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 (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1967), or Ralph Waldo Emerson's Reading (Hartford: Transcendental 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 distanced issue.

    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 verse.

    Original Audience

    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, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau). 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); Melville proclaimed an opposition to Emerson (and represented him in his satire The Confidence-Man). 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 Stuart Phelps, Louisa May Alcott, Rebecca Harding Davis, Lucy Larcom (also the delightful mention of reading Emerson in Kate Chopin's The Awakening). 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, Hawthorne's 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 of reading?

    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 Fall. New York: Continuum Press, 1982: 1-21.

    Porte, Joel, ed. Emerson: Prospect and Retrospect. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

    Sealts, Merton M., Jr., and Alfred R. Ferguson, eds. Emerson's "Nature"--Origin, Growth, Meaning, 2nd ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.

    Yoder, Ralph A. "Toward the `Titmouse Dimension': The Development of Emerson's Poetic Style." PMLA 87 (March 1972): 255-70.