A Common Emerson: Ralph Waldo in an Ethnohistorical Context

By Cheyfitz, Eric | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Common Emerson: Ralph Waldo in an Ethnohistorical Context


Cheyfitz, Eric, Nineteenth-Century Prose


The work of this essay is to denaturalize or de-universalize (render local) the tradition of reading Emerson from Parrington to the present. In attempting this work, the essay asks a fundamental question: What are the limits of Emerson's thinking, the limits of his representativeness? Pursuing this question, I articulate various facets of Emerson as a figure committed in his writing to the communal, both in the theory and practice of social action, and in a nascent theory, of extended kinship, which he terms "hospitality." What inhibits the development of this theory of kinship, my essay concludes, is Emerson's inability to think ethnohistorically, that is, to imagine, in contradistinction to his hero Montaigne, any positive content for indigenous cultures, specifically Native American and African. What conditions this inability, this failure of Emersonian irony, is Emerson's unswerving commitment to Western imperialism as a civilizing force, even as he opposes the very institutions (slavery and the Indian removals) that are the ground of the mission civilsatrice.

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A Man is a little thing whilst he works by and for himself.

Emerson, "Lecture on Slavery, 25 January 1855" (1)

It is the day of the populace; they are wiser than their teachers.

Emerson, "Civilization at a Pinch" (2)

The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is a sign,--is it not? of new vigor, when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic ... I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.

Emerson, "The American Scholar" (3)

Writing in the late 1920s in his voluminous Main Currents in American Thought, Vernon Parrington asserted what would become a critical commonplace of American literary criticism: "the master idea of the Emersonian philosophy is the divine sufficiency of the individual." (4) Yet as another passage from Parrington, taken from the same essay on Emerson, suggests, the individual in Emerson is grounded, perhaps paradoxically, in the common, "a common human nature with common interests":

   The single, vital, principle on which the true republic must
   found itself, [Emerson] insists, is the principle of good-will.
   Since "governments have their origin in the moral identity of
   men," the recognition of a common human nature with
   common interests must induce rational men to enter a
   common political brotherhood; and until men become wise
   enough voluntarily to cooperate to the common wellbeing, no
   good government is possible. (5)

Within the academy Emerson criticism from Parrington forward has noted the elements of the individual and the commonal as constitutive of Emerson's thought, though with shifting emphases on one or the other of these twin elements.

In his American Renaissance (1941), a book that held sway for almost forty years in defining American literary study, F.O. Matthiessen characterized Emerson as a "transcendental idealist," influenced, though finally not significantly, by the gravity of "the Yankee in his make-up [that] kept pulling him back to a grounding in common fact." (6) In his exceptionally influential 1953 study of Emerson Freedom and Fate, Stephen Whicher noted the potential congruence of the individual and the commonal in the central Emersonian notion of Self-reliance, while still distinguishing between them and separating their force:

      Such Self-reliance ... is clearly not the same in mood as
   the religious sentiment, the glad submission to the dominion
   of the law ..., even though both are mutually reconcilable
   inferences from the same doctrine. According to the second,
   the Soul within is the Universal, the One Mind that unites all
   men, the Reason or moral nature of mankind, in which all
   private peculiarities are forgotten; in so far as man obeys it he
   leaves his individuality behind. 

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A Common Emerson: Ralph Waldo in an Ethnohistorical Context
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