Sunday, November 19, 2006

Emerson Explains Why the English Are the Way They Are

A busy Saturday yesterday prevented me from doing the usual Emerson post but Sunday works just as well. Chapter four of English Traits, Race, is a hoot. At first I thought it was going to be a more typical Emerson argument debunking racial theories of the times. But it turned out to be more of a history of the English character as influenced by the races of those who invaded the country long ago. Emerson tells us "The English composite character betrays a mixed origin." To be sure we know exactly to whom he is referring, Emerson stresses that English does not include Scotland, Ireland or Wales and is pretty much represented by the kind of English people you find in London. The Celts "planted Britain," but "the English come mainly from the Germans" with a large infusion of Scandinavia. Emerson declares the Sagas of the Kings of Norway to be "the Iliad and Odyssey of English history." This will probably come as some surprise to the English, I'm sure. From the Norse, the English get their seafaring skills, a "tough, acrid, animal nature," and a love for a "fair stand-up fight." But the English are more "manly than warlike." And when the fighting is over have a certain affection for "domestic tastes, which make them women in kindness." While the men have a womanly softness, the women have a game courage, to the point that "the two sexes are co-present in the English mind." From their invading ancestors, the English have been given "great vigor of body and endurance" however much they may tend toward stoutness. They also have good beer and even the poorest of individuals still manage to afford it since drinking water is considered a kind of religious penance. Then there is the English love of horses which Emerson is sure came from their Saxon founders Horsa and Hengest and the other branch of the English race, Tartar nomads. Emerson explains the Tartars ate horseflesh at religious feasts and fed their children mare's milk. And somehow he manages to connect this to the reason the House of Commons adjourns over Derby Day. This chapter makes me wonder if Emerson got kicked in the head by one of the English horses, or if he had one too many pints at the pub. Next week's Emerson: Chapter Five, Ability