Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
Home About Unit Index Archive Book Club Site Search
4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Apess
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
- Jonathan Edwards
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Margaret Fuller
- Thomas Jefferson
- Susanna Rowson
- Royall Tyler
- Phillis Wheatley
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

The Old Manse
[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 Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

Slideshow Tool
This tool builds multimedia presentations for classrooms or assignments. Go

An online collection of 3000 artifacts for classroom use. Go

Download PDF
Download the Instructor Guide PDF for this Unit. Go


© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy