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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.

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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 degree to which Bigger Thomas enacts Emerson’s advice, students can better appreciate the stakes of Emerson’s argument and its continued relevance outside the nineteenth century. 

A Rebel Without a Cause (Dir. Nicholas Ray): If your course considers film as narrative art, students might consider the trials of Jim Stark (James Dean) as he wrestles with personal responsibility against his parents’ insistence that he conform. Students can also notice how Jim’s fate fits alongside some of the other outsiders in the film, such as Judy (Natalie Wood) and John ‘Plato’ Crawford (Sal Mineo). 

A Room of One’s Own is a short book by Virginia Woolf that makes overlapping arguments with Emerson but that can aid conversations about his omission of women. Woolf’s argument about Shakespeare’s sister (which can be tied directly to Emerson’s question, “Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare?”) productively challenges knee-jerk responses from students that there might simply not be enough great women to reference.

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History of the Text