What is the contribution of Ralph Waldo Emerson to American literature?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Ralph Waldo Emerson contributed to American by influencing other writers; calling for a national literature; imbuing his writings with the ideal of spiritual harmony as opposed to the dominance of material gain. Emerson look to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe as the inspiration for literary thought of his day in the same way that American writers looked to Emerson for theirs. In this sense, Emerson brought the philosophy and thoughts of Germany's greatest poet into American literature.

Some of the American greats who were influenced by Emerson are Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Emerson called for a New World Renaissance in literature to replace the past European Renaissance. He wanted a national literature to rise up that reflected the environs of America as well as the social and cultural concerns of America--advocating that a new voice be brought from the heart of the American experience to the collective of literary experience.

Emerson brought a note of spirituality to the new national literature because his emphasis was on harmony deriving from within, a harmony within one's self. In his writings, that harmony is reflected in his poetry celebrating Nature's wild life that surrounded him. His ideas were opposed to the notion that the ideal was the freedom to make money. His spiritual ideas feed the fuel of later eras with the idea that inner harmony is superior to the drive for wealth.

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jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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Emerson was one of the founders of Transcendentalism in America. An offshoot of the Romantic movement, Transcendentalism and its writers focused on creating a uniquely American voice in literature. Part of a movement called the New England Renaissance or the American Renaissance, Transcendentalism established the idea that American literature should have its own concerns and voice and should not simply try to emulate European literature. Instead, Emerson's writings, such as "Self-Reliance," stressed the importance of developing one's own talents and emphasized the importance of cultivating what is great in oneself. By extension, his writings emphasized the importance of developing an American literature that was not concerned with European models. Over time, as Emerson believed in the freedom of each person, he became an advocate of abolition, and he inspired others to fight against slavery.

In addition, Emerson's writings such as Nature spoke of the wonders of the wild. In Nature, he writes, "Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection." Emerson wrote about the majesty, spirituality, wonder, and innocence one could find in the wild. Emerson's writings have given rise to generations of nature writers in American literature. 

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