- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003


By Lawrence Buell

Harvard University Press, $29.95, 336 pages


Books belong to the eyes that see them, declared Ralph Waldo Emerson, and so it is with Lawrence Buell’s interpretation of the work of the man he calls America’s first public intellectual. For a century, Emerson was neatly classified as the author of the doctrines of self-reliance and pragmatism, one of the giants of American literature. For Mr. Buell and likeminded revisionists, however, Emerson is American only in caricature (as they put it provocatively), better understood as a transnationalist than transcendentalist. Emerson, they assert, was the nation’s first globalist.

This remarkable transformation couldn’t have come at a better time. Despite that Emerson espoused an array of radical notions and advanced the cause of liberal reform, he could not escape his fate as avatar of what scholars now refer to as Americanist classicism, with its attendant parochialism, nationalism and, inevitably, racism. This is to say, Emerson was first among the Dead White Men shot from the canon — a second shot heard round the world. His reputation had sunk so low even waspy John Updike mustered little enthusiasm for his fellow New Englander.

“Is there not something dim at the center of his reputation, something fatally faded about the works he has left us?” asked Mr. Updike in a speech delivered at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983. “When, I ask myself, did I last read one of his celebrated essays? How much, indeed, are Emerson’s works even assigned in literary courses where the emphasis is not firmly historical?”

But in the two decades since Mr. Updike expressed these reservations, and just in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, Emerson has enjoyed a renaissance. Or at least a reinterpretation.

“How can a figure so commonly and understandably taken as a spokesperson for U.S. national values like ‘American individualism’ also be thought of as anticipating a ‘postnational’ form of consciousness?” asks Mr. Buell, the John P. Marquand Professor of English at Harvard. “Yet the fact is that Emerson had surprisingly limited patience for nationalism as such and would probably have been far more supportive than critical of the increasing interest being taken today by historians of U.S. culture in how it has been shaped in interaction with transatlantic, transpacific, and hemispheric influences.”

In Mr. Buell’s reading, Emerson is guilty of being a “post-Puritan Anglo-American New Englander,” but he was at heart an internationalist. Not only did he draw inspiration from cosmopolites such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Goethe (as well as Montaigne, Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold), he studied and assimilated Persian, Indic and other Eastern religious and philosophical writings, drawn to their emphasis on the unity of mind, body and soul, their search for the god within, and their symbolic interpretations of the material world.

“As a minister, Emerson made the right liberal Protestant points about other faiths,” writes Mr. Buell. But after his famous descent from the Unitarian pulpit, he argued ever more strenuously for the transcontinental adoption of the essential truths found in all religions. “This led Emerson and those he influenced sometimes toward an aggressively post-religious moral individualism, sometimes toward a religious eclecticism more profusely hybridized than the United States had ever seen.”

If Emerson was slow to embrace the antislavery movement that gained momentum in the mid-19th century, if he expressed doubts about the equality of the races, if he celebrated the superiority of the English (for nurturing institutions such as representative democracy), there were mitigating circumstances for his choices. A thinker rather than a doer, scholar rather than activist, Emerson was reluctant to enter the political fray.

“Emersonian Self-Reliance held that action must proceed from independently exercised judgment,” explains Mr. Buell. “Arm-twisting polemics discredited the cause.” Politics interested him only insofar as it illuminated or dampened opportunities for personal growth.

Furthermore, Emerson’s biases were inherited rather than cultivated. “This notion of Saxon liberty was one of the antique heirlooms in Emerson’s mental storehouse, as for many other Anglo-Americans,” writes Mr. Buell. As a Boston Brahmin, even a recalcitrant one, he retained certain elitist axioms even as he preached the apotheosis of the individual. “He may have doubted that African Americans could in fact compete with whites,” writes Mr. Buell, “but he never doubted their right to do so.”

The author, whose earlier books include “The Environmental Imagination” (an ecocentric critique of humanist thought from Henry David Thoreau to Al Gore), is nothing if not earnest. As he confides in the introduction, he labored 36 years on this study, a remarkably long time to foment fresh ideas.

Still, while he paints this portrait of Emerson using a familiar palette, he is balanced and reasonable in his composition. “Emerson wants books read differently from the way Emerson scholars have tended to read him,” concludes Mr. Buell. “He doesn’t want to be ‘historicized.’ He wants to be sifted by readers on their own terms for whatever may be of lasting value.”

This seems eminently fair and true to the spirit of his subject. In fact, Mr. Buell is most interesting when discussing Emerson’s willingness to contradict himself (“a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”) and to undercut his own authority (“to believe your own thoughts, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius”). Emerson encouraged his readers and listeners (he was one of the great lyceum lecturers) to trust their intuition and encounter the world directly, unflitered by tradition and conformity.

“He invites us to make free with history, books, tradition, sacred cows of all sorts,” writes Mr. Buell. “He denies that his answer on any subject is final … . He insists that even though he may feel in the grip of the Truth, what he has to say is nothing more than glimpses or fragments, which his listeners must complete.”

Most importantly, Emerson urged the searcher to “esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary,” to eschew the past for the present. “More than any other major writer, Emerson invites you to kill him off if you don’t find him useful,” writes Mr. Buell. “This makes him one of the most unusual authority figures in the history of western culture.”

Emerson, of course, influenced numerous writers and thinkers, not just Americans but Latinos and Asians as well. Mr. Buell finds Emerson’s shadow extending over Cuban writer Jose Mart, who transferred the Yankee’s ideas of liberty to his own situation, and the Ukrainian Serhii Pryhodii, who found in Emerson “templates of intellectual dynamism.” If this makes Emerson more palatable to conscientious undergraduates acutely sensitive to the dangers of American intellectual hegemony, so much the better. Emerson should be read and discussed in the classroom, and students can decide for themselves the truth of his work.

As for Emerson the Americanist reinvented as globalist, what notable writer hasn’t surmounted his particular circumstances to capture something of the human condition? Many authors seemingly constrained by limited circumstances (Anne Frank) or inextricably embedded in a particular society (Marcel Proust) have produced work that transcends time and place. It seems tendentious to publish apologies for participating in one’s culture, whatever the breadth and scope of one’s vision.

As a portal into contemporaryacademia, however, Emerson is illuminating. Mr. Buell is a clear enough writer to keep lay readers engaged, hieratic enough to mystify us with the shibboleths of scholarship. To quote Ralph Waldo once more: “It is the fault of our rhetoric that we cannot strongly state one fact without seeming to belie some other.”

Rex Roberts is a writer, editor and graphic designer living in New York City.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide