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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

[1029] Wilfred A. French, The Old Manse (n.d.), from F. B. Sanborn, Emerson and His Friends in Concord (1890), courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the preeminent philosopher, writer, and thinker of his day, best known for articulating the Transcendentalist ideals of creative intuition, self-reliance, and the individual’s unlimited potential. In contrast to the optimism that characterized his writings and philosophy, Emerson’s own personal life was pervaded by tragedy. His father died in 1811, when Emerson was only eight years old, leaving his mother to struggle to support her five sons. After graduating from Harvard, Emerson suffered from serious eye strain and debilitating respiratory ailments. Later, he would live through the deaths of his beloved first wife, two of his brothers, and his eldest son.

Emerson also experienced career difficulties. He was unhappy in his first position as a schoolteacher, claiming that he was “hopeless” in the classroom. Leaving teaching to study theology, he was ordained in 1829, following nine generations of his ancestors into the ministry. As a Unitarian pastor, Emerson was part of a liberal New England religious movement which stressed the inherent goodness of humanity, the importance of reason and conscience over ritual, and the equality of all people before God. Eventually Emerson’s role as a minister became a source of anxiety for him as he began to question church doctrine and to feel increasingly skeptical of revealed religion. In 1832 he resigned from the church and took a tour of Europe. There, he read widely and met with important intellectual and literary figures such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Dickens, and Carlyle. Upon his return to the United States in 1834, Emerson used the legacy bequeathed to him by his deceased wife to embark on a new career as a writer and public lecturer. He settled in the quiet town of Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived with his second wife and received visits from a wide circle of friends and admirers.

Emerson’s first book, Nature (1836), initially reached a relatively small audience, but the philosophy it articulated of the unity of souls, nature, and divinity functioned as a kind of manifesto for the group of intellectuals who came to be known as the Transcendental Club. Although the club was small and existed for only four years, it had an enormous impact on the development of American letters. It influenced such writers as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott, and it articulated ideas that inspired luminaries like Walt Whitman. As the leading figure in the Transcendentalist group, Emerson began to attract attention from a wider audience, especially after the publication of his Essays (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844). “The American Scholar” and “The Divinity School Address,” both lectures which were delivered at Harvard and subsequently published as pamphlets, brought him fame and some notoriety–“The Divinity School Address,” in particular, was denounced for its outspoken criticisms of traditional religious education, which Emerson found dogmatic. Despite the controversies provoked by some of his work, Emerson’s impassioned calls for Americans to reject their deference to old, European traditions and to embrace experimentation were received with enthusiasm by a generation of writers, artists, and thinkers who strove to embody his ideals of American art.

Emerson continued writing to the end of his life, using his fame and influence to promote his own work as well as to support other writers. His endorsement of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (though he intended that endorsement to be private), his support for Thoreau’s Walden project (Emerson allowed Thoreau to live on his land near Walden pond), and his loan of his home at the Old Manse to Hawthorne for three years were only the most famous of his many efforts to encourage fellow authors. Despite his activism on behalf of writers, Emerson was reluctant to become involved in any of the various social causes and reforms that enlisted his support. He eventually spoke and wrote on behalf of abolitionism, but his efforts came far too late to have much impact. He died in Concord, leaving a legacy of innovative thought and work that has had a lasting influence on the character of American letters.

Teaching Tips

  • 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?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: According to Emerson, what is “nature”?
  2. Comprehension: Examine Christopher Cranch’s caricature of the “Transparent Eyeball” featured in the archive. What passage from Nature is Cranch satirizing? What point do you think he is trying to make about Emerson’s writing?
  3. Comprehension: Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do” (“Self-Reliance”). Why should great minds not overvalue consistency? Where in his own work does Emerson appear to be inconsistent?
  4. Context: What kinds of cultural changes does Emerson call for in “The American Scholar”? How does his vision of American virtues and potential compare to Franklin’s? To Jefferson’s?
  5. Context: Emerson opens Chapter 1 of Nature by pointing out that the stars afford humans insight into “the perpetual presence of the sublime.” Review the explanation of the “sublime” featured in the context “The Awful Truth: The Aesthetic of the Sublime,” and think about Emerson’s relationship to this aesthetic movement. Why does Emerson open his book by invoking the idea of “sublimity”? What effect does he believe visions of sublime natural beauty have on viewers?
  6. Exploration: By the end of his career, Emerson was undeniably a “public intellectual”–that is, his writings and lectures appealed to a general audience and not simply to professors or philosophers. Why do you think Emerson’s work was appealing to a wide range of people? Can you think of current American thinkers and writers whom you would characterize as public intellectuals? What role do public intellectuals play in contemporary American society?
  7. Exploration: What relationship does Transcendentalism have to traditional religious beliefs? Would you characterize Transcendentalism as a secular movement? Does it have anything in common with New England Puritanism? With Quaker doctrine? With Deism? (You can refer to the chart provided in Teaching Tips to work through these questions with students.)

Selected Archive Items

[1029Wilfred A. French, The Old Manse (n.d.), from F. B. Sanborn, Emerson and His Friends in Concord (1890),
courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.
Ralph Waldo Emerson loaned his home at the Old Manse to Nathaniel Hawthorne for three years. This was one of his many efforts to encourage fellow authors.

[1030, 1112Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letter, Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman (1855),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-MSS-18630-5].
When this letter was written, Emerson was a well-known lecturer, and Whitman a young, aspiring poet. This is an example of Emerson’s eagerness to support and encourage fellow writers.

[3662Allen & Rowell Studio, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Reading (n.d.),
courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Emerson was a prominent writer who articulated American ideals and celebrated the potential of the American individual. He supported the endeavors of such contemporaries as Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Whitman.

[3694Thomas Cole, The Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826),
courtesy of the Warner Collection of the Gulf States Paper Corporation.
Cole was one of the first American landscape artists and a founder of the Hudson River School of painting. Romantic depictions of wilderness became popular as the United States continued its westward expansion.

[9037Detroit Publishing Company, Emerson House, Concord, Mass. (1905),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-D4-11360 DLC].
Photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson moved here at the age of twenty-five and lived here for the rest of his life.

[9041 – not foundChristopher Cranch, Transparent Eyeball (n.d.),
courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University.
Christopher Pearse Cranch was a contributor to such Transcendentalist publications as the Dial and the Harbinger, and he enjoyed drawing caricatures, such as this one, which satirizes Emerson’s essay Nature.

[9049Ralph Waldo Emerson, Divinity School Address (1838),
courtesy of, The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson delivered this lecture to the senior class of the Divinity College of Cambridge. Emerson was himself a Unitarian minister for a period.

[9050Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar (1837),
courtesy of, The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson addressed “The American Scholar” to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge and stressed the importance of lived experience, especially for a scholar.

[9051Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, Introduction and Chapter 1 (1836),
courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
The writing of Nature was interrupted by the death of Emerson’s brother. Emerson’s grief comes through in the essay with such thoughts as “nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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