Ordinary Intimacies in Emerson, Du Bois, and Baldwin
This essay reads James Baldwin in conversation with two unexpected interlocutors
from the American nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Ralph Waldo Emerson and W.
E. B. Du Bois. What draws these historically distant and intellectually
different thinkers together, their differences making their convergences all the
more resonant and provocative, is a shared mode of attention they bring to the
social crises of their eras. It is a mode of attention foregrounding how the
often unobserved particulars and emotional registers of human life vitally shape
civic existence; more specifically, a mode of attention provoking us to see how
“a larger, juster, and fuller future,” in Du Bois’s words,
is a matter of the ordinary intimacies and estrangements in which we exist,
human connections in all their expressions and suppressions. Emerson names them
“facts [. . .] harder to read.” They are “the
finer manifestations,” in Du Bois’s terms, “of social life,
which history can but mention and which statistics can not count”;
“All these things,” Baldwin says, “[. . .]
which no chart can tell us.” In effect, from the 1830s to the 1980s these
thinkers bear witness to what politics, legislation, and even all our knowledges
can address only partially, and to the potentially transformative compensations
we might realize in the way we conduct our daily lives. The immediate relevance
and urgency this essay finds in their work exists not in proposed political
actions, programs for reform, or systematic theories of social justice but in
the way their words revitalize the ethical question “How shall I
live?” Accumulative and suggestive rather than systematically comparative
or polemical, this essay attempts to engage with Emerson, Du Bois, and Baldwin
intimately, to proceed in the spirit of their commitment to questioning received
disciplines, languages, and ways of inhabiting the world.
Modern American literature began with a statement of enthusiasm from Emerson's writing in Nature. 'Enthusiasm', in Emerson, is a knowing word. Sometimes its use is as description, invariably approving, of a historic form of religious experience. Socrates' meaning of enthusiasm, and the image of the enthusiast it throws up, is crucial to this book. The book is a portrait of the writer as an enthusiast, where the portrait, as will become clear, carries more than a hint of polemic. It is about the transmission of literature, showing various writers taking responsibility for that transmission, whether within in their writing or in their cultural activism. Henry David Thoreau's Walden is an enthusiastic book. It is where enthusiasm works both in Immanuel Kant's sense of the unbridled self, and in William Penn's sense of the 'nearer' testament, and in Thoreau's own sense of supernatural serenity. Establishing Ezra Pound's enthusiasm is a fraught and complicated business. Marianne Moore composed poems patiently, sometimes over several years. She is a poet of things, as isolated things - jewels, curios, familiar and exotic animals, common and rare species of plant - are often the ostensible subjects of her poems. Homage to Frank O'Hara is a necessary book, because the sum of his aesthetic was to be found not just in his writing, but also in his actions to which only friends and contemporaries could testify. An enthusiastic reading of James Schuyler brings to the fore pleasure, the sheer pleasure that can come of combining, or mouthing, or transcribing.
Emerson and Mary Oliver,
“Self Reliance,” in The Essential Writings of
RalphWaldoEmerson , edited by Brooks Atkinson (New
York: Modern Library, 2000), pp. 132–53.
John McCumber, Time in the Ditch:
American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era (Evanston, IL
Germaine de Staël, Major Writings of Germaine de Staël, tr. and intro, by
Vivian Folkenflik, New York, Columbia University Press, 1987, p. 321.
Robert D. Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Berkeley, Los
Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1986, p. 19.
Buell, Environmental Imagination, pp. 339-69.
RalphWaldoEmerson, ‘Biographical Sketch’, in Henry David Thoreau,
Excursions, New York, Corinth Books, 1962, p. 11; hereafter referred to in the
text as Ex.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works in one Volume, London
they were almost a generation apart in age (Eliot was born in
1819 and James in 1843), the two novelists shared a transatlantic literary
network which embodied an easy ﬂow of mutual interest and appreciation between their two milieux. RalphWaldoEmerson, a close friend of
Henry James Snr, was also a long-standing friend of Thomas Carlyle and
Beyond the Americana
visited and lectured in England. In 1848 (when Henry James Jnr was ﬁve
years old) Mary Ann Evans, having rebelled against her father’s
Evangelical Anglicanism, was introduced to Emerson by her friends
‘self-made’ was in tension with the religious idea of ‘self-culture’, introduced to the American public by the Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing and then spread through the writings of nineteenth-century transcendentalists and progressives, such as RalphWaldoEmerson and James Russell Lowell. Channing defined self-culture as the ‘care which every man owes to himself, to the unfolding and perfecting of his nature’, and noted that Americans held the ‘means of improvement, of self-culture, possessed no where else’.
, ed. Donald Allen,
Bolinas, Calif., Grey Fox Press, p. 147; hereafter referred to in the text as SS.
Frank O’Hara, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. Donald Allen,
Berkeley and London, University of California Press, 1995, p. 234; hereafter
referred to in the text as CP.
RalphWaldoEmerson, ‘Inspiration’, Letters and Social Aims, London, George
Routledge and Sons, 1883, pp. 260; Immanuel Kant, The Critique of
Judgement, tr. James Creed Meredith, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1952, p. 124.
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, New York, Farrar, Strauss, 1966, p. 14
the less retains a sustaining sacramental power.
I will occasionally be drawing attention in these notes to certain parallels in
Thomas’s work with American art and literature. For example, this description
by Thomas seems striking in its likeness to the American Transcendentalist RalphWaldoEmerson’s famous description of the ‘transparent eyeball’ in chapter 1 of
Thomas’s experience is not unlike some of those chronicled by William James in
his The Varieties of Religious Experience. For example, James cites Frank Bullen’s
autobiography in which the latter
marking their first steps towards responsible manhood. Recalling his
youth at the end of the nineteenth century, Edmund Stonelake wrote that he
had been encouraged by his mother to join a friendly society as soon as he
began to earn a ‘man’s wage’, in order to maintain his ‘independence’ in the
face of sickness or accident. Stonelake took the ethos of self-help to heart,
noting that his favourite reading at the time was RalphWaldoEmerson’s essay,
Self-Reliance (1841).87 Friendly societies did not simply provide welfare relief,
but also cultivated an ideal of working