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When scholars discuss the limitations of Emerson’s writing about the East, they often refer to the essay “Plato; or the Philosopher,” published in in 1850.In that volume, Emerson argues that the Greek philosopher brought together the two “cardinal facts” at the core of all philosophy: Unity and Variety.Emerson’s engagement with Eastern cultural sources is also evident in his poetry from the 1840s.
With the publication of his in 1844, Emerson emerged as a trans-Atlantic literary celebrity.
In his essays from this period Emerson did not explicitly take up Eastern subjects or ideas; however, scholars agree that there are similarities between Emerson’s “Over-Soul” in his 1841 essay of that name and the Hindu conception of .
First, by treating non-Western texts with the same respect afforded cultural authorities in the Western traditions, he could disrupt the parochial expectations of his American and European audiences.
Second, by adducing evidence from traditions outside of America and Europe, he could assert the universality of his observations on society, fate, ethics, and philosophy.
Along with Emerson, the New England Transcendentalists were an eclectic group of religious, literary, educational, and social reformers that included Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau.
The movement grew out of Unitarianism in the greater Boston area; was deeply influenced by British and German Romanticism, especially as interpreted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and revolved around a form of philosophical and spiritual idealism that valued intuition over the senses.After he graduated from Harvard, Emerson’s enthusiasm for non-Western subjects waned, primarily because he devoted himself to becoming a Unitarian minister.In 1831 Emerson’s wife, Ellen Tucker Emerson, died of tuberculosis, an event that galvanized a series of personal and professional changes in his life.Moreover, in his published writings during this period, Emerson cited maxims, referred to prominent figures, and otherwise incorporated allusions drawn from Asian and Middle Eastern literatures with surprising regularity.He added these “lustres” to his nonfiction writing for at least two reasons.The curriculum focused on Greek and Roman writers, British logicians and philosophers, Euclidean geometry and algebra, and post-Enlightenment defenses of revealed religion.As his journals and library borrowing records attest, however, in his spare time, Emerson paid keen attention to the wider European Romantic interest in the “Orient” or the “East,” which to him meant the ancient lands and sacred traditions east of classical Greece, such as Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, China, and India.An aspiring poet, Emerson also gravitated to selections of poetry that took up Eastern themes and Eastern poetry, including the works of Saadi and Hafez, which he would embrace in adulthood.Like other Anglo-American readers of his period, Emerson relied heavily on British colonial agents for his knowledge of India, reading treatises, travelogues, and translations of legal, religious, and poetic texts produced in the wake of Britain’s imperial expansion into India.As a boy, his first contact with the non-Western world came by way of the merchandise that bustled across the India Wharf in Boston harbor, a major nexus of the Indo-Chinese trade that flourished in New England after the Revolutionary War.Emerson’s first contact with writings from and about the non-Western world came by way of his father, William Emerson, a Unitarian minister with a genteel interest in learning and letters.