Our First Globalist? A Reinterpretation of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Illuminating Essays

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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 Amer

ica'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. …