours,” Walls said. “That’s the foundation for action and intellectual work.”