American Literature Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson’s writings are full and not always easy to grasp. To help you understand him, I am assigning excerpts from his three major essays. I have tried to frame my questions to help you understand as you read. These excerpts will give you an overall idea of Emerson’s philosophy without getting bogged down with too much difficult reading.
While it is imperative that you read all three excerpts from the Emerson essays, I am only requiring that you respond in writing to TWO essays. You must write the assigned summary of Nature; then you may choose either to answer the questions on The American Scholar or interpret the quotes from Self-Reliance.
First of all, be sure to read the footnote to Nature. Emerson’s main point in the introduction (which he makes in several of his works, by the way) is that we should not experience nature (or life) through the eyes of “foregoing generations.” We should experience nature on a personal level. He questions, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?” Basically, the transcendentalists expressed faith in the intuition of the individual; each individual should experience life for himself or herself and should create a personal philosophy based on insight – not on what tradition has taught. Keep that in mind as you read the excerpt from Nature.
Your assignment for Nature is to express Emerson’s main points in your own words. Summarize chapter 1 (pp. 554 – 557). Follow the format below and consider the questions for each section.
1. The first two paragraphs. What is his point about the stars? What does he mean by “Nature never wears a mean (there is more than one definition to this word) appearance?”
2. The third paragraph. What is the difference between the wood-cutter (the natural man) and the poet? How does a poet view nature?
3. The fourth paragraph. What is the point Emerson makes about children/adults in relation to nature? What does nature do for those who take the time to experience it? What do you make of the following quote?
“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and
uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a
transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal
Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
4. The fifth and sixth paragraphs. Focus on this quote from paragraph six: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” Do you see a similarity in Emerson’s message and these opening lines of “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant? Explain the connection.
To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.
The American Scholar
From The American Scholar we have the following quote:
In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he [the scholar] tends to become
a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”
Emerson encourages instead urges the scholar to be “Man Thinking.”
1. In your own words, what does it mean to be “Man Thinking”?
2. Emerson then begins to discuss influences upon the scholar. What are the two influences
(marked I and II in the text) upon the scholar? What would Emerson say is the right relation
(or response) to these influences? Think this concept through and be specific.
3. What does Emerson say about books and learning from books?
4. The third topic Emerson discusses in this essay is action. What does Emerson say about
action in the first two paragraphs of section III?
You will find the following quotes in order as you read the assigned pages in Self Reliance. Comment on each quote, telling what you think Emerson is saying and possibly why he is saying it. NOTE THIS: Emerson uses the term’s man / manhood several times in these passages. What is he saying about being a real man (or woman)?
1. There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance, that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground given to him to till.
2. Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.
3. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.
4. Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. . . . Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. (Why does he use the word sacred? Given what you know about transcendentalism, what is the significance of this word choice?)
5. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.
6. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . . . With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. . . . To be great is to be misunderstood.