Ralph Waldo Emerson Essays

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Read by Allan Davis Drake, Podcasts

These three programmes, all available on podcast, gave a good idea of Emerson’s work and its continuing significance in contemporary American culture. Robert D.Richardson’s lecture, recorded at the Cambridge Forum, Massachusetts, in the mid-1980s, focused on his search for direct experience and his nonconformity. Having spent his formative years as a minister, Emerson decided to make a break with organized religion and enjoy the beauties of the cosmos instead; to try and communicate directly with God. This is what lay at the heart of his Transcendentalism. He sought direct experience and the beauties of the inner universe. The only way this could be achieved was by having the courage of one’s convictions and developing one’s own mind. Richardson argued that Emerson was not advocating an egotistical perspective; while individuals were important, they also had to learn to coalesce into groups advocating self-worth rather than self-sufficiency. Hence Emerson’s determination to ally himself with specific social and political movements, for example antislavery. In Richardson’s view, Transcendentalism was equated with freedom of belief, which had to have some practical application; it was not just dry idealism. Only then could the world be transformed into a place valuing ‘children of the free.’ Delivered in a clear, accessible style, Richardson’s lecture provided a useful introduction to Emerson’s life and thought. It was produced for podcast by WGBH Boston.


The educational website has worked hard to provide a series of free readings of classic works. Emerson’s classic essays “Art” (1841) and “The American Scholar” (1837) are both freely available for download. In “Art” Emerson argues that art denotes the height of the human soul, the inspiration of the inner self. Creating artistic works – whether written, visual or otherwise – helps to develop the individual perception of beauty. To achieve this, the individual should learn from the ancients as well as from great contemporary authors like Carlyle, Byron and Burke. Only then will they be able to understand the opulence of nature and the excellence of all things. Reading Homer transforms men into giants who can both enjoy and communicate the mysteries of eternal art. If an artist should communicate the delights of history, they should also cultivate an appropriate manner of living, dedicated to truth and the understanding of nature. If that means rejecting society and finding a place of solitude, then so be it. An artist should always develop their creativity and find whatever possible means to nurture that development. Emerson also argues that art is never fixed but always flowing, from god, from the human voice, from the individual and from the works they create. True art unifies the beautiful and the useful; in nature all is beautiful, all is useful. A work of art should capture the beauties of nature and render them accessible to viewers and/or readers, helping them to achieve the same kind of harmony that the creators possess. An artist should identify and communicate the beauties of nature to viewers.


Emerson makes the same demands of potential scholars in the famous essay “The American Scholar.” True scholarship, he believes, can only be achieved through communion with nature, for it is nature that nourishes the mind. He does not believe in specialized scholarship; rather he encourages individuals to study the past as a means for developing new ideas of universal importance, for everyone’s benefit. He also refutes the idea that scholars should be reclusive, celibate and disenfranchised. Rather he encourages them to participate in direct action through publication and/or other forms of activism. This is the only way their minds will be able to develop and thereby create new, radical points of view which can initiate social and political change. Emerson also establishes a distinction between scholarship and commerce. Whereas the latter is dedicated to material production, the true scholar deals with pure language – the kind of discourse that denotes an undulation of nature and an elemental force of living. Scholars should always try to persuade or influence their readers. If this requires them to spend a lot of time in mental labour, in poverty and/or solitude, then so be it. They should be willing to risk uncertainty and dedicate themselves to the vital task of communicating heroic ideas (created through reading ancient authorities) to their audiences. Emerson believes they are powerful people – using the power of the intellect to persuade. Societies should try to develop so-called ‘high’ cultures, as a way of improving themselves; and scholars are the supreme representatives of that culture.


Emerson identifies three stages of scholarship – the Greek, Romantic and reflective stages. This has a lot to do with people’s reading; not only the Ancients but the works of European Romantics like Wordsworth and Goethe. Once such reading has been completed, the scholar should enter the reflective stage by learning the importance of contemplation. Only then can they understand nature, and realize how the old (i.e. thoughts expressed in the past) can illuminate the new. “The American Scholar” was a political as well as an intellectual text: Emerson argues that it is particularly important in mid-19th century America to cultivate the scholar, as a way of improving people’s lives, making them aware of the new intellectual vigour within the country and thereby encouraging them towards self-improvement. Scholarship can help to emphasize the importance of individualism. Emerson also argues that, while it is important to learn from European models, one should not slavishly imitate them; rather American scholars should develop their free minds and develop new ideas which help them to walk on their own two feet, inspired by the divine soul.


Regrettably the reader of both works was not credited on the podcast. However the texts were read in such a way as to emphasize Emerson’s fondness for the long, flowing sentence, in which multiple subordinate clauses are used to illustrate the main idea. Here was a man who understood scholarship, of writing in such a way as to prove his main ideas through reference to the ancients, while bearing in mind the importance of accessibility. Apparently he made a lot of money through lecturing to audiences all over America; from the evidence of these recordings, one can see why he was so successful.