Emerson the Saxonist

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It’s so heartbreaking when it turns out a writer whose work you love is not as good a person as you thought they were. Not that we need our writers to be perfect, but we want them to be good people. J.K. Rowling’s transphobia is a huge disappointment, especially when her Harry Potter books are deeply invested in doing the right thing and being a good person. But Harry Potter fandom being what it is, there are plenty who have created, and continue to create, a Harry Potter fanfic world that is more inclusive than Rowling ever meant it to be. She made the original, but it no longer belongs to her.

But Rowling is just the most recent disappointing author that I know of. There are plenty of others. And I added one to my list a few weeks ago. One who is long dead, but whom I adore, even going so far as to name my cat after him. Yep, I’m talking about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I was listening to a podcast about racism in America and they mentioned Emerson (Scene On Radio, season 2, “Seeing White”). I knew Emerson supported abolition and had come to it reluctantly after his friend Henry David Thoreau kept pestering him. So I thought, he at least stood on the right side of history in that regard. But it turns out not.

Emerson was a Saxonist, something I had not heard of before and now that I know about it I see how deep it ran, and still runs, through the U.S.. Anglo-Saxonism was a racial belief system that posits English-speaking nations are superior to all others because of racial traits and characteristics the people of those nations inherited from the Anglo-Saxons. Both Britain and the United States used, and still use, these racist ideas as an excuse for empire, oppression, and domination.

Thomas Jefferson was an early American Saxonist. Thomas Carlyle was a Saxonist and contemporary of Emerson. Carlyle and Emerson were very good friends. He was also friends with Henry Cabot Lodge, an American politician who was anti-immigration and wrote his Harvard dissertation on the Germanic origins of Anglo-Saxon land law.

So it turns out Emerson decided to throw his hat in with the abolitionists not because he thought blacks were human beings just like him and deserved the same rights and freedoms. No, he was an abolitionist because he decided slavery degraded white people. This broke my heart.

But that is not all. His lecture series and book, English Traits, which I read when I was reading all of Emerson’s essays that long time ago, are Saxonist lectures. Say what? When I read them I just read them, I did not read anything about them before or after. My limited understanding of them was that Emerson had written them after visiting England and was making a comparison between England and America. Heck, I even thought he was sometimes making fun of the Brits! Nope. All along he is praising all those Anglo-Saxon traits that make certain white people superior and therefore worthy of ruling the world.

I have not gone back to re-read any of those English Traits essays since I found this out. I suspect there are plenty of clues, not only in those essays but in Emerson’s other essays, about his Saxonist beliefs. But as a white person I did not pick up on those clues. So inevitably I am not only disappointed in Emerson but also in myself.

Of course this makes me now see him in a different light. I don’t think this means that I can no longer enjoy Emerson’s essays, especially on nature. I just have to read with a more skeptical attention, an alertness to my assumptions and his. I have to interrogate him and the text. Oh that sounds so English major-y doesn’t it? But really it’s just jargon for pay attention and ask questions.

I have discovered that Nell Irvin Painter’s book, The History of White People, has a thorough discussion of Emerson. Plus, it sounds like a really good book in general. I think when I manage to finish Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, Painter’s will be a good one to read. I even put a little sticky note on the last page of Zinn so I won’t forget.