Double Consciousness: Echoes of Emerson in Du Bois and Ellison

November 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Ralph Waldo Ellison

As we further explore the rhetorical Emerson, continuing with racial implications in his rhetoric of “Fate,” and Emerson’s rhetorical lineage that can be traced in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Waldo Ellison in the twentieth century, we should keep in mind Buell’s assertion that Emerson represents well both the promise and the problem of doing socially significant intellectual work. Du Bois and Ellison are intellects who are also socially significant in the broader American culture–one could argue, more significant than Emerson. The question, then, as you read their work after reading “Fate”:  In this intellectual and rhetorical engagement with American society and the issue of race, what do we see and hear that we could say is significant in Emerson?

One of the potential Emersonian relations found in Du Bois emerges with his phrase “double consciousness.” That phrase also appears in Emerson’s “Fate” as well as his address on “The Transcendentalist.” For recent scholarship that explores Emerson and Du Bois, consider this article, Contending Forces‘ Intellectual History: Emerson, Du Bois, and Washington at the Turn of the Century. There are also relations that can be drawn between the two with regard to their vision of education, specifically liberal education. The author Michael Roth addresses some of this in his book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. Roth will be visiting our campus in February 2016 for a lecture on the topic. Du Bois, to my mind, sounds particularly Emersonian in his argument for what he calls “The Talented Tenth.” The emphasis, there, is for an education that focuses on intellect and genius, rather than one that focuses on manual skills.

Ellison, in his “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” helps us think about some of the questions of his Emersonian relationship. Because there is a character named “Mr. Emerson” in Invisible Man who is not likable, critics long assumed that Ellison was only lampooning Emerson and his transcendental aloofness from social problems. However, I would point us to recent scholarship by James Albrecht, who argues for a more complex influence in Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison. To my mind, having recently reread Invisible Man with this scholarship in mind, I read Emerson’s relation to Ellison, and recognize significant traces of Emerson’s socially-engaged intellectual work, in the prominence and power of oratory in the novel. A power that Ellison learns from Emerson and writes about in the novel is the rhetorical power that Emerson would call “eloquence.” Ellison shows us how this power is at once socially significant and intellectual.

Finding the right balance for this power–for being or having an intellect, human thinking, but also enacting thought, acting upon intellect–seems to be the conclusion that Emerson reaches in “Fate.” These are the lines where “double consciousness” emerges at the end:

One key, one solution to the mysteries of human condition, one solution to the old knots of fate, freedom, and foreknowledge, exists, the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness. A man must ride alternately on the horses of his private and his public nature, as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of one, and the other foot on the back of the other.

Notice that we are off the ground, but not uplifted into the blithe air. We are seeking to plant our feet on “the horses of [our] public and private  nature,” moving somewhere, and trying to keep our balance. Emerson here forwards an allegorical image circulated by Plato in his dialogue “Phaedrus”: “First the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.” The poet Wallace Stevens in the 20th century also picked up this image of movement and balance in an essay titled “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.”


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