Essays, First and Second Series
The key to the rich diversity of thought in these essays is Emerson’s belief that the individual soul is “part or parcel of God.” The soul, he held, is superior even to Nature, although sometimes communion with Nature can lead to mystical insights.
Emerson believed absolutely in self-reliance: If what he called the Over-Soul is everywhere and we are part of God, then individuals may find truth in everyday phenomena without guidance from ancient precept or modern-day science. “Trust thyself,” he says in “Self-Reliance.” “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts.”
To Emerson, participation in the Over-Soul also meant superiority to circumstance. He regarded the world of change and surface appearance as concealing eternal, changeless essences. “Experience,” he says in his essay of that name, “leaves me as it found me, neither better nor worse.” In “Compensation,” however, suggesting that every ill may be an unrecognized blessing, he reminds us that a loss leaves room for a new situation more conducive to character growth.
Emerson’s philosophy, a unique balance of mysticism and shrewd practicality, has left its stamp on the American character. He has appealed to young dissenters from his own time down to ours. By teaching and example, he gave important impetus to nineteenth century Americans seeking to establish a native literature in this country. Not only did he encourage them to depart from European models, but also his essays embody a compact, vigorous, unmistakably American style often startling in its effects.
Although presented through philosophic essays, Emerson’s ideas have served as an important source of poetic inspiration. He strongly influenced Henry David Thoreau and such notable American poets as James Russell Lowell, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and (indirectly through Whitman) Allen Ginsburg.