Legacies of Resistance: Emerson, Buddhism, and Richard Wright’s Pragmatist Poetics


Emerson’s affinity with Buddhism has been the source of much controversy, and his adaptation of the doctrine translated as Buddhist “indifference” has been construed as stifling resistance to social injustice. I will revisit this topic, explaining why Emerson figures so prominently in discussions of Buddhism by the philosopher D. T. Suzuki and the British scholar R. H. Blyth, in order to develop a context for analyzing modes of resistance in Richard Wright’s late haiku-inspired poetry. A central question raised in critical debates is whether or not Wright turns away in these poems from the social and political concerns of his earlier works. I will show that their significance and force as protest poetry is considerably stronger when regarded in light of Wright’s “tough-souled pragmatism” and an Emersonian pragmatist tradition elaborated by scholars such as Cornel West, James Albrecht, and Douglas Anderson, a tradition characterized by East-West intercultural exchange that includes John Dewey and Ralph Ellison. Contextualized and enriched by this tradition, the poem Wright selected out of the 4000 to open his collection, “I am nobody,” can be read as alluding to Ellison’s allusion to Emerson in Invisible Man, protesting what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would some years later memorably describe as “a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’” in his celebrated “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” I will conclude with a brief consideration of how Wright’s creative engagement with Buddhism in the work of T. S. Eliot illuminates Emerson’s vastly neglected contribution to the development of high modernism.


transpacific; pragmatism; haiku; Buddhism; Richard Wright; Ralph Waldo Emerson; modernism; African American literature; John Dewey; T. S. Eliot

Albrecht, James. Reconstructing Individualism: A Pragmatic Tradition from Emerson to Ellison. Fordham University Press, 2012.

Anderson, Douglas. Philosophy Americana: Making Philosophy at Home in American Culture. Fordham University Press, 2006.

Blyth, R. H. Haiku: Eastern Culture. Hokuseido, 1949.

Bosco, Ronald, Joel Myerson, and Daisaku Ikeda. Creating Waldens: An East-West Conversation on the American Renaissance. Dialogue Path Press, 2009.

Brignano, Russell. Richard Wright: An Introduction to the Man and His Work. University of Pittsburg Press, 1970.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Harvard University Press, 2003.

Cameron, Sharon. Impersonality: Seven Essays. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Carpenter, Frederic. Emerson and Asia. Harvard University Press, 1930.

Christy, Arthur. The Orient in American Transcendentalism: A Study of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott. Columbia University Press, 1932.

Cousin, Victor. Cours de l’histoire de la philosophie. Vol. I, Pichon et Didier, 1829.

Crawford, Robert. Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Davis, Charles T., and Michel Fabre. Richard Wright: A Primary Bibliography. G.K. Hall, 1982.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Penguin, 1934.

Eliot, T. S. The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, vol. 1, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

Ellison, Ralph. “Richard Wright’s Blues.” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Edited by John Callahan, Modern Library, 2003, pp. 128–44.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 2nd ed., Vintage, 1995.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Collected Poems and Translations. Edited by Harold Bloom and Paul Kane, Library of America, 1994.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Indian Superstition” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Kenneth Cameron, Friends of Dartmouth Library, 1954.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by William H. Gilman et al., Harvard University Press, 1960–1982. 16 vols.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M. Tilton, Columbia University Press, 1939–1995. 10 vols.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature, Essays and Lectures. Edited by Joel Porte, Library of America, 1983.

Fabre, Michel. Richard Wright: Books and Writers. University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Fabre, Michel. “The Poetry of Richard Wright.” Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani, G. K. Hall, 1982, pp. 252–72.

Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. Translated by Isabel Barzun, 2nd ed., University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Garrison, Jim, Larry Hickman, and Daisaku Ikeda. Living as Learning: John Dewey in the 21st Century. Dialogue Path Press, 2014.

Gewertz, Ken. “History of the Japanese at Harvard,” The Harvard Gazette, 26 February, 2004. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2004/02/history-of-the-japanese-at-harvard/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2023.

Goodman, Russell. “East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century America: Emerson and Hinduism.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 51, no. 4, 1990, pp. 625–45.

Goto, Shoji. The Philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau: Orientals Meet Occidentals. Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.

Hakutani, Yoshinobu. East-West Literary Imagination: Cultural Exchanges from Yeats to Morrison. University of Missouri Press, 2017.

Haskins, David Greene. Memoir of Ralph Haskins. John Wilson, 1881.

Hodder, Alan. “Asia in Emerson and Emerson in Asia.” Mr. Emerson’s Revolution. Edited by Jean McClure Mudge, Open Book, 2015, pp. 373–405.

Jackson, Carl T. The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations. Greenwood Press, 1981.

Jay, Paul. Contingency Blues: The Search for Foundations in American Criticism. University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Johnson, Ikea M. “Buddhist Recognition in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, vol. 49, no. 2, 2019, pp. 85–97.

Kearns, Cleo McNelly. T. S. Eliot and Indic Traditions: A Study in Poetry and Belief. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.. Edited by James M. Washington, HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 289–302.

Kiuchi, Toru. “Zen Buddhism in Richard Wright’s Haiku.” The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku. Edited by Jianqing Zheng, University Press of Mississippi, 2011, pp. 25–42.

Kloeckner, Christian. “Re-Orienting Impersonality: T. S. Eliot and the Self of the Far East.” Modernism and the Orient. Edited by Zhaoming Qian, University of New Orleans Press, 2012, pp. 163–84.

Kodama, Sanehide. “Japanese Influence on Richard Wright in His Last Years: English Haiku as a New Genre.” The Other World of Richard Wright: Perspectives on His Haiku. Edited by Jianqing Zheng, University Press of Mississippi, 2011, 122–33.

Lentricchia, Frank. Modernist Quartet. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Levin, Jonathan. The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism. Duke University Press, 1999.

Murata, Tatsuo. “Buddhism in T. S. Eliot.” The Modern Schoolman, vol. 73, no. 1, 1995, 17–46.

Ogburn, Floyd. “Richard Wright’s Unpublished Haiku: A World Elsewhere.” MELUS vol. 23, no. 3, 1998, pp. 57–81.

Patterson, Anita. “Eliot, Emerson, and Transpacific Modernism.” Modernities and Modernization in North America. Edited by Ilka Brasch and Ruth Mayer, Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018, pp. 22–43.

Patterson, Anita. “Modern Poetry and Haiku.” Richard Wright in Context. Edited by Michael Nowlin, Cambridge University Press, 2021, 293–303.

Patterson, Anita. “‘Projections in the Haiku Manner’: Richard Wright, T. S. Eliot, and Transpacific Modernism.” The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual. Edited by John Morgenstern, Julia Daniel, and Frances Dickey, vol. 3, Clemson University Press, 2021, pp. 11–21.

Poirier, Richard. Poetry and Pragmatism. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Richardson, Robert. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California Press, 1995.

Rudy, John. Emerson and Zen Buddhism. Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.

Schwab, Raymond. The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680–1880. Translated by Gene Patterson-Black and Victor Reinking, Columbia University Press, 1984.

Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton University Press, 1959.

Takeda, Masako. “Emily Dickinson and Japanese Aesthetics.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 22, no. 2, 2013, pp. 26–45.

Tener, Robert. “The Where, the When, the What: A Study of Richard Wright’s Haiku.” Critical Essays on Richard Wright. Edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani, G. K. Hall, 1982, pp. 273–98.

Tweed, Thomas. The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent. Indiana University Press, 1992.

Urbas, Joseph. Emerson’s Metaphysics: A Song of Laws and Causes. Lexington Books, 2016.

Urbas, Joseph. “How Close a Reader of Emerson is Stanley Cavell?” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 31, no. 4, 2017, pp. 557–74.

Van Anglen, Kevin. “Inside the Princeton Edition: ‘The Preaching of Buddha.’” The Thoreau Society Bulletin, vol. 278, 2012, pp. 3–5.

Versluis, Arthur. American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Walker, Margaret, Richard Wright, Daemonic Genius. Amistad, 1988.

West, Cornel. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Wright, Richard. Haiku: This Other World. Edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Tener. Arcade, 1998.

Wright, Richard. “Introduction.” Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Harcourt Brace, 1945, pp. vii–xxxiv.

Wright, Richard. White Man, Listen! HarperPerennial, 1957.

Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English. Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957.

Published : 2023-12-29

PattersonA. (2023). Legacies of Resistance: Emerson, Buddhism, and Richard Wright’s Pragmatist Poetics. Review of International American Studies, 16(2), 159-176. https://doi.org/10.31261/rias.15606

Anita Patterson  apatters@bu.edu
Boston University  United States

Anita Patterson is Professor of English at Boston University. She is the author of From Emerson to King: Democracy, Race, and the Politics of Protest (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms (Cambridge University Press, 2008). She is currently researching how the widening popularity of Japonisme fostered an American literary tradition of transpacific exchange that extends from Emerson and T. S. Eliot up through the Black Chicago Renaissance and the haiku-inspired poetry of Richard Wright.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Copyright Holder of the submitted text is the Author. The Reader is granted the rights to use the material available in the RIAS websites and pdf documents under the provisions of the Creative CommonsAttribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0). Any commercial use requires separate written agreement with the Author and a proper credit line indicating the source of the original publication in RIAS.

  1. License

The University of Silesia Press provides immediate open access to journal’s content under the Creative Commons BY 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). Authors who publish with this journal retain all copyrights and agree to the terms of the above-mentioned CC BY 4.0 license.

  1. Author’s Warranties

The author warrants that the article is original, written by stated author/s, has not been published before, contains no unlawful statements, does not infringe the rights of others, is subject to copyright that is vested exclusively in the author and free of any third party rights, and that any necessary written permissions to quote from other sources have been obtained by the author/s.

If the article contains illustrative material (drawings, photos, graphs, maps), the author declares that the said works are of his authorship, they do not infringe the rights of the third party (including personal rights, i.a. the authorization to reproduce physical likeness) and the author holds exclusive proprietary copyrights. The author publishes the above works as part of the article under the licence "Creative Commons Attribution - By the same conditions 4.0 International".

ATTENTION! When the legal situation of the illustrative material has not been determined and the necessary consent has not been granted by the proprietary copyrights holders, the submitted material will not be accepted for editorial process. At the same time the author takes full responsibility for providing false data (this also regards covering the costs incurred by the University of Silesia Press and financial claims of the third party).

  1. User Rights

Under the Creative Commons Attribution license, the users are free to share (copy, distribute and transmit the contribution) and adapt (remix, transform, and build upon the material) the article for any purpose, provided they attribute the contribution in the manner specified by the author or licensor.

  1. Co-Authorship

If the article was prepared jointly with other authors, the signatory of this form warrants that he/she has been authorized by all co-authors to sign this agreement on their behalf, and agrees to inform his/her co-authors of the terms of this agreement.

I hereby declare that in the event of withdrawal of the text from the publishing process or submitting it to another publisher without agreement from the editorial office, I agree to cover all costs incurred by the University of Silesia in connection with my application.