Study Guide

The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The American Scholar Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In 1837, Emerson was invited to deliver the address “The American Scholar,” one of the most influential American speeches made at his time, to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa; the same topic of the address had been prescribed year after year since his boyhood.

When Emerson urged American scholars at the beginning of his address to create an original literature free from European influence, he was to some extent reiterating a conventional theme. The creation of an original literature, Emerson maintained, however, would have to be based on an inner spirit of self-reliance—the opening and concluding theme of Nature. The primary concern of this address is thus with an intellectual’s spiritual cultivation—the eventual goal being “Man Thinking”—rather than the actual composition of literary works.

In the discussion of the scholar’s education, three kinds of influence are mentioned: nature, books, and action. Of primary importance, permanent nature corresponds to one’s mind, hence it should be studied for the enhancement of the understanding of the self. The close relationship between the soul and nature is explained here in terms of a seal and print. The second source of influence is the mind of the past, which can best be seen in books. Emerson criticizes those scholars who allow themselves to be dominated by the past great minds to the extent that they think for the historical figures rather than for themselves,...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

The American Scholar Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar calls for cultural and intellectual independence and combines a rejection of industrialization with a nuanced diagnosis of modern alienation. The essay exhibits Emerson’s striking aphoristic formulations, and although the figurative language is sometimes elliptical, its subversive message reverberates through American cultural life and influences thinkers and writers around the world.

The essay, which introduces many of Emerson’s core intellectual themes, first was delivered as an address on August 31, 1837, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was published first as a pamphlet and reissued in 1849 as part of Emerson’s collection Addresses and Lectures. With the essay’s publication, Emerson became one of the foremost public intellectuals in the United States.

Emerson begins the essay with a sketch of the social fragmentation caused by work. Equated with their occupational function, people become tool-like, with a corresponding social arrangement that reinforces this state of affairs. He views this deformation as inherent in the mercantile and manufacturing culture then emerging in the United States. This social fragmentation not only inhibits human potential; in the extreme case of chattel slavery, its soul-destroying consequences are dehumanizing.

In vivid contrast to this lapsed condition, Emerson posits a vital aboriginal state that is characterized by a kind of cosmic consciousness. In this sense his examination of the American scholar is a reformation project, an idealized portrait of intellectual life rooted in the liberated humanity of the individual thinker. In practice this means an outright rejection of conformity and groupthink, including the uncritical acceptance of established creeds and dogmas. For Emerson, systems and institutions promote mental timidity. They diminish the value and intensity of direct experience while undermining the self-reliant agency necessary for authentic engagement with the world.

Emerson then reviews the primary educative influences on what he calls Man Thinking: nature, history, and life as action or praxis. The essay treats nature as endless depth, a mirror image of the mind and the soul. The innate tendency of the mind, says Emerson, is to classify seemingly disparate natural phenomena into tendencies, facts, and laws. Moreover,...

(The entire section is 973 words.)

The American Scholar Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

Bosco, Ronald A., and Joel Myerson, eds. Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Sacks, Kenneth S. Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Yanella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982.