Giants were not Blondes! – Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Physiognomy

The Giant is made of stuff that is closer to the earth, raw and primitive, a mighty warrior and formidable opponent. On the other hand, as the nineteenth-century Science of Physiognomy teaches (as do some books you’ll find in the Mind-Body-Spirit section, today), the Blonde type is sensitive, cultured, perhaps even a little neurotic, but certainly at the other end of the physical spectrum from the Giant type.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Blonde Type
Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Blonde Type

Thus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his correspondence to Thomas Carlisle of 17 June 1870, by way of apology and excuse for his delay in replying to his friend, offers the following:

You are of the Anakim and know nothing of the debility and postponement of the blonde constitution.

But is this merely Emerson’s self-deprecatory excuse for his failure to write earlier, or do these words also claim some superior intellect for our neurotic litterateur? Is there embedded in this comparison between brute and blonde a subtle jibe aimed at Emerson’s influential precursor?

The “blonde constitution” was one shared, after all, by Our Lord and Saviour:

Careful investigation… seems to show two physical types among the Jews: one dark, with black hair and eyes, and the well-known hooked nose; another with very regular profile and beautiful features, but blonde, with light hair, and blue eyes… The blonde type is the one from which the traditional representations of the Saviour are made, and it is not improbably very ancient among the Jews.

– Mr. Charles Loring Brace, Races of the Old World (1863)

Sharrona Pearl recounts an amusing yet sobering anecdote about nineteenth-century “historian and children’s writer Reverend Charles Kingsley”, who was “particularly sensitive to the physiognomic implications of literary illustrations”:

when he was acting as an advising editor to illustrator Charles Bennett on an edition of John Bunyan’s 1678 classic Pilgrim’s Progress, he insisted that Bennett adhere to physiognomic conventions in the illustrations. An 1859 letter from Kingsley to Bennett included a number of suggestions about ways for Bennett to improve his drawings by increasing the physiognomic agreement between the literary and visual drawings of their characters… “The ‘lust of the flesh,’ is hardy animal enough. I have generally seen with strong animal passion, a tendency to high cheek bone; but only in a dark woman. Yours may stand for a blonde type, but even thin [sic] I should prefer a lower forehead… Give her very full features and bust.”

– Sharrona Pearl, About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-century Britain (Harvard, 2010)

All this explains precisely, at least according to Aristotle’s third and middle explanatory category of reasoning (i.e. of analogy), the thoroughgoing, even obsessive division of the first four books of the Old Testament between the earthy, natural Jehovist and the legalistic, dispassionate Priestly source, as carried out by biblical scholars in the “extended” ninteenth century.

(N.b., while in the humanities as a whole, what is referred to as the “extended” nineteenth century is generally considered to continue into ca. the 1920s, in biblical studies the extended nineteenth century proceeds still undaunted into the twenty-first.)

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