Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson—a New England preacher, essayist, lecturer, poet, and philosopher—was one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century in the United States. Emerson was also the first major American literary and intellectual figure to widely explore, write seriously about, and seek to broaden the domestic audience for classical Asian and Middle Eastern works. He not only gave countless readers their first exposure to non-Western modes of thinking, metaphysical concepts, and sacred mythologies; he also shaped the way subsequent generations of American writers and thinkers approached the vast cultural resources of Asia and the Middle East.
Emerson was born on 25 May 1803 in the thriving seaport town of Boston, Massachusetts. As a boy, his first contact with the non-Western world came by way of the exotic merchandise that bustled across the India Wharf in Boston harbor, a major nexus of the Indo-Chinese trade that flourished in New England after the Revolutionary War. Emerson’s first contact with writings from and about the non-Western world came by way of his father, William Emerson, a Unitarian minister with a genteel interest in learning and letters. The elder Emerson was a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a group that once invited Sir William Jones, the British orientalist who founded the Asiatic Society, to correspond with them from his colonial outpost in South Asia. By the time the Massachusetts society sent its letter, Jones had already been dead for nine months, a testament to the practical difficulties of communicating between Boston and Bengal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. William Emerson also edited the Monthly Anthology, and Boston Review, a periodical that helped to bring British accounts of South Asia to a New England readership. The Monthly Anthology featured such works as M. M. Clifford’s “Asia, an Elegy” and reviews of Charles Grant’s “A Poem on the Restoration of Learning in the East.” In July 1805 the Monthly Anthology published Sir William Jones’s translation of Kalidasa’s play “Sakuntala, or the Fatal Ring,” one of the first works of Sanskrit literature printed in the United States.

In 1817, at the age of fourteen, Emerson entered Harvard College. While at Cambridge, Emerson had little opportunity to develop a scholarly approach to the diverse literary and religious traditions of Asia or the Middle East. The curriculum focused on Greek and Roman writers, British logicians and philosophers, Euclidean geometry and algebra, and post-Enlightenment defenses of revealed religion. As his journals and library borrowing records attest, however, in his spare time, Emerson paid keen attention to the wider European Romantic interest in the “Orient” or the “East.” These terms had an antiquarian ring for Emerson, usually denoting the ancient lands and sacred traditions that lay east of classical Greece, such as Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, China, and India. In the early years of his personal journal, which he referred to as his “Wide World,” Emerson began a decades-long practice of writing about Eastern life and letters, accumulating quotations, pondering questions, and otherwise mulling over the significance of the non-Western world. “All tends to the mysterious east,” Emerson copied into his journal in 1820, quoting from a lecture by the Harvard professor Edward Everett. A half century later, in 1872, Emerson recalled the adage in a speech that he delivered in front of the Japanese Embassy, suggesting how formative these initial impressions were to his lifelong interest in the East. In other journal entries, Emerson gave expression to some of his signature ideas while ruminating about the relationship between East and West. For example, in 1822 Emerson wrote searchingly about how a transcendent experience of nature could help to recover the spirit of “Egyptian Antiquities,” an early exploration of the sublime possibilities of the natural world that he would famously celebrate in the “transparent eye-ball” passage in Nature in 1836.

In his extracurricular reading as a Harvard student, Emerson sampled the treatises, travelogues, and translations of legal, religious, and poetic texts that were produced in the wake of Britain’s imperial expansion into India. Some of these works, such as William Robertson’s An Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge Which the Ancients Had of India (1791) which included an appendix on Indian law, civil policy, and religious institutions, focused on Indian antiquity. Other texts, such as Alexander Fraser Tytler’s Considerations on the Present Political State of India (1815), took a more contemporary view of India. An aspiring poet, Emerson also gravitated to selections of Eastern poetry and poetry that took up Eastern themes. Notable examples include Thomas Duer Broughton’s Selections from the Popular Poetry of the Hindoos (1814), which offered Anglicized versions of Hindi-language poems along with their English translation. Emerson read the first volume of The Asiatic Miscellany (1787), which included works by two Persian poets, Saadi and Hafiz, whom he would embrace in his adulthood. Emerson also read deeply in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), a book-length poem about the daughter of a Mughal emperor who falls in love with a poet while betrothed to another man. In his later years Emerson fondly recalled that “Moore’s Lalla Rookh was some of my best travelling.”

Like other Anglo-American readers of his period, Emerson relied heavily on British colonial agents for his knowledge of India. As a consequence, Emerson’s writing about South Asia (as well as China, Persia, and Arabia) often traffics in the menagerie of nineteenth-century Euro-American stereotypes and misconceptions. Examples can be found in Emerson’s “Indian Superstition,” a densely allusive poem that he composed for Harvard College’s graduation ceremonies in 1822. In the 156-line poem, Emerson describes how “Superstition,” the personification of religious tyranny in Asia, has enslaved “[D]ishonored India.” Not only does Superstition drive “maddened” mothers to hurl their children into the Ganges River; it also seduces people to throw themselves under the “car of fiends.” Emerson’s reference to the “car of fiends” is an allusion to the “juggernaut,” or the massive wagon bearing a likeness of the diety Jagannatha. Like most Westerners at this time, Emerson wrongly believed that religious adherents crushed themselves under its wheels in an act of suicidal devotion. Emerson also laments how the Brahmin class, who are at the top of the Hindu caste system, crush with a “daemon’s yelling storm” any “vain ambition” by lower-caste Indians to rise in social status. With its Romantic primitivism and bombastic imagery, “Indian Superstition” is perhaps closer to caricature than considered literary art. Yet, for all its excess, Emerson’s poem is notable for departing from a common formula of the period according to which a debased India could only be redeemed through Western colonialism. Instead, Emerson urges Indians to resist the shackles of the British Empire as forcefully as they should resist the mental chains of religious superstition. He exhorts ordinary Indians to look upon the example of post-revolution America, embodied by the laureled figure of Columbia, as an emblem of what a modern democratic nation could achieve.

After he graduated from Harvard, Emerson’s enthusiasm for non-Western subjects waned, primarily because he devoted himself to becoming a Unitarian minister. Scholars often mark Emerson’s shift in interest with a letter he wrote to Mary Moody Emerson on 10 June 1822. Mary Moody was Emerson’s aunt on his father’s side and a spiritual and intellectual mentor whom he often referred to by the pseudo-Sanskrit anagram “Tnamurya.” In an earlier letter to her nephew, Mary Moody shared Sir William Jones’s paraphrase of the Hindu “Hymn to Narayana,” which concludes with the line, “God only I perceive, God only I adore.” Emerson was profoundly impressed by Jones’s treatment of the hymn, and he later anthologized it in Parnassus, the book of poetry he edited in 1874. In his 10 June letter to Mary Moody, Emerson acknowledged his aunt’s previous inclusion of Jones’s piece by admitting that he was “curious to read [her] Hindu mythologies.” But his interest was tempered by doubts about what he would find there. “One is apt to lament over indolence and ignorance, when we read some of those sanguine students of the Eastern antiquities,” Emerson explained. He was dubious of those “who seem to think that all the books of knowledge, and all the wisdom of Europe twice told, lie hid in the treasures of the Bramins and the volumes of Zoroaster.” Emerson decided that instead of reading his aunt’s Eastern literatures, he would dream of their “possible contents” as if they were the Seal of Solomon, calling their unread pages “learning’s El Dorado.”
For the rest of the 1820s, El Dorado remained unexplored. Emerson only made sporadic reference to Eastern subjects and literatures in his journals, often in relation to articles he read in British periodicals, like the Edinburgh Review. In the early 1830s, however, he read two works that changed the way he viewed ancient Eastern philosophy and religion. The first, which he read in October 1830, was Joseph-Marie de Gérando’s sprawlingly titled Histoire comparée des systèmes de philosophie, considérés relativement aux principles des connaissances humaines (1804, Comparative History of Philosophical Systems, Considered in Relation to the Principles of Human Knowledge). Gérando offered a history of philosophy that focused on what he believed to be the primary questions that had engaged serious thinkers for millennia. Drawing evidence from non-Western works like the Indian Mahabharata and the Chinese The Invariable Mileau, Gérando convinced Emerson that Hindu, Chinese, and Persian schools of thought were at least as valuable as their Hebrew, Greek, and Christian counterparts. The second important work from this period was Victor Cousin’s Cours de l’histoire de la philosophie (1829; translated as Course of the History of Modern Philosophy, 1852) which Emerson read in 1831. Cousin identified four recurring “systems” in the development of philosophical thinking—sensationalism, idealism, skepticism, and mysticism. He posited that the earliest cycle had occurred in India with the Bhagavad Gita, which he described as “the most interesting monument of mysticism in ancient India.” Following Cousin’s analysis of the Gita, Emerson began to read the Hindu scripture as an argument for the fundamental identity of all things, as well as proof that there was an underlying equilibrium of cosmic justice at work in the universe.

In 1831 Emerson’s wife, Ellen Tucker Emerson, died of tuberculosis, an event that galvanized a series of personal and professional changes in his life. The next year Emerson resigned his pulpit at the Second Church of Boston, publicly citing the fact that he did not believe in the special divinity of Jesus and thus could no longer administer the sacrament of communion. After traveling through Europe, where he met literary luminaries such as William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle, Emerson returned to his ancestral home in Concord, Massachusetts. He began a career as a public lecturer, which lasted almost fifty years, and he married Lydia Jackson, whom he affectionately referred to as “Mine Asia”—a pun on Asia Minor, the location of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. In 1836 Emerson published Nature, the first major statement of his mature philosophy and a groundbreaking book that catalyzed the Transcendentalist movement in New England. Along with Emerson, the New England Transcendentalists were an eclectic group of religious, literary, educational, and social reformers that included Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau. The movement grew out of Unitarianism in the greater Boston area; was deeply influenced by British and German Romanticism, especially as interpreted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and revolved around a form of philosophical and spiritual idealism that valued intuition over the senses.

As Emerson moved further away from the precepts of Protestantism in the 1830s and 1840s, he drew on Eastern religious and philosophical ideas to frame his belief in spiritual impersonality (that is, instead of a spirituality centered on the personhood of God), as well as the notion that the world could be illusory without being nonexistent. Emerson also shared his growing library of Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts with his Transcendentalist friends as well as a wider public. From March 1842 to April 1844, Emerson served as editor of the Dial, the primary literary organ for the New England Transcendentalists. In the Dial, he created a recurring feature called “Ethnical Scriptures” to demonstrate that religious texts from throughout the world were repositories of time-tested “truths concerning the nature of man and the laws for human life.” With the assistance of Thoreau, Emerson excerpted key passages in the “Ethnical Scriptures” section from notable Asian and Middle Eastern works, for example, the Hindu Hitopadesa, the Confucian Four Books, the Persian Desatir, and the Chaldean Oracles. At the same time, Emerson’s reading began to expand into new traditions. In the mid 1840s Emerson read about Islam in W. F. Thompson’s translation of the Akhlak-I-Jalaly, published as The Practical Philosophy of the Muhammedan People (1839). Thompson’s translation, which aspired to end the “depreciation of the Muhammadan system” among its English-language readers, gave Emerson his first glimpse into Sufism, which Thompson described as the “practical pantheism of Asia.” Emerson also read Abul Kasim Mansur’s Shanameh or the Book of Kings, a compendium of Persian poetry seven times longer than the Iliad, and Specimens of the Popular Poetry of Persia as Found in the Adventures and Improvisations of Kurroglou, the Bandit-Minstrel of Northern Persia (1842), a collection of oral poetry compiled by the Slavic Iranologist Aleksander Chodzko.
With the publication of his Essays in 1841 and Essays: Second Series in 1844, Emerson emerged as a trans-Atlantic literary celebrity. In his essays from this period Emerson did not explicitly take up Eastern subjects or ideas; however, scholars agree that there are similarities between Emerson’s “Over-Soul” in his 1841 essay of that name and the Hindu conception of Brahman. Scholars also agree that there are similarities between Emerson’s belief described in his 1841 essay “Compensation” and the Hindu doctrine of karma. Moreover, in his published writings during this period, Emerson cited maxims, referred to prominent figures, and otherwise incorporated allusions drawn from Asian and Middle Eastern literatures with surprising regularity. He added these “lustres” to his nonfiction writing for at least two reasons. First, by treating non-Western texts with the same respect afforded cultural authorities in the Western traditions, he could disrupt the parochial expectations of his American and European audiences. Second, by adducing evidence from traditions outside of America and Europe, he could assert the universality of his observations on society, fate, ethics, and philosophy.

Emerson’s engagement with Eastern cultural sources is also evident in his poetry from the 1840s. For example, inspired by his reading of Persian verse, Emerson wrote “Saadi” in 1842, a poetic tribute to the aphorist, panegyrist, and lyrical poet of the same name. In Emerson’s portrayal, Saadi is a sympathetic man of the people who resists full assimilation into the everyday world. He “[loves] the race of men (“No churl” or anchorite is he “immured in cave or den”), and yet “he has no companion; / Come ten, or come a million,” but “dwells alone.” He embodies the “wisdom of the gods” and commands reverence, and yet he is also a lighthearted “cheerer of men’s hearts” who refrains from over clever subtleties. A muse boldly enjoins Saadi to forego absorption in the distracting trials of “war and trade” and “camp and town,” and instead to “[s]eek the living among the dead,” liberating men from themselves because “[m]an in man is imprisoned.” In the poem’s conclusion, Saadi is celebrated as a masterly conjurer of worlds in whose “every syllable / Lurketh Nature veritable,” so that as far as his words carry, “Suns rise and set in Saadi’s speech.” As scholars have observed, Emerson’s portrayal of Saadi can be approached as an idealized self-portrait as well as a cross-cultural encomium. Emerson often referred to himself by the poetic penname, “Sayed,” an apparent gesture to his felt kinship with Saadi.

“Hamatreya,” published in 1846, is another poem that crystallized from Emerson’s reading in ancient Eastern literatures, in particular, a passage from the Vishnu Purana that he had copied into his journal in 1845. “Hamatreya” is Emerson’s adaption of the name “Maitreya,” a figure in the Vishnu Purana who asks his teacher Parasara to tell the story of the kings who have ruled the world. After providing a summary of the sovereigns of history, Parasara observes that the rule of kings is ultimately transitory. Even though they indulge feelings that the “earth is mine—it is my son’s—it belongs to my dynasty,” they invariably perish along with their progeny while the earth remains. In “Hamatreya,” Emerson takes up the similar theme of sovereign possession and human mortality. The poem opens with a list of the first European settlers of Concord, Massachusetts—“Minott, Lee, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint.” In a later version of the poem, Emerson even added the name of his own Concord ancestor “Bulkeley” to the list of settlers. As these founders stride their fields, they marvel at the intimate connection they feel with the land, holding fast to the same thoughts of ownership as Parasara’s rulers: “Tis mine, my children’s and my name’s.” But Concord’s settlers, like Parasara’s sovereigns, ultimately die. They are “able to “steer the plow” over the land but unable to “steer their feet / Clear of the grave,” so that in New England, as in ancient India, human pretensions to earthly ownership are ended by death. “How am I theirs,” gently asks the Earth, “If they cannot hold me / But I hold them?”
When scholars discuss the limitations of Emerson’s writing about the East, they often refer to the essay “Plato; or the Philosopher,” published in Representative Men in 1850. In that volume, Emerson collected a series of biographical writings organized around the Romantic belief that a “general mind” expresses itself with extraordinary intensity in certain individuals. In “Plato” Emerson argues that the Greek philosopher brought together the two “cardinal facts” at the core of all philosophy: Unity and Variety. According to Emerson, the tendency to “dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity” is primarily an Eastern trait, while the impulse toward variety is a Western one. Emerson praises in Plato what he probably valued in himself—an ability to synthesize the best aspects of unity and variety, immensity and detail, East and West. And yet Emerson’s conceptualization of the East in the “Plato” essay poses problems that are worth noting, particularly in the following passage:
The country of unity, of immovable institutions, the seat of a philosophy delighting in abstractions, of men faithful in doctrine and in practice to the idea of a deaf, unimplorable, immense fate, is Asia; and it realizes this fate in the social institution of caste. On the other side, the genius of Europe is active and creative: it resists caste by culture; its philosophy was a discipline; it is a land of arts, inventions, trade, freedom. If the East loved infinity, the West delighted in boundaries.

As scholars have observed, when Emerson claims to speak about “Asia,” he seems to have India in mind (that is, the country with the “social institution of caste”). It is a muddling of distinctions that suggests Emerson was unconcerned about the vital differences among the cultures of Asia and the Middle East. Emerson also eschews political or economic comparisons in favor of idealized intellectual ones, supporting the notion that “the East” was more for him an abstract idea than a place inhabited by actual people. Also, even though Emerson purports to offer a balanced view of an East that “[loves] infinity” and a West that [“delights] in boundaries,” his language seems to favor Europe—with its activity, creativity, “discipline,” “arts, inventions, trade, freedom”—over Asia, with its “immovable institutions” and “deaf, unimplorable, immense fate.” Emerson’s vague and polarized thinking in “Plato” closely aligns with the stereotypical typologies about East and West that prevailed in the wider culture, pointing to the limits of Emerson’s intellectual vision when trying to imagine the Eastern Other.

In 1856 Emerson composed a lyric poem originally called “Song of the Soul” and later published in the Atlantic in 1857 under the title, “Brahma.” The poem dramatizes an idea that Emerson closely associated with Hinduism; namely, that the material world is essentially an illusory mask of the divine spirit that dwells in all beings. Although it stands to reason that the poem is written from the perspective of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, or even Brahman, the absolute or universal soul, the speaker in the poem does not name itself. Instead, the speaker enumerates the ways in which it eludes characterization. The opening lines of the four-stanza verse exemplify the riddle-like quality of the poem as a whole:

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.


In many ways, “Brahma” is a distillation of Emerson’s reading of Hindu sacred literatures over the previous two decades, from the Baghavad Gita to the Katha Upanishad. For example, the “red slayer” is likely an allusion to Siva the Destroyer, one of the three aspects of the Godhead in Hinduism. Siva is an agent of dissolution, but nothing is ultimately destroyed or dissolved in the Hindu cosmos; Brahman is without end, so everything that emanates from Brahman is also deathless. When “Brahma” inspired dozens of mocking parodies in the Atlantic—its paradoxical style proved to be too much for many antebellum American readers, who objected to its exotic obscurities—Emerson told his daughter that one did not need to adopt a Hindu perspective to understand the poem. One could easily substitute “Jehovah” for “Brahma,” he explained, and not lose the sense of the verse.

In 1858 Emerson published a long essay, “Persian Poetry,” in the Atlantic. As a way of introducing American readers to what was most likely an unfamiliar poetic tradition, Emerson drew parallels between Persian poetry and Homeric epics, English ballads, and the works of William Shakespeare. He also noted that the legends of Persian mythology could sometimes be found in the Hebrew Bible. As part of his exposition, Emerson included his own English translations of the poets Hafiz, Saadi, Khayyam, and Enweri, by way of the German translations of Persian poetry by Baron von Hammer-Purgstall. Emerson had no competence in any Asian or Middle Eastern language, and he never read a non-Western text in its original language. But Emerson had been translating von Hammer’s German texts in his journals since 1846. By the end of his life, Emerson produced at least sixty-four translations, totaling more than seven hundred lines of Persian verse, many of which can be found in “Orientalist,” a notebook he began to keep in the 1850s. The “Persian Poetry” essay in the Atlantic also served as a prelude for the introduction that Emerson wrote for the first American edition of Saadi’s Gulistan, published by Ticknor and Fields in 1865.

In 1872 Emerson sailed for England and then Egypt with his daughter, Ellen. As he toured the cities of Alexandria and Cairo, Emerson noted observations about the Pyramids, the Nile River, and his woeful ignorance of the Arabic language. But at seventy years old, Emerson’s most significant writings about the East were behind him. Ten years later, on 27 April 1882, Emerson died in Concord, leaving an enduring legacy as the seminal figure of modern American Orientalism. His lifelong excursions into the libraries of classical Asian and Middle Eastern literatures were those of an enthusiast instead of a rigorous scholar, and he often relied on crude Romantic stereotypes and failed to recognize the differences among the cultures and peoples of the East. But Ralph Waldo Emerson was a pioneering figure of what is now called “multiculturalism” who expanded the Eastern horizons of generations of American readers and writers, and he persuasively demonstrated how classical Indian, Chinese, and Persian works could be used as a means to bring the inquiring self into a fresh appreciation of its own profound powers.

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