U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Post: Emerson Loves White People

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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I cannot speak directly to the question of Emerson. The majority of New England antislavery reformers with whom I am familiar, however, could more accurately be described as racial chauvinists than racists. Few reformers were more radical that Theodore Parker, who advocated violence against slaveholders, supported John Brown, and was an ardent abolitionist. But Parker, like many New England reformers and intellectuals, also openly praised the cultural-racial achievements of Anglo-Saxons.

    Does that make Parker, or Emerson, or any other white antebellum American writer who voiced similarly racialized views a racist, or a racial chauvinist, a term which once was used to differentiate this viewpoint from a belief in “hard” biological difference? I recently encountered a variant of this problem in Larry Tise’s _Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840_, in which Tise lumps everyone who ever said anything positive about colonization, or the moral inferiority of Africans or slaves, or offered a moderate defense of slaveholders, as proslavery intellectuals, regardless of whether they openly descried slavery as a moral evil, supported emancipation, or participated in antislavery reforms.

    What makes a historian paint the past with an overly broad brush and seek to make overly broad generalizations, rather than seek a nuanced understanding and interpretation that recognizes the complexity of historical situations and does justice to the humanity of their research subjects? Is it genuinely how he or she sees things? Or is it the desire to showcase one’s politics, or appeal to the politics of one’s intended audience, or to be sufficiently provocative to get on the Colbert Report?

    As the Antislavery Debate between Thomas Haskell and David Brion Davis taught us, intentions, whether of our research subjects or our own, are tricky things to access and analyze. I am increasingly critical, however, of historians who offer simplistic or reductive interpretations of complex historical subjects, and increasingly skeptical of the motives for producing such interpretations.

    Give me hermeneutical subtlely, or give me death.

  2. “Give me hermeneutical subtlely, or give me death.” I think the word at the end there is supposed to be ‘journalism.’

    I also have no idea about Emerson, but find the suggestion that his thought was deeply racist, or deeply structured by assumptions about the reality of race and racial hierarchy, to be totally unremarkable. It was the 19th century; race-thinking permeated *everyone*. Can that really be her argument?

    The real point of the argument must be less about race as such than about whiteness. In this case the argument would be that Emerson, in his role as the most important public intellectual of his time, was uniquely important in pulling together and ‘selling’ the bundle of characteristics that constituted what we now (or at least did) call ‘white.’

    this sounds more plausible and more interesting (and it makes sense that Carlyle would be particularly important). Am I on something like the right track?

  3. Eric,

    From my reading of Painter, I think that is what she was trying to get at. That Emerson was crucially important in constructing the concept of “whiteness.” A problem with her argument, as I alluded to in my post, is that she never distinguishes between this and racism. Perhaps she believes that the two are so reliant upon each other as to be indistinguishable, but I am not sure that is the case. Also, if Emerson is as unremarkable in this as we all seem to think, what exactly makes him hegemonic?

  4. Matt, Eric,

    Thanks for the useful exchange, I read “whiteness” in Matt’s original post but heard “racism,” which is itself something worth reflecting on.

    Part of the problem with figuring Emerson as unremarkable or hegemonic comes down to whether or not, or to what degree, historians still see intellectuals as arbiters of public discourse and culture. Matt’s third point about reader reception addresses this point, but one could also ask whether popular culture – in the form of minstrelsy – or the explicit use of racism by Northern Democrats to culturally assimilate ethnic European immigrants, wasn’t vastly more influential in the construction of whiteness than anything Emerson ever wrote.

    Painter’s emphasis on Emerson seems at the very least to recapitulate a simplistic, linear narrative of intellectual history as flowing downwards from influential intellectuals to a passive, receptive audience, and from there into the broader culture.

  5. The book was reviewed in last week’s NY Times Sunday Book Review. I noticed today that it is in the list of most emailed. I tend to notice that list and in my informal synthesis don’t remember any book reviews which have made it on the list. Linda Gordon, a historian at NYU, wrote the two page review.

    Her conclusion: Painter fails to flesh out many of her arguments, “But I cannot fault Nell Painter’s choices — omissions to keep a book widely readable. Often, scholarly interpretation is transmitted through textbooks that oversimplify and even bore their readers with vague generalities. Far better for a large audience to learn about whiteness from a distinguished scholar in an insightful and lively exposition.”


  6. There is an excellent article on “whiteness” in the New Yorker right now. http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/04/12/100412crbo_books_sanneh

    Kelefa Sanneh insightfully picks apart scholarship on whiteness, including Nell Irvin Painter’s book, as well as the racial politicking of the Tea Party crowds.

    He has a couple of longish paragraphs about Emerson and useful critiques of Painter’s book. I’d thought about copying them here, but I think it’s better to read the whole article.

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