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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

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Activities: Author Activities

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Teaching Tips

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  • Students sometimes find Emerson's work frustrating, overly abstract, and difficult to penetrate. You should reassure them that confusion is not an unusual response--one of the earliest reviews of Nature pronounced the book incomprehensible: "the effort of perusal is often painful, the thoughts excited are frequently bewildering, and the results to which they lead us, uncertain and obscure. The reader feels as in a disturbed dream." To help students overcome their confusion, you might read the "Introduction" to Nature with them, paying particular attention to Emerson's formulation of nature as the "Not Me." By dividing the universe into nature and the soul, Emerson was not claiming that these two essences have nothing to do with one another; rather, his point was that each particle of the universe is a microcosm of the whole. Be sure your students understand the concept of the microcosm. The key to Emerson's philosophy in Nature lies in his fundamental belief that everything in nature and in the soul is united in correspondence, that a universal divinity has traced its likeness on every object in nature, on every soul, and thus on every human production.

  • In order to help your students make connections and understand the important theological differences between various early American religious movements, provide them with copies of the chart below, or work on filling it out as a class on a chalkboard, overhead, or Power-Point slide:
  • Divide your class into groups and ask each group to put together a collection of their favorite aphorisms from Emerson's writings. Ask them why they chose certain statements and what they found particularly meaningful or illuminating about them. What kind of difficulties did they encounter in selecting aphorisms? Did members of the group disagree about which aphorisms to include? Is there a particular theme linking the collection of thoughts that they have put together? You might tell the class that literary critics have long debated how best to characterize Emerson's most basic "unit of thought." Ask them to weigh in on this question. How does Emerson organize texts? Does he develop his thoughts in sections, paragraphs, sentences, analogies? What kinds of insights do their collections of aphorisms provide into this question?

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