The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What is the relevance of this "The American Scholar" quote? "Books are the best of things, well used; abused among the worst." How is it pertinent to works by Emerson, Melville, and Douglass?

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I tend to think Emerson is overstating his point, but as I understand it, he means that people gain knowledge from books, and though that is a good thing, it means they can also misread an author's message and thus get the wrong ideas from a book. A writer's theme or intended purpose can be twisted by a reader into something else or interpreted wrongly based on a preconceived notion a reader already has.

If we look at Emerson himself, "Concord Hymn," is a case in point. This, to me, is a moving poem because it expresses the naive but true spirit of America's founding, and its ideal. The lines,

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Where once the embattled farmer stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

have themselves gone around the world as a memorial for the defiance of tyranny and the ability of one man to foment a change in the system, or at least to start a change. But couldn't the poem also be unthinkingly read as a celebration of violence and war in general? Even today, there are those who might use Emerson's words as a signal for us to go elsewhere in the world, when it is none of our business to do so, and cause violent change.

Melville and Douglass, like any other authors, can be misread and misinterpreted as well. Suppose, for instance, someone took away from Bartleby the notion that the sort of withdrawal from life Melville describes is the way we should all act? Admittedly this is an extreme example, but in a more subtle fashion, some readers today might judge the treatment of Bartleby by others in the story as a kind of return to the supposed good old days when a mentally disturbed person was allowed to deteriorate, as in this nineteenth-century scenario, it was not unusual to allow to happen. This would surely be an "abuse" of what should be a timeless story.

With regard to Douglass's autobiography, the statements in it about religion could easily be misinterpreted even today, unfortunately. Douglass, in the Appendix to his Life, made it clear he was not attacking religion per se but rather the way it was being misappropriated by slave owners. Yet bigoted people at that time (and I wouldn't be surprised to find many such people today, though they probably would not be reading Douglass in the first place) could and did use this apparent freethinking stance of Douglass to discredit his entire message against the slavery system.

As Emerson's quote indicates, books can be interpreted for good or for ill. We can only hope for the best.

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Emerson’s view that independent thinking is necessary for a good, functioning society comes into play in this quote: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused among the worst." While he encouraged reading and learning, he valued thought and discussion as a way to fully develop opinions. He believed people who spent all of their time reading, not learning through living and sharing ideas with others, were not fully informed.

Melville’s Captain Ahab is an example of Emerson’s beliefs in the importance of independent thought. Captain Ahab is obsessed with the white whale and loses his grip on reality because of this. His obsession is so passionate, so intense, that it permeates his crew—including Ishmael, who, before the influence of Captain Ahab, was a reasonable man.

In “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,” Douglass talks about being taught to read by his master's wife, Sophia Auld. He was then stopped and lectured by his master, Hugh Auld. Hugh Auld said that if Douglass could read, he would be dissatisfied with a slave's circumstance. Douglass realized that the ability to read would give him the opportunity to hear independent ideas from those outside his immediate world. He used reading and writing to not only inform his own thinking, but also to impact the thinking of future people. Emerson derided books, saying, “They are for nothing but to inspire.” Yet, ultimately, that inspiration was an important part of abolition.

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This quote is expressing the opinion that books and the inspiration or knowledge contained in them may be used for great purposes, but may also be the cause of great harm.  Relating this statement to the three authors you referenced, the writings of Douglass were regarded as inspirational and essential to the movement by those who hoped to abolish slavery; supporters of slavery questioned their authorship and decried their content.  Emerson's essays encouraged those moving toward transcendentalist philosophies but were regarded as a threat by those concerned with maintaining a well-organized social structure.  Melville's writings contained language that some readers considered highly inappropriate for proper society.

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