Critical Overview

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There are two distinct bodies of criticism of Emerson' s work: commentary on his writing and commentary on his thinking. As a writer, Emerson has been consistently praised through the years from all quarters. Joel Myerson, in Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography: 1640-1865, quotes Rene Wellek, a highly respected historian of literary criticism, as deeming Emerson ‘‘the outstanding representative of romantic symbolism in the English-speaking world.’’ Myerson himself adds:

Ralph Waldo Emerson is perhaps the single most influential figure in American literary history. More than any other author of his day, he was responsible for shaping the literary style and vision of the American romantic period, the era when the United States first developed a distinctively national literature worthy of comparison to that of the mother country.

Myerson goes on to cite Emerson's influence on Thoreau, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.

Alfred S. Reid, in Style in the American Renaissance: A Symposium, writes that he does not admire Emerson as a philosopher but does hold him in high esteem as a writer. He calls Emerson ‘‘a skillful shaper of sentences, a composer of expository essays that move and give of the few great craftsmen of the genre.’’ Reid echoes the sentiments of Emerson's contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is quoted by John C. Gerber in Reference Guide to American Literature as having said that he "admired Emerson as a poet of deep beauty and austere tenderness but sought nothing from him as a philosopher.’’

As consistently as Emerson is praised as a writer, "Self-Reliance" is considered the pinnacle of his efforts. According to Gerber, ‘‘In many respects 'Self-Reliance' is the capstone of American romanticism.’’ Reid concurs: ‘‘Emerson never again achieved such an artful balance of earnest goodness and pungent oratory.... No other essay disentangles the truth from the universal soul as this one, or says it with such eclat.’’

As a philosopher, Emerson has received more mixed reviews. He was hotly controversial in his own time, especially for his pronouncements against organized religion. Just before the publication of "Self-Reliance," former president John Quincy Adams wrote dismissively of Emerson's philosophy:

A young man named Ralph Waldo Emerson ... after failing in the everyday vocations of a Unitarian preacher and schoolmaster, starts a new doctrine of transcendentalism, declares all the old revelations superannuated and worn out, and announces the approach of new revelations and prophecies.

With the passage of time, criticism of Emerson's philosophy has become less emotional and more pointed. Joyce W. Warren, in The American Narcissus, faults Emerson for holding some extreme and unbalanced positions. She writes,

Despite Emerson's insistence on the grandeur of the self, this philosophy in practice necessarily involves the pettiness that is inherent in any systematic refusal to learn from others.... Implicit in Emerson's ideas is the provincialism and narrowness of the self-interested person.

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, published in the early twentieth century, declares that Emerson's philosophy was weakened by his failure to fully understand and grapple with the nature of evil:

He is above all the poet of religion and philosophy for the young; whereas men, as they grow older, are inclined to turn from him... to those sages who have ... a firm grasp of the darker facts of human nature.

The writer goes on, however, with admirable foresight: "As time passes, the deficiencies of this brief period ... of which Emerson was the perfect spokesman may well be more and more condoned for its rarity and beauty.’’ And, though the limits and imperfections of Emerson's philosophy are acknowledged, so is his powerful influence on later philosophers and on American culture as a whole. Myerson points out that Emerson's ideas inspired the quintessentially American philosophy called pragmatism, later developed by William James and John Dewey. Reid sums up Emerson's contribution to American culture:

... through his essays flow the vital currents of American culture. Here we find that fulsome blend of Puritanism, Enlightenment, and Romantic idealism that historically make up the early American character; here too the democratic idealism, the individualism, the contempt for tradition, and the practical sagacity.

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Essays and Criticism