by Matthew Hetrick
It’s always nice to see a historian getting some public love, and on Wednesday March 17th Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita at Princeton and former President of the OAH, appeared on the Colbert Report. She was there to promote her new book The History of White People, but the highlight of the interview was an arm-wrestling match over whether the Scots-Irish were actually Irish. I first came across the book five days earlier, prominently placed in a Barnes & Noble, and was very excited. My excitement has waned, and I think it’s emblematic of the book’s deep flaws that Painter was unable to explain what the book was about to Colbert. That said, my intention is not to review the book but to raise one issue that I think will be of interest to this blog.
In three central chapters Painter examines the writings and thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She traces the creation of whiteness from leading scientific thinkers in Europe, specifically in German Romanticism, to Emerson by way Thomas Carlyle. This is, in itself, a fairly standard explanation of the origins of Transcendentalism, but Painter stresses the racial character of this thought, specifically its emphasis on the German/English or Saxon as the highest point of humanity. Her argument proceeds by something of a syllogism: Emerson believed in a hierarchical racial structure with “whites” or Saxons on top, Emerson was very popular and widely read, therefore Emerson “qualifies as a full contributor to white race theory. His enormous intellectual strength and prodigious output made him the source of a crucial current of thought . . . Towering over his age, he spoke for an increasingly rich and powerful American ruling class. His thinking, as they say, became hegemonic.” (183)
This raises several interesting point:
1. Is she right about Emerson? I am not an Emerson scholar, so I am interested to hear the views of others.
2. If she is right, how important was this strain of thought to Emerson’s thinking? Just because someone was a racial or racist thinker (a distinction that Painter does not make) does not necessarily mean that it was crucial to their thought and writing. Painter acknowledges a “flirtation with the idea of hybridity” in a journal entry from the 1840s where Emerson praises the mix of nations in America, but claims people have over-emphasized Emerson’s broad-mindedness since “there was nothing sustained, no sentence even completed.” (187) Though she discounts his “flirtation” and his abolitionism as unrepresentative, Painter does not explain how prevalent Emerson’s racial views were within his broader thought.
3. Assuming she is right about Emerson, is this how people at the time read Emerson? How influential were his views? Painter, like many historians, ignores the issues of audience and reader reception. She lists how many books were printed and leaves it at that. Painter mentions that Charlotte Forten was a fan of Emerson and supported his views of the English, but fails to connect the widespread Anglophilia with the abolition movement. One could be a fan of the English without being a racist and one could, presumably, read and like Emerson without endorsing all of his views.