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Dispatches from the Archives

Historical Traces in Archival Poetry

By Rachel Kaufman

In his 1978 article “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” Hayden White argued that elements of the past are not innately imbued with story. Instead, historians shape elements of the past into tragedies and comedies, “verbal fictions” that are a result of a literary process, a “process of refamiliarization.” Historical narratives, “a complex of symbols” as Hayden illuminates, then seem to mirror poetry, specifically archival or historical poetry, which refamiliarizes the past in a cross-stitched pattern of symbols. These symbols exist as such in the poem, as metaphor or sound or image, while hearkening back to their referent, the archival fragment or historical voice which they recall.

I’ve argued elsewhere that archival poetry—poetry which grounds itself in a historical narrative, historical characters, or the language or materiality of archival sources—acts as a medium of translation that is able to preserve the ambiguities and simultaneities of history. In this piece, I’ll briefly discuss the formal traces of history which surface in prefaces, endnotes, and epigraphs and enter two poetry collections grounded in the past to examine how these traces mark and blur the borders between history and poetry, past and present. I’ll finally turn to my own archival poetry collection Many to Remember, recently published by Dos Madres Press, and discuss my process in weaving history into the work.

 “The historical narrative does not image the things it indicates,” White wrote, but rather “calls to mind images of the things it indicates, in the same way that a metaphor does.” If a metaphor, and perhaps an historical poem more broadly, calls to mind images of the things it recalls, where do the things themselves exist in the world of the poetry book? Though often, I would argue, the metaphor and the poem do “image the things” they indicate, breaching the distance between poem and referent, symbolizer and symbolized, historical poems sometimes represent an image of the past without fully entering it, perhaps purposefully acknowledging the gap—the archival silences, worm-eaten words—between present-day poet and the past which she recalls.

In her 2019 poetry collection 1919, sociologist and writer Eve L. Ewing begins with a 1922 report entitled The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot to tell the story of the 1919 race riot in Chicago. As described in the preface to the book, Ewing at first approached the report searching for information on housing segregation at the start of the Great Migration. Yet as she read on, she “kept getting sucked into other parts of the report,” which revealed Black life in Chicago a century before and read like poetry—“so narrative, so evocative, so imagistic…the report was like an old tapestry with loose threads sticking out, and I wanted to tug on them and see what I could unravel, see what new thing I could weave” (4). Passages from the 1922 report serve as epigraphs to the poems in the book and place the language of the archive in direct dialogue with the language of the poet. This dialogue sometimes suggests great distance between past and present, as in the first poem of the collection, “Exodus 1,” in which a passage about the religious significance of the migration of Black people from the South to Chicago between 1910 and 1920 and the songs sung as part of the movement (including “Flight Out of Egypt” and “Bound for the Promised Land”) give way to a poem which begins: “Now these are the names of the people of Adeline, which came into Mississippi.” The poem in some ways fulfills the call of the quotation, crafting a biblical narrative of Black people who “increased abundantly and multiplied,” filling the land of Mississippi before a meeting of the people’s counsel and a great exodus of the community from “the cotton, and the kings and their storehouses of browning blood.”

But Ewing also often refutes the archive’s claims, calling to mind images of the past without imaging them in the present, as she does with the epigraph to the next poem, which reads: “the presence of Negroes in large numbers in our great cities is not a menace in itself.” Ewing answers the archive’s violent arrogance—she writes, “How could someone claim to tell the story of Black people in this city?”—with her own visions, dreams, and images, and with the specificities of her language. In her 2013 article “The Archive and Affective Memory in M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong!” and 2020 book Immaterial Archives: An African Diaspora Poetics of Loss, scholar Jenny Sharpe writes on M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetry book Zong!, which tells the story of an historical event in which slave owners threw enslaved African people alive into the Caribbean Sea. Sharpe writes: “Zong! suggests that silences in official archives are not only holes to be filled with meaning—missing pieces of a counter-history—but also spaces of an affective relationship with the past. At the same time, its poems demonstrate that affect is not universal or free-floating even if its potential for realization happens across geographical space and historical time” (“The Archive and Affective Memory,” 470). Less experimental in form than Philip’s book, Ewing’s collection still manages to hold onto silences and prejudices in the archives without filling them in. In “The Train Speaks,” the poem which answers the “not a menace in itself” quotation, Ewing writes:

My children. My precious ones.
I can never take you home. You have none.
And so you go, out into the wind.

Held as her children yet released beyond the abilities of her words, the historical actors who Ewing speaks to and with (rather than for) extract themselves from the world of the archival document and yet do not entirely reattach to Ewing’s new language. A later poem, entitled “there is no poem for this,” quotes a horribly violent description of a white mob’s actions during the Chicago riot from the archival report and adds nothing else. In this case, Ewing embraces scholar Saidiya Hartman’s assertion that the archive is “a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body” which must be approached without replicating its “grammar of violence” (Venus in Two Acts, 2). In Ewing’s book, history enters through language that is attached squarely to a static past and then unravels, traveling towards the wind, across the page of the poem and the lives Ewing emboldens without claiming ownership.

In another recent poetry collection, Salient by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., history emerges in the book’s preface, in which Gray weaves together the Battle of Passchendaele, a battle in Belgian Flanders in 1917, and the chöd ritual, a “severance” practice which descends from twelfth-century female Tibetan Buddhist saint Machik Lapdrön. Interspersed with interjections (“how could that be? who was there?”) and lyrical images (“dark drawings of the battlefield,” “exhausted men advancing slowly uphill for weeks in relentless rain through waist-deep mud”), the preface nods to historians’ debates about generals’ and politicians’ decisions yet dwells in the affective. The preface finds its momentum in the poet’s questions, her wanderings through the sensorial world of the past which emerge in lines of prose driven by rhythm and beat—“For so far? For so long? In the rain? How could one imagine this? How did one explain it to oneself, to loved ones?” The poet not only draws from archival materials but from her experiences walking the ground “in all seasons and all weathers,” the preface thus rooting itself to the poet’s body and the bodies and minds of the historical figures she explores. The preface then transitions to the chöd ritual with a personal grounding: “I grew up with terrible nightmares, and across from our town’s seventeenth-century burial ground.” And yet the chöd ritual, as Gray describes it, requires dismembering one’s own body and offering the pieces to harmful beings who, “once sated,” would vanish. The poet writes: “the practice that had fascinated me was about severing one’s attachment to one’s individual self…I began Salient by placing these two poles of obsession in proximity to one another. And waiting. In the charged field between them I originally thought I might find The Missing.” Gray is thus neither searching for that which the archive and the passing of time withhold nor for the “subaltern treasures” latent in the past’s canon, to use historian and anthropologist Ann Stoler’s language. Instead, Gray is entering empty space, the “charged field” between two disparate yet deeply connected worlds, to find presence in absence, “The Missing” unkempt yet arrived.

Salient fulfills its promise, brilliantly weaving together the archive’s language with the poet’s simultaneous desire and refusal to create cohesion or connection. The language of history, “Trench map sheet 28 NW 2 St. Julien C.28.a.5.5.” or “Chief of Staff to General…on the evening of 6 June 1917, hours before nineteen mines were detonated under the Messines Ridge,” is wound and unwound by the poems. In the poem, “Construction of Trench Systems: Explanation of Diagram #7,” technical language of war surfaces in strict lines

Two distinct lines
of wire entanglement
in front of the first line

and then collapses:

….Now try
to find your
way back through
all this in
the dark.

The “Notes on Sources,” which appear at the end of the book, are neither strict historiographical footnotes nor direct extensions of the poems. They sit between genres and include expected information, such as publishing information for books on mapping or the chöd ritual, as well as lyrical bursts, such as “For the curious:” and “Geographical names and map coordinates have been altered to locate the poem in the Ypres Salient. This poem is dedicated to the Infantry Captain with the Cat, who taught me how to read it.” Filled with personality and recognition of the role of imagination (the map coordinates have been entirely altered to fit a new geography), Gray’s footnotes demonstrate a potential new mode of citation. In her notes, referenced sources, the voices of historians and of primary sources, visual and auditory, meet the poet’s voice. The notes reveal the poetics latent in the labels of maps, the “sound ranging” method of locating coordinates of hostile artillery, and the sonic playground of captains’ titles, including “His Majesty’s Twenty-Third Foot, The Royal Welsh Fusiliers.” One note reads: “The gyalpo (lit. ‘kings’) are spirits that bring illness, impersonate leaders, and supposedly cause insanity.” Literal translations yield to simultaneous truths, and mythology meets history in “supposedly,” in the poet’s license to believe what she chooses to believe.

In my own collection of poems, entitled Many to Remember, I grappled with genre and with the moments in which history entered the text (in both the Preface and Notes sections). The collection, grounded in my archival research on New Mexico crypto-Judaism and the Mexican Inquisition, often required background information. But the archival history of crypto-Judaism in Mexico and New Mexico, especially after the fall of the Mexican Inquisition in 1821, is filled with absence, and it is this absence many of the poems attempt to explore, unravel, and preserve. I ended up including history esoterically, weaving archival fragments into a preface grounded in my family’s history and writing Notes that would indulge curiosities but leave much to be further researched or simply imagined by a reader. In a book of poems interested in how absence can be translated from archive to poem through form and through the line, it made sense to me to include history primarily as fragment. In this way, I attempted to ground the poems in their history, to give readers some insight into my process of translation, but to mostly leave archival gestures as objects to be interpreted, verbal fictions whose process of refamiliarization was only partially complete and whose reference remained at once image and metaphor. In this way, I felt I could leave the poetry without burden and motion towards the form of the archive, the objects I had held, and the fragmented histories with which I began.


Rachel Kaufman is a PhD student in History at UCLA and focuses on memory, religion, and diasporic identity in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. She is interested in the ways in which literary and historical texts transmit the past and the affective world of the archive, and her current research focuses on New Mexico crypto-Jewish memory practices and the Mexican Inquisition. Her prose has been published in Rethinking History and The Yale Historical Review, and her poetry has appeared on poets.org and in the Harvard Review, Southwestern American Literature, Western Humanities Review, JuxtaProse, and elsewhere. Her first book of poetry, Many to Remember, was recently published by Dos Madres Press. She received her B.A. from Yale in English and History.

Featured Image: Archival seal, courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

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Dispatches from the Archives

Democratized Archives in an Enforced Digital Age

By Avery Weinman

Archival work is my bread and butter. Throughout the fall of 2020, I spent a majority of my time researching Eliyahu Beit-Tzuri and Eliyahu Hakim: two Palestinian Sephardi members of the extremist Zionist terror organization Lohamei Herut Israel (also known by its Hebrew acronym, Lehi). On November 6, 1944 in Cairo, Beit-Tzuri and Hakim assassinated Lord Moyne, who, as the British Resident Minister of the Middle East, was one of the highest-ranking officials in the British Empire in the Middle East and North Africa. The assassination thrust the British-Zionist conflict in Palestine to the forefront of the international imagination, and the reverberations from the assassination and subsequent trial both accentuate the importance of Beit-Tzuri’s and Hakim’s Sephardi identities and situate Zionism alongside other anti-imperial national liberation movements of the early-to-mid twentieth century. As I sifted through Hebrew, French, and English newspapers from the mid-1940s, court transcripts from Beit-Tzuri’s and Hakim’s trial in Cairo, their letters to home, fiery propaganda issued by Zionist terror cells, and interior memos of the British Foreign Office, I was filled with the buzzy delight that characterizes how I feel working with primary sources. It was only in the brief moments of unexpected interruption—in which the alarm for my lunchtime baked potato went off, or my laptop chirped that I had ten minutes until my umpteenth Zoom meeting of the week—that I remembered how deeply removed I actually was from traditional archival work.

Since the spring of 2020, archives all over the world have closed their doors in accordance with quarantine measures designed to impede the spread of COVID-19. These conditions are, to put it mildly, a profound challenge to historical research. But these challenges are not without their silver linings, the potential benefits of which are especially visible in the Israeli archives I used while researching Beit-Tzuri and Hakim. While state and state-adjacent institutional backing typically determine the legitimacy of Israeli archival sources, coronavirus-related closures have brought digital accessibility to the fore as a newly significant factor in historical archival research. The abnormal circumstances of archival work in the coronavirus era, which restricts historians almost entirely to the digital space, acts as a sort of hyper-fertile incubator that accelerates historians’ inquiries into the idea of archival work, which archives count, and, ultimately, whose voices get heard.

Archival theory and historians’ investigation into archives themselves well predate the absurdity of 2020. As part of the post-colonial, post-structuralist wave that began in the mid-twentieth century, historians have expanded their understanding of the archive beyond a mere container for data to what Ann Laura Stoler memorably coined “archives-as-things” in her 2009 monograph Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Here, Stoler identified and analyzed the palimpsests of colonial anxieties about race, gender, and power as they appear in archival documentation from the nineteenth-century Netherlands Indies to unveil archives themselves as dynamic expressions of historical processes. In addition to Stoler’s establishment of the archive as a site of historical inquiry, Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s 2015 article “Black Holes, Dark Matter, and Buried Troves: Decolonization and the Multi-Sited Archives of Algerian Jewish History” and Diana Taylor’s 2010 article “Save As… Knowledge and Transmission in the Age of Digital Technologies” raise questions into the role of the archive that have been sharpened by the era of coronavirus. Stein shows that who has the legitimate “right” to archival material and what kinds of archival materials different players seek to control indicate how historical actors use the conquest dimension of the archive to exert authority over the historical narrative. In Stein’s piece, four distinct actors—Algeria, France, Israel, and the Mzabi Jewish community from southern Algeria—competed to possess Mzabi Jews’ archival trail. Both in a literal sense by attempting to collect and house Mzabi documentation, and in a symbolic sense by moving to weave the Mzabi Jewish past into their own narratives, each rival party sought to nationalize, colonize, liberate, or localize Mzabi records to substantiate their own claim as the authentic heirs of Mzabi Jewish history amidst the upheavals of post-colonial independence in the mid-twentieth century. Their four-way tug-of-war prompts historians to consider the problem of dominion over archival materials, and to question the ideologies behind where archival materials are located. Taylor studied the digital archive specifically, and concluded that digitization and twenty-first-century technologies have fundamentally redefined what an “archive” is and can be by democratizing access to and construction of archival (web)sites. According to her, these technologies have transformed which kinds of materials are worthy of archival documentation, eroded the notion of archival ownership or copyright, and deracinated archival sites from physical space and capital. While each of these works predated the coronavirus pandemic, the questions Stoler, Stein, and Taylor have posed are especially potent in a time when being restricted to the digital realm further magnifies the form of archives themselves. My own research experience with Israeli archives this past fall exemplified the renewed relevance of these scholars’ analyses, as historians’ temporary relegation to the e-archive have overturned the pre-existing hierarchy of Israeli institutional archival legitimacy.

Divisions between different Zionist factions siloed whose histories went to which Israeli archives along political lines. This was especially true for the bitter, and often violent, rivalry between the Labor Zionists and the Revisionist Zionists. The Labor Zionists dominated the political landscape of both the pre-state Yishuv and the initial decades of Israeli state sovereignty, from the early twentieth century through the late 1970s. Conversely, the Revisionist Zionists were relegated to the fringes of Zionist and Israeli politics and governance. As Israeli historian Amir Goldstein explains in his 2015 article Olei Hagardom: Between Official and Popular Memory,” the Labor Zionist establishment led by David Ben-Gurion and the Mapai party at the beginning of Israeli statehood were acutely aware of the political power that came with their ability to use institutional legitimacy to curate Israeli collective memory. By privileging their own activities in archives, museums, and ceremonies, while obscuring the presence of their Revisionist Zionist rivals, Mapai formalized a decades-long precedent of political marginalization through institutional exclusion. In so doing, Mapai fixed the parameters for what kinds of politics would be considered legitimate in the Israeli sphere for decades to come. To cement their own position as the hegemon of Israeli state power, the Labor Zionists excluded, redacted, and erased the presence of their political rivals—most notably the Revisionist Zionists, but also the Israeli Communist Party as well—from the archival bodies of state and state-adjacent institutions.

Israeli scholar Tuvia Friling articulates both the process and the consequences of this exclusion of Revisionist Zionist voices from the archive and Israeli historiographical narrative in his 2009 article “A Blatant Oversight? The Right-Wing in Israeli Holocaust Historiography.” Examining the “lacunae” of writing about Revisionist Zionist efforts to facilitate so-called illegal immigration to British Mandatory Palestine following the enactment of the 1939 White Paper, Friling explains that the Labor Zionists at the head of the newly created state of Israel quickly mobilized “sweeping historiographical enterprises to secure their version as the canonical narrative of national rebirth.” In other words, in spite of the fact that Revisionist Zionists’ role in facilitating Jewish immigration was well-known among the population of British Mandatory Palestine, the state expunged records of their activities from institutionally legitimized archives. As a result, Revisionist Zionists were, and remain, overwhelmingly absent from both popular commemoration and Israeli historiography of Jewish immigration in this formative period of national myth-making.

Revisionist Zionists did attempt to set up their own institutions and archives in response to neglect in state interest and state funding. However, because of infighting between different Revisionist Zionist factions and predilection towards mythification and privatization within the ideology of Revisionist Zionism itself, these institutions and archives opened slowly and without the necessary organizational unity required to make a meaningful intervention into the historical narrative. For example, The Lehi Museum in Tel Aviv did not open until 1991. The Menachem Begin Heritage Center, which enjoys a greater degree of political recognition, only began collecting archival materials in 2000. The state of Israel officially recognized the archives of the earliest and most established of Revisionist Zionist bodies, the Jabotinsky Institute, in 1958, but Friling asserts that even the Jabotinsky Institute “remained an isolated island in the ocean of institutes connected in various ways with the leftist camp.” It is one of the peculiarities of Israel that, even four decades after the Revisionist Zionists achieved mainstream political success with the Likud Party’s first victory in the 1977 elections, Revisionist Zionism remains peripheral to the dominant historical narrative and structures of the state.

Eliyahu Beit-Tzuri and Eliyahu Hakim were both members of the Lehi, meaning I relied on marginalized Revisionist Zionist archives—especially the Jabotinsky Institute—to conduct my research. State and state-adjacent institutional archives like the Central Zionist Archives or the Israel State Archives have few, if any, relevant sources on Beit-Tzuri’s and Hakim’s actions and lives. Because of coronavirus-related closures, my main consideration in conducting meaningful research was online access to digitized material. Fortunately, I discovered quite quickly that the Jabotinsky Institute hosts a veritable treasure trove of digitized content on its website that is free to access for anyone with an internet connection. For my research, this archival body yielded an abundance of photographs, letters, newspaper articles, propaganda publications, transcripts, and commemoration pamphlets about Beit-Tzuri and Hakim, their roles in the assassination of Lord Moyne, their trial in Cairo, their executions in March of 1945, and the resonance they would ultimately leave in a hotly contested landscape of Israeli collective memory. With supplementary sources from the extensive collection of historical newspapers provided through the National Library of Israel, I conducted rigorous archival research akin to the standards of working in a physical archival space—all while sitting comfortably at my desk in my tried-and-true Adidas sweatpants.

Working entirely digitally allowed me to conduct this research with relative ease, and to bypass the hierarchy of Israel’s politically siloed archives. This fact, in turn, has prompted me to consider if the crucible conditions of archival work in the era of coronavirus closures have actually created an accelerated democratizing process that casts which archives are considered institutionally legitimate and which histories get told into sharp relief. As Goldstein and Friling point out, the Revisionist Zionist archives I relied on typically fall outside the boundaries of institutional legitimacy. However, because those sources are digitized and easily accessible, Revisionist Zionist archives benefit from the leveled playing field brought about by the unusual circumstances of the pandemic. This strange period in time in which digital access outranks institutional endorsement encourages historians to work with archives they might have otherwise overlooked. My experience researching Beit-Tzuri and Hakim was specific to Israeli archives, but the accelerated process of democratization enabled by digital accessibility applies broadly to archival work across fields of study. How does “doing history” change when unexpected challenges recalibrate which archives historians can even use? Can this moment, as frustrating as it is, instruct historians in how to better include marginalized voices? Can it embolden historians to challenge the notion that institutional backing is synonymous with historical legitimacy? These prodding questions into the idea of archives themselves predate the era of coronavirus closures, but I would optimistically hope that historians can extract a silver lining from this enforced digital age to turn a challenging time into an opportunity to examine the archive with renewed zeal.


Avery Weinman is a graduate student in the UCLA Department of History and the Harry C. Sigman Graduate Fellow at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Her main areas of focus are modern Jewish history, Sephardi/Mizrahi Studies, the history of modern Israel, the history of the modern Middle East and North Africa, and the intellectual history of Zionism. Currently, she is intensely interested in the activities and worldviews of Sephardi and Mizrahi members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi and Lohamei Herut Israel in the 1940s during the British Mandate of Palestine.

Featured Image: Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Interior shot of the storage facilities at the Archives of American Art’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. June 1, 2011. Accessed February 8, 2021. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. | Victor Grigas. Wikimedia Foundation Servers. July 16, 2012. Accessed February 8, 2021. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Dispatches from the Archives

Why Emerson Admired Bentham But Rejected His Utilitarianism

By Christopher Porzenheim

While it’s become increasingly common since 1970 for scholars to study Ralph Waldo Emerson as a philosopher and evaluate his relationship to canonical philosophers, no one has thoroughly analyzed Emerson’s numerous remarks upon Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, which is now one of the most influential contemporary schools of moral philosophy. This is odd. Emerson says at least as much, if not more, about Bentham than he does about Immanuel Kant, yet a vast amount of attention has been devoted to Kant’s influence on Emerson while very little ink has been spilled on Emerson’s relationship to Bentham. Indeed, so far as I know, Neal Dolan and Bhiku C. Parekh are the only scholars who have published anything on this subject.

Ultimately, I believe an analysis of Emerson’s remarks confirms Dolan and Parekh’s claim that Emerson rejected Benthamite utilitarianism, but also reveals something new—why he rejected his ethics. Understanding why Emerson disagreed with Bentham’s ethics matters because it will help anyone who wishes to compare John Stuart Mill and Emerson, characterize the nature of Emerson’s own moral philosophy or determine where he fits in the philosophical canon. As we shall see, Emerson was likely hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because of the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, although quite accurately, Emerson recognized Bentham as one among many of the reformers making “accusations of society” in the 19th century (W 1: 228) whose proposed reforms focused on the subject of “Civil Law.” (EL 3: 225-26)

In addition, Emerson had some unambiguously complimentary things to say about Bentham. For example, Emerson is grateful Bentham coined words like maximize, minimize and “international.” (J 7: 69-70) Emerson also believes we should mimic one of Bentham’s habits. According to Emerson, if we wish to have excellent friendships we should primarily spend one on one—rather than group—time with our closest friends, just like how Bentham would only admit one person at a time into his study. (EL 2: 289) More generally, Emerson admires Bentham as a man of ideas (J 8: 465) unseduced by “too fanciful refinements” (EL 2: 289) who loved the truth (J 2: 501-502) and prophetically saw the need to advocate for “systematic Moral Education” in response to the “dark times” of his era. (J 3: 348, EL 2: 97) The rest of Emerson’s praise for Bentham is more ambivalent in its tone.

While Emerson admires Bentham’s aims and intellect, he is also unsettled by the idea that Bentham’s philosophy will be idolized. Emerson thought that Bentham, just like Charles Fourier or Emanuel Swedenborg, was a reformer armed with “a mind of uncommon activity and power” which would allow him to easily impose his philosophical “system” and “classification[s] on other men”. Therefore those with “unbalanced minds” will likely idolize Bentham’s philosophical system and mistakenly think of it as an “end” rather than “a speedily exhaustible means” of reforming society. (W 2: 79-80, EL 3: 140-141, LL 1: 356)

Why is Emerson worried about Bentham becoming idolized? There are at least two reasons. The first is that, as a rule, Emerson believed uncritical hero worship was vicious, whether for writers and poets like Shakespeare or Goethe, philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, or religious figures like Jesus. (W 1: 88, 130-131, 4: 18). The other reason Emerson was uneasy with Bentham is more unique to Bentham. Emerson was always suspicious of very systematic theoreticians like Fourier, Swedenborg, or Bentham: “The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it.” (W 4: 135) This dislike follows from the first reason. Emerson believed that the more comprehensive a theoretical system was, the more likely it would be uncritically worshipped by intellectually complacent pupils. (W 2: 79, EL 3: 140)

Despite Emerson’s concerns there is little evidence that Bentham had anything like a cult following. As Bhikhu C. Parekh relevantly observed in his reception history of Bentham: “If one surveys the controversial writings and the systematic political treatises of the first six or seven decades of the nineteenth century, one finds that the leaders of thought [in America] were untouched by or were unfriendly to Benthamism.” Thus, it seems Emerson’s worry Bentham’s philosophy would be idolized by many of his American contemporaries was unwarranted.

Perhaps the safest general characterization of Emerson’s estimate of Bentham was that he saw him as a positive and negative role model. For, on the one hand, Emerson appears like he may have wished to emulate what he perceived to be Bentham’s life-long focus popularizing one idea. In a journal passage, Emerson asked himself “what do you exist to say?” after approvingly noting that Bentham existed to say one thing “The greatest good of the greatest number”. (J 8: 422) This passage, alongside others, suggests Emerson may have believed he should, like Bentham, focus on popularizing one idea. (JMN 4: 348-349) But, on the other hand, Emerson seems uncomfortable with what he perceives to be Bentham’s monomaniacal focus. As Emerson thought Bentham was “insane on one side” and simply as “crazy” as the popularizer of phrenology Johann Spurzheim for being so eager to repeat one idea over and over again (J 3: 505, EL 3: 140); Bentham “pound[s] on one string till the whole world knows that.” (J 7: 186)

Yet, while Emerson was of mixed minds about Bentham himself, he had no love for his moral philosophy. Emerson’s earliest judgments of Bentham’s philosophy occur in his prize winning Essay on the Present State of Ethical Philosophy. In this youthful scholastic essay, the 18 year old Emerson is dismissive of Benthamite consequentialism, but not openly hostile. Emerson claims that those looking to advance the “science” of ethics should ignore Bentham’s utilitarianism because his “moral arithmetic” is not “necessary” for the “science” of ethics to discover the proper moral “precepts”.

Later, when the mature Emerson judges Bentham’s moral philosophy in his private journals and public lectures his judgements become harsher. Emerson’s outright contempt for Benthamite utilitarianism is well summarized by Bhikhu C. Parekh

in 1831 he [Emerson] wrote in his journal: ‘The stinking philosophy of the utilitarian! Nihil magnificum, nihil generosum sapit, as Cicero said of that of Epicurus.’ [J 2: 455] Two years later, however (a year after Bentham’s death), he [Emerson] wrote to his brother from London: ‘I have been to see Dr. Bowring, who was very courteous. He carried me to Bentham’s house and showed me with great veneration the garden walk, the sitting room, and the bed chamber of the philosopher. He also gave me a lock of his gray hair, and an autograph.… He is anxious that Bentham should be admired and loved in America.’ [L 1: 392] Emerson contributed nothing to that end. He rejected utilitarianism with the same contempt as did his friend Carlyle, by whose views on this subject he was greatly influenced. In 1836, he [Emerson] wrote: ‘I had rather not understand in God’s world than understand thro’ and thro’ in Bentham’s. [L 1: 450]’

This passage from Parekh makes clear that Emerson considered Bentham’s philosophy stinking, ignoble and ungodly, but not so clear why. Some philosophical context can help clarify.

To justify his specific criticism of Bentham’s “stinking philosophy” Emerson appears to be invoking one of Cicero’s arguments from De Finibus; a dialogue written by Cicero in which an Epicurean and Stoic spokesperson defend their ideas about virtue. One of Cicero’s many criticisms of the Epicurean position is that he thinks the Epicureans are mistaken for only valuing virtue instrumentally as a means of securing pleasure, rather than for its own sake. (Cicero. DeFinibus. Bk2.69-73) By invoking Cicero on this point, Emerson implies that this same Ciceronian criticism can be applied to Benthamite utilitarianism. Emerson is right to think so. Like the Epicureans, Bentham’s ethics does not value virtue intrinsically. Bentham’s utilitarianism values actions and things instrumentally insofar as they are conducive to utility (i.e the greatest happiness principle.) Thus, as the Epicureans only value virtue for the sake of pleasure, Bentham can only value virtue for the sake of utility. In contrast, as Jonathan Bishop has noted, Emerson believes that virtue is valuable for its own sake. (W 2: 94-95, 102-103, 121-123, 255) Therefore, Emerson seems to reject Bentham’s ethics because it necessarily denies virtue has intrinsic value (i.e. that virtue is its own reward.) 

Emerson also offers what seems to be a different but related criticism of Bentham’s ethics, namely that it fails to show enough interest in cultivating our character (i.e. in cultivating virtues like temperance, courage, justice, or wisdom.) As Emerson puts it, Bentham is an advocate of a “vulgar utilitarianism” which aims merely at “political or external freedom” and neglects an appropriate concern for “inward freedom also”. (EL 2: 67) Now, it’s undeniable Emerson is objecting to what he perceives to be Bentham’s ethical vulgarity, but not necessarily why. A quick conceptual detour can clarify Emerson’s ire.

Emerson’s critique of Bentham assumes a distinction between what contemporary philosophers sometimes call “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” Put plainly, I lack some positive liberty if I am an alcoholic, because I cannot freely choose among courses of action; an alcoholic has an intemperate (hence vicious) desire to get drunk all the time which shapes all their decisions. Whereas, I lack some negative liberty if the government imprisons me for drunk driving, because it has interfered with my ability to freely choose among courses of action; I am now constrained to one location.

Because Emerson derides Bentham’s utilitarianism as “vulgar” for focusing its concern on our “political or external freedom” (negative liberties) and not also our “inward freedom” (positive liberties) this suggests that Emerson thinks that ethics should be concerned with helping us cultivate the kind of intellectual or moral virtues that allows us to exercise “inward freedom”. Therefore, Emerson seems irked by Bentham’s utilitarianism because he thinks it neglects an appropriate ethical concern for cultivating a virtuous character. 

We can now safely say a few things about Emerson’s remarks on Bentham. There are at least three patterns. One, Emerson tends to be slightly more kind to Bentham in public lectures and essays, and slightly less in his private letters and journals. Two, Emerson admires and criticizes Bentham for the same quality: a monomaniacal, systematic, and lifelong focus popularizing one idea. Three, while Emerson somewhat admired Bentham as a person, he had no admiration for his consequentialist ethics, which he saw as unnecessary moral arithmetic at best, and ignoble and ungodly at worst.

Ultimately, Emerson appears to have been hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because he believed it considered cultivating character relatively inconsequential and subordinated virtue to utility, rather than valuing virtue as its own reward. Thus, it seems as if the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics is driving most of his hostility toward Bentham’s consequentialist moral philosophy.


Christopher Porzenheim is a writer, scholar, and masters student in the philosophy program at Georgia State University. Chris is interested in researching the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson wielded Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.

Featured Image: Abacus Patent Application filed by Andrew F. Schott. 1964. US Patent Office, US110564A.

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Dispatches from the Archives

The Woman as “Work-Machine”: Gender and Anticommunism in Postwar Germany

By Yanara Schmacks

Historians of postwar West Germany have long noted the centrality of anticommunism in the formation of the early Federal Republic in the 1950s. Already in 1974 Richard Löwenthal argued that the “development of the Federal Republic of Germany is simply not understandable when not paying attention to the deep impact that a broad anticommunist and anti-Soviet groundswell exerted in the formative years” (355). Likewise, and most recently in 2017, the Berlin-based critical scholars group Jour Fixe Initiative has described anticommunism as “the historical key to the 20th century” (11).

Yet, systematic research on anticommunism as a phenomenon and an ideology in the post-1945 period is still wanting, as the most recent publications on the topic unanimously contend (Creuzberger & Hoffmann, Frei & Rigoll, Jour Fixe Initiative). Historians and political scientists exploring anticommunism in the Adenauer era (1949-63) have generally focused on two central dimensions: West Germany’s unique geopolitical situation in the aftermath of World War II, and the importance of questions pertaining to postwar national identity in structuring anticommunist tropes.

In the context of geopolitics, historians have pointed to the real danger that the existence of the newly founded GDR and Soviet expansion politics posed to West Germany’s existence as a democratic state. Despite this undeniably unique historical constellation West Germany was faced with, political scientists and historians like Stefan Creuzberger and Bernd Greiner also assert a paranoid dimension of anticommunism, arguing that “the perceived and real danger were disproportionate to each other” (94) and pointing to a “moral panic” (29) spreading through Adenauer’s Germany. Beyond the question of real or imagined danger, historians agree upon the doubly integrative function that anticommunism fulfilled in stabilizing and legitimizing the newly founded FRG in both domestic as well as foreign political terms, providing “political glue” (politischen Kitt) (229) across party politics on the one hand, and firmly rooting the young republic in the Western world on the other.

Election poster of the CDU for the federal elections in 1949. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Abt. Staatsarchiv Freiburg, W 110/2 Nr. 0144.

Likewise, anticommunism in its anti-totalitarian variant provided a new, respectable identity that demarcated the FRG as a decidedly democratic state against both the Third Reich and the GDR, while allowing West Germans to cling to one of the most characteristic elements of National Socialist ideology. In a similar vein, the notion of anticommunism as an “Occident ideology” (Abendlandideologie), most prominently put forward by historian Axel Schildt, emphasizes both the anti-Bolshevist and anti-Slavic racist dimension of the overly popular image of a unified Occident that defends Western civilization against a primitive “Slavic storm from the East” (21). This approach, as Siegfried Weichlein has demonstrated, further points to the centrality of religion, specifically political Catholicism, in postwar manifestations of anticommunism (124-138).

Despite the central importance and multidimensional manifestation of German postwar anticommunism that these findings indicate, I argue that it was also—and quite significantly so—characterized by a gendered dimension. The general nexus between gender and the anticommunist outlook of the early Federal Republic was established in pioneering works by Robert Moeller, Elizabeth Heineman, and others. However, their groundbreaking scholarship has mostly looked at how West German gender and family politics were drawn into conservative and reactionary directions in an effort to re-establish social order after the war and mark a clear distinction from the GDR—without inquiring into anticommunism’s specific historical Gewordenheit (development) or the reasons for its extensive appeal which, as I contend, critically hinged on fantasies and fears about gender and sexuality.

In order to demonstrate the importance of gender for postwar anticommunism, I draw on a small set of transcripts from 137 group interviews that members of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research conducted in 1950 and 1951 under the aegis of Friedrich Pollock, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. Upon their return to Germany from US-exile in 1947, the German-Jewish Frankfurt School scholars aimed at getting a deeper insight into the legacies of Nazism in West German public opinion than would have been possible through ordinary opinion polls. The group interviews were meant to approximate realistic conditions as nearly as possible, thereby serving “to provoke the so-called nonpublic opinion” (23).

In 1955, Pollock edited the volume Gruppenexperiment (Group Experiment), providing insightful yet mainly quantitative analyses of the interviews. Pollock’s analysis confirms the centrality of anticommunism in postwar German society and politics: 83% of the participants exhibited a radically negative attitude toward “the East” (188) and “no other topic had such a low level of ambivalence” (82). Interestingly, Pollock also notes that the topic of “the East” is the only theme in which opinion is independent of gender (191). However, my cursory qualitative analysis of four female-only group discussions and two male-only group discussions indicates that anticommunism in 1950s West Germany was in fact heavily informed by normative images of gendered identities that the participants saw threatened: in their imagination, communism embodied the reversal of the gendered social order.

This is demonstrated by various statements from both sets of groups. For example, when the conversation in a group of fourteen women at a convalescent home for mothers turned to the topic of “the East,” one woman, Schaefer (a pseudonym), recounted what one of her friends had experienced in Russia:

The mothers and the women – this is really true – when they are expecting a child, they are all in the factory, right. They work until the last day. There are halls in the factory, the doctor comes there, right, they are examined until – when there’s no other way – she gets there, gives birth, the child is taken away from her and put into a children’s home, and the mother continues to go to work.[i]

In Schaefer’s interpretation, anticommunism was fundamentally rooted in fantastic imaginations about the status of women and the state’s role in the configuration of the family in Soviet Russia. To her, this dystopian vision of the separation of mother and child, depriving the woman of her “natural” role as a mother and caretaker and forcing her into alienated forms of labor when she returned to the factory immediately after giving birth, was what most substantially distinguished “the East” from “the West.”

This theme comes up repeatedly during the conversations of the Gruppenexperimente, indicating the importance of gender in anticommunism. In a discussion among twenty-one women in a camp of barracks— some of them Ostvertriebene (Germans who fled or were expelled from Eastern and Central Europe), some of them homeless after having been “bombed out”—a woman referred to as Illing showed herself to be equally appalled by the purported conditions in the GDR (or, as the women still called it at the time, the “Eastern zone”):

The women are also not allowed to go outside. And then the worst thing is, the men are unemployed, and the women have to toil on the construction site (auf dem Bau schaffen), have to carry two hundred weight bags and so on. This is men’s work and not women’s, and when the women have an accident, no one cares, they don’t receive a penny of support or anything else. And if you’re a woman with children, you won’t make it at all.

Another woman joined in, calling out “That’s right,” and a third woman contended: “Just like in Russia, there the women also have to work, right.”[ii]

For Illing, as for some of her fellow interviewees, “the worst thing” about the GDR was the proposed reversal of the conservative gender order, with the woman being forced into a traditionally male role. Further, this imaginary development was clearly in conflict with the “laws of nature.” Explaining why it was especially the putting to work of women (Fraueneinsatz) that made her suspicious of Russia, one woman in the group from the convalescent home for mothers argued:

(…) because the woman more and more becomes a work-machine (Arbeitsmaschine) and that is not her purpose in nature. And this can make me tremendously sad, although I am usually not like that, when I see and hear something like that. We have to get away from these things – women in the factory and so on. The woman does not exist to excel in the workplace. It says very clearly: The occupation and the vocation. When she is forced too much into an occupation, she loses her vocation, indeed.[iii]

The interviewees’ primary association with Soviet-style communism was evidently the notion that the “natural” order between men and women had been upset, an idea that seemed to question their very identity as women. The woman, in their narrative, ceases to be a woman and instead takes on a male role when carrying heavy bags and working on a construction site, when being separated from her newborn, when not living or being allowed to live in compliance with her “natural” purpose. The role that projection played within German anticommunism becomes especially apparent here: having to work in a factory was precisely what many of these women experienced during World War II, when the Nazi war effort required women to join the workforce and thereby upset pretensions of a gendered division of labor that confined women to their “natural” role as mothers and wives.

Interestingly, the theme of rape comes up only very incidentally in the all-female interview groups, with a few of the women hinting at what was a common experience at the Eastern front with expressions like “one has heard bad things about the Russian and the women”[iv] or the warning to “not fall into the hands of the Russians.”[v] By contrast, in all-male interview groups, the purported rapes of German woman by officers of the Red Army at the end of the war constitutes the main reason for why they find it necessary to remilitarize Germany and defend it against “these masses” in Russia. For example, in a group of dentistry students, a young man labeled Ettinger argued: “And for every single one – in case it comes that far [in case the Soviet Union invades West Germany] – for every man – let’s say – a point of honor. Or do we want to witness yet again that our women are seen as whores or fair game. Because what happened in this area is, I believe, worth a defense. And he who does not understand this, he—” At this point another participant joined in: “… is beyond remedy!” And Ettinger agreed: “… is really beyond remedy.”[vi]

The men’s fierce opposition to the Soviet Union is thus also strongly linked to issues of gender and sexuality. Preventing the Russians from invading West Germany is here framed as a defense of the sovereignty of the German female body and as a matter of male honor. “Real men,” those who are not “beyond remedy,” would have to understand the threat the Russian soldier posed to what was inherently theirs: German women, and by extension their identity as “real” men.

In light of the version of anticommunism that had been prevalent during the Third Reich, the prominence of gender in these early 1950s discussions seems curious. While the Jour Fixe Initiative has claimed that “as the central ideological continuity, anticommunism marks the Federal Republic of Germany as the successor of the NS state” (15), this continuity is not without limits, considering for example the relative absence of the virulently antisemitic image of a Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy that was characteristic of and rampant during National Socialism. Indeed, research on anticommunist propaganda in the early 1950s notes that postwar anticommunism was much less antisemitically loaded, with anti-Slavic racism usually taking the place of antisemitism (45). No doubt, this decline in antisemitic discourse within anticommunism was to a certain extent a result of mere political opportunism. However, in the Gruppenexperimente, antisemitism as such was not tabooed at all; in most conversations, “the Jew” was at some point blamed for the Holocaust because of his alleged “workshyness,” “haggling” (Schacherjuden), warmongering, and “bloodsucking.”[vii]

Attempting to understand the specific configuration of anticommunism that characterized postwar Germany and the role that gender played in it, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ concept of bricolage can be illuminating. Rather than constituting a direct continuity of National Socialist ideas, postwar anticommunist images were composed of assumptions and attitudes that German society, like a bricoleur, had collected over a much longer time. This aligns with Axel Schildt’s notion of postwar anticommunism as an occidental ideology (Abendlandideologie) as well as with Ulrich Herbert’s suggestion that early 1950s West Germany was marked by substantial references to the traditional bourgeois culture of the Kaiserreich and, relatedly, constituted a more general, cultural-critical rejection of modernity (as embodied by both National Socialism and communism). While some of these ideas remained latent during the Weimar years and National Socialism, concepts like a Judaeo-Christian Occident and the pertaining social norms that focused on the gendered order of society made a comeback in the early 1950s (or at least figured as “invented traditions” that functioned as imagined continuities with the past) as they were positioned in opposition to the Godless, anti-Christian communist enemies without and within. And at the contingent nexus between anticommunism and Abendlandideologie in the specific configuration of postwar anticommunist imagination, gender and the family took center stage.


[i] “Protokoll Nr. 79: Frauen aus einem Müttererholungsheim,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 19, 1950), 36, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[ii] “Protokoll Nr. 91: Frauen in einem Barackenlager,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, January 4, 1951), 24–25, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[iii] “Protokoll Nr. 79: Frauen aus einem Müttererholungsheim,” 37.

[iv] “Protokoll Nr. 9: Frauengruppe,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, October 10, 1950), 79, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[v] “Protokoll Nr. 79: Frauen aus einem Müttererholungsheim,” 34.

[vi] “Protokoll Nr. 74: Dentistenschule,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 14, 1950), 39, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[vii] For example, “Protokoll Nr. 86: Studentengruppe,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 18, 1950), 1, 7, 9, Institut für Sozialforschung; “Protokoll Nr. 70: Abiturientengruppe,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 5, 1950), 2, Institut für Sozialforschung.


Yanara Schmacks is a PhD candidate in Modern European History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Her article “‘Motherhood is Beautiful’: Maternalism in the West German New Women’s Movement between Eroticization and Ecological Protest” is forthcoming in Central European History. She is working on a dissertation project that explores the politics of motherhood in the three German states from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

Featured Image: Udarnitzi (Record Breaking Workers) at the Factory Krasnaya Zaria. Pavel Filonov, 1931.

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Dispatches from the Archives

Emerson on Kant: A Metaphysician Not Worth Reading

By Christopher Porzenheim

Joseph Urbas has recently argued that since the 1970s that there’s been an ongoing effort on the part of philosophically minded Emerson scholars to rehabilitate Emerson as a canonical philosopher. John Lysaker has relevantly observed that one strategy some of Emerson’s advocates use is arguing there is a close relationship between Emerson and Kant (because most professional philosophers would consider Kant a canonical philosopher.) But there are a few problems with this approach, the least of which is the lack of evidence Emerson ever read Kant.

Robert Richardson correctly noted that there is no evidence Emerson ever read Kant, only evidence he encountered Kant second hand, through various sources like Dugald Stewart, Madame de Stael, Thomas Marsh, Joseph Degerando, Victor Cousin, Samuel Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and Frederick Hedge. On the basis of this second hand evidence, many have influentially argued that Kant exercised a profound philosophical influence on Emerson, such as Stanley Cavell, David Van Leer, and Gustaaf Van Cromphout. Oddly, even though it is obviously relevant evidence, no one has analyzed Emerson’s numerous remarks on Kant as a philosopher.

Ultimately, I believe Emerson’s remarks suggest we should be wary about attributing any substantial influence upon Emerson to Kant, for, as we shall see, Emerson believed that Kant wasn’t someone he should bother to read.

Emerson undoubtedly has generous praise for Kant. Kant is on Emerson’s short list as a philosopher any “scholar” should have the “courage” to criticize (W 8: 311), who alongside Hegel is a modern master of German metaphysical speculation skilled in the art of wielding classifications and categories (J 10: 53) which has allowed them both to have “made the best catalogue of the human faculties and the best analysis of the mind” (W 10: 327-328). Kant is a “seer” of the “interior realities” and “master” of “the substantial laws of the intellect” (W 8: 347), a philosopher who could easily discover any “secret doctrines” in Plato’s writings (W 2: 146-147). He is a man who “predicted the [movement of the] asteroids” (J 6: 145, 9: 296, 10: 211), an advocate of “pure reason” (W 10: 248) and “the intellect” (W 10: 306) whose thinking was marked by “extraordinary profoundness and precision” which has “given vogue to his nomenclature” (W 1: 339-340) and which made it no less popular than the vocabulary of phrenology in Emerson’s era. (J 4: 94). 

But, alongside his praise, Emerson has much criticism for Kant. For example, Emerson considered Kant an overvalued modern restatement of ancient philosophy of Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Xenophanes (W 1: 160, 172, J 4: 472-473), only “a more or less awkward translator of things in our own consciousness” (W 2: 343-345), and a philosopher who, unlike Socrates, spoke in a “tone” too “arid” to be considered “true philosophy” (J 9: 524). Furthermore, Emerson considers it a sign that philosophical thought in his era has not reached its “meridian” (the widest circle that can be drawn inside a sphere) because people mistakenly overvalue Kant as a “great analyst”, when, in fact, “Kant is rather a technical analyst than an universal one such as the times tend to form.” (J 5: 306). In short, Emerson’s claim is that it is proof that the philosophy of his era is too circumscribed (in its scope, level of detail, or focus) because Kant is commonly mistaken for a great philosopher. That said, Emerson’s bitterest comment about Kant is perhaps that Emerson himself sees no need to read Kant because of how impractical a metaphysician he is. (J 8: 528-530).

Two trends are apparent in Emerson’s thoughts on Kant.

For one, Emerson shows little explicit awareness of any of the details of Kant’s ethics and is almost exclusively concerned with him as a metaphysician. What little Emerson does say about Kant’s moral philosophy only amounts to an abstract and vague appreciation of the categorical imperative (W 7: 27, 301, 10: 92-93). For, in striking contrast to the normal assumptions of present day ethical philosophers, Emerson sees no important differences between Kant’s categorical imperative, the Utilitarian greatest happiness principle, or the ideas of a virtue ethicist like the Stoic Marcus Aurelius. (W 10: 92-93) Emerson’s vague knowledge of Kant’s ethics might well be the result of the fact Emerson did not feel the need to read Kant.

The second trend in Emerson’s remarks is that Emerson (usually) praises Kant in his published work while (usually) confining his critical remarks to his private journals. Reading his journals side by side with his public work reveals that just as much as Emerson praises Kant in lavish hyperbolic terms, he is also willing to boldly make irreverent critiques; to claim Kant was derivative of ancient philosophy, overvalued by the public, too impractical a metaphysician to be worth reading, and not someone who produced true philosophy.

Taken together, these trends suggest the conclusion that Emerson generally saw Kant as a clever metaphysical theoretician with influential terms of art, but not one practical enough to be worth reading or seriously studying. This conclusion may appear more controversial than it is.

Some might object to the fact that I have given equal hermeneutic authority to Emerson’s published public works and his private journals. For, this might unduly undercut the authority of Emerson’s essays in favor of his journals, or vice versa. But, so far as I am aware, Emerson does not make contradictory claims about Kant in his journals and published essays, thus I have not undercut either source’s authority by granting them equal hermeneutic authority. 

 Others may worry I have not given a representative sample of Emerson’s remarks on Kant, insofar as I have not considered Emerson’s sermons, his unpublished early or late lectures, or the more recent and complete edition of his journals and notebooks. I have only relied on the sources that are digitally word searchable (the 1909-1914 edition of Emerson’s journals and the 1903-1904 edition of Emerson’s works.) Nonetheless, my sample is by no means an insignificant portion of Emerson’s corpus, and so long as we take my conclusions as provisional, and thus in need of future confirmation, the concern my sample may be unrepresentative can be dismissed.  

In the end, if we want to determine Kant’s philosophical influence on Emerson, it would help to know Emerson’s thoughts on Kant as a philosopher. Emerson’s remarks certainly can’t settle this issue, if only because philosophers may be influenced by other philosophers without knowing, or even in spite of their best efforts to the contrary. That said, if we were to judge only by Emerson’s own words, it does not seem likely that Emerson himself would claim Kant had a substantial influence on him. After all, as we saw earlier, Emerson decided not to read Kant.


Christopher Porzenheim is a writer, scholar, and masters student in the philosophy program at Georgia State University. Chris is interested in researching the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson wielded Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.

Featured Image: Left: Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1857. Right: Immanuel Kant, portrait by Johann Gottlieb Becker, 1768.

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On the Trail of the Paranoid Style

By Andrew McKenzie-McHarg

An astute sense of timing has undoubtedly guided the Library of America (LOA) publishing house in recently deciding to reissue Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” as part of a volume that collects his mid-career writings and that has been edited by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. After all, the United States is currently in the throes of an unusually consequential electoral campaign and, with the mantras of the “deep state” and “fake news” still ringing in voters’ ears, it is not a stretch to claim that, in some sense, the paranoid style is itself one of the issues on the ballot. In fact, this unsettling situation  mirrors the circumstances under which Hofstadter in 1964 originally presented his essay to the American reading public. In an introductory paragraph that uses broad brushstrokes to sketch the profile of a distinctive form of political irrationality, Hofstadter also reveals a willingness not only to get specific but to do so in ways that were highly topical. He does this by pointing to the “Goldwater movement” and the attendant “animosities and passions” (3) that made this movement, the most striking, contemporary manifestation of the eccentricity he was striving to comprehend.

This reference to the presidential campaign fronted by the Republican senator from Arizona also served another purpose. It alerted Hofstadter’s readers to the way in which the paranoid style, although subsisting mostly at the fringes of American politics, could at times come frighteningly close to its command posts. Liberal-minded readers could nonetheless partake of a collective sigh of relief when they opened the November 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine that contained “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”; in this same month, Goldwater was trounced at the polls by the incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson. And yet, recalling this context forces us to note how the alignment of 2020 with 1964 contains a jarring inversion: in the current contest, incumbency is on the side of the candidate who is recognized by not a few commentators as the paranoid style’s most recent avatar. The nightmare scenario that haunted Hofstadter in 1964, namely that this pathology might entrench itself at the heart of political power, has since become the reality to which Americans (and non-Americans like myself) wake up each day.

Of course, all of this only holds true if one agrees that President Trump’s politics really do bear the hallmark signs of the paranoid style. There are valid grounds on which one might call such a characterization into question. Hofstadter spoke of the compulsion under which adherents of the paranoid style labored in “leaving nothing unexplained and comprehending all of reality in one overreaching, consistent theory.” (36-37) Such a need for coherence seems lacking in Trump, who, as the occasion suits, denounces “deep state” bureaucrats who undermine his administration, journalists who peddle “fake news,” Democrats who hate America, Antifa activists who spread anarchy, and the Chinese who first concocted the hoax of global warming and then blighted the world with a pandemic. There seems to be no prospect of these vituperations ever congealing into a coherent account that precisely delineates the culprits behind America’s alleged fall from greatness. Here some of the recent observations made by Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum in their book A Lot of People are Saying about a new strain of conspiracism—“conspiracy [theory] without the theory”—seem pertinent

Yet even before the question of applicability is addressed, it is necessary to take a step back and consider those voices who have raised more fundamental questions about the validity of Hofstadter’s concept. Measured in terms of uptake and longevity, Hofstadter’s coinage seems to qualify as a resounding success. This success has, however, been fueled not only by the recurrence of movements and moments whose profile seems to match the diagnosis put forward by Hofstadter. It is also, perversely, a reflection of the contentiousness of the approach he adopted by introducing a psychological diagnosis into the realm of political debate in the first place. This controversy plays its own part in ensuring that the paranoid style remains a “live issue.” As a result, two attitudes have consistently come into play—and into conflict—in the discussions spawned by Hofstadter’s essay: on the one hand, there are those who are happy to invoke his concept whenever the political body is convulsed by a new fit of unhinged fearmongering; and on the other hand, there are those who challenge the concept’s legitimacy and argue, not without some justification, that it effectively gives license to a liberal orthodoxy to dismiss alternative viewpoints by casting aspersions on the mental state of those who express them.

Amid this controversy, one assertion is relatively uncontroversial: to the degree that one feels compelled to take a position on these issues, one should attempt to take an informed position. As such, it would be helpful to reach a more nuanced appreciation of what Hofstadter was actually trying to do when he originally posited the “paranoid style” as a term denoting a collection of recurring patterns of speech, action, and agitation within American political history. With this in mind, for some time now I have been collecting pieces of evidence that help us to reconstruct more fully the story of how Hofstadter alighted upon this particular collocation. The results of this research form the basis of a forthcoming article in JHI.

Beatrice and Richard Hofstadter, circa 1958-59. Photograph courtesy of the SUNY-Buffalo Archives.

The first major point is that the 1964 political contest between Johnson and Goldwater was not the original historical context within which the concept of the paranoid style first emerged. Eliminating this context from contention requires us to do nothing more than consult the re-printing of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in the 1965 book to which the essay lent its title. Collating other essays that Hofstadter had written over the preceding years, the book prefaced these texts with remarks on their specific motivations and publishing histories. The note for “The Paranoid Style” is particularly succinct and confines itself to informing readers that the essay was based on the Herbert Spencer lecture that Hofstadter had delivered in Oxford in November 1963. In fact, there was an ominous quality to the exact date because of its proximity to another event that unsettled Americans, in particular those of a liberal persuasion—and indeed did so some months before they were troubled by the prospect of a Goldwater Presidency. After delivering the lecture in Oxford on November 21, Hofstadter spent the following evening at a dinner party in Cambridge with colleagues he had come to know from the sabbatical he had spent there as a fellow of Gonville and Caius College in the 1958-59 academic year (see the image above of Hofstadter with his wife Beatrice in one of the college’s courtyards). The levity occasioned by the reunion abruptly gave way to consternation as news arrived that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.

By the time that Hofstadter came to reprint the essay in the 1965 book, he saw fit to integrate a reference to the conspiratorial speculation beginning to accrete around Kennedy’s assassination; obsession with the mystery of Dealey Plaza would indeed go on to engender new iterations of the paranoid style. Yet none of this is relevant to the attempt to understand why and how Hofstadter had arrived in England in 1963 with the manuscript of a lecture documenting his awareness of how, long before Kennedy’ assassination and Goldwater’s candidacy, American politics had been visited by frequent bouts of enthusiasm for a political style that traded in notions of conspiratorial subversion and was flavored by a sense of apocalyptic urgency. Why in 1963, at a time when post-war liberalism was riding high and was buoyed by its personification in a charismatic president, was Hofstadter preoccupied with what he called the paranoid style?

Of course, Hofstadter had never been under any illusion that, since the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the collapse of his anti-Communist crusade, liberalism’s preeminence might go unchallenged forever, or that the ultra-conservative American Right had been vanquished once and for all. In the years since McCarthyism had offered Hofstadter a first real-time, up-close encounter with the mode of politics he later denoted as the paranoid style, he remained aware that the resentments McCarthy had so effectively channeled continued to circulate, perhaps not over the nation’s cultural and psychic highways but certainly along its more obscure byways. By the early 1960s, media reports of organizations such as the John Birch Society induced a growing awareness among liberals that the American Right was once more stirring from its post-McCarthy slumber. This awareness informed the decision taken in 1962 by some of Hofstadter’s colleagues to reissue and update The New American Right, their earlier response to McCarthyism. Hofstadter contributed to the reissue, appearing now under the slightly revised title The Radical Right, by supplementing his earlier essay “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” with a postscript that explored possible revisions to his earlier interpretation based on the observations he had made of the American Right in its post-McCarthy manifestations.

There was, however, most likely another, more narrowly biographical reason for why Hofstadter chose to use the invitation to Oxford in 1963 as an opportunity to discuss the paranoid style. Effectively, he was picking up from where he had last left off in England by reprising a conceptual approach to the American Right that he had first experimented with in a BBC radio lecture from 1959. Recorded shortly before his return home to New York after his Cambridge sabbatical, the lecture, now published for the first time in the LOA volume edited by Professor Wilentz, demonstrates that the reflections that incubated Hofstadter’s notion of the paranoid style actually revolved around McCarthyism and the American Right in its moment of post-McCarthy retrenchment.

One reason why this discovery is important is that the focus on McCarthy helps to clarify the specific kind of work that Hofstadter assigned to “style” in constructing his new concept. This is because Hofstadter was of the opinion that, despite all the bluster of his grandstanding, McCarthy was not overly invested in anti-Communism as an intellectual position or an ideological commitment. In Hofstadter’s own words:

Oddly enough, I don’t think McCarthy himself took most of the right wing views very seriously. He was a complete moral nihilist, playing the political game for the fun of it: he could never understand that real moral issues were involved or that some people took seriously what for him was simply a problem in crafty manoeuver.

This same opportunism could not be attributed to the subsequent devotees of the American Right, who tended to the flames of the movement after McCarthy’s campaign had ignominiously fizzled out. Those who signed up to the John Birch Society and those who were emotionally and politically invested in Goldwater’s candidacy were not acting out of opportunism. It was also not possible to use this charge to belittle Goldwater himself, whom Hofstadter saw as a “true believer” who only begrudgingly made concessions to the norms of moderation and compromise, observance of which was seen by many as a precondition for any prospect of electoral success in the competition for the presidency.

This brings us back to the current incumbent in the White House. In Michael Wolff’s Siege: Trump under Fire, a successor to the journalist’s earlier Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the following summation of the president’s mental character was distilled from the reports of staff and co-workers in the White House: Trump “wasn’t paranoid. He was self-pitying and melodramatic, but not on guard.” (55) Such a diagnosis does not, however, undercut the acknowledgment of Trump’s mastery of the paranoid style. This point has been appreciated by the political scientist Roderick P. Hart: “No matter what Mr. Trump’s own mental state might be, the more relevant point is that he performs paranoia brilliantly, selling its depredations to others.” (134)    

Hart’s observation is consonant with Hofstadter’s insistence that the expression “paranoid style” was not meant “in a clinical sense”; rather, he was “borrowing a clinical term for other purposes” (3). The historian Leo P. Ribuffo has echoed a frequent criticism of Hofstadter’s conceptual innovation when, in a 2017 statement on “Donald Trump and the ‘Paranoid Style’ in American (Intellectual) Politics,” he asked in a tone betraying a note of exasperation: “if ‘paranoid’ was not being used ‘in a clinical sense,’ why use the word at all?” However, Hofstadter’s point was that, as a pattern of perceiving the world and acting in it, paranoia need not be rooted in a biochemical imbalance in the brain (as a neurologist might claim) or disturbances in psychosexual development (as the Freudian psychologist could suggest). Rather, its patterns repeat themselves on the level of rhetorical tropes and the accompanying performative postures. This becomes most obvious when we consider a figure such as McCarthy in whom, in Hofstadter’s estimation, there was a disconnect between the private personality and the public self-aggrandizement. In cases where there is such a disconnect, the paranoid style as a style truly comes into its own.

This insight is present in the 1959 BBC radio lecture, over which McCarthy casts a long shadow—his name appears on half of the pages of the original transcript. It becomes somewhat more diluted and more abstract in Hofstadter’s later presentations, in which McCarthyism was absorbed into a long lineage of the paranoid style’s former and subsequent instantiations. It is, however, an insight worth holding onto for those who wish to deploy the concept of the paranoid style in their attempts to understand what Americans have experienced under the current president for the last four years—and what (at the time of writing) they might be experiencing for some time yet, should Trump win re-election or should the paranoid style, after attaching itself to the highest office in the land, demonstrate an unwillingness to let go of it.


Andrew McKenzie-McHarg is a research fellow at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry (IRCI) of the Australian Catholic University (ACU). His interests range from anti-Jesuit polemic through radical currents of Enlightenment thought to modern intellectual history.

Featured Image: From cover of Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays, First Edition (Knopf, 1964).