Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What is Ralph Waldo Emerson's contribution to American literature?

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The contributions of Ralph Waldo Emerson to American literature include the philosophy of transcendentalism, his focus on nature as symbol and mediator, his ideas about self-reliance and individualism, and his quotable essay style.

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Emerson contributed to American literature by being at the forefront of bringing European—and particularly English—Romanticism to the United States under a particularly American guise called Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism wedded the nature-loving, tradition-rejecting ideas of the Romantic movement with the Puritan emphasis on individual conscience.

Emerson's Transcendentalism added to the Romantic notion that the divine was expressed in nature and the idea that nature provided a model for free, individualist thinking—the rose, for example, was wholly itself, not in anyway warped by traditions or the past. Although Emerson's particularly American expression of Romanticism rejected the European past, Emerson was, ironically, very popular in England, suggesting how much he relied on European precedents.

However, Emerson was no European. While a poet like Wordsworth might exalt nature and the common person, he had no idea once the French Revolution came to ruin that the common cottager could rise to become a great man: Emerson, in contrast, thought that any American (excluding Black slaves, because like all the transcendentalists, he opposed slavery) could rise to eminence.

Emerson contributed to the American literary scene through, with Margaret Fuller, founding a magazine call The Dial that disseminated Transcendentalist thought and writing to a wider audience.

Emerson's articulation of the idea of freeing literature and thought from the weight of the past influenced American writers from Melville to Whitman to forge their own paths and create a distinctly American voice.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was a philosopher and writer who called for some significant changes in the ways people interacted with nature, others, and themselves. He created a series of now-classic essays that promote the philosophy of transcendentalism. Emerson was certain that everyone possessed his or her own inner light and could discover truth not just by the senses and reason but also by intuition and imagination. Humans, Emerson thought, could rise above—transcend—the material world and experience God in their own being.

Emerson's first essay, “Nature,” appeared in 1836 and promotes the symbolic view of nature: essentially, nature seems mysterious but can be entered into and understood by searching for the soul within it. Nature also points beyond itself to God and stands as a mediator between humanity and the divine.

Emerson addressed American academics in “The American Scholar,” urging them to spend more time in nature and seeking the transcendent rather than focusing on traditional academic pursuits.

Self-Reliance” is probably one of Emerson's most famous essays. In it, he promotes the individual and encourages people to avoid dependence on and conformity to others but rather to trust in themselves and strike out on their own path. “Insist on one's self,” he urges; “never imitate.” Only a firm commitment to one's principles will bring peace.

Emerson's other essays include “Representative Men,” in which he sets forth the likes of Plato, Shakespeare, and Napoleon as examples of humanity; “The Conduct of Life,” in which he places value on concentration; “The Poet,” in which he asserts that art flows from the unity of the human, the natural world, and the divine; and “Experience,” in which he optimistically affirms that every experience of life is an opportunity for learning.

Emerson's essays are still much quoted (although a bit less read in full these days). His style is accessible, for the most part, and he delights in aphorisms that have become part of the American cultural milieu. His ideas are unique and interesting, and he provides (at the very least) food for thought through his philosophy and writings.

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Emerson was one of the founders of Transcendentalism in America. An offshoot of the Romantic movement, Transcendentalism and its writers focused on creating a uniquely American voice in literature. Part of a movement called the New England Renaissance or the American Renaissance, Transcendentalism established the idea that American literature should have its own concerns and voice and should not simply try to emulate European literature. Instead, Emerson's writings, such as "Self-Reliance," stressed the importance of developing one's own talents and emphasized the importance of cultivating what is great in oneself. By extension, his writings emphasized the importance of developing an American literature that was not concerned with European models. Over time, as Emerson believed in the freedom of each person, he became an advocate of abolition, and he inspired others to fight against slavery.

In addition, Emerson's writings such as Nature spoke of the wonders of the wild. In Nature, he writes, "Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection." Emerson wrote about the majesty, spirituality, wonder, and innocence one could find in the wild. Emerson's writings have given rise to generations of nature writers in American literature. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson contributed to American by influencing other writers; calling for a national literature; imbuing his writings with the ideal of spiritual harmony as opposed to the dominance of material gain. Emerson look to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe as the inspiration for literary thought of his day in the same way that American writers looked to Emerson for theirs. In this sense, Emerson brought the philosophy and thoughts of Germany's greatest poet into American literature.

Some of the American greats who were influenced by Emerson are Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Emerson called for a New World Renaissance in literature to replace the past European Renaissance. He wanted a national literature to rise up that reflected the environs of America as well as the social and cultural concerns of America--advocating that a new voice be brought from the heart of the American experience to the collective of literary experience.

Emerson brought a note of spirituality to the new national literature because his emphasis was on harmony deriving from within, a harmony within one's self. In his writings, that harmony is reflected in his poetry celebrating Nature's wild life that surrounded him. His ideas were opposed to the notion that the ideal was the freedom to make money. His spiritual ideas feed the fuel of later eras with the idea that inner harmony is superior to the drive for wealth.

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