“The American Scholar” was a speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson on August 31, 1837, to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at the The First Parish in Cambridge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was invited to speak in recognition of his groundbreaking work Nature, published a year earlier, in which he established a new way for America’s young  society to regard the world. Sixty years after declaring independence, American culture was still heavily influenced by Europe, and Emerson, for possibly the first time in the country’s 01-emerson2-450history, provided a visionary philosophical framework for escaping “from under its iron lids” and building a new, distinctly American cultural identity. Consider this message in relation to the works of the Fireside Poets who, though they wrote about American images, still maintained the formal style and meter of British poetry of the time. William Cullen Bryant, Fireside Poet, declared that Emerson’s “American Scholar” speech was essentially the nations “intellectual Declaration of Independence”.

Click here to watch a brief video that will provide background and biographical information about Emerson, as well as his role as the ‘Father of Transcendentalism’.

Emerson’s prose is very complex – please know that before you begin reading the text. Plan to write in your text with a pencil, and plan to spend a little more time than normal reading through each paragraph. Emerson’s complex syntax is not the only reason you will need to carefully read and analyze this text – his use of heavily layered metaphors, allegories, fables and allusions add an incredible amount of depth. Please take your time analyzing and understanding this text – and be sure to leave comments on here if you have questions over the break about ‘The American Scholar’ – I WILL be checking and answering them! It is important that you understand this text – Emerson is pivotal in understanding the Transcendentalist writings and ideas that follow him.

Remember – “The American Scholar” starts on page 390 of your textbook Writing In American: Composition in Context.

If you left your book at school – 1. Shame on you! and 2. You can find this speech for free online, as its now in the public domain.

 If you would like to listen to the audio of the speech and following along, please click here.

As you prepare for our Socratic discussion of Emerson, let the following questions be a guide to help you.

  1. What is the first influence on Man Thinking (the Scholar)? What does the intellect do with nature? What is he really studying when he studies Nature?
  2. What is the second influence on Man Thinking? Discuss the complexities of Emerson’s musings here.
  3. What is the third requirement for Man Thinking? Explain.
  4. Why is labor essential?
  5. What phrase sums up the totality of the duties of the American scholar? Explain
  6. What are the snags that are thrown in his way? What are the only rewards?
  7. Why is self-trust vital?
  8. What are the most dangerous pitfalls to the scholar?
  9. Look through The American Scholar and choose four sentences which, if taken out of context, could strike a reader as outlandish. How can we explain their inclusion in this essay? What is their effect? When Emerson declares that books “are for nothing but to inspire,” does he mean precisely that? How are we to respond? Is a sentence like this to be taken at face value?
  10. When Emerson delivered this address, the systematic study of the natural, physical, and social sciences was only beginning at British and American universities. Engineering, psychology, organic chemistry, economics–these were virtually unknown as subjects for formal study on campuses. Do modern college curricula reflect Emerson’s thinking in significant ways? Has Emerson been left behind by the educational revolution which he helped to begin? Which principles voiced in The American Scholar figure in your thinking about this question?

Some of the interesting question that you guys have proposed in class (because you are amazing, amazing kids), and that deserve a more in-depth analysis (or would make good essay topics, or may end up on your exam) were:

  1. Do you believe Emerson would have approved of the education that the young men of Phi Beta Kappa were receiving at Harvard? What about the American education system today – how would Emerson react to it?
  2. What are the syntactical similarities between Emerson and Patrick Henry (Speech to the Virginia Convention)?
  3. How did Emerson and Jefferson pick out a similar audience to appeal to, and why did they pick this particular group (ie. In Jefferson’s letter to Chastellux, discussing the abolition of slavery).
  4. Did Emerson decide to speak to a Greek organization for a deeper reason? Did he consider that if his message was successful, the fraternal brotherhood would pass these ‘Transcendental’ ideas on in their traditions?
  5. Does assigning a numeric/monetary value to knowledge/education undermine the entire idea?
  6. Why do we assign value to knowledge (numeric/monetary) and when did this begin happening?
  7. Was Emerson a Christian? How does he reconcile some of his more radical ideas (the divinity of nature/man=nature=man) with his Christian faith?
  8. How is Emerson’s approach to faith and religion similar to those of some of the Founding Fathers?
  9. Why does Emerson use so many seemingly contradictory and paradoxical ideas in ‘The American Scholar”?
  10. Do you think Emerson believes that everyone should be educated? Do you think Emerson believes everyone should receive an Ivy League, liberal arts education? What value does Emerson assign to education, and does he differentiate between education about different skill sets and classes?
  11. How would Emerson feel about academia today and the seeming drive within it for scholars to prove others wrong, rather than engage in collaborative dialogue?
  12. Are we a more introverted society, or a more extroverted society? How has the ‘individualism’ that Emerson calls for changed since 1837?  How does social media figure into the changing perception of ‘individualism’?
  13. Emerson says that the American Scholar must be brave and heroic – that to take action is to be brave. How do you see this tenant of Transcendentalism in your own experience as a student/scholar? Do you feel comfortable accepting failure as a part of learning? Do you feel that the educational systems allows you to struggle in order to grow?

No wonder so many of you guys said your brain hurt after class today – these are incredibly deep questions you poised to each other! I’m very proud of your progress! Best quote from the discussion goes to Taylor:

“Emerson doesn’t want us to seek the approval of the public opinion, but to be comfortable in the assertions of our own experience and knowledge.”