Top Bottom Home Site Map Topic Previous Next Top
home \ essays & papers \ by topic \ literary studies \ emerson. the american scholar

"The American Scholar" [1837]
(Seminar Handout)

Section Index

  1. Notes on the Text
  3. Thoughts on the Text
  4. Selected Bibliography

  What's Related  
  Subseq. Pages - Essays & Papers  

1. Notes on the Text:

Emerson Ralph Waldo Emerson
  1. General Impression: visual speech, poetic style, religious influences
  2. Structure of the Text:
    1. Introduction [467-468]
    2. Education/Influences:
      1. Nature [468-469]
      2. The Mind of the Past [469-472]
      3. Action [472-474]
    3. Duties [474-477]
    4. Conclusions and Perspectives [477-480]
  3. Style:key words, examples, images & metaphors
  4. Interconnections: Nature, Representative Men
  5. Philosophic Tendencies:
    Romanticist (genius, individuality, freedom, quest for a national identity)
    Transcendental (divine, sublime, unity)
    Post-structuralist (deconstruction of the hero, dec. of tradition, self-reflexivity, individuality)


"our intellectual declaration of independence"
[O.W. Holmes, in: Zapf 85]

(I. Introduction)

"Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves." [467, intellectual independence]

"the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men" ... "Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things" ... "In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking," [468; cf. "E PLURIBUS UNUM"]

"Is not, indeed, every man a student, and do not all things exist for the student’s behoof?" [468]

(II) 1. Nature:

"The scholar must needs stand wistful and admiring before this great spectacle. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending he never can find - so entire, so boundless." [469; non-temporality]

"Classification begins" ... "[...] since the dawn of history, there has been a constant accumulation and classifying of facts. But what is classification but the perceiving that these objects are not chaotic, and are not foreign, but have a law which is also a law of the human mind?" [469, meta-structures, transcendental suborder]

"[..] he and it [=Nature] proceed from one root" ... "And what is that Root? Is not that the soul of his soul?" ... "[..] he shall look forward to an ever expanding knowledge as to a becoming creator. He shall see that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part." [469, nature and man linked - Native American influences?]

"And, in fine, the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim." [469]

(II) 2. Past:

"Books are the best type of the influences of the past" [469]

"Each age, it is found, must write its own books." ... "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they write these books" [470]

"Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm [..] the biblomaniacs of all degrees" ... "Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul,- the soul, free, sovereign, active." [470]

"The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates. In this action, it is genius [..] In its essence, it is progressive" [470]

"Man thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings." ... "We hear that we may speak." [471, - cf. "A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work" (Nature, 443)]

"One must be an inventor to read well" ... "There is then creative reading, as well as creative writing." [471]

"Colleges [..] can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create" [472]

(II) 3. Action:

"Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we can not even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly, we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not." [472]

"The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power." [472]

"The new deed is yet a part of life, - remains for a time immersed in our unconscious live." [473]

"But the final value of action, like that of books, and better than books, is, that it is a resource." [473]

"Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary. The stream retreats to its source. A great soul will be strong to live, a well as strong to think." [474]

"[..] a man shall not for the sake of wider activity sacrifice any opinion to the popular judgments and modes of action."

(III. Duties)

"They [his duties] are such to become Man Thinking. They may all be comprised in self-trust. The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances." [474]

"He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart." [475]

"He and he only knows the world. The world of any moment is the merest appearance" [475]

"He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds." ... "[..] until he finds that he is the complement of his hearers" [475]

"In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be, - free and brave" ... "Fear always springs from ignorance." ... "So is the danger a danger still: so is the fear worse. Manlike let him turn and face it. [..] and can therefor defy it, and pass on superior. The world is his who can see through its pretension." [475f]

"It is a mischievous notion that we are come late into nature; that the world was finished a long time ago. As the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it." ... "[..]a man has anything in him divine, the firmament flows before him, and takes his signet and form. Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind." ... "The great man makes the great thing." ... "He [the great man] lives for us, and we live in him." ... "For a man, rightly viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men." [476f, idea of the genius, cf. Representative Men]

"The books which once we valued more than the apple of the eye, we have quite exhausted." ... "[..] we have been that man, and have passed on." ... "The man has never lived that can feed us ever." ... "It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men." [477, deconstruction of the genius & of great men, overcoming hero worship]

(IV. Conclusions)

"This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it." [478, cf. Nature: "The sun shines to-day also" (440)]

"I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal Minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of?" [478]

"[..] show me the ultimate reason of these matters; - show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking" ... "[..] and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber room, but has form and order; there is no trifle, there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench." [478, meta-structures, transcendence, the sublime]

"This [common] writing is blood-warm. Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote. The near explains the far. The drop is a small ocean. A man is related to all nature." [478, holographic principles: each part of a genuine hologram contains the whole information of the entire hologram. A description of the holographic model of explaining the universe can be found within Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe. Emerson comes this model quite near.]

"Another sign of our times [..] is, the new importance given to the single person." ... "He must be an university of knowledges." ... "The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature, [..] in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all." [479, individuality, independence, self-responsibility]

"We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame." ... "They did not yet see [..] that if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him. Patience - patience; - with the shades of your own infinite life" [479]

"We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands, we will speak our own minds." [479f]

"A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men." [480, independence, over-soul, divinity: cf. Nature: "The foundations of man are not in matter, but in spirit. But the element of spirit is eternity. ... A man is a god in ruins." (465)]

3. Thoughts on the Text:

  • Emerson’s text is not just about the intellectual independence of American scholarship and culture from Europe. With "Nature" (1836) and "The American Scholar" (1837) he foremost establishes a vision of the world showing mankind in linkage to nature, rooted in a divine over-soul. This connection is also implying a greater kind of belonging together of mankind itself (E PLURIBUS UNUM).

  • The method of the text might seem to be aimed at the issue of intellectual independence; but this kind of independence has to be earned. The American scholar therefore has to possess certain qualities and a certain awareness of nature, he has to be independent and, most of all, productive - and he also has to be able to overcome himself, his own genius.

  • The philosophical traditions Emerson writes in are not that easily to define. There are romanticist (the genius, the quest for nationality, individuality) and transcendent elements (referring to the divine, to the sublime, to meta-structures and suborders, to cosmic unity). But some of his notions also anticipate postmodern theses of post-structuralism (the deconstruction of genius, tradition, hollow constructions) and scientific models (the holographic model describing a unity of mind and matter). But all such explanatory attempts can merely be fragments; Emerson’s philosophy is a very specific and personal one, to try to categorize it into common concepts would to some extent do him wrong.

4. Selected Bibliography:

  • Roland Barthes. "The Death of the Author". Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977. 142-148.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson. "The American Scholar". Nina Baym et al, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed., shorter. N.Y.: Norton 1995, 467-480
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Nature". Nina Baym et al, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed., shorter. N.Y.: Norton 1995, 440-467
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Representative Men". Essays and Lectures. N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1983
  • F.O. Matthiessen. American Renaissance. Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941
  • Michael Talbot. The Holographic Universe. N.Y.: HarperPerennial 1991
  • Robert M. Watkins. Black Holes and Teepee Rings. On Cosmic Mysteries & Spiritual Mythology. Kalispell, Montana: Black Wolf, 1994
  • Hubert Zapf, ed. Amerikanische Literaturgeschichte. Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler 1997

December 2nd/3rd, 1998

© Phil John Kneis. all rights reserved   · - internet diary · poetry · serial photography
The Arts Circle