Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing

Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing

Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing

Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing


A daring and innovative study that rewrites the story of American pragmatism.

Emancipating Pragmatism is a radical rereading of Emerson that posits African- American culture, literature, and jazz as the very continuation and embodiment of pragmatic thought and democratic tradition. It traces Emerson's philosophical legacy through the 19th and 20th centuries to discover how Emersonian thought continues to inform issues of race, aesthetics, and poetic discourse.

Emerson's pragmatism derives from his abolitionism, Michael Magee argues, and any pragmatic thought that aspires toward democracy cannot ignore and must reckon with its racial roots. Magee looks at the ties between pragmatism and African-American culture as they manifest themselves in key texts and movements, such as William Carlos Williams's poetry; Ralph Ellison's discourse in Invisible Man and Juneteenth and his essays on jazz; the poetic works of Robert Creeley, Amiri Baraka, and Frank O'Hara; as well as the "new jazz" being forged at clubs like The Five Spot in New York.

Ultimately, Magee calls into question traditional maps of pragmatist lineage and ties pragmatism to the avant-garde American tradition.


Doctor, do you believe in
“the people,” the Democracy? Do
you still believe—in this
swill-hole of corrupt cities?
Do you, Doctor? Now?

William Carlos Williams, Paterson

There is Emerson and then there is Emerson. the pattern that repeats itself—inevitably, endlessly—involves the critic arguing for a “true” Emerson against one or the other past representation, sometimes to Emerson's benefit, sometimes to his detriment. But the details tell the story. One might create a laudatory version of Emerson that would inspire as much disdain for him as a deeply critical one, and in fact the two might be related. “Emerson attended church on Sundays all his life with uncommon regularity.” This statement is a bald-faced lie, though no doubt a few critics over the years have taken it as gospel truth. Why did Charles W. Eliot write it, as he must have known it to be false? “We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience,” Emerson wrote. “All history becomes subjective.” History is a series of written texts whose words might be moved this way and that or, if all else fails, forged. the critic comes late to the game, and thus what John Dewey has said of philosophy is even more true of literary criticism: it is not “in any sense whatever a form of knowledge” but rather “a form of desire, of effort at action.” This is not to say that history isn't true— only that it becomes true, unfolding in time as a result of discovery . . .

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