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Remember how I was so upset to learn Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Saxonist? I have finally read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter where she lays it all out. And, well, it’s bad.

First, a little history

The idea the Anglo-Saxons were the pinnacle of human evolution and meant to rule the world originated in Britain a bit before Emerson’s time. British “scientists” slobbered all over themselves to prove they were awesome and the British Empire deserved to rule the world because of it. They purposely misread Roman and Greek texts, they made up stories and stretched the truth about history and the peoples of Europe and who did what to whom and when, they measured skulls and height, and you name it. And they determined that the Anglo-Saxons were the tallest, smartest, manliest, very bestest race on the planet and of course they lived in England and therefore, the English as descendants were also the tall, smart, manly, and the very bestest race on the planet.

In the process of proving themselves to be top of the heap, they declared the Celts to be subpar, the French to be no good lazy people who could have been something but they had degenerate characters because they liked to drink wine and dance too much, and then it all went down the scale from there to Germans, Italians, and Africans. People were so unconcerned with Asians at this time they didn’t even rate a place on the racial scale of humanity.

Over time, other white people wanted to join the English on top of the pyramid so Anglo-Saxons also turned out to be Vikings and eventually, when everyone fell in love with Goethe and all the smart Germans, it was decided that northern Germany had been part of the original Anglo-Saxon homeland too.

Meanwhile in the still young country of the United States, the ruling elite were falling all over themselves to prove their Anglo-Saxon heritage. It is not much of a surprise that Saxonists in American were rather Puritanical in their approach. Not by accident were the true Anglo-Saxons wealthy northern industrialists. The white people who lived in the South were degenerate and soft because they made slaves do all their work (there is so much irony here given the poor wages and sweatshop conditions of northern factories). And poor whites north and south were also degenerate because if they weren’t then they would be rich too.

In America, you did not count as white if you were Irish Catholic, Jewish, Italian, Indigenous American, Black, Chinese, Polish, Hungarian and a few other “races.”

Then Emerson comes along

Emerson turns out to be a kind of rockstar of his time and because he was such a rockstar, everyone listened to him, which is good when you are talking about Nature but not so good when you are talking about people. Emerson did not come up with any new theories or proofs for Saxonism, he had one of those voracious brains that synthesized it all and connected the dots for everybody.

Part of what helped Emerson connect the dots was his bromance with Thomas Carlyle, who was a rabid Saxonist and hated pretty much everyone. Part of what made Carlyle so rabid was having to work so hard to prove that he was not a Celtic Scot. The man clawed his way to the top of the white pyramid and didn’t care who he stepped on to get there. Emerson really admired that.

Emerson, a tall, lanky, intellectual who was not the most robust of individuals, loved to read about the violent exploits of the Vikings. Allegedly he has passages in his journals praising their violence and bloodletting. He loved the manly men all the more it seems because he was not one. To Emerson, Carlyle was a manly man and he fell for all his racist spewing, hook, line, and sinker. He became a Carlyle evangelist in America, getting all of Carlyle’s books published and praising him to the skies. Eventually, of course, they have a falling out because Emerson wasn’t manly enough and when Carlyle told him so, Emerson took offense.

But just because the bromance was over, doesn’t mean Emerson gave up on the whole Saxonist thing. He was in it deep, worrying over racial mixing and whether Americans living in cities were going soft because they were losing their rugged superiority. He believed the poor were inherently poor by nature and wrote in his journal that the problem with charity is “that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving.”

Disappointed and angry

I can’t begin to say how sad it makes me that the man who can write this:

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

Nature, 1836

the man who championed Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman and the entire American Transcendental movement, is, well, a white supremacist.

Painter devotes two full chapters of The History of White People to Emerson. No one else gets this close treatment. She really rips into him. It’s not that he was any worse than all of the other white supremacists of the time, he wasn’t. But what he did do was serve as the mouthpiece for all the pseudo-science, hate, and arguments full of holes so big you could drive a tank through through them.

He does not get a “oh that was just the times” pass because it wasn’t. There were plenty of ideas swirling around that countered Saxonist rhetoric. And Emerson was a wealthy Harvard educated man so no “he didn’t know better” card for him either. He knew.

To say I am disappointed is an understatement. I am also angry at him. I look at his books on my shelf and yell at him, how could you? I have an urge to grab the big paperback essay collection and bend it and twist it and smack it on the floor while screaming at Emerson about how much he has let me down.

I am not certain I will ever be able to read Emerson with pleasure again. Maybe in time I will be able to read him in a clear-eyed measured way, appreciate his gorgeous metaphors with a new awareness and understanding. But it’s going to take a while.

Read the Book

I just focused on the Emerson portion of The History of White People. The entire book is really good and lays out how the concept and meaning of the “white race” has changed and grown over time. The book was published in 2010 while Obama was president and ends on a hopeful note. We all know what has happened since then. Perhaps the hope was a little premature, but I do think that in spite of everything, there is reason to hope.