The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What is the central theme of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay The American Scholar?

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The central theme of Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The American Scholar" is that intellectualism in America needs to break from its dependence on European thought and shape itself within the distinctive character of America.

At the onset of his address to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa Emerson states,

Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.

Because the scholar has an obligation "to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances," he must be intellectually free for his spiritual power to be evident. The American thinker needs to break from the influences of European thought and trust in himself ("self-reliance") and not defer to the "popular cry." He must rely upon his own inner truths and stay in touch with nature and read books, all of which can teach a scholar much.

“Know thyself,” and the modern precept, “Study nature,” become at last one maxim. 

Emerson concludes that the role of the American scholar is one of great importance. He should actively seek knowledge rather than just reading the works of others and adopting European thought; moreover, he should seek knowledge through interaction with life and nature. In this way the scholar/writer can develop his own ideas and a style of writing that is uniquely American.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the most influential theoretical contributors to the American Renaissance and Transcendentalism. The works of Transcendentalists are thematically linked to European Romanticism in their idealism and their search for a meaningful relationship with nature. Yet, they also strongly argued for the creation of a distinctively American culture.

Originally given as a formal address to the Harvard  Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837, The American Scholar opens with a plea for an end to the cultural dependence of America on Europe. Because of this strong argument for intellectual freedom from tradition, Emerson's speech was described as "the American intellectual declaration of independence" by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Emerson then goes on to analyse the influences in the formation of an intellectual ("scholar") and his duty to his fellow men. The central theme of the speech is thus the intellectual and cultural nurturing that allows common citizens to become scholars.

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