Self-Reliance Introduction
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-Reliance book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Self-Reliance Study Guide

Subscribe Now


So you’re going to teach “Self-Reliance.” Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Ralph Waldo Emerson's classic text has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenges—myriad references, elevated language—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. It will give them unique insight into transcendentalism, the personal essay as a genre, and important questions surrounding individualism, social conventions, and the sources of genius. This guide highlights the text's most salient aspects to keep in mind before you begin teaching.

Note: This content is available to Teacher Subscribers in a convenient, formatted pdf.

Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1841
  • Approximate Word Count: 10,700 
  • Author: Ralph Waldo Emerson 
  • Country of Origin: United States of America 
  • Genre: Essay, Philosophy 
  • Literary Period: Antebellum American Literature, Transcendentalism 
  • Conflict: Person vs. Society 
  • Structure: Prose Essay 
  • Tone: Speculative, Inspirational, Logical

Texts That Go Well With “Self-Reliance”

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, offers a variety of characters who raise questions about conformity and trusting oneself—notably Gatsby and the narrator, Nick Carraway. Examples of Emerson’s idea-gone-wrong abound, but this commonly-taught text, maybe more than some others, features characters who struggle to bring Emerson’s advice to fruition. 

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the first autobiography by Frederick Douglass after escaping slavery, was not originally part of Matthiessen’s “American Renaissance,” but scholars have since pointed it out as participating in many of the same trends. Students may appreciate this text as a context to see that Emerson’s arguments were not simply intellectual experiments separated from daily concerns. 

Native Son , a novel by Richard Wright, presents a dramatic and severe example of nonconformity and departure from social institutions. By assessing the...

(The entire section is 461 words.)