Monday, March 21, 2011

English Traits by Ralph Waldo Emerson

I decided to skip the final few essays of Emerson and read his piece on aspects of the British character.  I will return to and comment on those final essays of Emerson, but I realized that I own all of those essays in at least two separate books.  I do not own Emerson's English Traits and I was on my third library renewal.

I initially expected a travelogue, but quickly realized that it is more of a fly-over of what the title suggests directly.  I assume the timing of the piece must needs be considered in any assessment.  It was published in a time where the intended audience would be people whose grandparents fought in the Revolutionary War and, unbeknownst to them, whose children would fight in the Civil War.  It strikes me as a strong possibility to assume that the book was intended to rebuild some burnt bridges between the two nations.  However, with the clarity of hindsight, the book is anomalous in two key points that are almost entirely absent from Emerson's Anglo-appraisal that are glaring to the modern eye.  Dr. Eliot would have been aware of these as well, so I'll add them to my list of questions for him that I am devising a way to smuggle with me into the hereafter.

The first is that the British had outlawed the slave trade over two decades prior to the book while America was about a decade out from outlawing that particular loathsome blot on our nation's history.  If memory serves, the closest Emerson even gets to mentioning this is the necessary inclusion of William Wilberforce and Charles James Fox in lists of great British men in recent memory.  I would have expected the most important issue in America just a handful of years hence would at least have been mentioned in the book, but I was mistaken.

The other topic I would have thought an American just this side of the Revolution would have made mention at some point about the British Empire.  This was written when the British Empire was in full swing and Emerson spends very little time on the subject specifically (although he does mention that the British tend to "take Britain with them" where ever they go.)  The book was published just a year before the Great Uprising in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.  Most of you know of the wonderful book that my friend Anurag Kumar wrote on the subject.  I think that the exclusion of any talk on that aspect of Britain lends credence to my hypothesis that the book was intended to amend the general American feeling toward their motherland.  It is probably also worth mentioning that the apple did not fall far from the tree in this aspect of national character.  America is, itself, sort of an empire built on taking land by force and violence.

The book begins with Emerson's visits to a few major figures in England whose acquaintance he decidedly wished to make.  He gives an account of meeting Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth.  Carlyle meets with Emerson's greatest approval, but the other two reminded me of the advice from Jonathan Carroll of "never meet your heroes."  I suppose in controlled settings, a book signing for example, it might be nice to meet one of my own heroes in person, but I always think "What if I met Stephen Fry when he had a head cold?  Or Paul F. Tompkins when he was in a hurry?  Or Caitlin Kiernan when she hasn't had enough sleep?"  It's so easy for me to be off my game; I have to assume it's the same for other humans.  I fear that a bad experience with a hero might thereafter taint my perception of their work and, as I realistically don't really expect to ever be on "phone call at 3 am" terms with any of those heroes, I would like to preserve my sense of wonder.  I further fear that may have been Emerson's experience, at least with Coleridge.  Otherwise the section is a fascinating snapshot of the personalities of a few great men that we might not otherwise have.  That alone makes the book worthwhile in my opinion.

Emerson gives an account of sea travel that I found more riveting and interesting than anything in Melville.  Most of the rest of the book comprises aspects of the British character in chapters with titles like: Literature, Religion, Manners, Land, and Truth.  At no point did I feel he denegrated the English character.  In fact, I was pleased to find the tone throughout laudatory.  One of the chapters that occasioned great thought and conversations with Laurie was the chapter on the topic of Aristocracy.  Emerson notes the existence of a leisure class and the remnants of the feudal spirit in England.  It struck me as quaint that he intimates that this is not the case in America where one can pull themselves up from the mud to become the richest man in the world, simply by square dealing and honest, hard labor.  Little did Emerson know America would mutate into an oligarchy over the course of the next 150 years and that the wealth of nations would funnel down into the pockets of a few dozen men.  Careful where you wag that finger, Emerson.

Emerson devotes large portion of the work talking of the strength and heartiness of the British people, their honesty, their endurance and composure, and their great contributions to civilization.  He lauds their educational system and states that their top tier universities put ours to shame (specifically in the category of affordability.  I wonder what Dr. Eliot, being the paradigmatic Harvard man, would have thought of that part too.)  He ends the piece with an account of a bucolic visit to Stonehenge and the text of a speech he gave in Manchester.

In his speech, there was a moment that I found rather shocking.  He said words to the effect that just as a parent lives on in their children, England will live on in the great acts performed by its "child," meaning America.  I thought it was an amazingly gutsy thing for an American to say to a room full of Englishmen in the middle of the 19th Century.  I probably wouldn't have said it, mainly because, as Emerson himself points out, a great nation does a lot of good but any nation full of humans is inevitably going to do a few things that wouldn't exactly make their parents proud.  I should probably state that I love America and I love England, which is the only other nation I've spent any length of time visiting.  I would go back in a heartbeat.

But, I think for me, the most valuable feature of this book is that it attempts to lay out a national character in all of its parts.  It is sort of an anatomy of a nation from an outsider's point of view.  We currently live in a highly individualistic culture that may rankle at the idea of a national character, but I contend that they exist in every nation.  There are traits that distinguish one nation from another and we all have facets of our character formed by environment.  Becoming aware of this is valuable because one can seek to augment or overcome traits depending on what one desires.  More to the point, the study of the traits of other nations provides one with an opportunity to seek to foster some virtues in themselves that they like in others and, most importantly, reminds us that we are all of one race.  Seeking to understand other cultures and cultivating friendships therein bring us closer to world peace.  It is what it means to be a global citizen.

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