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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1803 - 1882).

L i f e

- grew up in a family including a heritage of nine successive generations of notable New England ministers

- involved with Unitarianism = rejected the Calvinist legacy of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, shifted from the individual’s depravity to individual’s moral capabilities

- disapproved the worshipping of ‘the dead forms of our forefathers’ in favour of more intuitive and personally revelatory religious experience

- resigned his ministry: ‘in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry’ >> went to Europe >> then Concord (Massachusetts)

W o r k

- generally considered the chief spokesman for transcendentalism

- an ambitious and dynamic lecturer: drew the lectures from his extensive journals, commented on the controversies of the time, private and public persons, and his notes on reading

R e l i g i o n :

- urged the ministers to free themselves from the authority of the church, and to instruct their parishioners ‘to love God without mediator’

- developed this controversial ideas in an address at the Harvard Divinity School, resulted in his condemnation as a heretic

S t y l e :

- his essays display the way his mind actually works: moves from impression to impression, from association to association

- the flow of his texts analogous to the flow of the natural world

- his philosophy rather inconsistent x but: Emerson: ‘to define is to confine’

- achievement: defined the traditional American values of self-reliance, individual authority, individual responsibility, resolute optimism, moral idealism, veneration of experience, and worshipful return to nature

> the work of such divergent figures as Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, etc.

P r o s e :

Nature (1836):

- attempts to reject the Old World and build a new one: ‘why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?’

- nature should substitute the new nation’s lack of cultural heritage, and should be the source for the articulation and development of the American cultural identity

- nature should replace the Bible as capable of being read by anyone

- differentiates the following modes of nature:

(a) Nature as a commodity: food for our senses

(b) Nature as a standard of Beauty

(c) Nature as a source of language: language derives from natural objects

(d) Nature as a teacher of discipline

“The American Scholar” (1937):

- an address developed at the Harvard Divinity School

- urges to break with the past, look at the present, and concentrate on one’s own experience

- bases his philosophy on spontaneous action, creative intuition, self-reliance, and self-trust

- the American scholar should be ‘The Man Thinking’ x not parroting other men’s thought

=> declares the independence of American literature: celebrated by the foremost critic of the period, James Russell Lowell, as America’s ‘Intellectual Declaration of Independence’


(Picture: Wikimedia Commons).

  • Author

    Ralph Waldo Emerson. (1803 - 1882). American.
  • Work

    Philosopher. Essayist. Orator. Poet. Author of Nature (1836).
  • Genre

    Romanticism. Transcendentalism. 


Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed. The Cambridge History of American  Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cunliffe, Marcus. The Literature of the United States. London: Penguin, 1991.

Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1994.

McQuade, Donald, gen.ed. The Harper American Literature. New York: Harper & Collins, 1996.

Ruland, Richard, Malcolm Bradbury. Od  puritanismu k postmodernismu. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1997.

Vančura, Zdeněk, ed. Slovník spisovatelů: Spojené státy americké. Praha: Odeon, 1979.

Means of Education

In "The American Scholar" (1837), Emerson defines following means of education:

(a) Nature: active perception and personal experience of Nature

(b) The Past: practical use of knowledge gained from books

(c) Action: dignity and necessity of everyday labour


"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".

From Nature (1836).


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