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.
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.
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.He not only gave countless readers their first exposure to non-Western modes of thinking, metaphysical concepts, and sacred mythologies; he also shaped the way subsequent generations of American writers and thinkers approached the vast cultural resources of Asia and the Middle East.Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts.In the 156-line poem, Emerson describes how “Superstition,” the personification of religious tyranny in Asia, has enslaved “[D]ishonored India.” With its Romantic primitivism and bombastic imagery, “Indian Superstition” is perhaps closer to caricature than considered literary art.Yet, for all its excess, Emerson’s poem is notable for departing from a common formula of the period according to which a debased India could only be redeemed through Western colonialism.In 1817, at the age of 14, Emerson entered Harvard College.While at Harvard, Emerson had little opportunity to study the diverse literary and religious traditions of Asia or the Middle East.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.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.