Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'The Best of Nations'? Race and Imperial Destinies in Emerson's English Traits

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

'The Best of Nations'? Race and Imperial Destinies in Emerson's English Traits

Article excerpt


This articles analyses Ralph Waldo Emerson's English Traits, with particular emphasis on Emerson's ideas on race and national identity. It begins with a discussion of the transatlantic critical reception of Emerson's text and goes on to discuss the structure of English Traits and how it conforms to and diverges from the conventions of nineteenth-century travel writing. It then examines the impact of theories of race as set forth by writers such as Robert Chambers and Robert Knox on Emerson's thought regarding the development of American national character.


In the firm expectation that when London shall be a habitation of bitterns, when St. Paul and Westminster Abbey shall stand shapeless and nameless ruins in the midst of an unpeopled marsh, of reeds and osiers, and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream, some Transatlantic commentator will be weighing in the scales of some new and now unimagined system of criticism the respective merits of the Bells and the Fudges and their historians.

(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dedication to Peter Bell the Third)

When Ralph Waldo Emerson's English Traits was published in August 1856, its reception on both sides of the Atlantic was for the most part favourable. None the less, several reviewers pointed out what they perceived as its flawed and uneven structure. Writing from New York in Putnam's Monthly, Parke Godwin remarked:

As a collection of apothegms on England, of which each one has a species of diamond clearness, and value, his book is exquisitely rich. Never in history have so many discriminating sentences been uttered about any people. But, as a whole, it does not entirely satisfy us, for the want of a certain gradation, or proportion in the parts, which gives harmony. The author's mind, being essentially instinctive, and not discursive or logical, he sees things absolutely rather than relatively, and in their kinds and not in their degrees. This is evident in the very form of his book, which has no organic structure, but is a miscellany of remarks on one topic. (1)

Godwin goes on to point out not only the lack of a logically sequenced argument in Emerson's text but also its failure as narrative, comparing it to an irritatingly staccato passage of music in which each note is of equal value and seemingly interchangeable, adding that such a style 'when long continued gives the ear a painful sense of a want of variety and constraint' (p. 412). He concludes that Emerson, while providing the reader with a constellation of valid observations about English national character, fails to organize these observations into an intelligible and convincing whole.

On the other side of the Atlantic, an anonymous reviewer writing in the Westminster Review, while conceding that the British reader could not complain of any want of courtesy or deficiency of insight on Emerson's part, makes the same point in more incisive terms. He begins by quoting Emerson's remark that English fields appear to have been finished with a pencil instead a plough, and states that such a phrase could come only from 'a lover of elaborate epigrams'. He continues:

It is the characteristic of Mr. Emerson's writing, that it consists of thousands of such sentences--short, pointed, yet conceived on a large scale [...]. Mr. Emerson seems to have cut every other line of his observations, and to have distilled the spirit of his remarks into the smallest compass, in order to season them more highly. Reading his book is like eating potted meat; it is very good, very creditable to the cook; and a little of it goes a long way, but it is not exactly the genuine beef. (2)

Both reviewers, while conceding Emerson's intelligence and aphoristic verve, were frustrated by what they perceived as the atomistic, scattershot nature of his text.

Emerson visited England on two occasions, ostensibly for intellectual reasons. …

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