Legacies of Resistance: Emerson, Buddhism, and Richard Wright’s Pragmatist Poetics

Anita Patterson, Boston University


In these dark and uncertain times, it is inspiring to learn how Emerson’s legacy has fostered a life-affirming intercultural dialogue in works by African American writers.  Consider, for example, his engagement with Buddhism: Emerson’s doctrine of correspondence has been discussed in connection with the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg and Coleridge, but more should be said about the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination, which teaches that all things arise in dependence on other things (Paul 61-62; Harvey 73-75; Bosco et al. 100-02). In Nature, Emerson is drawn to the profound interrelationship among the overwhelming diversity of natural facts that shows the “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts” (10-11, 22). There is, moreover, a growing consensus among scholars with regard to resonances with the Buddhist doctrine of selflessness or the nonego in one of the most memorable passages from Emerson’s Nature where he becomes a transparent eye-ball:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith . . . . Standing on the bare ground . . . 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 particle of God. (CW I: 10; Richardson 393; Rudy 50; Hakutani 45-47)

Sharon Cameron has argued that in Emerson “the personal is most marked at the moment of its obliteration,” and this recurring dialectic, Emerson’s “making and unmaking of personality,” should be regarded in light of his interest in Buddhism (93-94).  Indeed, Emerson’s perceived affinities with Buddhism may have been one reason that his writings influenced Japanese intellectual circles during the Meiji era (Hodder 401).  D. T. Suzuki, an influential interpreter of Zen Buddhism, published his “Essay on Emerson” in 1896, and in later years recalled the “deep impressions” made upon him while he was reading Emerson in college (343-44).

Richard Wright would have come across Suzuki’s commentary on Emerson in 1959, when he was exiled and seriously ill in Paris, reading Suzuki while composing 4000 poems he would draw from a year later to produce “This Other World: Projections in the Haiku Manner,” a manuscript that was published thirty-eight years after his death (Fabre, Unfinished 510; Fabre, Books 156; Ogburn 57). Wright owned three volumes of collected essays by Emerson, and he expressed deep and lasting admiration for him on the dust jacket of Henrietta Buckmaster’s Let My People Go: Freeing the Slaves, published by Harper in 1941: “We Americans have lost something, have forgotten something, that we will never be ourselves again until we have recaptured and made our own the fire that once burned in the hearts of . . . Douglass, . . . Emerson, . . . and others” (Fabre, Books 19, 47). Reading scholarship on haiku by R. H. Blyth, Wright would have become even more intensely aware of Emerson, for the simple reason that Blyth quotes extensively from Emerson to illustrate fundamental tenets of Zen Buddhism. There are seventeen quotations drawn from Emerson’s poetry and prose in Blyth’s four volumes, and nine in the first volume alone, a volume we know Wright studied with great care.

A poem Wright selected from the group of 4000 to open his collection plausibly alludes to the transparent eye-ball passage in Nature (Patterson, “Modern Poetry”):

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away. (Haiku 1)

Wright’s reference to the Buddhist doctrine of selflessness could be construed as stifling resistance to social injustice. The poet-speaker’s description of himself as “nobody” represents “selflessness,” in Blyth’s sense, because an angry Black consciousness has been transcended and transmuted to peace of mind and acceptance (Kiuchi 34; Kodama 127-28).  However, “I am nobody” has also been regarded as a powerful affirmation of subjectivity (Tener 283, 289; Hakutani 141), and thus protests what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as “a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’” in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (293).

The force of Wright’s “I am nobody” as a poem of protest and resistance is considerably stronger when it is read in light of Emersonian pragmatism. James Albrecht has shown that John Dewey and Ralph Ellison, following Emerson, place emphasis on reconstructing the idea of truth with a focus on consequences, the conduct of life, and the betterment of human existence in society; like Emerson, they both affirm the importance of individuality as self-reliance (192, 202, 245, 309). In his 1945 introduction to Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Wright discusses the work of John Dewey, along with his fellow pragmatist William James (“Introduction” xxiii). It is likely that Wright had Emerson and Dewey in mind when he composed his poem, because Dewey quotes Emerson’s transparent eye-ball passage to illustrate the mystic aspect of “aesthetic surrender,” advocating intercultural engagement with the arts of Asian and African civilizations in order to combat racism (29, 344, 349-50).  Wright’s expressed interest in Dewey’s Art as Experience is also noteworthy, insofar as Kenneth Yasuda has observed the applicability of Dewey’s text to traditional haiku aesthetics (12), and scholars have examined Dewey’s influence on twentieth-century Japanese Buddhist philosophy (Garrison et al. 4-5, 13).

Refuting critics who interpret Ellison’s parodic allusions as a scathing rejection of Emerson, Albrecht argues that Invisible Man expresses Ellison’s ambivalent indebtedness to and critique of Emerson’s conception of self-reliance and “complex sense of the self’s social implication and indebtedness” (19). Wright’s poem recalls Ellison’s opening chapter in Invisible Man, where a single passage encapsulates a central insight about democratic individuality as it is reconceived by Emerson and the legacy of pragmatism elaborated by Dewey. “It took me a long time,” says the Invisible Man, “and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself” (Ellison, IM 15). In “I am nobody,” Wright acknowledges his lifelong literary friendship with Ellison, who in a 1945 review of Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, praised Wright for converting “the American Negro impulse toward self-annihilation . . . into a will to confront the world” (“Richard Wright’s Blues” 94). Conversing with Emerson, and through Emerson with each other, they respond in a hopeful, life-affirming way to what would otherwise appear to be tragic limitations on the self.  There is much more to be said about Buddhist influences in Emerson and the importance of East-West interculturality for the development of Wright’s pragmatist poetics.  I hope I have shown how Emerson’s legacy opens cross-cultural vistas that make his work more relevant than ever in our 21st century moment.


Works Cited

Albrecht, James. Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to

Ellison. Fordham UP, 2012.

Bosco, Ronald, Joel Myerson, and Daisaku Ikeda, Creating Waldens: An East-West

Conversation on the American Renaissance. Dialogue Path Press, 2009.

Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and

the Growth of the Abolition Movement. Harper & Brothers, 1941.

Cameron, Sharon. Impersonality: Seven Essays. U of Chicago P, 2007.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Penguin, 1934.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1,

edited by Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson, The Belknap Press of Harvard

UP, 1971.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Commemorative ed., Random House, 1994.

____. “Richard Wright’s Blues.” Shadow and Act. Random House, 1964, pp. 77-94.

Fabre, Michel. Richard Wright: Books and Writers. UP of Mississippi, 1990.

____. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun, 2nd ed., U of

Illinois Press, 1993.

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the 21st Century. Dialogue Path Press, 2014.

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Morrison. U of Missouri P, 2017.

Harvey, Samantha. Coleridge, Emerson, and Nature. Edinburgh UP, 2013.

Hodder, Alan. “Asia in Emerson and Emerson in Asia.” Mr. Emerson’s Revolution,

edited by Jean Mudge, Open Book, 2015, pp. 373-405.

King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” A Testament of Hope: The

Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by James M.

Washington, HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 289-302.

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Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku, edited by Jianqing Zheng, UP of Mississippi,

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Haiku, edited by Jianqing Zheng, UP of Mississippi, 2011, pp. 122-133.

Ogburn, Floyd. “Richard Wright’s Unpublished Haiku:  A World Elsewhere.” MELUS,

vol. 23, no. 3, 1998, pp. 57-81.

Paul, Sherman. Emerson’s Angle of Vision. Harvard UP, 1969.

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Richardson, Robert. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. U of California P, 1995.

Rudy, John. Emerson and Zen Buddhism. Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton UP, 1959.

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edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani, G. K. Hall, 1982, pp. 273-298.

Wright, Richard. Haiku: This Other World, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert

Tener, Arcade, 1998.

____. “Introduction.” Black Metropolis. Harcourt Brace, 1945, pp. xvii-xxxiv.

Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in

English. Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957.


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