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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nature & Self Reliance

In September 1836 Emerson published his long essay Nature. The book outlined his ideas about the manifestation of the universal spirit in nature. Emerson argued that man needed no church to connect to the divine - he had only to go out into nature, God's true canvas, to hear the truthful voice within. "In the woods, we return to reason and faith," Emerson wrote. "There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."7

A week later, Emerson presided at the first meeting of what came to be known as the Transcendental Club. This gathering of like-minded intellectuals shared a common interest in nature, spirituality gleaned from intuition instead of organized religion, and progressive social change. Most of the club's eventual members were residents of Concord, such as Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller. Emerson's Nature was one of the group's founding documents. Together, the transcendentalists would have an important impact on American thought, literature and culture.

On 31 August 1837, Emerson delivered a talk entitled "The American Scholar" to a crowded house at Harvard. The speech was a galvanizing call to Americans to get out from under Europe's thumb and form their own culture, shaped by the nation's unique history and geography. The audience was electrified. "An event without any former parallel in our literary annals, a scene to be always treasured in the memory for its picturesqueness and inspiration," wrote the poet and critic James Russell Lowell, who attended the lecture. "What crowded and breathless aisles, what windows clustering with eager heads, what enthusiasm of approval."8

Seated in the audience was a young Harvard undergraduate named Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, who had grown up in Concord, was mesmerized. He introduced himself to Emerson, who became an important friend and mentor to him. Thoreau lived with the Emerson family for a few years, earning his keep with handyman jobs and babysitting. In 1845, Emerson hired him to plant trees on a denuded piece of property he owned on Walden Pond in Concord. Thoreau built a cabin and lived at the pond for two years, an experience he documented in his classic Walden.

On 20 March 1841, Emerson's first collection of essays was published. With works like Self-Reliance and The Over-Soul, the collection (simply entitled Essays: First Series) came to define Emerson's philosophies. In The Over-Soul, Emerson expanded the ideas he began in Nature. He outlined the transcendental belief in a common spirit uniting all beings, one adapted from Eastern religious readings popular among the Concord set. "We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles," Emerson wrote. "Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE."9

In Self-Reliance, Emerson exhorted readers to trust their instincts as their best and truest guide to what is right. In our modern world where "following your heart" has become a cliché, it's important to remember how revolutionary Emerson's words were at the time. He was advocating for a new American ideology, one that broke with the do-as-been-done tradition of the past. "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world," Emerson wrote. "Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he."10

Now, Emerson was not without his critics. Read that last excerpt from Self-Reliance carefully, and see how it could be interpreted to mean that you should do whatever you want, whenever you want to, regardless of the impact on others. His critics at the time (and in decades since) charged that Emerson completely overlooked the fact that for an evil-minded person, such advice could be dangerous. Emerson never really acknowledged this problem in his long career. For some it was frustrating, but to his fans Emerson's relentless optimism was part of his charm. Writer Henry James said that Emerson's "ripe unconsciousness of evil ... is one of the most beautiful signs by which we know him."11

In July 1842 Emerson took over from Margaret Fuller the editorship of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial. The job helped him cope with a recent tragedy: the sudden death of his five-year-old firstborn child Waldo from scarlet fever. Fortunately, the rest of Emerson's children lived long, full lives.

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