- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Tauris Parke Paperbacks; New edition edition (13 September 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1848855885
- ISBN-13: 978-1848855885
- Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 2 x 19.9 cm
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
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English Traits: A Portrait of 19th Century England (Tauris Parke Paperbacks) Paperback – Import, 13 Sep 2011
-- Mark van Doren, American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, writer, and critic
About the Author
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Emerson's thoroughness is impressive; his examination is so detailed that it is near-ethnographic. However, the book begins on a personal note, detailing his first trip to England just after he resigned his pulpit when he was unknown, had published nothing, and was unsure what to do. He recounts eminently absorbing visits with luminaries like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle that anyone interested in them or the era will relish. These first-hand accounts have significant historical value, letting us see a side of these major figures that is rarely mentioned - not least because Emerson is as honest as ever and does not spare them. This section is so worthy that its brevity is regrettable; Emerson declines to describe visits to landmarks or his initial impressions of England and the English, perhaps because he had changed so much.
Next comes a fairly detailed history and description of the English "race" that is notable mainly for historical context. Much of it has been disproved or highly questioned, and it is far from politically correct by today's standards, but this makes it all the more interesting. Anyone wondering how a representative mid-nineteenth century Anglo-American saw the land of his ancestors need look no further.
Some may find this trying, but I encourage them to persevere, because the bulk of the book is far more interesting; Emerson examines his subject much as he had done with abstract ones like self-reliance, experience, and love. He begins with a basic rundown of England itself: historical, geographical, economic, etc. Emerson also looks at English institutions like the church, colleges, etc.; his most interesting observations here are about the class system, particularly the upper class, and the political system. He describes them on their own terms and in contrast to other countries, including of course America. This has merit, but several seemingly obligatory topics are unfortunately missing. Emerson says almost nothing about royalty and, a fascinating Stonehenge section excepted, neglects to treat landmarks. He also mentions in passing meeting many notables - Dickens, Tennyson, Thackeray, etc. - out of which notable anecdotes could surely have been made. In any case, though, the real meat is his analysis of the English people, including topics like manners, character, speech, and habits. Emerson was a keen observer, and his foreign status gave a perspective the English could not have had, yielding many noteworthy insights.
Perhaps surprisingly, given that Emerson was arguably the first truly American writer, vigorously urged cultural independence, and otherwise preached self-reliance and originality, he reveals himself to be a pretty thorough Anglophile. Maybe this should not surprise; he was after all a New Englander of English stock, and England was the world's most powerful nation. It is indeed generally hard to deny the basic truth of even his most rhapsodic compliments, but current readers - especially Americans - may grow frustrated and impatient with his constant glowing descriptions. He has also been recently taken to task for what some see as a sort of unintentional racism. However, those willing to continue will see that he eventually gives substantial criticism, particularly in regard to religion and literature; he also lambastes England's general conservatism, zeroing in on several specific abuses. All told, his honesty and willingness to criticize were quite remarkable and in many ways as instructive as ever.
Such a book would generally be of little more than historical interest, but Emerson's ever-strong writing raises it; anyone alive to his style will find much to love. Perhaps more importantly, it now has considerable value for a reason probably no one could have foreseen - mid-nineteenth century England was in essentially the same position as present-day America. It was the world's most powerful nation, the military and economic superpower whose culture and language had global influence. Emerson was clearly in awe as few could help being but also deft in noticing that England was near its apex or had already passed it; great as it was, the future did not belong to it. He vividly describes how many centuries-old institutions were rapidly crumbling and prophetically notes that England would become more and more like America, to whom the future belonged. This came to pass, perhaps letting blue blood Americans annoyed by the Anglophile aspect breathe a proverbial sigh of relief - or even have a laugh at England's expanse. In truth, though, they should be more cautious, because the book has much to teach them. Many traits then dominant in England - arrogance, insularity, disregard for outside opinion - are now preeminent in America, and America may fall from the top just as England did if not careful. A close reading of this may go a long way toward preventing that, and Emersonians will want the book in any case. Like all geniuses, Emerson both epitomized and was ahead of his time; full of subtleties beneath an already appealing surface, this is an overlooked exemplar of that Emersonian paradox.
All a bit embarrassing really, and not terribly illuminating, this musty, self-satisfied yet fawning account of the English when we were bigger than you, had good teeth and - yes - owned half the globe. (Can that possibly account for the effusiveness? It would have done sales no harm either.) Waldo occasionally hits his apothegmatic stride - 'Man is made as a Birmingham button' - but when he mentions Madame de Stael (on page 77 of my patchily edited Belknap edition) I've half a mind to cast this aside and read her instead. Darn it, maybe I just will
Actually, I see she pops up at least once more. 'The English muse loves the farmyard, the lane and market. She says, with De Stael, "I tramp in the mire with wooden shoes, whenever they would force me into the clouds"' (p150). Clogged indeed! If that kind of affected, sentimental, archaizing thing floats your boat, be my guest. 2.5