Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Contributing Editor: Jean Ferguson Carr
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Given the difficulty students often have with Emerson's style and allusions,
it seems very important to address Emerson not as the proponent of a unified
philosophy or movement (e.g., Transcendentalism or Romanticism), but as
a writer concerned with his audience and his peers, and constructing himself
as an American scholar/poet/seer. This might lead to, for example, focusing
on what specific definitions or categories Emerson faces (categories such
as what is "literary" and what is "poetic," what authorizes
a scholar as "learned"). And it leads to paying attention to
how Emerson characterizes his audience or reading public, how he addresses
their difficulties and expectations, and how he represents his "times."
Working from Emerson's journals can be extremely useful in this context;
students can see a writer proposing and reflecting and revising his own
articulations. Emerson's vocabulary and references can be investigated
not simply as a given style, but as material being tested, often being
critiqued as it is being used. His method of writing can be investigated
as a self-reflective experimentation, in which Emerson proposes situations
or claims, explores their implications, and often returns to restate or
resituate the issue.
It can be particularly useful to have students read some of Emerson's
college journals, which show his uncertainty about how to become an "American
scholar" or "poet." The journals, like "The American
Scholar," show Emerson teaching himself how to read differently from
the ways advocated by past cultures and educational institutions. They
show him sorting through the conflicting array of resources and texts available
to a young man in his circumstances and times.
Students can also situate Emerson in a range of cultural relationships
by using Kenneth W. Cameron's fascinating source books that reprint contemporary
materials, such as Emerson Among His Contemporaries
Books, 1967), or Ralph Waldo Emerson's Reading
Books, 1962), or Emerson the Essayist
(Raleigh: Thistle Press, 1945).
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Emerson's concern with proposing the active power of language--both
spoken and written--in constructing an emergent culture that will be different
from the cultures of Europe is a central interest. His attention to what
it means to make something "new," and his concern about the influence
of the past, of books and monuments, mark him as an important figure in
the production of a "national" literature. Emerson's investigation
of reading as creative action, his efforts to examine the authority and
effects of religious and educational institutions, help frame discussions
about literature and education for subsequent generations. As a member
of the Boston cultural and religious elite of the early nineteenth century,
Emerson reflects both the immersion in and allegiance to English culture
and the struggles of that American generation to become something more
than a patronized younger cousin. Emerson's tumultuous personal life--his
resignation from the ministry, the deaths of his young wife, son, and brothers,
his own ill health-- tested his persistence and seemingly unflappable energy
and make his advocacy of "practical power" not an abstract or
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Emerson challenges and investigates formal traditions of philosophic
and religious writing, insisting on the interpenetration of the ideal and
the real, of the spiritual and material. His speculations about self-reliance
move between cultural critique and personal experience, as he uses his
own life as a "book" in which to test his assumptions and proposals.
The essays often propose countercultural positions, some of which are spoken
by imaginary bards or oracles, delivered in the form of fables or extended
metaphors. Emerson's essays enact the dramatic exchanges in such arguments,
suggesting the authority and limitations of what is spoken in the world
as "a notion," as what "practical men" hold, or as
what a "bard" might suggest. Emerson's journals show him rethinking
the uses of a commonplace book, examining his own past thoughts and reactions
as "evidence" of cultural changes and problems. Emerson argues
for a "new" mode of poetry, one that emulates the "awful
thunder" of the ancient bards rather than the measured lines of cultured
Many of Emerson's essays were initially delivered as lectures, both
in Boston and on his lecture tours around the country. His book Nature
the volumes of Essays
, and his poems were reprinted both in Boston
and in England. Several of his essays ("Love," "Friendship,"
"Illusions") were bound in attractive small editions and marketed
as "gift books." His poems and excerpts from his essays were
often reprinted in literary collections and school anthologies of the nineteenth
century. Emerson represents the audiences for his work in challenging ways,
often imagining them as sleeping or resistant, as needing to be awakened
and encouraged. He discusses their preoccupation with business and labor,
with practical politics and economy; their grief over the death of a child.
He uses local and natural images familiar to the New Englanders at the
same time he introduces his American audiences to names and references
from a wide intellectual range (from Persian poets to sixth-century Welsh
bards to Arabic medical texts to contemporary engineering reports). He
has been a figure of considerable importance in modern American literary
criticism and rhetoric (his discussions about language and speech, in particular),
in American philosophy (influencing William James, Dewey, and more recently
William Gass), and in discussions about education and literacy.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Emerson has been particularly significant as a "founding father,"
a literary figure that younger writers both emulated and had to challenge,
that American critics and readers have used to mark the formation of a
national literature. He is usually aligned with the group of writers living
in or near Concord, Massachusetts, and with the Boston educational and
literary elite (for example, Bronson Alcott, Hawthorne
). He also is usefully connected with English writers
such as Carlyle, Wordsworth, and Arnold. Whitman
proclaimed a link with Emerson (and capitalized on Emerson's letter greeting
Leaves of Grass
proclaimed an opposition to Emerson (and represented him in his satire
). It is useful to consider Emerson's effect on
younger writers and to consider how he is used (e.g., by such writers as
T. S. Eliot
) to represent
the authority of the literary establishment and the values of the "past."
The following women writers make intriguing comments about Emerson in
their efforts to establish their own positions: Elizabeth
, Rebecca Harding
, Lucy Larcom (also the delightful mention of reading Emerson
in Kate Chopin's The
). Many writers "quote" Emersonian positions or
claims, both to suggest an alliance and to test Emerson's authority (see,
for example, Douglass's
concern about "self-reliance" in his Narrative
portrait of the young reformer Holgrave in The House of Seven Gables
or of the reformers in The Blithedale Romance
, Davis's challenging
portrait of the artist in "Life in the Iron Mills").
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. (a) How does Emerson characterize his age? How does he characterize
its relation to the past?
(b) What does Emerson see as the realm or purpose of art? What notions
of art or poetry is he critiquing?
(c) How does Emerson represent himself as a reader? What does he claim
as the values and risks of reading? What does he propose as a useful way
2. (a) Emerson's writings are full of bold claims, of passages that
read like self-confident epigrams ("Life only avails, not the having
lived"; "Power ceases in the instant of repose"; "What
I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think"; "Travelling
is a fool's paradise"). Yet such claims are not as self-evident as
they may appear when lifted out of context as quotations. Often they are
asserted to be challenged, or tested, or opposed. Often they propose a
position that Emerson struggled hard to maintain in his own practice, about
which he had considerable doubts or resistance. Select one such claim and
discuss what work Emerson had to do to examine its implications and complexities.
(b) Emerson's essays are deliberately provocative--they push, urge,
outrage, or jolt readers to react. What kinds of critiques of his age is
Emerson attempting? And how? And with what sense of his audience's resistance?
How do these function as self-critiques as well?
(c) Test one of Emerson's problematic questions or assertions against
the particular practice of Emerson, or of another writer (e.g., Whitman,
Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance
, Rebecca Harding Davis, Frederick
Douglass). Examine how the issue or claim gets questioned or challenged,
how it holds up under the pressure of experience. (Some examples of passages
to consider: "The world of any moment is the merest appearance";
"The poet turns the world to glass, and shows us all things in their
right series and procession"; "Every mind is a new classification.")
Buell, Lawrence. "Ralph Waldo Emerson." In The American
Renaissance in New England
, edited by Joel Myerson, vol. 1 of Dictionary
of Literary Biography
, 48-60. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978.
Levin, David, ed. Emerson: Prophecy, Metamorphosis, and Influence
Papers of the English Institute. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.
Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the
Age of Emerson and Whitman
. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.
Myerson, Joel, ed. Emerson Centenary Essays
. Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1982.
Packer, Barbara. "Uriel's Cloud: Emerson's Rhetoric." In Emerson's
. New York: Continuum Press, 1982: 1-21.
Porte, Joel, ed. Emerson: Prospect and Retrospect
Harvard University Press, 1982.
Sealts, Merton M., Jr., and Alfred R. Ferguson, eds. Emerson's "Nature"--Origin,
, Meaning, 2nd ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,
Yoder, Ralph A. "Toward the `Titmouse Dimension': The Development
of Emerson's Poetic Style." PMLA
87 (March 1972): 255-70.