Emerson Society

Transcendentalism and The Black Atlantic

Katie Simon, Georgia College

Since the publication of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), traditional frameworks for analyzing British and American literature have been challenged. Gilroy’s paradigm-shifting work considers the Atlantic as a cultural and political system emergent from Transatlantic slavery, pushing us beyond our geographic and national comfort zones (Cartwright 76). In the wake of The Black Atlantic, “readers of what had been regionally, racially, and nationally isolated literatures have been pushed to examine previously unexplored modes of double consciousness and countercultural modernity” (Cartwright 75).

To engage with the black Atlantic is not simply to reiterate a tradition of transatlantic scholarly inquiry that would look to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle for wider international conversations that engaged writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller. Rather, Gilroy specifically queries the fact that “the historical emergence of Romanticism in the middle of the middle passage is no coincidence” (Jackson 320). Black Atlantic scholarship, necessarily, is more polemical and political than what we call transatlantic scholarly inquiry, as it interrogates the conditions of economic, social, and racialized oppression that enabled many of the aesthetic, literary, and philosophical categories we’ve traditionally relied upon. A scholar informed by black Atlanticism, like historian Nell Irvin Painter, investigates Emerson’s relationship with Carlyle with an eye toward the transatlantic borrowing and lending of a disturbing Anglophilia. In several chapters of her sweeping study The History of White People, Painter focuses on Emerson, calling him at one point “the philosopher king of American white race theory” (151). Surveying Emerson’s lectures, journal entries, and publications, Painter argues that “Emerson wrote the earliest full-length statement of the ideology later termed Anglo-Saxonist” (151).[1]

The influence of Emerson upon other writers and philosophers in his circle, such as Thoreau, Fuller, and Hawthorne, cannot be underestimated. I’ve been interested in recent years, however, in engaging with black Atlantic scholarship to consider how the writers Emerson mentored diverged significantly from his own Anglophilia. Ian Baucom’s brilliant 2005 study Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History has been most crucial to my understanding of the role of capitalism and slavery in the creation of modernity and the Atlantic world. Baucom’s and Gilroy’s work, together, enables my reading of Thoreau’s posthumously published Cape Cod that accounts for his critique of capitalism and charity, his identification of the cruelties involved in the forced migrations enabling global flows of labor, and his deep grasp of the role of the Atlantic world in the formation of aesthetic categories such as the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque (Simon).

Turning to Margaret Fuller, I suggest that her Summer on the Lakes in 1843 had a profound influence upon Thoreau, in ways that the traditional narrative of Emerson as the mentor to them both might have obscured. Her struggles to examine inherited categories for understanding race, aesthetics, and subjectivity I find compelling, though her engagement with race is an understudied topic.[2] Examining the white settlers she encounters in her travels, Fuller finds them fully embedded in capitalism, a mercenary and limited existence. Her attempts to connect with Native Americans, however, feel limited, frustrating, partial. Turning to an account by a German doctor, Fuller considers the story of a clairvoyant white peasant woman who speaks to the dead. Miming this gesture of speaking with the dead, I argue that Fuller’s juxtaposition speaks to her inability to connect with or represent the experience of the Native Americans she counters along her way. She formulates a poetics that includes those living and non-living, citizens and noncitizens. As Wai Chee Dimock points out, Fuller was haunted with the question of what it means “to belong to a species made of two populations: those who are physically present and those who are not, no longer full-fledged members but also not quite non-members” (52). While Fuller grapples with this question in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, we can feel its resonance in Summer on the Lakes. Here her meditation on white settler colonialism and Native American presence, absence, and social death is literally interrupted with a trip across the Atlantic to visit someone capable of traveling through time and space and speaking with the dead. This formulation is an attempt to understand the racialized violence that haunts her travels, and it represents a counternarrative to the ideology of imperialism and white supremacy pervading much of her work. It also may represent a nineteenth-century white woman’s acknowledgement of the limitations of the category of the human, given its racist and imperialist baggage.  Gilroy’s formulation of the slave sublime is instructive here, as is his call for a “politics of transfiguration” (37-38). Thus, I identify in Fuller what I’ve called in Thoreau’s work the hauntological sublime, a version of the sublime that haunts white readers with the absences and gaps in their own intellectual and creative repertoire, forcing them to consider their own racist ideological frames. I see Fuller in Summer on the Lakes and Thoreau in Cape Cod as underscoring the absent presences of their own respective understandings of race. They highlight the constitutive exclusions they sense affectively in a semiotic system shot through with the logic of imperialism and white supremacy.

Much work can certainly be done to put the Transcendentalists in conversation with black Atlantic studies. To pay attention to the black Atlantic is to shake up our geographic and regional categories in interesting and productive ways. It is to connect Africa and England with the ports in Savannah, Georgia and the cotton that made its way to Lowell, Massachusetts. It is to ask how Transcendentalist thinking was affected by disparate events such as the Haitian Revolution, the 1836 Strike by the Factory Girls Association in Lowell, or the enforced removal of the Cherokee. It is to consider antebellum New England as one stop in a global system. It is to trace an “ambitious transatlantic genealogy of racism, empire, slavery, nationalism, enlightenment, aesthetics, genre, rights, policies, subjectivity, revolution, and utopian countercultures of modernity” within texts that often seem to resist such inquiry (Jackson 308).

 Works Cited

Baucom, Ian. Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of

History. Duke UP, 2005.

Cartwright, Keith. “Black Atlantic.” In Keywords in Southern Studies. Ed. Scott Romine and

Jennifer Rae Greeson. U of Georgia P, 2016. 73-87.

Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time.

Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.

Fuller, Margaret. Summer on the Lakes, During 1843. U of Illinois P, 1991.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Harvard UP, 1993.

Jackson, Virginia. “American Romanticism, Again.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 55, no. 3,

Fall 2016, pp. 319–46. EBSCOhost, doi.org/10.1353/srm.2016.0013

Painter, Nell Irvin.  The History of White People. W.W. Norton, 2010.

Simon, Katie. “Affect and Cruelty in the Atlantic System: The Hauntological Argument of

Thoreau’s Cape Cod.ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and

Culture, vol. 62, no. 2, 2016, pp. 245-282.

Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod, in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Joseph J.          Moldenhauer. Princeton UP, 1988.

[1] While critiques of Painter’s view of Emerson abound, they tend to focus on the way that her assessment relies largely upon English Traits, ignoring the totality of Emerson’s writings on the topic of race, and also his own abolitionist activity. See for example Len Gougeon’s “Race” (Emerson in Context, ed. Wesley T. Mott, Cambridge UP, 2014, pp. 196-203). Such a critique assumes that anti-blackness and anti-racism cannot coexist. One project of critical white studies, it seems to me, is to interrogate such complex spaces.

[2] Notable exceptions include the work of Katharine Adams (“Black Exaltadas: Race, Reform, and Spectacular Womanhood after Fuller.” ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, vol. 57, no. 1–2 2011, pp. 135–63), Nanette Rasband Hilton, “Praxis of Duality: The Sisterhood of Fuller’s ‘Leila’ and Du Bois’s ‘Atlanta.’” Teaching American Literature, vol. 9, no. 3, Summer 2018, pp. 42–53), and Seung Hee Lee, (“Civilizing Mob into Men: Race, Temporality, and the West in Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, in 1843.” South Central Review: The Journal of the South Central Modern Language Association, vol. 36, no. 3, 2019, pp. 85–104).

How to cite this post

MLA 8th Edition:

Katie Simon. “Transcendentalism and The Black Atlantic.” The Transparent Eyeball, Fifth Series, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, September 23, 2022, https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/transcendentalism-and-the-black-atlantic/. Accessed [date of access; ex. 5 Dec. 2021].

APA 7th Edition:

Simon, Katie. (2022, September 23). Transcendentalism and The Black Atlantic. The Transparent Eyeball. https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/transcendentalism-and-the-black-atlantic/.

Chicago 17th Edition:

Simon, Katie. “Transcendentalism and The Black Atlantic,” The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. The Transparent Eyeball, September 23, 2022 https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/transcendentalism-and-the-black-atlantic/.