Louise M. Rosenblatt: An “Unorthodox Stance”
By Sonya L. Armstrong
“Almost from the very beginning of my work in the field, I have taken an unorthodox stance toward the established theoretical positions” (Rosenblatt, 1994, p. 178).
These are Louise M. Rosenblatt’s own words taken from the epilogue, “Against Dualisms,” from the paperback edition (1994) of The Reader, the Text, and the Poem. Indeed, Rosenblatt’s rejection of dualistic thinking, in the context of literary theory and its implications for teaching literature, was truly her gift to readers.
There are many biographies and other historical narratives written about Rosenblatt that detail her life and work, among them is a 1999 Language Arts interview by Nicholas Karolides; the epilogue, “Reaffirmations,” to the 1995 edition of Literature as Exploration, which serves as an autobiographical explanation of the influences on transactional theory; an in-memoriam piece by Jeanne M. Connell that appeared in Education and Culture (2005); and a videotaped interview with Philomena Marinaccio (video and transcript). In addition, Rosenblatt’s own compilation of selected essays, Making Meaning with Texts (2005), provides a condensed offering of the details of her philosophies of reading and of teaching reading. And, of course, her discussions of these philosophies are extended in her books Literature as Exploration and The Reader, the Text, and the Poem. With such a wealth of resources already available for deeper engagement with Rosenblatt’s perspectives, this overview will be limited to highlights of but a few of her most significant philosophical and theoretical contributions—specifically, those that best represent her “unorthodox stance” (1994, p. 178).
In Literature as Exploration (1938, 1965, 1968, 1976, 1995), Rosenblatt argued for the centrality of literature in education toward a democratic society. Drawing on the learner-focused educational philosophies of Dewey and Peirce, and simultaneously reacting against the text-focused principles of the New Critics, Rosenblatt presented an alternative to the status quo in literary theory: the transactional perspective. Her philosophy was, of course, first and foremost focused on the reader, as she acknowledged the reader’s backgrounds, interests, purposes, goals, and situation. In a time when the reader was absent, or worse perhaps, irrelevant, from conversations about literary theory, Rosenblatt invited the reader in and honored her place at the table: “In the molding of any specific literary experience, what the student brings to literature is as important as the literary text itself” (1995, p. 78). As she explained, it is through the transaction between the reader and the text that the poem is created—a poem that is anything but “generic” (1995, p. 24). Rosenblatt spent the bulk of the book’s pages explaining her dual focus on “democracy and literature” (1995, p. xv); teachers, she argued, have an obligation to shape their own discipline, education as a whole, and the democratic ideals that education supports (1995, p. 172). Part of this shaping, necessarily, is focused on the learner herself, and here is where the book’s title explains it all: literature allows for exploration, of oneself and of one’s world. In this regard, she was dually focused on the rights of readers as well as the place for reading in developing citizens.
In The Reader, the Text, and the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978, 1994), Rosenblatt extended her explication of the transactional perspective with a particular emphasis on “The Invisible Reader” (the title of the book’s first chapter). In this book, her focus on the reader’s experience was once again highlighted, as was her rejection of more objectivist, dualistic perspectives grown in the time of positivism and scientific analysis of literary texts. Here, as in her earlier book, Rosenblatt described the transaction between a reader and a text, but it is in this book that she more definitively dismantled the elitism associated with reading literary texts: “A specific reader and a specific text at a specific time and place: change any of these, and there occurs a different circuit, a different event—a different poem” (1994, p. 14). In other words, rather than accept the assumptions that necessarily flowed from the then-dominant perspective that privileged ‘correct’ readings of texts that could only be achieved by literary scholar-critics, Rosenblatt advocated for an invitation for all readers to engage. Indeed, her pedagogical principles both valued and empowered the “ordinary reader” (1994, p. 138).
Her perspective—born out of her own teaching experiences—on who could and should read literary texts, and how, and why, helped shape so much of what is now widely accepted in literacy studies. Her tendency to adopt an “unorthodox stance” (1994, p. 178) may have been an indication that she was progressive for her time, as the saying goes. But more important, perhaps, she was a fierce advocate for learners who understood the true powers of literacy, particularly as it relates to a democratic society:
Ultimately, if I have been concerned about methods of teaching literature, about ensuring that it should be indeed be personally experienced, it is because, as Shelley said, it helps readers develop the imaginative capacity to put themselves in the place of others—a capacity essential in a democracy, where we need to rise above narrow self-interest and envision the broader human consequences of political decisions. (Rosenblatt, 2005, p. xxxiii)