In 1837, Emerson was invited to deliver the address “The American Scholar,” one of the most influential American speeches made at his time, to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa; the same topic of the address had been prescribed year after year since his boyhood.
When Emerson urged American scholars at the beginning of his address to create an original literature free from European influence, he was to some extent reiterating a conventional theme. The creation of an original literature, Emerson maintained, however, would have to be based on an inner spirit of self-reliance—the opening and concluding theme of Nature. The primary concern of this address is thus with an intellectual’s spiritual cultivation—the eventual goal being “Man Thinking”—rather than the actual composition of literary works.
In the discussion of the scholar’s education, three kinds of influence are mentioned: nature, books, and action. Of primary importance, permanent nature corresponds to one’s mind, hence it should be studied for the enhancement of the understanding of the self. The close relationship between the soul and nature is explained here in terms of a seal and print. The second source of influence is the mind of the past, which can best be seen in books. Emerson criticizes those scholars who allow themselves to be dominated by the past great minds to the extent that they think for the historical figures rather than for themselves, thereby becoming bookworms instead of “Man Thinking.”
As a result, creative reading is advocated for one’s own inspiration. Because of his belief in the union of the self with the Universal Spirit, Emerson further urges scholars to communicate with it first, drawing upon its creative force to compose their own original books. Only when one encounters difficulty in communicating with this spirit or God directly, he insists, should one depend on books. Action is considered the third source of influence upon the scholar. In encouraging a scholar to act, Emerson not only emphasizes the importance of the actual experience for one’s mental growth but also, and especially, attempts to identify a person of action with a contemplative mind, a hero with a poet.
After illustrating the three kinds of influence upon the scholar, Emerson describes the scholar’s duty, which is to guide people to find the universal mind within themselves and to achieve unity with it. To be qualified for such a work, the scholar would naturally need to be confident and self-trusting: “In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended.” When one looks within and becomes a master of oneself, Emerson states, one actually examines all minds and becomes a master of all people.
Because of the unceasing manifestation of the Universal Spirit in every object, the here and now is thus greatly emphasized. Instead of looking to great minds in the past and from afar, he prefers to embrace the lowly and common in the present—a common Romantic theme. To conclude, Emerson repeats the theme of self-reliance on the most grandiloquent level, assuring his audience that “if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar calls for cultural and intellectual independence and combines a rejection of industrialization with a nuanced diagnosis of modern alienation. The essay exhibits Emerson’s striking aphoristic formulations, and although the figurative language is sometimes elliptical, its subversive message reverberates through American cultural life and influences thinkers and writers around the world.
The essay, which introduces many of Emerson’s core intellectual themes, first was delivered as an address on August 31, 1837, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was published first as a pamphlet and reissued in 1849 as part of Emerson’s collection Addresses and Lectures . With the essay’s publication, Emerson became one of the...
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