The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Start Free Trial

What was the state of literature when Emerson gave "The American Scholar" and what was its influence?

Quick answer:

Emerson points to and praises the vitality of the Romantic movement, which was in full bloom when he gave his speech "The American Scholar." He exalts that movement's emphasis on ordinary life and the "low." His speech helped cement his reputation, and his focus on the ordinary in literature influenced writers such as Walt Whitman.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Emerson comments on the state of literature near the end of "The American Scholar." He says it is moving in positive and vital directions, pointing particularly to the Romantic movement and its predecessors. He embraces writers such as Goldsmith, Burns, Cowper, Goethe, Carlyle, and Wordsworth, calling their work warm-blooded. He especially praises their emphasis on exalting the common person and focusing on everyday life and what he calls the "low." This is a literature that does not aim to tell the lives of kings or look back to the classical world of Greek and Rome, but is concerned with the commonplace in the here and now. As Emerson puts it,

What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street ...

He states, summing up his belief in the simple and ordinary in literature, "The drop is a small ocean." In other words, universal truths are revealed through the everyday world.

Emerson also particularly picks out the writer and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg as worthy of praise for showing the interconnectedness or relationship between nature and the human soul.

Emerson's 1837 "The American Scholar" speech, published as an essay, was influential and popular, helping to establish his reputation as a preeminent man of letters. We can see its influence on later writers such as Walt Whitman, who exuberantly sought to find the universal in the commonplace.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial