Emerson, Ralph Waldo (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882
American essayist and poet.
Universally regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the founders of the Transcendental movement, a group of New England literary figures who believed deeply in the presence of the divine in human beings. The Transcendentalists asserted that each individual must determine what is morally correct regardless of religious dogma, and Emerson's essays are regarded as some of the most important and commanding literary expressions of this philosophy. In addition, Emerson is also widely regarded as one of the most effective architects of a distinctly American philosophy embracing optimism, individuality, and mysticism, and he is noted for his influence on such authors as Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson.
Emerson was born in Boston to a long line of Unitarian ministers and it was there that he spent a sheltered childhood. He graduated from Harvard University in 1821, taught school in Boston for four years, and began attending Harvard Divinity School in 1825. The following year, he became a minister and was ordained pastor of Boston's Second Church in 1829. At this time he also married his first wife, Ellen Tucker, whose death in 1831 left Emerson with an inheritance that secured his financial future. Despite his traditional academic career, Emerson was familiar with numerous modern religious influences, including ideas regarding Romantic subjectivity, a philosophy that was just then beginning to reach America from Europe. Additionally, his years at Harvard had exposed him to the publications of the German Higher Critics, as well as translations of Hindu and Buddhist poetry. Thus, even while he assumed the pastorate of his church, Emerson brought with him many doubts concerning traditional Christian belief. Unable to stem these growing misgivings, in 1832 Emerson resigned his position as pastor after expressing objections to the traditional meaning and function of the Communion ritual. Following his resignation, Emerson spent the next year traveling in Europe, where he met such writers as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. During these years he also visited the botanical gardens at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, an experience he claimed inspired his interest in the mystical significance of nature. He returned to America in 1833 and settled in Concord, Massachusetts, where he began his career as a lecturer. He soon established his reputation as one of the most successful speakers on the country's new lyceum circuit. During the late 1830s and early 1840s Emerson published several works that presented his thought at its most idealistic and optimistic. His first published work, an essay entitled Nature (1836), repudiated traditional religion, declaring nature to be the divine example of inspiration, as well as the source of boundless possibilities of human fulfillment. This work in particular is believed to have helped found what would later become known as the Transcendental Club, a group of intellectuals that included Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Emerson frequently contributed poetry to the group's journal, the Dial, and later served as its editor. It was also during this time that Emerson wrote and delivered two of his most important lectures: “The American Scholar” (1837), an address delivered to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society, widely regarded as a call for a distinct school of American intellectualism that was independent of European influence; and “The Divinity School Address” in which he caused tremendous controversy by challenging the tenets of traditional Christianity and defined Transcendental philosophy in terms of the “impersoneity” of God. Emerson undertook a second journey to Europe in 1847, which included a lecture tour in England. This trip also resulted in the publication of his English Traits (1856), a work that was hailed by contemporaries as an accurate evaluation of contemporary English society. For the next two decades, Emerson continued to write and lecture and was often referred to as the “Sage of Concord.” He died in Concord in 1882.
Emerson wrote essays and poetry over several decades, but most of his thoughts regarding Transcendentalism were laid out in his earliest works, including Nature and his lectures “The American Scholar” and “The Divinity School Address.” The doctrines he formulated in these early works were later expanded and elaborated upon in Essays (1838) and Essays: Second Series (1844). From these collections, the essays “Self-Reliance,” “The Over-Soul,” and “The Poet” are among the best known. The philosophical and religious outlook of Emerson's works are traced to many sources, including the Unitarian religion, German Philosophical Idealism, the work of Swedish scientist and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the Hindu scriptures, all of which emphasize the unity of nature, humanity, and God. Much of Emerson's Transcendental philosophy is encapsulated in Nature, a work in which he argued that nature is a symbolic language that can reveal the mind of God, and that through the experience of oneness with nature, a communion with God is possible. In addition to his essays, Emerson was a prolific contributor of poetry to the Dial and later issued many of his poems in Poems (1847) and May-Day, and Other Pieces (1867). Well-known poems in these collections include “The Rhodora,” “The Sphinx,” “Brahma,” “The Humble Bee,” and one of his earliest works, the “Concord Hymn.” Scholars have charted a steady decline in Emerson's idealism in his poetry and prose works following his contributions to the Dial and the publication of his Essays: Second Series. The most noted example of his humanistic acquiescence to the reality of circumstances surrounding mortal limitations is The Conduct of Life (1860). Other important works include Representative Men (1850), a series of essays on the men who most closely fit Emerson's ideal, and another collection titled Society and Solitude (1870). Emerson spent the last years of his life in Concord, writing little, but enjoying national recognition throughout America as a central figure of the American Renaissance.
Emerson left a large literary legacy and is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential writers of the nineteenth century. However, critics have found it difficult to agree on which facet of Emerson's work deserves the most attention and where his influence has been most profoundly felt. Filled with maxims, his writings offer encouragement and consoling wisdom, which has gained him an enduring place in American popular culture. On the other hand, he has also been openly acknowledged by scholars as one of the most important influences in the fields of poetry and philosophy. Although he published a large number of poems in his lifetime, Emerson's poetry has often been regarded as secondary to his prose writing. In fact, it wasn't until the 1990s that a collected edition of his poems was issued and it is only in the last few years that any significant critical analyses of his poetry have become available. According to Saundra Morris, a balanced overview of Emerson's work is impossible without a significant emphasis on his verse. Morris states that Emerson identified himself primarily as a poet and that as a poet-essayist he has exerted an enormous influence on other poets. While Emerson's writing was well received by most nineteenth-century scholars, he fell out of favor with critics during the 1920s and 1930s, many of whom charged that his works lacked unity and logical structure. More recent criticism, however, has repudiated this charge, noting a dialectical structure in Emerson's philosophy that unifies his otherwise disparate statements. Regardless of his critical reception, his poetry and theories regarding writing have been often cited as vitally influential to the work of authors such as Thoreau and Walt Whitman. In fact, Emerson the poet is now lauded as a theorist and goal-setter, and is revered for the creation of a distinctly American tradition in poetry. In recent years, Emerson and his writings have enjoyed renewed critical attention, including a re-evaluation of the artistic and philosophic merits of his work. In fact, during the 1980s and 1990s, Emerson's writing was acknowledged as a complex mixture of deeply resonant rhetoric that goes far beyond the traditional representations of his work. Now seen as one of the founding figures in the American philosophical tradition, Emerson's prose and poetry reflect the many contradictory mantles he assumed in his work, including those of Transcendentalist, philosopher, prose stylist, theorist, and social commentator.
Nature (essay) 1836
An Oration, Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge (essay) 1837; also published as The American Scholar 1901
Essays (essays) 1838; also published as Essays: First Series 1854
Essays: Second Series (essays) 1844
Poems (poetry) 1847
Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (essays) 1849
Representative Men: Seven Lectures (essays) 1850
English Traits (essays) 1856
The Conduct of Life (essays) 1860
May-Day and Other Pieces (poetry) 1867
Society and Solitude (essays) 1870
Letters and Social Aims (essays) 1876
Fortune of the Republic. Lecture Delivered at the Old South Church (essay) 1878
Lectures and Biographical Sketches (essays and biographies) 1884
Natural History of the Intellect, and Other Papers (essays) 1893
The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. (essays and poetry) 1903-21
The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 6 vols. (letters) 1939
Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. 16 vols. (journals and notebooks) 1960-82
The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson 4 vols. (sermons) 1989-92
The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 3 vols. (notebooks) 1990-94
(The entire section is 156 words.)
SOURCE: “The Making of an American Prophet: Emerson, His Audiences, and the Rise of the Culture Industry in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Lawrence Buell, Prentice Hall, 1993, pp. 77-100.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1987, Cayton offers an assessment of Emerson's cultural impact in the context of contemporary media.]
… The case of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most celebrated of American intellectuals, can shed light on the ways in which meanings are made in intellectual discourse and what those meanings have to do with those people not filling the role of intellectual within the culture. Historians have never known precisely how to categorize Emerson. Perry Miller saw him as the heir and transformer of Edwardsian Puritanism. F. O. Matthiessen saw in him the founder of American literary romanticism and termed his the “age of Emerson.” Others (notably Stanley Elkins) have seen him as a prime mover in a generation of reformers, with Transcendentalism being a dangerously uncompromising Emersonian movement for social reform. He was also, according to various scholars, a democratic philosopher, an incipient Darwinist, and a pragmatic mystic.1 Reception theory suggests that Emerson's cultural impact may have depended less on what he intended than on what key communities of interpreters made of him....
(The entire section is 12260 words.)
SOURCE: “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 34-57.
[In the following essay, Goodman provides an overview of Emerson's philosophical beliefs as expressed in his writings.]
Emerson is a direct link between American philosophy and European Romanticism. Soon after leaving his ministry in the Unitarian church (in part because he no longer believed in the “divine authority and supernatural efficacy”1 of the communion he administered), Emerson traveled to Europe where he met his heroes Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. There is little doubt of their influence on his thought or of Emerson's founding role in American Romanticism. As Harold Bloom observed, “Emerson is to American Romanticism what Wordsworth is to the British or parent version.”2
What is less clearly established is Emerson's importance as a philosopher. His thought plays a minor role in many histories and surveys of American philosophy,3 perhaps because it has no obvious connection with the major American movement of pragmatism. Yet one pragmatist, John Dewey, thought that Emerson was “the one citizen of the New World fit to have his name uttered in the same breath with that of Plato,”4 and another, William James, thought enough of Emerson to deliver an address to the Emerson centenary celebrations...
(The entire section is 13244 words.)
SOURCE: “Vision's Imperative: ‘Self-Reliance’ and the Command to See Things As They Are,” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 555-70.
[In the following essay, Jacobson explores Emerson's early theories on self-reliance, explaining that for Emerson, self-reliance leads to an emancipation of the will, allowing for a clearer understanding of the universe.]
Emerson sets down the practical imperative of his early thought in the opening paragraph of “Self-Reliance” when he writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense.”1 He describes a hyperbolic conception of freedom, freedom conceived as the unmediated expression of personal conviction unconstrained by regulations or rules. However, Emerson does not merely embrace the premise of pure expressivity; he goes on to assert in these lines that free expression affirms, shall affirm, “the universal sense.” Here we find what is peculiar and what is characteristic about Emerson's idea of self-reliance: its claim that radical freedom shall issue of necessity in universal value, that the hyperbolically private shall issue in a universal sense. The peculiarity of this belief can be emphasized by comparing it to its most obvious precedent, Kant's Categorical...
(The entire section is 7274 words.)
SOURCE: “The Nature of War in Emerson's ‘Boston Hymn,’” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3, Autumn, 1993, pp. 21-58.
[In the following essay, Cadava traces the link between nature and politics, in addition to examining Emerson's views on war in the context of his poem “The Boston Hymn.”]
Less than five years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Emerson announces a crisis in the structures of political and linguistic representation. “Language has lost its meaning in the universal cant,” he writes, “Representative Government is misrepresentative; Union is a conspiracy against the Northern States which the Northern States are to have the privilege of paying for; the adding of Cuba and Central America to the slave marts is enlarging the area of Freedom. Manifest Destiny, Democracy, Freedom, fine names for a ugly thing.”1 He makes this statement within the context of the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This Act had repealed the Missouri Compromise and legislated that the question of slavery be determined by individual state constitutions rather than by a national policy of exclusion. For Emerson, that slavery is to be preserved and extended signals a contradiction in the meaning of America, a contradiction that is dissimulated within a rhetoric of representation, democracy, and freedom. Declaring the rhetorical and historical basis of the...
(The entire section is 15806 words.)
SOURCE: “Toward a Grammar of Moral Life,” in Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatic and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 181-201.
[In the following excerpt, Robinson provides an assessment of Emerson's later career, noting that the author's personal struggles with authorship should prompt caution in too closely analyzing these texts as true examples of Emerson's ideas and writing.]
THE UNIVERSAL CIPHER
“I am of the oldest religion”
The assessment of Emerson's later career is complicated by the gradual decline in creative order that he was able to bring to his work after Society and Solitude. The pattern of revision and rearrangement of journal and lecture material into book form that had begun in the 1830s served him well in many respects, but the final process of selection, organization, and revision was always a burden to him, perhaps because it seemed further removed from the original moment of inspiration and lacked the immediacy of a potential living audience.1 Emerson's personal struggles with authorship were exacerbated in the 1860s by the emotional burdens and material constrictions of the Civil War, and his will and capacity to bring his papers into book form declined precipitously after a fire at his home in 1872.2 The resulting situation,...
(The entire section is 9950 words.)
SOURCE: “‘What poems are many private lives’: Emerson Writing the American Plutarch,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 103-29.
[In the following essay, Bosco examines Emerson's views on the link between biography and history in the context of his two biographical works, Representative Men and Lectures and Biographical Sketches.]
The world looks poor & mean so long as I think only of its great men; most of them of spotted reputation. But when I remember how many obscure persons I myself have seen possessing gifts that excited wonder, speculation, & delight in me … when I consider the absolute boundlessness of our capacity … [when] I recollect the charms of certain women, what poems are many private lives, each of which can fill our eye if we so will … then I feel the riches of my inheritance in being set down in this world gifted with organs of communication with this accomplished company.
(JMN 4:353-54; emphasis added)
Suffering from the trauma of witnessing his house burn in July, 1872, Ralph Waldo Emerson began to dictate his “last wishes” concerning his extensive collection of manuscript journals, notebooks, and related papers. During a recuperative journey, he gave specific instructions to his daughter Ellen...
(The entire section is 13164 words.)
SOURCE: “Emerson's ‘Domestic and Social Experiments’: Service, Slavery, and the Unhired Man,” in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 3, September, 1994, pp. 485-508.
[In the following essay, Ryan outlines Emerson's ideas on abolition, examining the development of these views in the context of the writer's own domestic arrangements.]
I hope New England will come to boast itself in being a nation of servants, & leave to the planters the misery of being a nation of served.
—R. W. Emerson, Journal C (1837)
Len Gougeon has shown that Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled a long way between 1837, when he made his first “abolitionist” speech, and 1844, when he affirmed his opposition to chattel slavery. The first effort, Gougeon notes, disappointed Emerson's friends because it was more a defense of free speech than a denunciation of American slavery; indeed, the great idealist had recommended tolerance for slaveholders' views. Yet by 1844 Emerson made a stirring antislavery speech which, according to Gougeon, found him speaking “with an emotional as well as an intellectual appreciation” he had not demonstrated earlier. Gougeon explains this dramatic shift with reference to developments in Emerson's philosophy and sense of vocation.1
Here, I propose another perspective on Emerson's decision to...
(The entire section is 9913 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Too Pathetic, Too Pitiable’: Emerson's Lessons in Love's Philosophy,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance Vol. 40, No. 2, 2nd Quarter, 1994, pp. 139-82.
[In the following essay, Selinger examines Emerson's view on marriage and love, and the friction between earthly love and a more divine love.]
I take my title from “Illusions,” the final essay in The Conduct of Life. Emerson has just named women as “the element and kingdom of illusion,” and defied anyone to “pluck away the … effects and ceremonies, by which they live.” In a moment he will announce with chilling calm that “[w]e are not very much to blame for our bad marriages.” The pivot between these statements comes in a punning interjection that discovers or exposes the illusions of matrimony, not in men's or women's actual faults, but encoded in the letters that name the space between them, the married state: “Too pathetic, too pitiable, is the region of affection, and its atmosphere always liable to mirage.”1 In this essay I want to dwell not on “Illusions” per se but on the lines of thought about affection and illusion, marriage and mirage, friendship and love that connect this essay to earlier Emersonian texts. What would it mean to take such observations seriously? What ethic and epistemology of love would it take for Emerson to mean them in the way we now...
(The entire section is 16367 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Living Property’: Emerson's Ethics,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 41, No. 3, 1995, pp. 177-247.
[In the following essay, Albrecht examines Emerson's ethical philosophy in the context of such essays as “Self-Reliance” and “Experience.”]
[T]hat which a man is, does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property.
What a man does, that he has. What has he to do with hope or fear? In himself is his might. Let him regard no good as solid but that which is in his nature, and which must grow out of him as long as he exists. The goods of fortune may come and go like summer leaves; let him scatter them on every wind as the momentary signs of his infinite productiveness.
—Emerson, “Spiritual Laws”
“When will you mend Montaigne?” Emerson challenged himself in 1835: “Where are your Essays? Can you not express your one conviction that moral laws hold?”1 Ironically, his philosophy, intended to affirm “moral laws,” has often been criticized as an amoral ethics of individualized activity. Emerson typically is accused of a “transcendentalist” fascination with the absolute that ignores or subsumes the tragic limitations of our material...
(The entire section is 14638 words.)
SOURCE: “The Anti-Emerson Tradition,” in Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century, Northern Illinois University Press, 1996, pp. 19-52.
[In the following essay, Lopez traces the critical reception of Emerson's philosophical writings through the decades in an attempt to define his place in American critical thinking.]
Melville and Whitman persuasively strive to give us the substance promised by their titles: grass and a whale, earth and the sea are delivered. … But Emerson? Is there not something cloudy at the center of his reputation, something fatally faded about the works he has left us? When, I ask myself, did I last read one of his celebrated essays? How much, indeed, are Emerson's works even assigned in literary courses where the emphasis is not firmly historical?
—John Updike, “Emersonianism” (1984)
In 1982 Alfred Kazin worried that criticism had for too long underestimated or overlooked entirely Ralph Waldo Emerson's “central concern with power”: “There is no book that truly does justice to Emerson's sense of power”; “[T]here is no satisfactory book on Emerson's mind itself and his relation to the romantic, bourgeois, ‘progressive’ sense of individual power that became the stock gospel of the nineteenth century.” A scant five years later, in a reinterpretation of...
(The entire section is 18732 words.)
SOURCE: “Emerson, Disclosure, and the Experiencing Self,” in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1996, pp. 51-64.
[In the following essay, Petruzzi contends that the disclosive theory of truth allows for a more complete description of Emerson's rhetorical theory than either Enlightenment rhetoric or Romantic rhetoric.]
Emerson was educated at Harvard at a time when composition and rhetorical theory were dominated by Hugh Blair's “commonsense” rhetoric. The nature of Emerson's rhetorical theory has most often been positioned somewhere between the two poles of Scottish “commonsense” and Romantic rhetorics. I will argue that the disclosive theory of truth presents a more complete and richer way to describe Emerson's rhetorical theory than either the Enlightenment rhetoric of “commonsense” or the Romantic rhetoric of “self-expression.” For Emerson, the experiencing-self functions to organize discourse and construct reality through the continual effort to deconstruct the discourse of public interpretations, what Heidegger calls the “they-self.” As the discourse of public interpretations is deconstructed, there is a concomitant action to reconstruct a more authentic, yet always partial and temporary “experiencing-self.” The experiencing-self lives “in a system of approximations. Every end is prospective of some other end, which is...
(The entire section is 5598 words.)
SOURCE: “Fate, Power, and History in Emerson and Nietzsche,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 43, No. 1-4, 1997, pp. 267-93.
[In the following essay, Friedl offers a comparison between the philosophical vision and the terminology expounded by Emerson and Nietzsche in some of their best-known essays.]
Radical changes or innovations in the history of thinking—changes that characterize a whole new epoch—usually are not sufficiently accounted for when we limit our attention solely to changing concepts, tenets, propositions, or systems of belief. In his analysis of seventeenth-century rationalism and scientism, Alfred North Whitehead briefly characterized the conditions of the possibility of new modes of thinking in a given historical era:
There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.1
In drawing attention to the formative potential of unconsciously and unwittingly held beliefs, or unquestioned...
(The entire section is 9421 words.)
SOURCE: “Emerson and Christianity,” in Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature, Vol. 50, No. 3-4, Spring, 1998, pp. 221-237.
[In the following essay, Bishop examines Emerson's “Divinity School Address” to locate the “Emersonian alternative” to traditional or “historical Christianity.”]
Emerson and Christianity could seem almost too vague and ideological a topic to some at least among the current cohort of Americanists. A recent review of research by Lawrence Buell for the Emerson Society Quarterly observes that much recent work has concentrated either upon the youthful or the aging Emerson. To rediscover the comparative orthodoxy of the first or the adaptive Victorianism of the second is in either case to obscure Emerson the Transcendentalist. The influence of newer modes of criticism might also serve to “call into question,” as the phrase goes, the very idea of a central or essential Emerson who might still be identified and confronted. And the monumental new editions of the essays, journals, and lectures would only further reinforce such a disposition, as would the new biographies by Allen, Porte, and McAleer. Emerson can seem in some danger of disappearing back into his contexts, textual or historical.
To be sure the question of Emerson and Christianity might be approached in just this style. A reporter might collect opinions and exhibit attitudes as...
(The entire section is 8071 words.)
SOURCE: “Emerson and the Woman Question: The Evolution of His Thought,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 4, December, 1998, pp. 570-92.
[In the following essay, Gougeon summarizes Emerson's views on the women's liberation movement.]
In a newspaper article celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of Emerson's birth, Thomas Wentworth Higginson complained that those who knew Mr. Emerson in the light of a reformer, as he surely did, would find precious little information “given in that direction by his biographers.”1 Noting the generally conservative character of the two most influential and popular biographies of Emerson, those by Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Elliot Cabot,2 Higginson was particularly distressed over their “constitutional reticence” in discussing the philosopher's role in both the antislavery and women's movements. “It was a well-known fact,” Higginson observed, “that Mr. Emerson spoke several times at woman suffrage conventions, and this cordially and sympathetically. Yet,” he says, “this is not mentioned in Mr. Cabot's memoir.” If Higginson were to return today he would find that scant progress has been made in the biographical treatment of Emerson's views on the “Woman Question.” While serious efforts have recently been made to recover the record of Emerson's important activities in the antislavery movement, very little is...
(The entire section is 9157 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Metre-Making’ Arguments: Emerson's Poems,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Joel Porte and Saundra Morris, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 218-42.
[In the following essay, Morris presents an overview of Emerson's poetical works.]
“I am not the man you take me for.”
Consideration of Emerson's writings without significant emphasis on his verse would in some ways produce Hamlet without the prince, for Emerson seems to have identified himself primarily as a poet. During his New York lecture tour of March 1842, he wrote to his wife Lidian of feeling alienated from and misunderstood by his dinner companions, the social reformers Horace Greeley and Albert Brisbane:
They are bent on popular action: I am in all my theory, ethics, & politics a poet and of no more use in their New York than a rainbow or a firefly. Meantime they fasten me in their thought to “Transcendentalism” whereof you know I am wholly guiltless, and which is spoken of as a known & fixed element like salt or meal: so that I have to begin by endless disclaimers & explanations—“I am not the man you take me for.”
(LA 3: 18)1
By “poet,” Emerson didn't mean exclusively a writer of verse, but instead a...
(The entire section is 10659 words.)
SOURCE: “Emerson and Nature,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Joel Porte and Saundra Morris, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 97-105.
[In the following essay, Richardson defines Emerson's perception of nature and the role it played in his philosophical thinking and writing.]
Explicit or implicit in nearly everything Emerson wrote is the conviction that nature bats last, that nature is the law, the final word, the supreme court. Others have believed—still believe—that the determining force in our lives is grace, or that it is the state—the polis, the community—or that it is the past. More recently it has been argued that the central force is economics or race or sex or genetics. Emerson's basic teaching is that the fundamental context of our lives is nature.
Emerson's definition of nature is a broad one. Nature is the way things are. Philosophically, Emerson says, the universe is made up of nature and the soul, or nature and consciousness. Everything that is not me is nature; nature thus includes nature (in the common sense of the green world), art, all other persons, and my own body.
Emerson's interest in nature was more than theoretical. Like his friends Alcott and Thoreau, Emerson was passionately attached to the natural world. “The mind,” says Alcott, speaking for them all, “craves the view of mountain,...
(The entire section is 4112 words.)
Tuttleton, James W. “The Drop Too Much: Emerson's Eccentric Circle.” In The New Criterion 14, No. 9 (1996): 19-27.
A biographical overview of Emerson's social circle, which included Henry David Thoreau, Edward Thompson Taylor, and several other contemporary intellectuals.
Bickman, Martin. “From Emerson to Dewey: The Fate of Freedom in American Education.” In American Literary History 6, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 385-408.
A review of Emerson's contributions as an educational thinker, citing examples of his educational principles in his essays.
Bosco, Ronald A. “The ‘Somewhat Spheral and Infinite’ in Every Man: Emerson's Theory of Biography. In Emersonian Circles: Essays in Honor of Joel Myerson, edited by Wesley T. Mott and Robert E. Burkholder. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1997, pp. 67-103.
Outlines Emerson's philosophy of biography in the context of the Plutarchan model.
Burkholder, Robert E. “History's Mad Pranks: Some Recent Emerson Studies.” In ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 38, No. 3 (1992): 231-63.
A review of ten Emersonian studies, including several reprints of his sermons and philosophical essays.
Coltharp, Duane. “Landscapes of Commodity:...
(The entire section is 572 words.)