Ralph Waldo Emerson was a vocal abolitionist, yet also romanticized a “Saxon” racial ideal. How should we make sense of his attitudes—and untangle them from our own?
Question: How does the idea of “whiteness” intersect with European art history and aesthetic theory?
Nell Irvin Painter: Yes, because drawing lines of varieties or races also is drawing lines about physical attractiveness, so for Blumenbach 1795 Caucasian was his choice of name because it had to with the most beautiful skull in his skull collection. Now the skull was actually from Georgia. It was from a sex slave from Georgia, and so what this skull did was embed in the name Caucasian the idea of beauty because the idea was that the Caucasians or the Circassians or the Georgians were the most beautiful people in the world, and that’s why Blumenbach chose that name, but also female and subjected, so the struggle in the nineteenth century was to pull the beauty part of Caucasian away from sex slaves into virile men, and that’s one of the things that Ralph Waldo Emerson did.
Question: How do we reconcile Emerson the passionate abolitionist with Emerson the champion of the “Saxon” race?
Nell Irvin Painter: Well first of all, Emerson was not passionate about abolition. He wasn’t a passionate person. He was a cool intellectual, and I think he probably was a little uncomfortable with passionate people, but he was against slavery. There is no question of that, but for Emerson the American was the same as an Englishman and the Englishman was the same as a Saxon. Now when he said Saxon he didn’t mean Saxon from Saxony. If you’re familiar with Germany there is a well-known region called Saxony, which is in the eastern part of today’s Germany, and the big cities there are Dresden and Leipzig and Weimar, which was the city of Goethe and Schiller, so that Saxony is a well known area and it was a very important area in the nineteenth century. That’s not what Emerson meant. Emerson meant a kind of floating area off to the west, kind of between the Netherlands and Denmark, maybe Hanover is involved, so that’s where his Saxons, came from and he also meshed them in together with Vikings, so it’s a kind of northern masculine invention.
Question: Are Emerson’s racial ideas still embedded in our own?
Nell Irvin Painter: Yes, in certain ways, but what American historians for instance have done is take Emerson’s concept of Saxon, and when Emerson used Saxon he was not including the Celts. The Celts were considered a separate race. The Irish were considered a separate race and Catholicism was considered part of their separateness, so for him Saxon went back to these Protestant Germans and Englishmen. So what American historians have done is take the twentieth-century word white and read it backwards and equate white with Anglo-Saxon, with Saxon, with “free white” for instance in the census of 1790, whereas at the time, 1790 or 1856 those were not the same meanings. They were different terms because they meant different things.