The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Describe the characteristics in "The American Scholar" by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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On the one hand, "American Scholar" is preoccupied with calls for intellectual independence, so to speak. Emerson calls upon his listeners to end "our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands." In this, Emerson's thinking was entirely in keeping with an American age of nationalism, one in many Americans were calling on the still-young nation to expand its borders and claim its place among the great nations of the world. But Emerson's speech does not reflect a crude or even conventional sense of nationalism. To Emerson, the American Scholar will be one that embraces his own individuality and nonconformity, rejecting conventional thinking. Men should turn to nature and within himself for his education.

Emerson rejected the crude individualism sometimes associated with American democracy. He feared that "the state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters." The scholar, even as he categorizes and studies nature, never loses site of what Emerson characterizes as a "root," something akin to what he calls elsewhere the "Over-Soul," which binds humans together in their commonality. So "The American Scholar," both the essay and the concept behind it, is full of contradictions that Emerson attempts to reconcile. These paradoxes are fundamental characteristics of his work.

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"The American Scholar," delivered in 1837, puts forth, as its title suggests, a distinctly American view. At the beginning of the speech, Emerson distinguishes American scholars from those of Europe and elsewhere and says, "The millions, that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests." In other words, Americans must find their own studies and truths, separate from those of Europe, which he believes have "sere" or dry harvests and little to offer. In this way, the speech is nationalistic and calls for a distinctly American way of thinking.

The speech is also Romantic and Transcendentalist, as Emerson states, after presenting the allegory that there is one man, that "man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things." He does not believe that people should be divided into their professional or occupational categories, such as farmers or professors, but instead believes that one person can be everything and all things, which follows from the Romantic and Transcendentalist idea in the potential for the perfection of humans. Also like a true Romantic and Transcendentalist, Emerson believes in the power of nature to teach people and writes, "The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature." His belief in the ability of nature to impart eternal truths is a core belief of Transcendentalism and also follows from the spirit of Romanticism. He also believes, like Romantics, in the power of the individual and writes, "it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry." Emerson calls for people to trust their own inner truths--a core idea of Transcendentalism. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson's address "The American Scholar" was delivered on August 31, 1837 (in Cambridge, Massachusetts before the Phi Beta Kappa society). This address was meant to explain the importance of writing literature from an American point of view, not from a point of view influenced by any other country. Emerson decided that American writers needed to have their own style.

The address is didactic in nature. Didactic means to instruct or educate. Emerson's essay instructs its audience on the thinking of man (the "One Man," the "Man Thinking"), the importance of the past, and life as a dictionary.

The speech is written in first person. This allows Emerson to illustrate the fact that the ideas presented are his own (though the use of the pronoun "I"). He also uses the pronoun "you" (second person) to address the audience. The use of "you" draws the audience in, so as to say that Emerson is speaking to each and every one of them on a personal level.

Emerson also includes many rhetorical/literary/poetic devices. He uses repetition to insure his point is made ("patience, patience"), simile (the spirit to "shooting rays"), and metaphor (soul to a root).

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