History of the Text

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Source Material and Transcendentalist Exchanges: The essay that Emerson published in 1841 and again in a revised 1847 edition drew from various previous work that typifies the intellectual culture of transcendentalism. Understanding this can inform a historically based lesson plan or inspire conversations about the media of exchange and public conversation today. 

  • Journals: Emerson’s personal journals provide one source for the ideas in the essay. This is fitting for an essay that advocates drawing from personal thought and reflection. Journals are written for the writer, but many journal writers admit they think about others finding/reading their journals. 
  • Lectures: Emerson was a minister before he was a lecturer. The themes of this essay help explain why he left organized religion: a congregation yields moral authority to its preacher, whereas transcendentalists place the burden of moral authority upon themselves and their own reasoning. Emerson presented some of the ideas in “Self- Reliance” in lectures to members of a Masonic Temple in Boston. 
  • Essays: The mostly Boston-area intellectuals known as transcendentalists often circulated essays among themselves for conversation and eventually started a periodical, The Dial (named after a sundial). When he published “Self-Reliance” in his volume Essays (First Series), Emerson placed it second after another essay called “History.” 

Antebellum American Literary Culture as Nation-Building: Many American artists and intellectuals were concerned with creating a distinctly American culture. This impulse arose out of a sense of competition with the nations and empires of Europe, each of which had consolidated national images around key artists and figures (e.g., England and Shakespeare, Spain and Cervantes, Germany and Goethe). 

  • Emerson Recognized as Successfully Achieving These Goals: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a well-known intellectual in his time, famously dubbed Emerson’s essay “The American Scholar” as America’s “intellectual Declaration of Independence.” Emerson’s theological nonconformity and eclectic influences made him willing to defy or disrupt British pieties for democratic reasons that were understood to typify the emerging values of America. 
  • Later Academics Consolidated Emerson’s Centrality: In 1941, American literary scholar F.O. Matthiessen published American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Matthiessen argued that the years between 1850 and 1855 presented a major turning point in developing American literary culture since several of American literature’s best known works were published then: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Thoreau’s Walden, and initial editions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Matthiessen traced this outburst to Emerson’s influence and ideas, and his term “American Renaissance” caught on as a shorthand for linking Emerson and Thoreau’s writings to their contemporaries in other genres. 

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