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.
–8, citing Emerson’s Divinity School Address ). 36 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Seal-reliance,” in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Signet Classics, 2003), p. 279. 37 Cavell, Conditions Handsome
of artists and thinkers including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Jorge Luis Borges, and Czesław Miłosz. Like his predecessors, Bergman does not follow the Swedenborg theological system in any detail. It is the fascinating thought of unclear borders between life and death that invites an interpretation influenced by Swedenborg, as does the idea of correspondences (something which also fascinated Baudelaire, for example). A well-known hymn by Swedish hymnologist Johan Olof Wallin
Emerson and Mary Oliver, “Self Reliance,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson , edited by Brooks Atkinson (New York: Modern Library, 2000), pp. 132–53. 7 John McCumber, Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era (Evanston, IL
text as Week 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. Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘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. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Henry James Snr, was also a long-standing friend of Thomas Carlyle and Beyond the Americana 161 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 Ralph Waldo Emerson 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’. 40
it my object in talking up enthusiasm to present it to the exclusion of other aspects of writing. In picturing the writer as an enthusiast I am not, as should become clear, obscuring portraits of the writer as, for instance, reader, reviser, editor and critic. This book, in other words, is not an argument against, but an argument for: for enthusiastic engagements with writing, for institutions and structures of debate that allow enthusiasms to be passed on. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, New York
, 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. Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘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