Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

How Historians Mess Things Up…

with one comment

There is an enduring, and completely incorrect, myth that Ralph Waldo Emerson was so personally bigoted against African-Americans that he secretly excluded Frederick Douglass from the Town and Country Club, a prestigious intellectual society that Emerson helped lead. I’ve heard this in person from respected scholars and the claim has appeared in a number of scholarly sources, including Peter Conn’s overview of American literary history and William McFeeley’s influential biography of Frederick Douglass.

I find the story fascinating because it demonstrates two important things about historians. First, it is a textbook example of how sloppy writing can create and disseminate false facts. Second, it shows how falsehoods, even after having been conclusively proven wrong, can continue to spread, because they resonate with people for particular ideological and historical reasons.

    The Story

In 1849, James Russell Lowell, the poet and abolitionist, attempted to get Frederick Douglass voted in as a member of the prestigious Town and Country Club- a Transcendentalist debating society and literary club. There appears to never have been an election, and Douglass was never admitted. Lowell fumed that he was “an unfit companion for people too good to associate with” Douglass. In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lowell hinted that Emerson was among those who opposed Douglass. “If I am not mistaken, Emerson would have blackballed him, had it been put to a vote,” Lowell wrote.

And yet Lowell appears to have only been speculating in this letter, or at best, admonishing Emerson for his lack of integrationist zeal. Lowell by no means believed that Emerson was organizing the opposition to Douglass. And on top of this, Lowell was likely wrong. In an earlier meeting Emerson had been quite clear that race should be no factor in admittance, arguing that, “Certainly, if any distinction be made, let it be in the colored man’s favor.”

    Historians mess it all up

So the matter stood for a hundred years, until Martin Duberman wrote a biography of Lowell in 1966. Duberman (one of the great historians of the last 50 years) wrote that “opposition developed to Douglass’ admittance, and Lowell was astonished at the quarter from which it came. For it was Emerson, at least so Lowell believed, who would have blackballed Douglass had the matter been put to a vote.” Duberman was being completely accurate, though his phrasing (which switches from what happened-opposition developed- to what Lowell believed about Emerson, all while using the conditional) was artless and open to misinterpretation.

Then, in 1991, William McFeely published his magisterial biography of Frederick Douglass. Citing Duberman’s book, he wrote that “Emerson ‘black-balled’ the black abolitionist, who, presumably, was never told about the matter.” All of a sudden, Lowell’s speculation about a hypothetical, has turned into a past-tense declaration of fact. McFeely, it appears, misread Duberman’s (admittedly) awkward description.

And so… a vague letter by Lowell was described poorly by Duberman in a book which was then cited by McFeely. The result is a historical smear against Emerson that continues to the day.

So point number one: don’t be a bad writer!

There is more though. Having been corrected (see this 1992 article) the idea should have died away. But it didn’t. For instance, in 2008 a review in the New York Times claimed that “Emerson could squirm at the idea of Frederick Douglass joining the Town and Country Club.”

I think that this particular myth about Emerson was and is popular because it fits in well with the narrative that social historians of a particular generation liked to tell themselves. In essence, they justified the move away from intellectual and political history because they considered such history elitist, dominated by dead white elite men. This particular story, which seemed to prove the racism of one of the most famous of those intellectuals, fit in well with the assumptions that underlay the careers of a generation of scholars who largely ignored people like Emerson in favor of people like Douglass.

Now, I happen to agree wholeheartedly with the impulse behind this move- American history has become a much better discipline as its become more democratic. And as a rule, white elites of the 19th century were racist bastards (just probably not Emerson). I guess the point is that all ideologies – conservative and liberal, radical and reactionary – tend to encourage people to believe particular narratives and interpretations, and all too often make us unthinkingly accept certain things as facts.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

March 8, 2010 at 00:35

One Response

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  1. This was fascinating – thank you. I love looking into some of the assumptions we make about history, finding their origins, and challenging them (or, in this case, trying to put them to rest).

    Rob V

    March 10, 2010 at 23:48

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