Follow Up on Emerson the Saxonist

Remember how I was so upset to learn Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Saxonist? I have finally read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter where she lays it all out. And, well, it’s bad.

First, a little history

The idea the Anglo-Saxons were the pinnacle of human evolution and meant to rule the world originated in Britain a bit before Emerson’s time. British “scientists” slobbered all over themselves to prove they were awesome and the British Empire deserved to rule the world because of it. They purposely misread Roman and Greek texts, they made up stories and stretched the truth about history and the peoples of Europe and who did what to whom and when, they measured skulls and height, and you name it. And they determined that the Anglo-Saxons were the tallest, smartest, manliest, very bestest race on the planet and of course they lived in England and therefore, the English as descendants were also the tall, smart, manly, and the very bestest race on the planet.

In the process of proving themselves to be top of the heap, they declared the Celts to be subpar, the French to be no good lazy people who could have been something but they had degenerate characters because they liked to drink wine and dance too much, and then it all went down the scale from there to Germans, Italians, and Africans. People were so unconcerned with Asians at this time they didn’t even rate a place on the racial scale of humanity.

Over time, other white people wanted to join the English on top of the pyramid so Anglo-Saxons also turned out to be Vikings and eventually, when everyone fell in love with Goethe and all the smart Germans, it was decided that northern Germany had been part of the original Anglo-Saxon homeland too.

Meanwhile in the still young country of the United States, the ruling elite were falling all over themselves to prove their Anglo-Saxon heritage. It is not much of a surprise that Saxonists in American were rather Puritanical in their approach. Not by accident were the true Anglo-Saxons wealthy northern industrialists. The white people who lived in the South were degenerate and soft because they made slaves do all their work (there is so much irony here given the poor wages and sweatshop conditions of northern factories). And poor whites north and south were also degenerate because if they weren’t then they would be rich too.

In America, you did not count as white if you were Irish Catholic, Jewish, Italian, Indigenous American, Black, Chinese, Polish, Hungarian and a few other “races.”

Then Emerson comes along

Emerson turns out to be a kind of rockstar of his time and because he was such a rockstar, everyone listened to him, which is good when you are talking about Nature but not so good when you are talking about people. Emerson did not come up with any new theories or proofs for Saxonism, he had one of those voracious brains that synthesized it all and connected the dots for everybody.

Part of what helped Emerson connect the dots was his bromance with Thomas Carlyle, who was a rabid Saxonist and hated pretty much everyone. Part of what made Carlyle so rabid was having to work so hard to prove that he was not a Celtic Scot. The man clawed his way to the top of the white pyramid and didn’t care who he stepped on to get there. Emerson really admired that.

Emerson, a tall, lanky, intellectual who was not the most robust of individuals, loved to read about the violent exploits of the Vikings. Allegedly he has passages in his journals praising their violence and bloodletting. He loved the manly men all the more it seems because he was not one. To Emerson, Carlyle was a manly man and he fell for all his racist spewing, hook, line, and sinker. He became a Carlyle evangelist in America, getting all of Carlyle’s books published and praising him to the skies. Eventually, of course, they have a falling out because Emerson wasn’t manly enough and when Carlyle told him so, Emerson took offense.

But just because the bromance was over, doesn’t mean Emerson gave up on the whole Saxonist thing. He was in it deep, worrying over racial mixing and whether Americans living in cities were going soft because they were losing their rugged superiority. He believed the poor were inherently poor by nature and wrote in his journal that the problem with charity is “that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving.”

Disappointed and angry

I can’t begin to say how sad it makes me that the man who can write this:

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

Nature, 1836

the man who championed Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman and the entire American Transcendental movement, is, well, a white supremacist.

Painter devotes two full chapters of The History of White People to Emerson. No one else gets this close treatment. She really rips into him. It’s not that he was any worse than all of the other white supremacists of the time, he wasn’t. But what he did do was serve as the mouthpiece for all the pseudo-science, hate, and arguments full of holes so big you could drive a tank through through them.

He does not get a “oh that was just the times” pass because it wasn’t. There were plenty of ideas swirling around that countered Saxonist rhetoric. And Emerson was a wealthy Harvard educated man so no “he didn’t know better” card for him either. He knew.

To say I am disappointed is an understatement. I am also angry at him. I look at his books on my shelf and yell at him, how could you? I have an urge to grab the big paperback essay collection and bend it and twist it and smack it on the floor while screaming at Emerson about how much he has let me down.

I am not certain I will ever be able to read Emerson with pleasure again. Maybe in time I will be able to read him in a clear-eyed measured way, appreciate his gorgeous metaphors with a new awareness and understanding. But it’s going to take a while.

Read the Book

I just focused on the Emerson portion of The History of White People. The entire book is really good and lays out how the concept and meaning of the “white race” has changed and grown over time. The book was published in 2010 while Obama was president and ends on a hopeful note. We all know what has happened since then. Perhaps the hope was a little premature, but I do think that in spite of everything, there is reason to hope.

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16 thoughts on “Follow Up on Emerson the Saxonist

  1. Well that is disappointing to say the least. There are so many of his quotes that I always enjoy but it certainly makes you think of him in a totally different way doesn’t it? Thank you for the info on the book. It sounds really interesting!

    1. I definitely think of him in a different way now Iliana! But it also clarifies quite a lot about him too. I think we can still appreciate all those quotes we enjoy, but with a fuller understanding. The book is definitely interesting and well worth a read if you ever feel so inclined 🙂

  2. It’s just terrible when we learn that the writers we love were such awful people. The ones that shock me the most are people who *seemed* so forward-thinking for their time at least in some ways.

    1. AMB, so true! Those who outwardly seemed so progressive but then gave money to terrible causes or belonged to some group that promoted discrimination or something. Nobody is perfect, but you kind of want your heroes to not be white supremacists.

  3. I remember your earlier post on Emerson and your disappointment and I know how that feels. But I know this sounds cliched, but most of these “rich, white guys” who set “standards”…well, we really need to revisit them all!

    1. cirtnecce, not cliched at all! It’s really more like a fact that those standards need to be revisited and questioned, even if it takes down those we really admire. It’s better to know the truth and see them whole instead of just the little piece we want to like.

  4. Wow, Stefanie, I didn’t know all of this. I can only imagine what it is like to read the rest of that book or to view our American heroes through this lens of potential racism. John Muir was another one…but so many just have been. It’s a lot to take in, but we must revise our knowledge of American history….and history in general….I’ve been doing some of my own reading for re-education. Thank you for this post…..

    1. Thanks for your comment Valorie. The book is a real eye-opener and yes, Emerson is not the only American hero who gets taken down. I did not know about John Muir. Sigh. So much re-education to do. But it’s good and I am happy to do it.

  5. This all makes me feel glum, even though I haven’t read a ton of Emerson what I did I admired greatly. One of those cases where I’m not sure to be happy knowing more about the author because then I’ll look at his works differently ever after now.

    1. It makes me feel glum too Jeane! I will definitely be looking at his work differently now, but in the end, it is probably for the better to know than not.

  6. I suppose we shouldn’t expect perfection of anyone – but I am very glad to be a Scot. It sounds like Carlyle was one of those toadying Scots who think they have gone ‘up the ladder’ by moving to England. I went off John Buchan when I read that after one term at Oxford he went back home to KIrkcaldy with an upper-class English accent, what an eejit, his younger siblings laughed at him, but he kept it up. It ended up with him getting very high up that ladder! Knighted and Governor of Canada.

    1. Yup Katrina, Carlyle may have been Scottish but he made it a point to prove he was the “right” kind of Scottish, not of offensive Celtic stock. It’s really sad that he would do that, but also that he had to do it in order to be considered worthy by the “white” “Saxon” English people.

    1. Hi butimbeautiful, if only Saxonist was simply a distinction between Celtic, Gaelic, etc. It’s not though. It was/is a racist system of beliefs that supports white supremacy so not a good thing.

      1. I should make it clear that I’m not a white supremacist…or as I prefer to think of it, a beige supremacist. It’s just odd to me that of all the variations of whitish, they should fixate on Saxons. But then Nazis are eccentric, among other things.

        1. Sorry if you thought I was accusing you of being a white supremacist butimbeauitful, I was not, I thought maybe I had muddled something in my post and was trying to clarify 🙂 The reason they fixed on Saxons as the superior race had to do with some Greek, but mostly Roman, writings about the fierce wild tribes in Europe and Britain. Then the British decided they meant the Anglo-Saxons and ran with it since they could claim to be descendants. It involves lots of purposeful misreadings, fantasy, and pseudo-science in the name of British/white world colonialism and domination. If you are curious about all the details, I highly recommend The History of White People. Painter does a really good job of laying it all out and is very readable.

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