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Self-Reliance

(American History Through Literature)

"Self-Reliance" is the most widely knownnd perhaps the most misunderstoodssay by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882). The most casual reader can identify as Emerson's the dozens of affirmative aphorisms from the essay, pithy sayings used widely in greeting cards and in advertisements. "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string" (CW 2:28); "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist" (p. 29); "live ever in a new day" (p. 33); "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (p. 33); "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man" (p. 35). Countless readers have turned to this essay for encouragement and personal validation since it was first published in Emerson's Essays: First Series in 1841. One hundred years later, the poet Edgar Lee Masters paid tribute to the liberating force of Emerson on youth in the intellectually repressive atmosphere of rural Illinois: "Under his influence we felt that we were not hostile to the good life by free thinking about religion, or about anything else" (p. 2). More recently, the musician and environmentalist Don Henley declared that "Self-Reliance" was "one of the primary forces that motivated me to become a song writer. It gave me confidence in myself " (quoted in Mott, p. 64).

THE CRITICAL DEBATE

Despite such testimonials to the appeal of Emerson's message of self-reliance, the nature and the legacy of "Self-Reliance" are matters of perennial dispute. Generations of readers like Masters and Henley have found in Emerson reassurance that their lives are inherently worthy and encouragement to hold to personal convictions or to cultivate talents. The very matter of self-reliance, however, has been a battleground on which critics of American culture have argued over whether Emerson's most characteristic principle is an innocuous mode of individual reflection or something more sinister and dangerous mantle for selfish and predatory forms of capitalism, a high-sounding cloak for aggressive expansionist and militarist impulses, a sign of the failure of community in the United States, an illusion masking loneliness and alienation at the very heart of the national psyche. The argument began immediately, among conservative religious thinkers who already suspected Emerson of being a heretic after his "Divinity School Address" (1838), and among writers with a darker, more tragic view of human nature. Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales of sin and The Scarlet Letter (1850), with its penetrating analysis of the human heart, and Herman Melville's portrait of Captain Ahab's intellectual pride and isolation in Moby-Dick (1851) are often seen as implicit quarrels with Emersonian self-reliance and optimism.

Criticism of Emersonian self-reliance grew more pointed in the second half of the twentieth century. In The Imperial Self (1971), Quentin Anderson argued that the boisterous competitiveness of the Age of Jacksonccompanied by its disruption of social arrangements and economic instabilityrove many intelligent young Americans in upon their own private resources. He regarded Emerson as chief among those who, in privileging moments of insight, fell back on personal integrity as the only secure value in a volatile world. But this posture, Anderson insisted, was ultimately desperate and selfish, a rejection of community and history and the psychological and moral equivalent of antinomianismhe Puritan heresy asserted by Anne Hutchinson (1591643) that placed the regenerate individual above the constraints of theological and social law that govern everyone else. In 1981 Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti extended the charges against Emerson, announcing at a commencement ceremony that Emerson's essay "Power" helped unleash a mean-spirited incivility in the United States, providing our political leaders with a rationale for ruthless abuse of power. Robert N. Bellah's sociological study of the loss of community in America, Habits of the Heart (1985), offered a less biting critique but still decried the damage caused by the...

(The entire section is 3,979 words.)