Ralph Waldo Emerson

The maker of a sentence, like the other artist, launched out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night, and is followed by those hear him with something of wild, creative delight. Emerson

Getting Started | Transcendentalism | Important Quotes | Wondering | Assignments


By the end of this unit, you should be able to

  1. describe "transcendentalism" and relate it to the romanticism of the times (handout)
# Summarize the key ideas in Emerson's "Nature" and his "Self-Reliance"
  1. Post quotes from other web pages on your blog with links back to the source

Getting Started

Some people believe Emerson is the most important writer in American literature because of the enormous influence he had on other writers at a time when America was beginning to find its literary voice. In the 1830s he became a leader of American Transcendentalism. His influence was felt among other transcendenatlists, such as Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, but also among important writers who were not transcendentalists, such as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allen Poe.

Emerson was a master stylist, writing muscular sentences that are clear and rhythmic. Several of his essays--notably Nature, "Self-Reliance," and "The American Scholar"--are among the finest in English. Emerson made eloquent arguments in favor of the sanctity of the individual person, the importance of unity with nature, the role of the poet and the scholar in society, and the need to live in the present.

Emerson's life and work often took the form of a spiritual quest. He never questioned the morality that people of his generation had instilled from birth, but he did step beyond traditional Christianity, seeking new revelation and a personal relationship with the divine. He believed that to live at the highest spiritual level one needed to living in the present, tuned in to one's best impulses.

He encouraged people to do more than conform to the ideas of the past. Many people liked hearing that message, including those who wanted America to chart a new course, away from Europe. Oliver Wendell Holmes called his speech, The American Scholar, America's "intellectual Declaration of Independence."


The transcendentalists faced a lot of the same questions that we face today. Is the universe a mechanical place that can be fully understood by reason and observation? Is science the best way to understand our world? Or are there unseen spiritual forces that we can understand through intuition and emotion? Are the old religions just superstitions? Are the Jewish and Christian scriptures best read with unquestioning faith in their truth? Or should we use methods of literary analysis to revise our understandings of what those old writings mean? If the traditional religions are true, why are there so many religions, teaching different things? Can Christians learn things from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures?

The transcendentalists were a generation of well-educated Americans--mostly from the Boston area--who lived in a time of relative peace and prosperity who were excited by the possibilities they felt in the world around them. America had won independence from England decades before. Books and newspapers were more and more plentiful, and many people felt intellectually and spiritually hungry. Science had made startling advances in human knowledge. Texts from non-Western cultures were more widely available. Increasing national and personal wealth made it possible for many people to devote time to literature, essays, novels, philosophy, poetry and science.

The transcendantlists didn't question the sense of right and wrong they were taught growing up in a Christian society. They believed in keeping the Ten Commandments just as their grandparents had. But they also believed that a loving God would not have misled the millions of people who grew up in other religious traditions, so they sought truth in other religions and cultures as well. They believed God's spirit spoke within every soul, and that by paying attention to one's inner senses one could access the divine.

This meant that every individual was important. Ralph Waldo Emerson said "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds...A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men." He spoke for many who felt a growing sense of their own powers. He felt within himself a power that he believed was related to the Divine. He felt that was true for him was true for all people: every person had access to divine inspiration and, given the chance, would seek freedom and knowledge and truth.

If all persons were related to God, then institutions that held some down were wrong, so many transcendentalists were actively seeking to reform society, especially through movements against slavery and in favor of women's rights.

The transcendentalists believed they lived in an age that called for greatness. They believed they had a responsibility to form in America a new people who would create new literature and philosophy that would advance the cause of all of humanity.

Here is a gorgeous and fascinating website dealing with the Transcendentalists

Important quotes from Self-Reliance

  • Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
  • Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.
  • Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
  • A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.


  • Is Emerson really saying "Believe anything you want to believe and do anything you want to do"? Is he really saying "Nothing outside yourself matters"?
  • In what ways is Emerson speaking religiously -- that is, about our relationship to the divine?
  • What would Emerson think of the survivalist movement?
  • What would Emerson think of 21st century American capitalism?
  • Would Emerson's ideas as expressed in this essay result in a stronger or weaker government? More or less democracy?
  • Was Emerson a liberal or conservative -- and in what ways? (You might also want to read Emerson's essay "The Conservative.")
  • What would Emerson think about today's libertarianism?
  • What would Emerson say about the human capacity for good and for evil?
  • How have Emerson's ideas helped shape our concept of the American Dream?
  • Should students read more essays of Emerson, or just this one?


Nov 27: Discussion or open note test on Transcendentalism drawn from this (handout)

Nov 28: Sign up for Shakespeare workshops.

Copy the following questions onto your blog. Then answer each one of them, writing in complete sentences. Be sure to spell check before publishing. You have the entire period.

1) In your own words, define the term individual.
2) What do you think it means to be an individual? An American individual?
3) In your own words, define the term society.
4) What do you think the purpose of society is, or, more importantly, should be?
5) In your own words, define the term government.
6) What do you think the purpose of government is, or, more importantly, should be?
7) In your own words, define the term Nature.
8) In your opinion, what does American society say is important? Why? Explain.
9) How do you think Americans view Nature?
10) As far as you are concerned, looking back to your own responses, does American society promote individuality and independence or suppress them? Why?

Read for tomorrow the introduction to Thoreau and the first two sections of Walden, pages 230 - 238 (stopping at from Solitude). Come to class tomorrow ready to write an answer to this question: What does Thoreau mean when he says "Simplify, simplify" (page 237). Do you think he has a valid point? Explain.

For further assignments, go to the Thoreau page on this wiki.

Nov 20

Today you should spend a little time getting familiar with how to blog--adding links to your blog roll and quoting from and linking to other web pages.

Put a link to my home page and to the student wiki in your blog roll, following the directions given in class.

Read pages 222 - 226. Emerson took great joy in thinking, in writing sentences that captured his intuitions about the nature of things.

Write one response paragraph in your blog. Respond to a quote from "Self-Reliance." You can explain what it means, or note why it's an interesting or an important observation, or disagree with it and explain why you think it's mistaken. You should find the quote in the Self-Reliance_e-text and copy it into your blog, then indent it following these directions. Be sure to include a link back to the e-text. I've put an example here of a properly formatted blog post that quotes from another page.

Nov 21: Enable bog comments, following the directions given in class. This is so I can respond to your posts. Then, answer any one of the questions from your text, page 228. This should be a well-made paragraph that begins with a strong topic sentence, which is then developed in the remainder of the paragraph.

Review of writing paragraphs: A topic sentence is a sentence that indicates in a general way what idea or thesis the paragraph is going to deal with. Although not all paragraphs have clear-cut topic sentences, and despite the fact that topic sentences can occur anywhere in the paragraph (as the first sentence, the last sentence, or somewhere in the middle), an easy way to make sure your reader understands the topic of the paragraph is to put your topic sentence near the beginning of the paragraph. (This is a good general rule for less experienced writers, although it is not the only way to do it).

The topic (which is introduced by the topic sentence) should be discussed fully and adequately. Again, this varies from paragraph to paragraph, depending on the author's purpose, but writers should beware of paragraphs that only have two or three sentences. It's a pretty good bet that the paragraph is not fully developed if it is that short.

Some methods to make sure your paragraph is well-developed:
  • Use examples and illustrations
  • Cite data (facts, statistics, evidence, details, and others)
  • Examine testimony (what other people say such as quotes and paraphrases)
  • Use an anecdote or story
  • Define terms in the paragraph
  • Compare and contrast
  • Evaluate causes and reasons
  • Examine effects and consequences
  • Analyze the topic
  • Describe the topic
  • Offer a chronology of an event (time segments)

Nov 22: Late Work Holiday

On the theory that some people were knocked off balance by the need to add a new way of working (posting to blogs), Wednesday will be a "late work holiday." Assignments that are posted on a student's blog by 9:00 pm on Wednesday, November 22, will not be counted as late. The only assignments that are included in this "holiday" are these:

English11 American Lit
Assignment: Eng11: Emerson Date:Fri, Nov 17, 2006

Read pages 215-221.
On your blog, create a paragraph by paragraph summary of the excerpt “from Nature.” Re-state Emerson’s main ideas in clear and concise language.

English11 American Lit
Assignment: Eng11: Responding to Longfellow Date:Thu, Nov 16, 2006

1. Write three thoughts about your poem. Each thought should be more than 150 words long. These should be written in standard English, punctuated and spelled correctly. They should use examples from the poem to make clear what you are saying. Since this is an informal set of notes, the three thoughts do not need to be related to each other or unified by a single thesis.