The Like Minds of Emerson and Douglass
Few, if any, writers of the American Renaissance period had as great an influence on contemporaries as did Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was insistent that America put its mark on the literary world with its own, genuine American literature, and he launched the movement with his own works (Bode 574). Frederick Douglass was a slave of the American south when Emerson was starting out and moving up in his profession. Eventually, Douglass became Emersonâs fellow writer and lecturer. Douglass was present and was asked to speak for the Womenâs Anti-Slavery Society in August 1844, in Concord, where Emerson was the keynote speaker. The two men shared common ideas, as we shall see as the literary works and lives of the two men are examined. To some extent Emerson had an influence on Douglassâs expressed views, but on the other hand, some of Douglassâs views were a product of his own natural inclination.
Emerson believed that the human spirit could be relied on to lift man up to overcome any tribulation that might be encountered (Bode 574). Douglass inadvertantly proved Emerson right when he lifted himself out of the dehumanizing bondage of slavery through his sheer will of human spirit. Douglass went on to become a hero of the slave movement after he gained his freedom.
Emerson "believed in a reality and a knowledge that transcended the everyday reality·" He also felt strongly that individuals should trust fully in the integrity of self (Bode 573). There is a correspondence between this "self-made" man of Emersonâs and Frederick Douglass. During the course of Douglassâs career, his actions and words epitomized Emersonian ideas.
The issue of abolishment of slavery drew interest from both Emerson and Douglass. As far back as the 1840s Emerson was addressing the challenge of solving what he considered this great social problem. In 1844 he wrote a letter to John Greenleaf Whittier stating that he was about to embark on finding the best way of ending slavery (Rowe 18). Emerson could see that it would take more than transcendentalism to get the job done. Earlier, in his essay, Nature, Emerson painted a picture of the transcendent figure in the woods as being innocent as a child, submissive as a female and bound as a slave on the plantations of God (Emerson 1584). But all men are slaves and are equally capable of freeing themselves from these bonds. He commands man to build his own world in the closing of Nature, Prospects. All it takes is a variety of "miracles" (Rowe 18). But later it is evident in his opening words of Voluntaries that he feels a wrong has been committed in treating slavery in a philosophical manner, ignoring the reality of slavery (Rowe 18). In August of 1844 Emerson delivered An Address on the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies in which he asserted that it was due to the fact that the Jamaican slaves adopted political activism that they became...