Cross-Cultural Affinities

Emersonian Transcendentalism and Senghorian Negritude

by Manyaka Toko Djockoua (Author)
©2016 Monographs 210 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 48


The book, through textual analyses, brings concepts of Senghorian Negritude and Emersonian ideas into a cross-cultural dialogue, and thus opens up a completely new perspective in research on the history of ideas. It synthesizes the diverse cultural, literary, philosophical and religious trends which have impacted on the complex and elusive fields of Transcendentalism and Negritude. Focusing on the current debate on influences and affinities in literary and cultural studies, the book shows that African religions and philosophy have influenced the formation of American Transcendentalism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Origins of American Transcendentalism
  • German Idealism and Romanticism
  • Unitarianism and Asian Religions
  • 2 Sources of Negritude
  • African Religions and Philosophy
  • Christianity, Islam and Other Sources
  • 3 Family and Educational Influences
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)
  • Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001)
  • 4 African Ontology in Emerson’s and Senghor’s Essays, Lectures and Poems
  • Emerson’s Nature, Essays and Poems
  • Senghor’s Essays, Lectures and Poems
  • 5 Transcendentalism, Negritude and Literature
  • Transcendentalist and Negritudinist Cultural and Literary Ethics
  • Thematic and Stylistic Parallels
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Most critics have traced back the origins of American Transcendentalism to German Idealism, British Romanticism and Asian religions and have completely eclipsed its connection to Africa. The aim of this book is therefore twofold: first to bring out the resemblances between the sources of Transcendentalism and those of Negritude in a bid to prove that African religions and philosophy have impacted on American Transcendentalism. Secondly, to show the influence of this American literary movement on Senghorian Negritude and the connection of both trends to modernist fiction. By examining their epistemological, ontological, and literary dimensions, this work demonstrates that American Transcendentalism and Negritude have a lot in common. It thus centers on cross-cultural affinities. Cross-cultural means pertaining to, or involving different cultures or comparison between them (OED). Edward B. Tylor (1832–1917), the British anthropologist defines culture thus: “Culture or civilization taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”1 As for affinities, the term is defined, in the context of this study, as similarities or resemblances (OED). This book compares Emersonian Transcendentalism and Senghorian Negritude as cultural and literary movements that address, in analogous ways, some aspects of American and African cultures such as knowledge, beliefs, art, morals and customs.

Transcendentalism, a movement that flourished in Concord and Boston in the 1830s, had a far reaching effect on the American literary thought. In “The Transcendentalist” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson associates the origin of the term “transcendentalism” with Immanuel Kant’s use of the word “transcendental” that relates to Kantian transcendental idealism. This theory acted as a bridge between seventeenth-century rationalism and eighteenth-century empiricism, two schools of thought that were diametrically opposed at the time Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.

In the United States of America (US), the seventeenth century was dominated by Puritanism which preceded eighteenth-century rationalism that profoundly marked the country’s philosophical and literary trends. By the time Emerson ← 13 | 14 → launched Transcendentalism, he had read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and other writings of the members of the movement known as German Idealism. Deriving from German Idealism, Puritanism, Romanticism, American Unitarianism, Asian mysticism and other world religions, Transcendentalism stresses the ability of the human mind to apprehend human truths transcending the senses. In literature, Transcendentalism is associated with Romanticism. Emerson’s Nature (1836) and his essays highlight the main tenets of this movement: self-reliance that implies that man must trust himself and rely on his own aptitude to know truth, the belief in goodness in man, an idea that undercuts the Calvinistic and Puritan assertion of man’s innate depravity.

To the Transcendentalists, nature is a source of beauty and inspiration for the poet; it fosters both individualism and brotherhood of community. It also enables man to convey his thoughts, as Emerson posits that “Language is the third use which Nature subserves to man. Nature is the vehicle of thought, and in a simple, double, and threefold degree. 1. Words are signs of natural facts. 2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. 3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.”2

This statement highlights the intricate link between language, nature and spiritual truth. Quoting Emerson in “An Overview of American Transcendentalism,” Martin Bickman replicates the same view: “The truly creative writer is one who can pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things.”3 Fastening “words again to visible things” means relating language to nature, society and the spirit or mind.

Besides Emerson, other prominent Transcendentalists4 examine various aspects of the movement. In Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau probes into the ← 14 | 15 → simplicity of pastoral life, individual development and man’s communion with nature. He also campaigns for non-conformism in “Civil Disobedience” (1849). Margaret Fuller, the feminist critic, tackles the issue of gender equality in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), first published in July 1843 in the Dial Magazine as “The Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.” In 1841, George Ripley monitored Brook Farm whose ethics promotes brotherhood of community by combating discrimination generated by social stratification. His brotherhood of community paved the way for Theodore Parker’s social engagement translated into action in his support for the abolition of slavery. Transcendentalism thus has an undeniable influence on American literature. This influence is perceptible in the works of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, as well as in the writings of modern and postmodern American writers.

Many studies have investigated the relation that exists between Transcendentalism, Romanticism, Modernism and Postmodernism. In his poem “A Pact,” Ezra Pound, one of the founding fathers of Modernism, acknowledges Walt Whitman’s contribution to modern poetry:

This poem, in a way, establishes a relationship between American Transcendentalism and the modernist movement that Pound spearheaded. Before Pound’s acknowledgement, Whitman had hailed Emerson as one of his mentors who made him “boil” when he “was simmering.” Pound thus stakes the claim that Transcendentalism or American Romanticism, paved the way for Modernism.

Lawrence Buell’s Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (1973) gives the background of the movement and dwells on the literary art and criticism of American Transcendentalists. It thus examines the link between style and vision in nonfictional literature. In his article “The Genealogy of Postmodernism: Contemporary American Poetry,” Albert Gelpi likens Transcendentalism to Romanticism and stresses the ambivalent relationship that exists between Transcendentalism, Modernism and Postmodernism.6 Arthur Versluis’s American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (1993) traces the origin of Transcendentalism and its affinity with Asian religions. The link between Transcendentalism, modern and postmodern writings is also the core of M. A. Quayum’s Saul Bellow and American Transcendentalism (2004).

As for Negritude, the word was coined by Aimé Césaire in 1932–1934 to instill pride in blackness and black culture throughout the world. Negritude refers to a literary and cultural movement launched by students from Francophone African colonies who were studying in Paris. The term Negritude gained currency after 1947, the year that preceded the publication of Leopold Sedar Senghor’s anthology of poems. Senghor defines Negritude as the totality of the cultural values of the black world as they are expressed in the lives, institutions and oeuvres of the Blacks. He argues that Negritude is the collective personality of the Negro-African.7 In Black Orpheus, Jean Paul Sartre’s preface to Senghor’s L’Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française / The Anthology of the New Negro and Malagasy Poetry in French Language (1948), Negritude is described as “a mode of being.” It is a discovery of the self; an identity embedded in traditional cultural values and practices. These values and cultures were part of the slaves who left Africa and were taken to the American continent as far back as 1501, when the first slaves arrived at Hispaniola, a Spanish colony. But the British colonies hosted their first slaves in Virginia in 1619. Consequently, ← 16 | 17 → by the 1750s, slaves were present in all the American colonies.8 From the foregoing, it appears evident that black slaves were already living their negritude in the United States of America when Emerson launched Transcendentalism. Emerson was a learned man who read extensively about various cultures of the world. He was certainly familiar with the Egyptian civilization, which he mentions once in “Literary Ethics”9 and twice in “Shakspeare; or, the Poet.”10 It is worth mentioning that Emerson and his daughter visited Egypt in 1872.11

Senghorian Negritude celebrates the black soul and posits the antithetic axiom “L’émotion est nègre, comme la raison hellène” / “Emotion is Negro as reason is Greek.”12 This, in other words, opposes the axiom “I feel therefore I am” to the Cartesian cogito “Je pense, donc je suis” /“I think, therefore I am.” The black movement became an element of existentialism because its founding fathers asserted that by intuition, the Black could perceive and understand “the inner reality or essence of things.”13 Ontologically, Senghorian Negritude borrows from the African religion which, as Kange Ewane purports, is a natural communion between the individual and the cosmos. In this religion, animate and inanimate objects are incorporated in the whole system by the principle of concatenation.14 Kange’s assertion has its roots in John S. Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy. In his book, Mbiti emphasizes the secularity of traditional African religions: “Traditional religions permeate all the departments of life, there is no formal distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and non-religious, between the spiritual and the material areas of life.”15

In 1959, at the Second Congress of Black Writers and Artists held in Rome, Frantz Fanon argued that Negritude is an elitist movement that does not deal with issues related to the people’s material conditions. Sembene Ousmane saw in Senghor’s Negritude a reactionary movement that precludes Africa’s progress. One of the strongest anti-Negritude wings includes writers and scholars such as ← 17 | 18 → Ezekiel Mphahlele, Wole Soyinka, Sekou Toure, Yambo Ouologueum, Ahmadou Kourouma, Stanislas adotevi, Paul Hountondji and Ferdinand Agblemagnon.16 In Cameroon, the anti-Negritude wing reacted against the cult of traditions, irrationality and emotion that Senghor opposed to the Whites’ rationality. In brief, most of these opponents identified the movement with romanticism and bitterly criticized its return to an idyllic past. They averred that Negritude reinstates some of the European stereotypes of Africa. Despite the strong opposition that it encountered, Senghorian Negritude left indelible imprints on black culture in general, and on black literature in particular. In spite of their divergent views, the various proponents of Negritude had a common stance toward the belief in man’s communion with nature, the reaction against orthodoxy, and the willingness to give a new content to African culture in a bid to reinstate an identity that was undermined by slavery and colonization.

A number of critics and scholars have investigated the link between Africa and the works of African American writers. Melville Herskovits examines some African cultural practices that have influenced American culture in The Myth of the Negro Past (1941). Herskovits’s text proves that “the civilizations of Africa, like those of Europe, have contributed to American culture as we know it today.”17 In “La Poésie négro-africaine” (1950), a paper presented during a conference, Senghor purports that the black slave, forgot his/her African language, and to a lesser extent, the African folklore. Yet s/he preserved the most essential elements: an extraordinary permeability to the currents of the external world, an acute sensibility to cosmic forces. That sensibility, that animism, birthed folklore and solidly linked it to the ancestral tradition.18 Edward Ako’s “Les sources africaines du mouvement arts nègres aux États Unis” (1986)19 shows that if the American ← 18 | 19 → writers of the Harlem Renaissance have influenced the fathers of Negritude, the latter have also impacted on the American Black Arts Movement. In other words, the African cultural tradition served as a stepping stone to African American literature and culture, a point Toni Morrison reiterates in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). She posits that an “American Africanism” offered American writers “a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression […] a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom.”20 Morrison implicitly stresses the role of African culture not only in African American writings but in the mainstream American literary tradition.

Keith Cartwright’s Reading Africa into American Literature (2002) views African (Senagambian) epics, fables and tales as sources of inspiration for African and European American writers. Cartwright seeks to call “readers to reconsider the age-old paradigms through which the roots of American literature and identity are seen to be solidly British, while African sources—when recognized at all—find location in what is perceived to be the ‘ideological,’ ever-separate and ghettoized domain of black studies.”21 To Cartwright, reconsidering the roots of American literature means re-evaluating and acknowledging the contribution of Africa to the building of American literature. In Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa (2008), La Vinia Delois Jennings highlights the elements of African cosmologies and the presence and role of the ancestor in the novels of Toni Morrison. She analyses the characters and their behaviors through the socio-religious aspects of the cross. She uses the circle and the philosophies of Voudoun and Candombé, and their two African-based pantheons of gods: the loa and orixás. Her study shows that Morrison presents African cosmological survivals in her novels as interpretive and aesthetic strategies.

The review of these critical sources proves that critics of Transcendentalism and Negritude have paid little or no attention at all to the contribution of African ontology to American Transcendentalism and the reciprocal effect of the American movement on Seghorian Negritude. Consequently, my discussion of these two philosophical and literary currents basically seeks to answer the following questions: What is the contribution of Africa to American Transcendentalism? And how has American Transcendentalism, as a literary movement, ← 19 | 20 → impacted on Senghorian Negritude? How does the comparison of these trends from two different cultural backgrounds contribute to the current debate on literary and cross cultural affinities and influences? To answer these questions, this book will consider American Transcendentalism and Negritude as both philosophical and literary currents. As a philosophical movement, American Transcendentalism is related to African religions and philosophy, and as a literary trend, it has impacted on Senghorian Negritude, which some critics like Wole Soyinka have associated with romanticism.

American Transcendentalism has always been a challenge to African and particularly to Cameroonian scholars who involve in the study of American literature. This book thus seeks to contribute to a better understanding of this movement by relating it to Negritude. Another reason for carrying out a comparative study of Emersonian Transcendentalism and Senghorian Negritude is the greater import that both movements have in present day political, economic, social and cultural debates, as well as in the contemporary postcolonial discourse. Harold Bloom’s article “Out of Panic, Self-Reliance,” compares the 1837, 1929 and 2008 economic crises in the US to show that all the three crises were the outcome of the American dependence on foreign loans. To end his argument, Bloom declares that “I am a scholar of literature and religion, and would advise whoever becomes president to turn to Ralph Waldo Emerson.”22 Using Emerson as a prop for twenty and twenty-first century American presidents, leads to the conclusion that although he wrote in the nineteenth century, Emerson can still help to solve America’s and other countries’ current problems.

Similarly, in his book The Negritude Moment: Explorations in Francophone African and Caribbean Literature and Thought (2011), Abiola Irele observes that “the concept of Negritude has never, it seems, been more relevant than in this our postcolonial age. From being a theme of marginal interest in the academy, Negritude has been looming ever larger within the space of contemporary critical thought and discourse.”23 Irele’s contention shows that although it emerged in the 1930s, Negritude still influences the present modern and postmodern discourse. Consequently, by bringing out elements that are common to the two movements, this work demonstrates that the essays and poems selected are rooted in American and African ontological and literary traditions that have striking ← 20 | 21 → similarities. It thus participates in the ongoing debate on affinities and influences in literature and their role in comparative studies. Besides, if Senghor’s poetry has drawn much critical attention, his essays have not been widely examined by critics. This book will therefore put side by side Emerson’s and Senghor’s poetry and nonfiction prose. In my study, even if reference is made to other proponents of the two movements, my main focus is on Emersonian Transcendentalism and Senghorian Negritude.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (December)
German Idealism Romanticism Unitarianism Asian religions African ontology Modern literature
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2016. 210 pp.

Biographical notes

Manyaka Toko Djockoua (Author)

Manyaka Toko Djockoua teaches American literature at the Faculty of Arts, Letters and Social Sciences of the University of Yaoundé I, Cameroon. Her research interests include American literature, literary theory and criticism, comparative literature, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies.


Title: Cross-Cultural Affinities
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212 pages