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.

Democratic Vistas: startled by sin

October 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

1948 US stamp honoring Walt Whitman

Image via Wikipedia

Something startles me when I thought I was safest. This opening line from Whitman’s “This Compost” (originally published in the 1856 edition) comes to mind when I try to make sense of “Democratic Vistas.” Whitman seems startled by where he finds himself in post-Civil War, reconstruction America. (Remember Emerson’s opening line in his great essay “Experience”: Where do we find ourselves?) It is and isn’t the America and the democracy he had been envisioning in his writing since 1855. It is strange and familiar. And I feel startled by the essay: interested in where it wants to go, familiar with some of its echoes of the Whitman of Leaves of Grass, and startled by its inability to get there. You thought Emerson’s essays were strange? Folsom and Price in chapter 6 of Re-Scripting Walt Whitman provide helpful social and historical context for Whitman’s essay and for the problem of reconstruction in his writing. I copy below two relevant paragraphs. Should you be interested in doing more with this strange but important text in Whitman, or with Whitman and race and reconstruction, I invite you to read further in the chapter.

If “Passage to India” and “After All Not to Create Only” were celebratory (perhaps at times naively so), Democratic Vistas mounted sustained criticism of Reconstruction-era failures. Based in part on essays that had appeared in the New York journal the Galaxy in 1867 and 1868, Democratic Vistas responds most immediately to a racist diatribe by the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, “Shooting Niagara: And After?” Carlyle’s “great man” view of history left him impatient with democracy and opposed to efforts to expand the franchise in either the US or Britain. For him, the folly of giving the vote to blacks was akin to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Whitman grants Carlyle some general points, acknowledging, for example, the “appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the U.S.” because of the “people’s crudeness, vices, caprices.” In fact, Whitman gazes piercingly at a society “canker’d, crude, superstitious and rotten,” in which the “depravity of our business classes . . . is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater.” Yet he contrasts these current problems with “democracy’s convictions [and] aspirations” and ultimately provides a ringing endorsement of democracy as the safest and only legitimate course for the US. His thought on the intertwined fates of the US and democracy—his “convertible terms”—is future-oriented. He preceded the philosopher and educator John Dewey in arguing that the United States was not yet made and thus could not be categorically assessed, just as the history of democracy was yet to be written because “that history has yet to be enacted.” “We have frequently printed the word Democracy,” Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas; “Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d” (PW, 2:390). Democracy always remained for Whitman an ideal goal, “resid[ing] altogether in the future” (PW, 2:390), and never a realized practice. The history of America, so he hoped, would eventually define the word for the first time, because in his own day, he believed, democracy was only “in its embryo condition” (PW, 2:392). Crucial to his program for strengthening democracy are what he calls “personalism” (a form of individualism in which every person develops uniquely but always remains aware of his or her interconnectedness with the larger social body) and the nurturance of an appropriate “New World literature” that would demand more aggressive reading habits, literature that would awaken the populace and make them argue with the author instead of lull them to sleep and have them passively accept whatever the author professed.

For all of the idealism of Democratic Vistas, however, the work clearly arose out of Whitman’s struggle with the radical politics of the Reconstruction era, and it raises troubling and perhaps unanswerable questions about his attitudes toward the Radical Republican agenda of quickly securing civil rights and voting rights for freed (male) slaves. If Whitman’s faith in the future of American democracy was clear, his vision of the place of African Americans in that future was blurred. As he was writing Democratic Vistas, the shape of the new nation was uncertain, as malleable as the intense debates and shifting votes of a Congress that was revising the very Constitution and threatening to impeach the president, Andrew Johnson. Whitman, during this time, continued to spend evenings visiting the Civil War hospitals that remained opened, still filled with wounded soldiers two years after the war had ended, but he also devoted some of his time to trips to the Capitol to watch the extraordinary night sessions with their impassioned debates on Reconstruction legislation, including the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. For the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress, the war increasingly seemed to have been fought not just to emancipate the slaves (the Thirteenth Amendment had taken care of that) but to enfranchise them and guarantee them equal rights under the Constitution (this was the arena of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and the amazing debates dealt with the very tricky issue of trying to unwrite the Constitutional provision that slaves counted as only three-fifths of a person, and trying to inscribe just what the black person’s newly granted full humanity meant). Whitman, like many Americans, was unsure about where he stood on these momentous issues.

Whitman refers early in the essay to the People–the promise of America and democracy, but also, always, the problem. The people, we learn, are in need of some learning. But the People are ungrammatical, untidy, and their sins gaunt and ill-bred. (968)  But who are the people? Who are to be included? How do the people learn or realize this democracy that is not yet fulfilled?

Where does Whitman leave us? He argues that Democracy is still unwritten, and that it will be written, or brought to life, by the Poet or Literatus. So, in the early 1870s, we seem to be right back where we started: with Emerson’s call for an American scholar (in 1837) and Poet (in the 1840s). Whitman defines the need for this literature, without defining the type or shape of it. Does he know what it looks like? Is it Whitman’s own literature? Whitman’s notion of gymnastic reading, described toward the end of Democratic Vistas (not included in the excerpt in Norton), suggests why he is hesitant to define things:

Prospecting thus the coming unsped days, and that new order in them — marking the endless train of exercise, development, unwind, in nation as in man, which life is for — we see, fore-indicated, amid these prospects and hopes, new law-forces of spoken and written language — not merely the pedagogue-forms, correct, regular, familiar with precedents, made for matters of outside propriety, fine words, thoughts definitely told out — but a language fann’d by the breath of Nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects, and for what it plants and invigorates to grow — tallies life and character, and seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it. In fact, a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these States. Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.

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