Emerson and the Rhetoric of Race

October 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

Emerson lecturing in 1848 Concord Free Library

You will recall from our discussion and reading of “Self-Reliance” that long-standing conventional wisdom has assumed Emerson’s transcendentalism to be aloof, removed from social concerns, if not hostile to them. We might wonder, then, where Emerson stood regarding the crucial social and political problem at the time of his major work, the 1830s through the Civil War: American slavery. Remembering this passage from “Self-Reliance,” we might understand (knowing how it is easy to misread this essay) where Emerson gets this reputation:

“I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways. If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, `Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’ Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me.”

But, as we should expect by now, Emerson’s perspective on reform generally, and antislavery reform specifically, are more complicated than that. Some of that complication might be found in a re-reading of “Self-Reliance.” This complication of Emerson and reform and race has been pursued in criticism over the last twenty-five years, guided in part by the attention given to Emerson’s antislavery lectures and other writings, demonstrating his active engagement with abolitionism, beginning with his August 1844 address on “Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies.” In his lecture in 1851 “Address to the Citizens of Concord” condemning the Fugitive Slave Law, Emerson renders this engagement in clear terms: “The last year has forced us all into politics,” and later declares, “the law is suicidal and cannot be obeyed.” Here Emerson sounds much more like his “student” Thoreau, known for his essay on “Civil Disobedience” and usually given more credit for acting upon his beliefs.

The Emerson reader and critic most responsible for this work in rethinking and rereading Emerson by way of his antislavery writing is Len Gougeon, author of Virtue’s Hero. A book that builds on Gougeon’s work, while extending the rereading of Emerson and race into twentieth-century writing (and relations to writers like Ralph Waldo Ellison and to cultural forms like jazz) is Michael Magee’s Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing. Versions of the critical view of Emerson that these authors counter include John Carlos Rowe’s At Emerson’s Tomb, who sees Emerson’s legacy for American literature as problematically anti-social. If interested in doing further work on Emerson’s rhetorical engagement with race and reform for the final project, I recommend you look at these works.

What does the 1844 “Emancipation” address show us of Emerson’s rhetoric of race (as I will term his engagement in the issues of anti-slavery and the racial issues that are involved)? How does this rhetorical Emerson compare or contrast with the poetic and philosophical Emerson we have studied thus far? Is this a new Emerson?

Yes and no. The explicit focus on reform is new to our reading; Emerson is not in this address worried that his love afar might be spite at home. In fact, that becomes the argument, that home is not unconnected to what is going on afar. There is, as Emerson memorably and devastatingly puts in, blood in the sugar that derives from slavery, and that sugar is sweetening the tea in Boston. What’s not new, at the same time, is the idea that this institution of slavery can be defeated by the powers of ideas, by the force he terms “eloquence,” by intellect, by a “moral revolution.” At the end of Nature, in the chapter “Prospects,” Emerson anticipates a “revolution in things” that he analogizes to the blind being restored to sight: “As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.” Isn’t the pure idea of human freedom now simply extended to the revolution in the thing of slavery?

I think so. But Emerson complicates matters in the 1844 address by using the word “power” to describe the intellect and applying it to race. Race (and the “form” of race) does and doesn’t matter in the face of this power. Emerson later names this power “Fate” (an 1860 essay we will read next week). Does this power of intellect abolish race? Reinforce it? Make racial distinctions immaterial or more material? (These questions begin to suggest to me why Emerson might be taken up as both hero and villain in America’s history of race and reform).  Here is the passage–I leave it now for your rereading and our further thinking:

I have said that this event interests us because it came mainly from the concession of the whites; I add, that in part it is the earning of the blacks. They won the pity and respect which they have received, by their powers and native endowments. I think this a circumstance of the highest import. Their whole future is in it. Our planet, before the age of written history, had its races of savages, like the generations of sour paste, or the animalcules that wiggle and bite in a drop of putrid water. Who cares for these or for their wars ? We do not wish a world of bugs or of birds ; neither afterward of Scythians, Caraibs or Feejees. The grand style of Nature, her great periods, is all we observe in them. Who cares for oppressing whites, or oppressed blacks, twenty centuries ago, more than for bad dreams ? Eaters and food are in the harmony of Nature; and there too is the germ forever protected, unfolding gigantic leaf after leaf, a newer flower, a richer fruit, in every period, yet its next product is never to be guessed. It will only save what is worth saving; and it saves not by compassion, but by power. It appoints no police to guard the lion but his teeth and claws ; no fort or city for the bird but his wings ; no rescue for flies and mites but their spawning numbers, which no ravages can overcome. It deals with men after the same manner. If they are rude and foolish, down they must go. When at last in a race a new principle appears, an idea, -that conserves it; ideas only save races. If the black man is feeble and not important to the existing races, not on a parity with the best race, the black man must serve, and be exterminated.’ But if the black man carries in his bosom an indispensable element of a new and coming civilization; for the sake of that element, no wrong nor strength nor circumstance can hurt him: he will survive and play his part. So now, the arrival in the world of such men as Toussaint, and the Haytian heroes, or of the leaders of their race in Barbadoes and Jamaica, outweighs in good omen all the English and American humanity. The anti-slavery of the whole world is dust in the balance before this, – is a poor squeamishness and nervousness : the might and the right are here: here is the anti-slave : here is man : and if you have man, black or white is an insignificance. The intellect,-that is miraculous! Who has it, has the talisman: his skin and bones, though they were of the color of night, are transparent, and the everlasting stars shine through, with attractive beams. But a compassion for that which is not and cannot be useful or lovely, is degrading and futile. All the songs and newspapers and money subscriptions and vituperation of such as do not think with us, will avail nothing against a fact. I say to you, you must save yourself, black or white, man or woman; other help is none. I esteem the occasion of this jubilee to be the proud discovery that the black race can contend with the white : that in the great anthem which we call history, a piece of many parts and vast compass, after playing a long time a very low and subdued accompaniment, they perceive the time arrived when they can strike in with effect and take a master’s part in the music. The civility of the world has reached that pitch that their more moral genius is becoming indispensable, and the quality of this race is to be honored for itself. For this, they have been preserved in sandy deserts, in rice-swamps, in kitchens and shoe-shops, so long : now let them emerge, clothed and in their own form.


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