Ralph Waldo Emerson American Literature Analysis
Throughout his literary career, Emerson consistently advocated the idea of self-reliance, of making self the ultimate judge of things in this world. The self he celebrates, however, is not the same as the individual self, which threatens to become selfishness, but an autonomous spirit which wills to act according to universal moral laws. This spirit, which is located in all objects, may grow as a result of communion with nature.
Like many Romantics, who give nature an essential role in their intrinsic lives by treating it either as an equal partner with, or as a substitute for, God, Emerson often expresses a passion for nature, as can be seen in his famous work Nature (1836). His love for nature appears to he the expression of his heart based on nature’s utilitarian value; however, his reason tells him otherwise. In his analytical reasoning, he follows the argument of traditional idealism in conceiving nature as an ephemeral phenomenon without independent existence. As a result of the conflict between his intellect and his emotion, Emerson remains essentially indecisive as to the ontological being of nature.
From his early work Nature to the publication of Letters and Social Aims (1875), he consistently uses the image of shadows to illustrate the essence of nature. What is emphasized in an equally consistent manner throughout Emerson’s life is the utilitarian value, both spiritual and physical, of nature to humankind. Because of the extremely important role that it enjoys in a person’s daily life, Emerson cannot afford to part with nature, which is emotionally close to him, nor can he follow the traditional doctrine of idealism without misgivings.
His love for nature often makes him doubt the statement of idealism, and these emotions force him to endow nature with life—hence the persistent tension between emotion and intellect in Emerson. When his reason gains ascendancy, he will deny that nature has a soul. Once his emotion becomes dominant, however, he will not hesitate to attribute a spirit or apply the metaphorical expression of transcendence to nature.
In “The Over-Soul” (1842), Emerson works out the framework for his idea of oneness, a metaphysical basis for the celebration of ego. The Over-Soul is the embodiment of wisdom, virtue, power, and beauty, among which virtue is supreme. To be the partner of the Creator—or to be a creator—one’s duty lies only in assuring the unceasing circular flow between one’s own soul and the Over-Soul. It follows that when Emerson says in his “Divinity School Address” that the man who renounces himself comes to himself, he means only the renunciation of the willful interference with the free flowing of the universal spirit, not biblical self-denial.
To obey the soul, according to Emerson, one’s acts would naturally arrange themselves by irresistible magnetism in a straight line. Because of the constant communication with and participation of the divine essence of the universe, each individual becomes part of the essence and is, thus, self-sufficient in every moment of his or her existence. As the divinity of the Over-Soul is inherent in the soul of each individual, one fulfills this divinity by being true to the transcendental spirit in oneself and by keeping it free from the harmful interpositions of one’s own artificial will. Virtue is not, as is made clear in “Spiritual Laws” (1841), the product of conscious calculation and should not be interfered with by will.
Applied to history, the idea of the Over-Soul leads to a subjective view of the past. History, according to Emerson, is only a record of the universal mind, and its task is to find the expression of one’s soul. Under this notion, what is called history is actually biography. A similarly moralistic view characterizes his theory of art. Although Emerson’s theory of the Over-Soul lays the groundwork for Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855), his view of art focuses more on a poet’s character than on the work of art.
What characterizes a poet, according to Emerson, is the power to perceive the unity of nature and the ability to impart one’s impression of it through imagination. As every person is susceptible to the work of the Over-Soul and possesses imagination, every person is thus potentially a poet. In cultivating one’s power and exercising one’s imagination, the poet should communicate with nature. Because of the ability to see the essence of this world and the power to employ signs to express it, the poet animates and illuminates other people and thus becomes a spiritual emancipator. The prestige that the poet enjoys, however, is not exclusive:It is equally shared by the hero and the sage. These three sovereigns—the namer, the doer, and the knower—are simply different names for the highest progeny of the Over-Soul.
A change has been noted in Emerson’s thought in his later period, when fate and limitation are emphasized. Emerson speaks of fate with awe; nevertheless, his tone remains defiant. Apart from, or in spite of, the emphasis on fate, assertions of thought and will are frequently made in his later works, as is demonstrated by the posthumous book Natural History of Intellect (1893), which primarily concerns the soul rather than the exterior world. Even in the essays “Fate” and “Allusions” (1860), where limitation is a major concern, the fundamental views expressed are still those that characterize his early period. As a counterbalance to the idea of illusion, sincerity is invoked by Emerson in his later works. With the recognition of this limitation as well as the corresponding stress on will and thought, Emerson’s doctrines thus become more profound.
It has been noted that every work of Emerson appears to contain all of his major ideas. His works are, indeed, often a highly crystallized form of writing resulting from the long process of modifications based on his audiences’ different responses. Because of the complexity of ideas, his essays often convey the impression of great diversity without clear logical connections. The central statements—usually simple, short, and concise—tend to be the most powerful expressions, calling for no lengthy modifier, yet yielding great insight. Emerson’s masterly command of everyday language continues to be a wonder in American literature.
First published: 1836
Type of work: Essay
Through communion with nature, one is able to transcend oneself and this world and achieve union with the divine essence of the universe.
Composed of an introduction and eight chapters, Nature, Emerson’s first book, contains all the fundamental ideas that were to be developed at length later in his life. The dominant theme of this work—the harmony between humans and nature—also became the theoretical basis of many literary works composed after it in the nineteenth century United States.
The treatise begins with a criticism of reliance on the past and a suggestion to depend on oneself to explore this world. In explaining the justification for self-trust, Emerson espouses a dualistic view of the universe, which, according to him, is divided into two parts: one, the self which represents the soul, the other, the exterior world, which he terms nature, the latter being subordinated to the former. Perfect correspondence, in his view, exists between these two parts, a link which makes one’s communication with the outside world possible. To him, nature is all benevolence; community, by contrast, often signifies waywardness.
In communicating with nature, he believes, one is able to purge oneself of all cares and eventually achieve a mystical union with the universe. Apart from spiritual nourishment, nature provides an individual’s material needs. At higher levels, it further fulfills one’s aesthetic sentiment, serves as the vehicle of thought, and disciplines one’s mind. Under the heading “Beauty,” which constitutes the third chapter, a theory of aesthetics is advanced. Emerson distinguishes three kinds of beauty in nature: the beauty of exterior forms, which is the lowest kind; spiritual beauty, with virtue as its essence; and the intellectual beauty characterized by a search for the absolute order of things.
Characteristic of Emerson, unity can be found among these three kinds of beauty, which, at the ultimate level, are but different expressions of the same essence: “God is the all-fair. Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.” The equation of beauty, truth, and virtue is typical of Romantic aesthetics.
In discussing the use of nature as the vehicle of thought, Emerson further illustrates the correspondence between nature and soul, and matter and mind, using this link as the basis for his theory of language. According to him, language originally came from and should remain in close contact with natural images or facts. A language characterized by, or a discourse drawing heavily upon, vivid images is thus most desirable.
Because of the identification of beauty, truth, and virtue as different expressions of the Creator, the corruption of a person’s character is necessarily followed by that person’s corrupted use of language. Viewed in this light, people with strong minds who lead simple lives in the countryside cannot but have an advantage in the use of powerful language over people residing in the city, who are prone to be distracted by the material world.
After language, discipline—another use of nature at a still higher level—occurs. Following Coleridge and some of the nineteenth century German idealists, Emerson distinguishes two kinds of cognitive faculties: one, reason, which perceives the analogy that unites matter and mind, the other, understanding, which discerns the characteristics of things. Apart from the reiteration of the tremendous healing power of nature, which is esteemed as a religious preacher, the idea of unity is presented.
It is Emerson’s belief that what unites nature and soul, matter and mind, is a moral sentiment, sometimes called the Creator, the Universal Spirit, or the Supreme Being, which both pervades and transcends the two different parts of the universe. The ultimate discipline that one receives from nature, he maintains, should be the recognition and acceptance of this Universal Spirit underlying both the world and the self.
The tremendous importance that nature commands in his thought prompts Emerson to discuss its metaphysical status in the sixth chapter, titled “Idealism.” Before exploring this issue, he makes it clear that whether nature substantially exists or is simply a reflection of one’s mind is not exactly settled and makes little difference to him in terms of his love for nature. He then proceeds, however, to maintain that senses or understanding based on senses tends to make one believe in the absolute existence of nature, whereas reason, the better cognitive faculty, modifies this belief. The further distinction between a sensual person, who is confined by the material world, and a poet, who frees himself or herself with imagination from the domination of the material world, shows that Emerson favors the view that nature does not have absolute existence.
The discussion of the issue eventually ends with the reiteration of the superiority of the soul and trust in God, whose creation of nature is to be regarded for humankind’s emancipation. Having emphatically asserted the superiority of the soul, Emerson gives the following chapter the title “Spirit” to indicate that the essential function of nature is to lead one back to the Universal Spirit. In order to do so, one needs to employ a creative imagination rather than a mechanical analysis to achieve communion with nature: “a guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation, and . . . a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” The problem with this world, according to him, can only be a problem with self. In concluding Nature, Emerson therefore exhorts one to achieve unity with nature, to trust in oneself, and eventually to create one’s own world.
“The American Scholar”
First published: 1837 (as An Oration Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society)
Type of work: Lecture
The American scholar should avoid being enslaved to the past or foreign influences; people should rely upon the self as the ever-dependable source of inspiration.
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...
(The entire section is 5415 words.)
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