As one of the architects of the transcendentalist movement, Emerson embraced a philosophy that championed the individual, emphasized independent thought, and prized "the splendid labyrinth of one's own perceptions." More than any writer of his time, he forged a style distinct from his European predecessors and embodied and defined what it meant to be an American. Matthew Arnold called Emerson's essays "the most important work done in prose."
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Introduction by Mary Oliver
The distinction and particular value of anything, or any person, inevitably must alter according to the time and place from which we take our view. In any new discussion of Emerson, these two weights are upon us. By time, of course, I mean our entrance into the twenty-first century; it is almost two hundred years since Emerson's birth in Boston. By place, I mean his delivery from the town of Concord, and his corporeal existence anywhere. Now he is only within the wider, immeasurable world of our thoughts. He lives nowhere but on the page, and in the attentive mind that leans above that page.
This has some advantage for us, for he is now the Emerson of our choice: he is the man of his own time--his own history--or he is one of the mentors of ours. Each of these possibilities has its attractions, for the man alive was unbelievably sweet and, for all his devotion to reason, wondrously spontaneous. Yet as time's passage has broken him free of all mortal events, we begin to know him more clearly for the labors of his life: the life of his mind. Surely he was looking for something that would abide beyond the Tuesday or the Saturday, beyond even his first powerful or cautionary or lovely effect. "The office of the scholar," he wrote in "The American Scholar," "is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances." The lofty fun of it is that his "appearances" were all merely material and temporal--brick walls, garden walls, ripening pears--while his facts were all of a shifty vapor and an unauthored goodwill: the luminosity of the pears, the musics of birds and the wind, the affirmative staring-out light of thenight stars. And his belief that a man's inclination, once awakened to it, would be to turn all the heavy sails of his life to a moral purpose.
The story of his life, as we can best follow it from its appearances, is as follows. Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803; his father, William Emerson, died in 1811. The family--his mother, two sisters, and five brothers--were poor, devout, and intellectually ambitious. Death's fast or slow lightning was a too-frequent presence. Both girls and one boy died in childhood; Emerson's brothers William, Edward, and Charles survived only into early manhood. The only remaining brother was Robert, who was a man of childish mind. As the poet Walt Whitman for most of his life took responsibility for his child-minded brother, Eddie, so did Emerson keep watch over this truculent survivor.
Emerson graduated from Harvard College, then divinity school, and in 1829 he began preaching at the Second Church (Unitarian) in Boston. In that year he married the beautiful but frail Ellen Tucker. Her health never improved, and in 1832 she died. Emerson was then twenty-nine years old.
I think it is fair to say that from this point on, the greater energies of his life found their sustenance in the richness and steadfastness of his inner life. Soon after his wife's death he left the pulpit. He had come to believe that the taking of the sacrament was no more, nor was meant to be more, than an act of spiritual remembrance. This disclosure he made to his congregation, who perhaps were grateful for his forthrightness but in all honesty did not wish to keep such a preacher. Soon after, Emerson booked passage to Europe. He traveled slowly across the Continent and, finally, to England. He was deeply touched by the magnificence of the past, so apparant in the cities, in their art and architecture. He also made it his business to explore the present. The list of those he met and talked with is amazing: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Walter Savage Lander, John Stuart Mill among them. His meeting with Thomas Carlyle began a lifelong friendship, their letters going back and forth across the Atlantic until Emerson's death.
Emerson returned from Europe and established a manner of living that he would scarcely alter for the rest of his life. He married again, a young woman named Lydia Jackson. In his journals, which he had begun in college and never abandoned, he tore down wall after wall in his search for a style and for ideas that would reach forth and touch both poles: his certainty and his fluidity. He bought a house in the town of Concord, an easy distance from Boston yet a place with its own extraordinary style and whose citizens were farmers, tradesmen, teachers, and the liveliest of utopians. Here, as husband and father, as writer and lecturer, Emerson would live for years his seemingly quiet, seemingly peaceful life.
The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. Answers are no part of it; rather it is the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the ingrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament. This is the crux of Emerson, who does not advance straight ahead but wanders to all sides of an issue; who delivers suggestions with a kindly gesture; who opens doors and tells us to look at things for ourselves. The one thing he is adamant about is that we should look--we must look--for that is the liquor of life, that brooding upon issues, that attention to thought even as we weed the garden or milk the cow.
This policy, if such it might be called, he established at the start. The first book he published was called Nature; in it he refers, with equal serenity, to "Nature" and to "nature." We understand clearly that by the first he means "this web of God"--everything that is not the mind uttering such words--yet he sets our lives down among the small-lettered noun as well, as though to burden us equally with the sublime and the common. It is as if the combination, and the understanding of the combination--the necessary honoring of both--were the issue of utmost importance. Nature is a text that is entirely about divinity, and first purposes, a book of manners, almost, but for the inner man. It does not demean by diction or implication the life that we are most apt to call "real," but it presupposes the heart's spiritual awakening as the true work of our lives. That this might take place in as many ways as there are persons alive did not at all disturb Emerson, and that its occurrence was the beginning of paradise here among the temporal fields was one of his few unassailable certainties.
In 1836, at the issue of this initial volume, and in the first years following, he was a man scarcely known to the world. Descended from seven generations of preachers, in conventional terms a failed churchman himself, he held no more important post than his membership in the Concord volunteer Fire Association. If he tried to be at home among the stars, so too he strove to be comfortable in his own living room. Mentor to Thoreau and neighbor to Hawthorne, the idiosyncratic Bronson Alcott, the passionate Margaret Fuller, the talkative Ellery Channing, and the excitable Jones Very, he adorned his society with friendliness and participation. His house was often full of friends, and talk. Julian Hawthorne, then a young boy, remembers him sitting in the parlor, "legs crossed and--such was their flexibility--with one foot hitched behind the other ankle. Leaning forward, elbow on one knee, he faced his guests and held converse . . ." There was an evening when his daughter Ellen called him away to talk to the butcher about mutton. It is reported that he rose mildly to do as he was bid. And there is another story, as he reports it himself in his journal, on a June day: "Now for near five years I have been indulged by the gracious Heaven in my long holiday in this goodly house of mine, entertaining and entertained by so many worthy and gifted friends, and all this time poor Nancy Barron, the mad-woman, has been screaming herself hoarse at the Poorhouse across the brook and I still hear her whenever I open my window."
Table of ContentsIntroduction by Mary Oliver
THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR
THE LORD’S SUPPER
ESSAYS: FIRST SERIES
ESSAYS: SECOND SERIES
Nominalist and Realist
New England Reformers
PLATO: OR, THE PHILOSOPHER
NAPOLEON: OR, THE MAN OF THE WORLD
I.First Visit to England
II.Voyage to England
XIX.Speech at Manchester
CONDUCT OF LIFE
SOCIETY AND SOLITUDE
Give All to Love
Lines to Ellen
EZRA RIPLEY, D.D.
EMANCIPATION IN THE BRITISH WEST INDIES
THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW
THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
1. Oliver Wendell Holmes called "The American Scholar" "our intellectual Declaration of Independence." How does Emerson's speech mirror our forefathers' call for personal liberties? What does intellectual liberty entail and what kind of revolution does Emerson promote? What is his call to arms?
2. How is American history-the history that Emerson was living, witnessing, and documenting-reflected in his observations and concerns? How might Emerson be reacting to the expansion of the American West, industrialization and its effect on both the landscape and rural society, and the rising tensions that would give way to the Civil War?
3. In a biography on Emerson, Robert D. Richardson hailed him as "a prophet of individualism, " "an autarchist" (a governor of the self) rather than the anarchist many thought him to be. Emerson said that a man can free himself "only by obedience to his own genius." How is Emerson obedient to his own genius? How do his works reflect his individualism, and how does his message and his writing style break with those of many of his contemporaries?
4. "Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" Emerson asks in the first paragraph of "Nature." He seems to advocate a new American style in literature rather than the adoption of European style and thought. How would you define the American style that was developing at the time? How has the definition changed in the years that followed?
5. Many of Emerson's essays were delivered as speeches or lectures (most notably, "The American Scholar"). How does this influence our reading of them?Based on his impassioned, instructive, and often inspirational bent, what assumptions can you make about Emerson's audience?
6. Emerson began his career as a minister but later left the church and founded and embraced transcendentalism. To what degree do religion and spirituality inform Emerson's prose, directly and indirectly, and how does Emerson differentiate the two?
7. Mary Oliver, in her Introduction, speaks of Emerson's references to both "Nature" and "nature." How does Emerson make this distinction? How would you? Are the two uses almost interchangeable? To which connotation is Emerson referring when he writes of the "American Scholar, " "Therein [nature] resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find-so entire, so boundless."?
8. In his journal, Thoreau writes, "there is no such general critic of men and things . . ." Emerson has often been categorized as a critic as much as he is a writer. How does Emerson critique his age-the literature, religion, politics-and what advice does he proffer?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Nietzsche was actually the one who introduced me to this "sage of concord". I have never known an american writer to be so unmaterialistic as Emerson. He is the ultimate Idealist in that he gives us hope to be our true nature while still listening to the inner voice of logic. No one has been more positivistic as Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have read the whole thing many times and throughout I feel a great sense of relief that a man such as this walked out streets. Thank you nature for creating him!
Emerson is one of those rare individuals who thought about the real world and the spiritual world, and could make sense out of both. His brilliant essays challenge the reader to think and to, figuratively speaking, paint with a broader brush. It is never too late to read, or reread, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Best stuff I've ever read in my life. Period. Even better than Walden, although not quite as coherently constructed. The ideas are every bit as deep. Deeper, probably. Emerson loved people. Thoreau was a bit more misanthropic and preferred to be alone. I love both of these guys and Walden (Thoreaus' work) would have to be my all time favorite book of all time. But I really think Thoreau owes a lot to Emerson. He had to have borrowed many of his ideas. Emerson and Thoreau are the two most important authors EVER... not just American authors. I'm talking about in the history of the world all around the world. They're awsome. READ THEM!!! This stuff reads like modern scripture, but there's no hidden meanings. It's easy enough to understand. But it'll change your world (for the better) if you can get through it. Cool stuff.
American philosopher and Harvard professor Stanley Cavell claims "Emerson and Thoreau... are the founding philosophers of America" and comparable to Plato. Before reading this I tackled Thoreau. Emerson was his mentor, and they were both considered part of the Transcendental circle in mid-Century America. I found Emerson less irritating than Thoreau, but less readable and challenging. By challenging I don't mean less difficult, but less thought-provoking. I think Emerson is harder to parse, to "get." From what I've read elsewhere even many of his contemporaries found Emerson impenetrable and at times even incoherent. Thoreau on the other hand is easily understandable--and often provocative. So even while I hated what Thoreau had to say in "Living Without Principle" or "A Plea for Captain John Brown" I was engaged and I could see how his thinking tied in with various schools of thought and movements and the history of the era. I seldom felt that way about Emerson. And most of the essays were originally lectures and it shows. I often felt "talked at" from a height in a way I didn't feel with Thoreau. I got a sense of just how far apart we are in his essay "Transcendentalism" where he divides people into "Idealists" and "Materialists." He's definitely the first, and I'm definitely the second. I value being grounded in the senses and reason and science--I'm a fan of reality. I find nature more harsh and cruel than beautiful and pure. I'm not much interested in doctrinal issues in Christianity such as examined in "An Address to Harvard Divinity School" and "The Lord's Supper" or such spiritual essays as "The Over-Soul," which I found about as relevant to reality as a horoscope.And for a quintessential American philosopher (not that Thoreau was much better in this) I couldn't help but note that Emerson pretty much ignores any American intellectuals such as Franklin, Paine, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson et al to pretty much load up instead on classical allusions. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. called Emerson's address "The American Scholar" America's "Intellectual Declaration of Independence," but I couldn't see it in that essay. European thinkers alluded to in the article? Plato, Cicero, Chaucer, Bacon, Shakespeare, Marvell, Dryden, Locke, Pope, Swedenborg, Linnaeus, Johnson, Goldsmith, Cowper, Gibbon, Goethe, Burns, Cuvier, Wordsworth, Davy, and Carlyle. Americans? None. Admittedly in 1937 writers such as Poe, Longfellow, Melville and Hawthorne had yet to make their mark, but I can't for the life of me see anything in the address that has American roots and his philosophy in general obviously owes huge debts to Plato, Descartes and Kant. The density of classical and topical allusion made much of what he wrote about in these works obscure to me.I also think there are some thinkers where you're just fine on your own--that they can be sophisticated yet accessible. Plato for one. Even Thoreau. With Emerson I did miss not reading this book as part of a college class or well-educated reading group. I suspect with Emerson that there was a lot that may have passed over my head. He's long-winded, rambling, pedantic and very abstract. That said, there was hardly one essay in the book where I didn't find insightful and striking passages in the essays. I suspect that one thing that made Emerson so difficult is so much insight and wisdom is so densely packed in that you hardly have time to take in one idea before another hits you. He was hard to absorb and I admit some essays I just skimmed over, but even the earlier ones that I determinedly tackled word for word I wouldn't say I understood completely. If I had to pick a favorite essay, it would be "Self-Reliance" with that famous passage about consistency being "the hobgoblin of little minds" and "Friendship" with just so many passages that stuck out to me ("A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud." "Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his
I outgrew the transcendentalists by the time i was 16, but I think everyone should go through an Emerson-Thoreau period.
This is not a review of this specific volume of Emerson's major writings , but rather a few reflections about him and his work which try to sum up my own acquaintance with it. Emerson is like his student and friend Thoreau a poetic thinker. He is deep in a kind of perception which carries with it aphoristic beauty .He is one of the great American originals, and one of its premier philosophers.His idea and ideal of self - reliance goes to the heart of a certain kind of unique American striving .He is the thinker who builds a better mousetrap,and the world does beat a pathway to his door. But as many of his interpreters,notably Stephen Whicher make clear he has a darker side than his primary outgoing,pioneering optimism..He knows in his life many tragic personal losses , and that too is in his thought. Emerson is one of the great American representative men of the nineteeth century, of the American Renaissance.He is the mentor of Thoreau and also the one who declares his other great pupil Whitman's promise to the world.William James and Pragmatism also come from his thought. There is much tangle in his thought and much contradiction, but he truly embraces the contradictions and is greater than them. He is an American idea and an American ideal , and if we a century and one half - later are somehow more subdued we are nonetheless grateful to him for the shot heard round the world , which announced a new great hope for mankind , a philosophy of freedom and exploration and great great concision in revelation of nature 's plain and hidden beauties.
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