Habits of the Heart

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In an essay of four pages, compare and contrast two of the real American lives described in Habits of the Heart. How do those lives illustrate or call into question the American ideal of self-reliance as understood by Emerson?

Your four-page essay could focus on Margaret Oldham and Brian Palmer. You could talk about how Oldham’s hard work and mindful acceptance of her parents produced a good education and a solid job. You could discuss how Palmer’s desire for the “good life” results in Palmer espousing some potentially harmful activities. You might also think about the link between Palmer and Emerson’s idea of conformity.

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Your four-page essay might focus on the life of Margaret Oldham. One trait that Emerson emphasizes is work. As Emerson says, “A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best.” When the five authors of Habits of the Heart explore Oldham’s life, they focus on the importance of work. They ask Oldham to tell them the most important thing she learned from her family. “Work” is Oldham’s answer.

Oldham also reflects Emerson’s ideas about acceptance. In his writings, Emerson stresses the need for an individual to “accept the place the divine providence has found for you.” When the authors tell about Oldham, they note how she accepts her situation. She doesn’t needlessly rebel against her parents strict household. Later on, when her situation switches to college, she accepts that some careful experimentation with other behaviors might not be such a bad thing. In both cases, the authors shows how Oldham mindfully adapts to her situations.

To include someone who might complicate Emerson’s ideas on self-reliance, you could discuss Brian Palmer. Unlike Oldham, Palmer doesn’t appear so accepting of his surroundings. He grew up without much money. His friends tended to be wealthier. Palmer’s material envy leads him to work hard. He was a caddie and he did yard work. Yet he also plays poker and wins (and loses) a relatively large sum of money. Emerson would probably not consider gambling hard work. He might also consider Palmer’s desire to “lead a good life” an example of conformity. Emerson might even call Palmer “false.”

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