Ralph Waldo Emerson and American Identity

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Ralph Waldo Emerson and American Identity


Timko, Michael, The World and I


A recent essay identifies Ralph Waldo Emerson as the "architect of American intellectual culture" and goes on to cite some of his aphorisms, the best known, perhaps, being "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Many of his essays and poetry are still found in anthologies of American literature, and he is still, according to the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, the most revered figure in American Unitarianism. Shouldn't Americans be flocking to readings of his poems?

Shouldn't there be symposiums discussing his important essays? Is he always to be a prophet without honor in his own country?

The Rev. Suzanne Meyer, associate minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, claims that Emerson and the Transcendentalists are "probably more relevant now than they were in their time." While Emerson's transcendentalism should be considered a significant component of his message, it is more likely that he will always be recognized more for his contribution to American individualism, his call for American writers to free themselves from the yoke of the British. Oliver Wendell Holmes called Emerson's lecture on the American scholar "Our intellectual Declaration of Independence;" and James Russell Lowell noted that while Americans had been politically independent of England since the Revolution, they "were still socially and intellectually moored to English thought till Emerson cut the cable."

Emerson was born into a family whose heritage included nine generations of New England ministers; his father, William Emerson, had served as pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Boston. Emerson's early years were ruled, as might be expected, by religious custom and social convention. His father died when he was just eight. Encouraged by his mother and other relatives, Emerson went on to Harvard and graduated in 1821. He then enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School and carried on the family tradition by studying to be a Unitarian minister.

He soon realized that he could not carry on that tradition. While Unitarianism in nineteenth-century America had, in fact, shifted the emphasis in one's religious experience from moral depravity to individual responsibility, it was still far too confining a religion for Emerson. By the time he was "approbated" to preach in 1826, he found that Unitarianism was far too orthodox for him. He stayed in the ministry until 1832, but then resigned--the ostensible reason being that he could no longer in good conscience administer Communion, but in fact the Unitarian church had become for him far too negative and rational. The rest of his life was spent as a lecturer and writer. His appeal to audiences is legend. One common version of his appeal tells of a scrubwoman who had attended one of his lyceum lectures. She did not really understand much of what he had said, she told her friends, "but I like to go and see him stand up there an look as though he thought everyone else is as good as he is." His first major publication was Nature (1836), and that was followed by many other essays, books, and lectures, including "The American Scholar," the Phi Beta Kappa lecture he delivered in 1837 at Harvard; his controversial "Divinity School Address" in 1838 to the senior class at the Harvard Divinity School; English Traits; and The Conduct of Life.

Emerson's reputation rests more firmly on his essays than on his poetry. The "Divinity School" lecture brought him some notoriety, but it made him a public figure of some importance. It was after that lecture that his friend Bronson Alcott commented: "Emerson's church consists of one member--himself." Emerson, upset by the reception, wrote in his journal: "In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of private man. This the people accept readily enough, and even with loud commendation, as long as I call the Lecture Art, or Politics, or Literature, or the Household; but the moment I call it Religion, they are shocked, though it only be the application of the same truth which they receive everywhere else, to a new class of facts.

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