The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The American Scholar

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3129

Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803882) famous essay, which has come to be regarded, in Oliver Wendell Holmes's phrase, as "America's intellectual declaration of independence," almost did not happen. Its occasion was the annual Phi Beta Kappa Society lecture at the Harvard College commencement on 31 August 1837, and Emerson was drafted to speak after the society's original choice, an Episcopalian minister named Jonathan Wainwright, declined. The society was probably looking for something more conservative and less provocative than what they got from Emerson, for Wainwright's most recent publication was a tract titled Inequality of Individual Wealthhe Ordinance of Providence and Essential to Civilization. At the least, most of the audience would have expected to hear praise for the venerable traditions of scholarship and learning at Harvard, not to be told that "books are for the scholar's idle times" or that "instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm" (pp. 91, 89). Still, there were eager listeners who caught the drift of Emerson's radical notion that the true sources of learning and culture lay within the individual. At their urging he had five hundred copies of his talk printed, at his own expense, rather blandly titled "An Oration, Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, August 31, 1837." The little pamphlet sold out within a month. When Emerson reprinted it for the 1849 collection Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, he changed the title to the more familiar and more accurate "The American Scholar."

By "scholar," it is important to note, he did not primarily mean a haunter of libraries with a narrow range of specialization but rather something like what we might call a public intellectualhat is, a person of learning who by his or her writing plays an active and thoughtful role in society. And, by extension, he speaks to every reader's intellectual life and the roles we all play or should play as "Man Thinking." The "American" part of the title needs qualification too, for except in the somewhat formulaic beginning and a brief (but important) section at the end, Emerson is more concerned with the universal elements of the scholar's education and duties than with any national or nationalistic aspects of his subject.


Although the invitation came to Emerson just two months before he was to deliver the address, he had been thinking about writing something on "The Duty & Discipline of a Scholar" for at least two years. Characteristically, many of the passages in the address first appeared in his journals during the years and months before its actual composition in the summer of 1837. The topic had broad and deep relevance to his own condition, for he had resigned his formal ministry in 1832 to set out upon his career as a lecturer and author. Leaving the security, the certainty, and the traditions of the Unitarian ministry for the untried world of public and secular discourse gave Emerson ample impetus to ponder his new vocation. His decision, and the essay on the scholar that in some ways grows out of it, also mark a moment of transition in American cultural and literary history, for Emerson is himself a representative man in the shifting of the intellectual and cultural center of gravity from the clergy to the lay intellectual and writer. With the proliferation of lyceums and other lecture venues, magazines, books, and newspapers in the 1840s and 1850s, it was possible for the first time to think of a career in letters that began somewhere else than in the pulpit.

"The American Scholar" was also the first of what we can now see were three major efforts Emerson made to apply the principles he had announced the previous year in his first book, Nature (1836), to specific issues and problems in American culture. As the oration takes up the problem of the place of learning and the role of the scholar/writer in American life, "The Divinity School Address," delivered the following year to a much more hostile reception at Harvard, critiques the failures of religionpecifically the errors of Christianity as reflected in the beliefs of New England Unitarianism. And "Self-Reliance," published in 1841, wrestles with the central problem of life for Emerson: the oppositional relationship that exists between society and the individual and the necessity that the individual base his or her life on the promptings of spirit.

This effort by Emerson to address specific social and cultural problems existed in the context of a general sense, shared by many intellectuals, that major reforms were called for in social relations, in institutions, in people themselves. When Emerson had called in 1836, in Nature, for people to cease "grop[ing] among the dry bones of the past" and to "demand our own works and laws and worship" (p. 3) he was unwittingly stepping out in front of a parade that would lead in the next decade to radical efforts to reform every aspect of American life, from diet and health to marriage, religion, economic principles, gender relations, and slavery. There was a sense of urgency in the air too in the late summer of 1837, for the country as a whole was plunging into one of the worst financial panics and depressions of the century. To many it seemed that the very fabric of society and the economy itself were at risk. Emerson himself regarded the depression as proof of the folly of America's single-minded pursuit of wealth and material success. "The world has failed," he noted in his journal; it was a propitious time to reassert the claims of the life of the mind.


Emerson begins his address with a polite nod to the tradition of such talks on the role and especially the future of learning and the arts in America, but he quickly separates himself from the traditional celebratory and jingoistic tone of such performances. He does not praise American cultural productions but instead wishes that the "sluggard intellect of this continent" would awake and produce "something better than the exertions of mechanical skill," a clear jibe at the anti-intellectualism and the practical, materialistic bent of American life (p. 81). Then, as he typically does at the beginning of his essays, Emerson attempts to ground his discourse in an appeal to common experience, in this case the sense of incompleteness and isolation that follows upon the specialization of roles in society. He recounts the fable that "the gods, in the beginning, divided man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself." "The fable implies," Emerson goes on, "that the individual to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed in multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered." What we have then, in "the divided or social state," is a condition in which "Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things," but is nowhere complete (pp. 82, 83).

In this scheme the ideal of "Man Thinking," that is, the intellectual and creative facets of the individual self, are wrongly delegated to the scholar. But it is worth noting that this fable and Emerson's interpretation of it also link up to the economic developments of the age and in particular to the financial crisis brought on by the panic of 1837. Emerson describes here a kind of transcendental version of what Karl Marx, a few years later in Europe, would call the alienation of labor, the dis-ease brought on by industrialization and specialization, where the worker has no sense of a whole task or a whole product completed because he is relegated to some partial and repetitive function within a large-scale industrial operation. Emerson is not finally concerned with such a materialist economic analysis, but he is responding with some urgency, as so many writers did, to the increasingly complex, urban, and industrial drift of nineteenth-century society.

After this introduction, the first half of the essay is devoted to an elaboration of the principal formative influences on the scholar's development. Still influenced by his preacherly habit of numbering the points of his discourse, Emerson divides this section of the essay with roman numerals to signal the three major influences: nature, books (or what Emerson calls "the mind of the Past"), and action. What is noteworthy about this list, of course, is the demotion of books and formal learning to a secondary position in the hierarchy of influences. Or, conversely, the elevation of nature to the primary position. Of course, those familiar with Emerson's little book Nature would not be surprised. And the sense in

which Emerson thinks of nature as a teacher to the potential scholar, "this school-boy under the bending dome of day" (p. 86), corresponds to the uses of natureommodity, beauty, language, and disciplines he enumerates and describes them in Nature. Particularly he has in mind the last of these uses, "discipline," by which he means something like "teaching": nature teaches us through its immense richness and variety and invites us to probe and fathom its complexity through our lower intellectual faculty, the Understanding. But nature also appeals to our higher faculty, the Reason, to intuit underlying truths and the divine laws that animate all creation. Referring to the process of sealing an envelope with a wax seal imprinted on the paper, Emerson employs one of his most resonant metaphors to describe the relation between nature and the mind or spirit that brings it forth: "He shall see that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print." And thus, as he concludes, "the ancient precept, 'Know thyself,' and the modern precept, 'study nature,' become at last one maxim" (pp. 86, 87).

The next section of Emerson's discourse takes up the education of the scholar by books ("the mind of the Past"), in what must have been to his auditors the most surprising if not the most perverse part of his address. Not only is this traditional mainstay of education relegated to second place, as it were, but book learning also undergoes further disparagement. The problem of the book, for Emerson, is the same problem that attaches to any doctrine or form; it supplants the original thought or spirit that created it: "The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation,he act of thought,s instantly transferred to the record. . . . Instantly, the book becomes noxious. The guide is a tyrant" (pp. 889). Books thus become a bar to original thought, and traditional education becomes an exercise in imitation. The right use, indeed the only legitimate use of books is to inspire, to prompt us to think originally or, as Emerson phrases it more boldly, to "read God directly" (p. 91). If this last notion made some in the audience uneasy, as verging on heresy, it would get worse, for Emerson would return to Harvard the following year and, in his speech to the divinity school students, employ this same critique of the book to attack orthodox Christianity and its reliance on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Lest one think, on the basis of this principle, that one can simply do without books or formal education, Emerson ends this section with an important caveat that puts us all back in the classroom: "Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading." Yet even here, in getting back to basics, Emerson has a dig for Harvard: speaking of colleges, he says, "they can only serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create" (p. 93). Because the traditional Harvard pedagogy involved endless numbing recitations sections, his implication is clear.

The third influence on the scholar's development is action, and by his emphasis on this requirement Emerson seeks to counter the stereotype, especially common in nineteenth-century America, that intellectuals reside in ivory towers and shirk the rough-and-tumble of ordinary life and work. The ground for the scholar's action is the same principle that Emerson announces in the "Nature" section of the essay: nature and the world correspond to the self and provide the tangible means to both self-knowledge and productive action: "The world,his shadow of the soul or other me, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with myself. I launch eagerly into this resounding tumult" (p. 95). Besides, thought and action participate in what Emerson calls "That great principle of Undulation" or Polarity, by which apparently opposite qualities actually depend upon one another and call one another into being. This principle is "ingrained in every atom" and partakes of the overarching polarity of Power and Form in life, as Emerson would sketch it in "Experience" a few years later (p. 98).

The education of the scholar completed, it remains for Emerson to sketch his duties and to address the larger issue of how to solve the problem of Americans' long-standing sense of cultural inferiority with respect to Europe. His duties are rather easily dispensed with; they are conveyed in a sort of pep talk that Emerson addresses to the audience (and to himself) out of his own experience and hopes for his fledgling career as public intellectual. Though the scholar is liable to suffer disdain, poverty, and solitude in keeping on the right track, eventually he emerges as a hero:

He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history. Whatsoever oracles the human heart in all emergencies, in all solemn hours has uttered as its commentary on the world of actions,hese he shall receive and impart. (Pp. 10102)

The concluding section of the essay is devoted to an anatomy of the power that the American scholar will need to draw upon to produce this transformative effect on culture. This power comes from a simple yet profound shift in how culture itself is defined and conceived: "This revolution," Emerson says, "is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of culture. The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of a man" (p. 107). In thus locating the source of culture within the individual radical "domestication" if ever there was onemerson disposes of the principal negative condition that had stood in the way of America's cultural independence and maturity. Suddenly, instead of looking to Europe we could simply look within. The embarrassing disparity between the long history of European cultural production and the paucity of the same in the United States could be transcended or rendered moot by the realization that Culture with a capital "C" did not consist of the monuments and artifacts stored in museums or libraries but in the potential for self-culture within the individual. This is "domestication" in a double sense: domestic as opposed to foreign, and domestic as pertaining to the individual and the internal as opposed to the public and the external. This subtle but profound shift in the conception of the sources, the expression, and the transmission of high culture is what distinguished Emerson's call for American literary independence from the myriad of such pronouncements that preceded it. This is the foundation of Emerson's claim at the beginning of the essay that "our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close" (p. 81), and his assertion, at the end of the essay, that "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe" (p. 114).

Another sense of this domestication pertains to the subject matter of American art and the artist's treatment of materials. There follows from Emerson's individual basis of culture, which in turn comes from a belief in each person's ability to access the divine and its manifestations in the world, a democratizing and anti-hierarchical turn in the arts. Interestingly Emerson sees this trend as already having happened, not as prospective: "the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and the beautiful, the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized" (p. 110). Thus Emerson does not so much predict the radical democratic practice of Walt Whitman and the realists as look back to English poets of the previous century and early-nineteenth-century Romantics: "this idea has inspired the genius of Goldsmith, Burns, Cowper, and in a newer time, of Goethe, Wordsworth, and Carlyle" (p. 112). There is no call yet, as there would be a few years later in "The Poet," for poets to sing specifically American songs celebrating the richness and diversity of the United States, and there are no Americans in Emerson's list of literary models. Instead there is a kind of generic invocation of the ordinarythe meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat"one of which has a specifically American valence (p. 111). In fact, that already archaic word "firkin" signals that Emerson is chiefly thinking along pre-existing literary lines, much as his own poetry, for all the radical implications of his theory, remains largely grounded in conventional poetic diction and forms.

Nevertheless, "The American Scholar" gave American intellectuals and would-be writers a firm basis for overcoming their sense of cultural inferiority with respect to Europe and especially England. Neither the immediate prospects for literature nor the materialistic obsessions of contemporary business culture (in which idealistic young people have no choice but to "turn drudges, or die of disgust") were promising, but the long-range outlook, based on nature, self-culture, and a healthy skepticism about received wisdom, was hopeful (p. 114).

See also Education; "Experience"; Literary Nationalism; Nature; "The Poet"; "Self-Reliance"; Transcendentalism


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Primary Works

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar." 1837. In The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, centenary edition, 12 vols., edited by E. W. Emerson, pp. 8115. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 1836. In The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, centenary edition, 12 vols., edited by E. W. Emerson, pp. 37. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

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Secondary Works

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Burkholder, Robert E. "The Radical Emerson: Politics in 'The American Scholar.'" ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 34 (1988): 377.

Homework Help

Latest answer posted July 11, 2020, 2:28 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

Packer, Barbara. Emerson's Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays. New York: Continuum, 1982.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Robinson, David. Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Sacks, Kenneth S. Understanding Emerson: "The American Scholar" and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Sealts, Merton M., Jr. Emerson on the Scholar. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.

Robert Sattelmeyer

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