Emerson’s English Traits

One of Emerson’s “most astute interpreters . . . LaRocca consistently challenges the limits of academic categorization.”

“Rather than argument, the book is a smart, exciting demonstration of Emersonian thinking and a way to approach his work by its affiliations—to other Emerson texts and to texts by others—and ‘to make allusions coalesce.’

“Learned, daring, and lively, LaRocca’s book is the most provocative treatment of Emerson this year.”

Robert D. Habich

Professor of English, Ball State University

Past President of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society

Former Editor of the Emerson Society Papers

from American Literary Scholarship (2013) 3-21

“This immensely learned, deeply thoughtful and far-ranging book helps re-situate Emerson in his own time, and in ours. More than just a work of scholarship, it rises to the level of philosophical investigation. It is also witty, playful and, in its own strange way, original.”

Phillip Lopate

John Cranford Adams Chair and Professor of English,

Hofstra University

“In this elegantly written, scrupulously researched book, David LaRocca has convincingly demonstrated that, rather than locating a restricted area of inquiry, Natural History constitutes the grounding precondition for Emersonian thinking. Emerson’s English Traits and the Natural History of Metaphor will surely prove an indispensable reference for undergraduates and graduates alike.”

Donald E. Pease

Professor of English and the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities, Dartmouth College

“David LaRocca treats Emerson's English Traits with the philosophical seriousness and sophistication the book has long deserved, but never before so richly received. In elegant numbered paragraphs of subtle, self-reflexive philosophical prose, LaRocca refracts a selection of the book's principal metaphors through a remarkably wide array of related texts ranging from Seneca to Augustine to Darwin, Nietzsche, and, especially, Wittgenstein. The result is not a conventional academic study, but rather a many-faceted Emersonian reflection by quotation on such topics as evolution, originality, liberalism, American identity, self-renaming, and the fecund nature of metaphor itself. This is a valuable contribution to the re-assessment of Emerson's most neglected work, and a distinctive example of creative hermeneutical engagement.”

Neal Dolan

Associate Professor of English, University of Toronto

“In this wonderful book, David LaRocca illuminates Emerson's mind by, in effect, pursuing his methods. LaRocca's treatment of English Traits is no mere academic summary. Rather, his object is to conduct his own natural history of metaphor, with a view to illuminating the role of metaphor, both for Emerson and more generally, in welding disjointed 'naturalistic' observations into coherent and intelligible wholes. With a vast range of reference, running from Wittgenstein to Darwin and from Coleridge to Montaigne, and an engagingly 'album'-like structure, the book traces Emersonian connections between topics as remote as the origins of evolutionary theory, the making of commonplace books and the rise of the American anti-slavery movement. It offers a glitteringly many-sided examination of the evolution of Emerson's deeply creative mind in its efforts to arrive at an understanding, not only of England, but also of the nascent American culture that it was in process of helping to form.” 

Bernard Harrison

Emeritus E. E. Ericksen Professor of Philosophy,

University of Utah and

Emeritus Professor of the Humanities, University of Sussex

“In this finely crafted and highly original piece of scholarship, LaRocca not only draws attention to one of the most neglected texts in Emerson’s oeuvre, he also presents an extended and insightful meditation on the nature of metaphor and the formation of cultural identity. Like a true florilegium, the collection of remarks continuously surprises—but not with gimmicks, rather with the kind of uncanny observations the method of criticism and arrangement is meant to illuminate. Combining literary sensibility with philosophical acumen, Emerson’s English Traits and the Natural History of Metaphor also prompts urgent and serious reflection on the relation between literature, philosophy and natural science more generally. Its publication is, therefore, as timely as Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, and should be greeted with just as much applause.”

Mario von der Ruhr

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Swansea University, Wales, and

Associate Editor of the journal Philosophical Investigations

and the Natural History of Metaphor

Metaphors are ubiquitous and yet—or, for that very reason—go largely unseen. We are all variously susceptible to a blindness or blurry vision of metaphors; yet even when they are seen clearly, we are left to situate the ambiguities, conflations and contradictions they regularly present—logically, aesthetically and morally.

David LaRocca’s book serves as a set of ‘reminders’ of certain features of the natural history of our language—especially the tropes that permeate and define it. As part of his investigation, LaRocca turns to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s only book on a single topic,English Traits (1856), which teems with genealogical and generative metaphors—blood, birth, plants, parents, family, names and race.

In the first book-length study of English Traits in over half a century, LaRocca considers the presence of metaphors in Emerson’s fertile text—a unique work in his expansive corpus, and one that is regularly overlooked. As metaphors are encountered in Emerson’s book, and drawn from a long history of usage in work by others, a reader may realize (or remember) what is inherent and encoded in our language, but rarely seen: how metaphors circulate in speech and through texts to become the lifeblood of thought. A reader may come away believing that metaphors cannot be skimmed off a text without loss—that they are ineluctably part and parcel of its meanings.

In hybrid fashion, LaRocca endeavors to employ some of the strategies and methods of the natural scientific curator as well as the literary-philosophical florilegist to offer new reflections on Emerson’s exceptional, anomalous book. In the wake of LaRocca’s study, and the prismatic remarks he has collected, we may take note that a change in metaphors entails a change in morals. English Traits serves as an example of how, for example, natural scientific metaphors are especially salient for their moral import and effects.


Prefatory Notes

Introduction: Some Traits of English Traits

I. More Prone to Melancholy

II. With Muffins and Not the Promise of Muffins

III. The Lively Traits of Criticism

IV. The Cabman is Phrenologist So Far

V. The Florilegium and the Cabinets of Natural History

VI. Founding Thoughts

VII. A Child of the Saxon Race

VIII. Living Without a Cause

IX. Adapting Some Secret of His Own Anatomy

X. First Blood

XI. Second Selves

XII. Genealogy and Guilt

XIII. The Pirate Baptized

XIV. My Giant Goes With Me

XV. Corresponding Minds

  1. XVI.Titles Manifold





Bloomsbury has been named




at the 2013 Independent Publishers Guild (IPG) Awards



at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair

AND is nominated for two 2013 The Bookseller Industry Awards:






October 8, 2013

A Review from Choice:

“With this study, LaRocca emerges as a theorist as well as an important scholar of Emerson in an age when ‘theory’ has become a footnote. His recent edited volume Estimating Emerson (Choice, Nov 2013, 51-1329), which offers cultural/philosophical reflections on Emerson, and his essay "Performative Inferentialism: A Semiotic Ethics" (published in the February 2013 issue of the journal Liminalities) testify to this. The present study stands alone in its treatment of the little-studied English Traits (1856), though LaRocca pays due diligence to the studies that have preceded his. His key concern is how to read Emerson historically (in terms of 19th-century metaphors of natural science) while appreciating him ‘transcendentally’ (as a method of thinking in the 21st). This study performs the Emersonian inheritance of analogy, of seeing the one in the many. In studying English Traits, LaRocca looks at journals, figures, sentences, and paragraphs occurring throughout his essays, and offers reflections on Emerson and the ‘nature’ of metaphor. This study should be read by those who think themselves comfortable with Emerson, and by those who feel abandoned by theory. Mostly, though, this should be read by those who are in interested in figuring the thought that lies beyond reach.”

Summing Up:  Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.

—  R. T. Prus

Professor and Chair of English, Humanities, and Languages

Southeastern Oklahoma State University

A Review from American Literary History:

“In making a new case for the philosophical sophistication of English Traits, LaRocca has achieved his own Emersonian feat, the creation of a new ‘atmosphere in which to think’.”

—  Jacob Risinger

Assistant Professor of English, The Ohio State University

To read the full review in ALH Online Review, Series II click below:

Read Jacob Risinger’s full review from

American Literary History Online Review

Series II

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Oxford Journals

April 2015

A Review from the Journal of American Studies:

“I imagine David LaRocca having fun composing this book—not because it is in any way frivolous or frolicsome (chapter 1 is titled ‘More Prone to Melancholy’) but because it is an engaging experiment in criticism, an attempt to perform literary study in such a way as to bring its subject to life. [. . . A ] florilegium such as Emerson’s, such as LaRocca’s, emits a kind of ‘bouquet,’ and ‘atmosphere in which to think.’ The patient reader, the reader willing to make ‘interpretive shifts,’ a reader capable of ‘loyalty to the present’ and of reinforcing ‘an openness to the complexity of emerging phenomena,’ will find that atmosphere by turns exhilarating, confusing, enticing, and drowsy with the hum of bees. Nevertheless, the reader must grant that removing Emerson’s writing from a museum and placing it in a florilegium does wonders for its constitution.”

T. S. McMillin

Professor of English, Oberlin College

To read the full review in the Journal of American Studies

click the cover to the left

Read T. S. McMillin’s full review from the

Journal of American Studies

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Cambridge University Press

April 2015

Read Robert D. Habich’s full review from

American Literary Scholarship

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Duke University Press


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