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Summary and Analysis of "The American Scholar"About "The American Scholar"Originally titled "An Oration Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge,[Massachusetts,] August 31, 1837," Emerson delivered what is now referred to as "TheAmerican Scholar" essay as a speech to Harvards Phi Beta Kappa Society, an honorarysociety of male college students with unusually high grade point averages. At the time,women were barred from higher education, and scholarship was reserved exclusively formen. Emerson published the speech under its original title as a pamphlet later that sameyear and republished it in 1838. In 1841, he included the essay in his book Essays, butchanged its title to "The American Scholar" to enlarge his audience to all collegestudents, as well as other individuals interested in American letters. Placed in his ManThinking: An Oration (1841), the essay found its final home in Nature; Addresses, andLectures (1849The text begins with an introduction (paragraphs 1-7) in which Emerson explains that his intent is to explorethe scholar as one function of the whole human being: The scholar is "Man Thinking." The remainder of theessay is organized into four sections, the first three discussing the influence of nature (paragraphs 8 and 9), theinfluence of the past and books (paragraphs 10-20), and the influence of action (paragraphs 21-30) on theeducation of the thinking man. In the last section (paragraphs 31-45), Emerson considers the duties of thescholar and then discusses his views of America in his own time.Readers should number each paragraph in pencil as these Notes make reference to individual paragraphs in theessay.Summary and Analysis of "The American Scholar" Paragraphs 1-7 - "ManThinking"Emerson opens "The American Scholar" with greetings to the college president andmembers of the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College. Pointing out the differencesbetween this gathering and the athletic and dramatic contests of ancient Greece, thepoetry contests of the Middle Ages, and the scientific academies of nineteenth-centuryEurope, he voices a theme that draws the entire essay together: the notion of anindependent American intelligentsia that will no longer depend for authority on itsEuropean past. He sounds what one critic contends is "the first clarion of an Americanliterary renaissance," a call for Americans to seek their creative inspirations usingAmerica as their source, much like Walt Whitman would do in Leaves of Grass eighteenyears later. In the second paragraph, Emerson announces his theme as "The AmericanScholar" not a particular individual but an abstract idealThe remaining five paragraphs relate an allegory that underlies the discussion to follow.According to an ancient fable, there was once only "One Man," who then was divided intomany men so that society could work more efficiently. Ideally, society labors together —each person doing his or her task — so that it can function properly. However, societyhas now subdivided to so great an extent that it no longer serves the good of its citizens.And the scholar, being a part of society, has degenerated also. Formerly a "ManThinking," the scholar is now "a mere thinker," a problem that Emerson hopes to correctsuccessfully by re-familiarizing his audience with how the true scholar is educated andwhat the duties of this scholar areSummary and Analysis of "The American Scholar" Paragraphs 8-9 - TheInfluence of NatureIn these two paragraphs comprising the first section on how a scholar should beeducated, Emerson envisions nature as a teacher that instructs individuals who observethe natural world to see — eventually — how similar their minds and nature are. The firstsimilarity he discusses concerns the notion of circular power — a theme familiar toreaders of the Nature essay — found in nature and in the scholars spirit. Both nature andthe scholars spirit, "whose beginning, whose ending he never can find — so entire, soboundless," are eternalOrder is another similarity — as it is in Nature — between the scholar and nature. Atfirst, the mind views a chaotic and infinite reality of individual facts, but then it begins toclassify these facts into categories, to make comparisons and distinctions. A person
discovers natures laws and can understand them because they are similar to theoperations of the intellect. Eventually, we realize that nature and the soul — bothproceeding from what Emerson terms "one root" — are parallel structures that mirroreach other (Emersons term for "parallel" may be misleading; he says that nature is the"opposite" of the soul). So, a greater knowledge of nature results in a greaterunderstanding of the self, and vice versa. The maxims "Know thyself" and "Study nature"are equivalent: They are two ways of saying the same thingSummary and Analysis of "The American Scholar" Paragraphs 10-20 - TheInfluence of the PastEmerson devotes much of his discussion to the second influence on the mind, pastlearning — or, as he expresses it, the influence of books. In the first three paragraphs ofthis section, he emphasizes that books contain the learning of the past; however, he alsosays that these books pose a great danger. While it is true that books transform merefacts ("short-lived actions") into vital truths ("immortal thoughts"), every book isinevitably a partial truth, biased by societys standards when it was written. Each agemust create its own books and find its own truths for itselfFollowing this call for each ages creating truth, Emerson dwells on other dangers in books. They aredangerous, he says, because they tempt the scholar away from original thought. Excessive respect for thebrilliance of past thinkers can discourage us from exploring new ideas and seeking individualized truths.The worst example of slavish deference to past thinkers is the bookworm, a pedant who focuses all thought ontrivial matters of scholarship and ignores large, universal ideas. This type of person becomes passive anduncreative, and is the antithesis of Emersons ideal of the creative imagination: "Man hopes. Genius creates. Tocreate, — to create, — is the proof of a divine presence." The non-creative bookworm is more spirituallydistanced from God — and, therefore, from nature — than is the thinker of original thoughts.But the genius, too, can suffer from the undue influence of books. Emersons example of this kind of suffererare the English dramatic poets, who, he says, have been "Shakespearized" for two hundred years: Rather thanproducing new, original texts and thoughts, they mimic Shakespeares writings. Citing an Arabic proverb thatsays that one fig tree fertilizes another — just like one author can inspire another — Emerson suggests thattrue scholars should resort to books only when their own creative genius dries up or is blocked.The last three paragraphs of this section refer to the pleasures and benefits of reading, provided it is donecorrectly. There is a unique pleasure in reading. Because ancient authors thought and felt as people do today,books defeat time, a phenomenon that Emerson argues is evidence of the transcendental oneness of humanminds. Qualifying his previous insistence on individual creation, he says that he never underestimates thewritten word: Great thinkers are nourished by any knowledge, even that in books, although it takes aremarkably independent mind to read critically at all times. This kind of reading mines the essential vein oftruth in an author while discarding the trivial or biased.Emerson concedes that there are certain kinds of reading that are essential to an educated person: History,science, and similar subjects, which must be acquired by laborious reading and study. Foremost, schools mustfoster creativity rather than rely on rote memorization of texts: ". . . [schools] can only highly serve us, whenthey aim not to drill, but to createSummary and Analysis of "The American Scholar" Paragraphs 21-30 - TheInfluence of ActionIn this third section, Emerson comments on the scholars need for action, for physicallabor. He rejects the notion that the scholar should not engage in practical action. Action,while secondary to thought, is still necessary: "Action is with the scholar subordinate, butit is essential." Furthermore, not to act — declining to put principle into practice — iscowardly. The transcendental concept of the world as an expression of ourselves makesaction the natural duty of a thinking personEmerson observes the difference between recent actions and past actions. Over time, he says, a persons pastdeeds are transformed into thought, but recent acts are too entangled with present feelings to undergo this
transformation. He compares "the recent act" to an insect larva, which eventually metamorphoses into abutterfly — symbolic of action becoming thought.Finally, he praises labor as valuable in and of itself, for such action is the material creatively used by thescholar. An active person has a richer existence than a scholar who merely undergoes a second-hand existencethrough the words and thoughts of others. The ideal life has "undulation" — a rhythm that balances, oralternates, thought and action, labor and contemplation: "A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong tothink." This cycle creates a persons character that is far superior to the fame or the honor too easily expectedby a mere display of higher learningSummary and Analysis of "The American Scholar" Paragraphs 31-45 - TheScholars DutiesAfter Emerson has discussed how nature, books, and action educate the scholar, he nowaddresses the scholars obligations to society. First, he considers these obligations ingeneral, abstract terms; then he relates them to the particular situation of the AmericanscholarThe scholars first and most important duty is to develop unflinching self-trustand a mind that will be a repository of wisdom for other people. This is a difficulttask, Emerson says, because the scholar must endure poverty, hardship, tedium,solitude, and other privations while following the path of knowledge. Self-sacrifice is often called for, as demonstrated in Emersons examples of twoastronomers who spent many hours in tedious and solitary observation of spacein order to make discoveries that benefited mankind. Many readers will wonderjust how satisfying the reward really is when Emerson acknowledges that thescholar "is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of humannature."The true scholar is dedicated to preserving the wisdom of the past and isobligated to communicating the noblest thoughts and feelings to the public. Thislast duty means that the scholar — "who raises himself from privateconsiderations, and breathes and lives on public illustrious thoughts" — mustalways remain independent in thinking and judgment, regardless of popularopinion, fad, notoriety, or expediency. Because the scholar discovers universalideas, those held by the universal human mind, he can communicate with peopleof all classes and ages: "He is the worlds eye. He is the worlds heart."Although he appears to lead a reclusive and benign life, the scholar must bebrave because he deals in ideas, a dangerous currency. Self-trust is the sourceof courage and can be traced to the transcendental conviction that the truethinker sees all thought as one; universal truth is present in all people, althoughnot all people are aware of it. Instead of thinking individually, we live vicariouslythrough our heroes; we seek self-worth through others when we should searchfor it in ourselves. The noblest ambition is to improve human nature by fulfillingour individual natures.Emerson concludes the essay by observing that different ages in Westerncivilization, which he terms the Classic, the Romantic, and the Reflective (or the
Philosophical) periods, have been characterized by different dominant ideas, andhe acknowledges that he has neglected speaking about the importance ofdifferences between ages while speaking perhaps too fervently about thetranscendental unity of all human thought.Emerson now proposes an evolutionary development of civilization, comparableto the development of a person from childhood to adulthood. The present age —the first half of the 1800s — is an age of criticism, especially self-criticism.Although some people find such criticism to be an inferior philosophy, Emersonbelieves that it is valid and important. Initiating a series of questions, he askswhether discontent with the quality of current thought and literature is such abad thing; he answers that it is not. Dissatisfaction, he says, marks a transitionalperiod of growth and evolution into new knowledge: "If there is any period onewould desire to be born in,is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and thenew stand side by side, and admit of being compared; . . . This [present] time,like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it."Emerson applauds the views of English and German romantic poets likeWordsworth and Goethe, who find inspiration and nobility in the lives and workof common people. Instead of regarding only royal and aristocratic subjects asappropriate for great and philosophical literature, the Romantic writers revealthe poetry and sublimity in the lives of lower-class and working people. Theirwriting is full of life and vitality, and it exemplifies the transcendental doctrine ofthe unity of all people. Ironically, we should remember that at the beginning ofthe essay, Emerson advocated Americans throwing off the European mantle thatcloaks their own culture. Here, he distinguishes between a European traditionthat celebrates the lives of common people, and one that celebrates only themonarchical rule of nations: "We have listened too long to the courtly muses ofEurope."<ahref="http://ad.doubleclick.net/jump/CNSite/;navArea=CLIFFSNOTES2_LITERATURE;type=Lit_Note;kword=Ralph_Waldo_Emerson;kword=Emersons_Essays;contentItemId=95;tile=3;sz=300x250;ord=123456789?" target="_blank"><imgsrc="http://ad.doubleclick.net/ad/CNSite/;navArea=CLIFFSNOTES2_LITERATURE;type=Lit_Note;kword=Ralph_Waldo_Emerson;kword=Emersons_Essays;contentItemId=95;tile=3;sz=300x250;ord=123456789?" width="300" height="250"border="0" alt="" /></a>Making special reference to the Swedish philosopher and mystic EmanuelSwedenborg, Emerson contends that although Swedenborg has not received hisdue recognition, he revealed the essential connection between the human mindand the natural world, the fundamental oneness of humans and nature. Emersonfinds much inspiration for his own thinking and writing in the doctrines ofSwedenborg.
In his long, concluding paragraph, Emerson dwells on the romantic ideal of theindividual. This fundamentally American concept, which he develops at muchgreater length in the essay "Self-Reliance," is Americas major contribution tothe world of ideas. The scholar must be independent, courageous, and original;in thinking and acting, the scholar must demonstrate that America is not thetimid society it is assumed to be. We must refuse to be mere purveyors of thepasts wisdom: ". . . this confidence in the unsearched might of man, belongs byall motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar," whowill create a native, truly American cultureSummary and Analysis of "The American Scholar" GlossaryTroubadours A class of lyric poets and poet-musicians, they lived in southern France inthe eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries and composed poems of love and chivalrysere Withered.constellation Harp another name for Lyra, a constellation of stars in the northern hemisphere; it containsVega, the fourth brightest star in the heavens.monitory A warning.refractory Unruly.Cicero, Marcus Tullius (106-43 B.C.) A Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher, he is best known forhis speech making.Locke, John (1632-1704) An English philosopher, Locke developed a theory of cognition that denied theexistence of innate ideas and asserted that all thought is based on our senses. His works influencedAmerican Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, who modified Puritan doctrine to allow for more play ofreason and intellect, building a foundation for Unitarianism and, eventually, transcendentalism.Bacon, Francis (1561-1626) An English essayist, statesman, and philosopher, he proposed a theorycalled the inductive method, a scientific knowledge based on observation and experiment.Third Estate The "common people" under the French monarchy; the clergy and nobles formed the firsttwo estates.emendators Those who make textual corrections.efflux To flow outwardly.fig tree A Mediterranean tree or shrub, widely cultivated for its edible fruit.Chaucer, Geoffrey (d. 1400) The English poet who wrote The Canterbury Tales.Marvell, Andrew (1621-78) An English metaphysical poet, his works include "To His Coy Mistress" and"Damon the Mower."Dryden, John (1631-1700) English poet, dramatist, and essayist.Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.) A Greek philosopher, he formulated the philosophy of idealism, which holds thatthe concepts or ideas of things are more perfect — and, therefore, more real — than the material thingsthemselves.
elements Here, the basic principles of a subject.pecuniary Of, or involving, money.valetudinarian A person in poor health, or one who is constantly anxious about his or her state of health.empyrean The highest reaches of heaven; paradise.ferules Sticks used for punishing children.Savoyards Inhabitants of Savoy, now a province of southeast France; during Emersons lifetime,Savoyards were renowned for their woodcarving.Algiers The capital of Algeria, a country in northwest Africa, on the Mediterranean Sea.copestones Meaning capstone, the top stone of a wall.Newton, Sir Isaac (1642-1727) An English mathematician and scientist, Newton is chiefly rememberedfor formulating the law of gravity.unhandselled Unappreciated.Druids Prehistoric Celtic priests.Berserkirs Savage warriors of Norse mythology.Alfred (d. 899) Alfred was the king (871-99) of what was then called West Saxony, in southwest England.Flamsteed, John (1646-1719) English astronomer.Herschel, Sir William (1738-1822) An English astronomer, he is credited for discovering Uranus, theseventh planet from the sun.glazed Having a roof of glass.promulgate To make known publicly.fetish An obsessive preoccupation.ephemeral Short-lived; transitory.presentiment A feeling that something is about to occur.firmament The expanse of the heavens; the sky; poetically, a symbol of strength.signet A small seal pressed into a hot wax wafer in order to make a document official.Macdonald Emerson substitutes this typical name of a Scottish chief in the old proverb, "Where Macgregorsits, there is the head of the table."Linnaeus, Carolus (1707-78) The Swedish botanist who founded the modern classification system forplants and animals known as binomial nomenclature.Davy, Sir Humphry (1778-1829) English chemist.Cuvier, Georges (1769-1832) A French naturalist, he is considered to be the founder of comparativeanatomy.
Provencal Minstrelsy Provence, an ancient province in southeast France, was a center for troubadours.lumber room A room cluttered with discarded household articles and furniture.Goldsmith, Oliver (d. 1774) English poet, playwright, and novelist.Burns, Robert (1759-96) The Scottish poet who wrote "Tam oShanter" and "Auld Lang Syne."Cowper, William (1731-1800) The English poet whose major work is The Task.Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832) A German writer, he profoundly influenced literaryromanticism; he is noted for his two-part dramatic poem Faust, published in 1808 and 1832.Wordsworth, William (1770-1850) An English poet, his most important collection, Lyrical Ballads(1798), helped establish romanticism in England.Carlyle, Thomas (1795-1881) English historian, philosopher, and essayist.Pope, Alexander (1688-1744) English poet and translator.Johnson, Samuel (1709-84) The English writer and critic who wrote Lives of the Poets, a study ofEnglish poetry.Gibbon, Edward (1737-94) Considered to be one of the greatest English historians, Gibbon authored thesix-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.Swedenborg, Emanuel (1688-1772) A Swedish scientist, mystic, philosopher, and theologian,Swedenborg insisted that the scriptures are the immediate word of God. He postulated many scientifictheories that were far ahead of their time, including the idea that all matter is made up of tiny swirlingparticles (later called atoms). He also set out to prove the existence of an immortal soul. Theologically, heasserted that the heavenly trinity is reproduced in human beings as soul, body, and mind. His teachingsbecame the nucleus of the Church of the New Jerusalem.Pestalozzi, Johann Heinrich (1746-1827) Swiss educatorEmersons The American Scholar - Mere Thinkers and Men ThinkingIn his speech, "The American Scholar," Emerson expresses his distaste for the "mere thinkers" who obtain their ideas from thework of other men. These other men, called "Men Thinking," are the ones who truly deserve credit because they derive theirideas from nature and the world. A truly unique idea is often one that is stumbled upon by a man while he is alone, with nodistractions or outside sources to draw information from. He simply takes his knowledge of the world and draws it together, asdescribed by Emerson: "To the young mind everything is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two thingsand see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so, tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes ontying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote thingscohere and flower out from one stem." Nature allows man the freedom to tie together his knowledge and create his own ideas.Ideas that are truly new are ones that are discovered in this way by "Men Thinking", because ideas of mere thinkers areprompted by literature containing old ideas. Mere thinkers are the bookworms who spend their days studying the philosophiesof thinkers, learning from them, but not creating their own ideas. Emerson writes that books are written by "Men of talent, that
is who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles." He believes that these men,although intelligent, have been heavily influenced by other people, and therefore have biased opinions which have not comedirectly from their own minds. Mere thinkers combine theologies from various sources, but have little that they can consider tobe their own private thought.Emersons reasoning, although it seems logical, has a paradoxical flaw in it. Although he his advocating pure thought, by writingdown his thoughts, he is helping to contribute to the massive amounts of mere thinkers who will hear his ideas and beinfluenced by them. Emerson writes that "The sacredness which attaches to the art of creation, the act of thought, is transferredto the record." He gives the impression that he wants to keep creative thoughts sacred by not writing them down and makingthem available to others. Yet at the exact same time as he is describing this phenomenon, he is doing exactly what he is opposedto. Although he mentions later that the one good purpose books serve is to inspire, his work has done much more than simplyinspiring people. He has become one of the great thinkers who people study; a more modern Cicero, Locke, or Bacon. His workhas contributed more to the increase in population of mere thinkers than it has to the increase of "Man Thinking" because he isdefying his own principleSTRUCTURE AND THEMESEmerson begins his address with a polite nod to the tradition of such talks on the role andespecially the future of learning and the arts in America, but he quickly separates himselffrom the traditional celebratory and jingoistic tone of such performances. He does not praiseAmerican cultural productions but instead wishes that the "sluggard intellect of this continent"would awake and produce "something better than the exertions of mechanical skill," a clearjibe at the anti-intellectualism and the practical, materialistic bent of American life (p. 81).Then, as he typically does at the beginning of his essays, Emerson attempts to ground hisdiscourse in an appeal to common experience, in this case the sense of incompleteness andisolation that follows upon the specialization of roles in society. He recounts the fable that"the gods, in the beginning, divided man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself.""The fable implies," Emerson goes on, "that the individual to possess himself, mustsometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, thisoriginal unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed in multitudes, has been sominutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered."What we have then, in "the divided or social state," is a condition in which "Man is thusmetamorphosed into a thing, into many things," but is nowhere complete (pp. 82, 83).In this scheme the ideal of "Man Thinking," that is, the intellectual and creative facets of theindividual self, are wrongly delegated to the scholar. But it is worth noting that this fable andEmersons interpretation of it also link up to the economic developments of the age and inparticular to the financial crisis brought on by the panic of 1837. Emerson describes here akind of transcendental version of what Karl Marx, a few years later in Europe, would call thealienation of labor, the dis-ease brought on by industrialization and specialization, where the
worker has no sense of a whole task or a whole product completed because he is relegated tosome partial and repetitive function within a large-scale industrial operation. Emerson is notfinally concerned with such a materialist economic analysis, but he is responding with someurgency, as so many writers did, to the increasingly complex, urban, and industrial drift ofnineteenth-century society.After this introduction, the first half of the essay isdevoted to an elaboration of the principal formativeinfluences on the scholars development. Stillinfluenced by his preacherly habit of numbering thepoints of his discourse, Emerson divides this sectionof the essay with roman numerals to signal the threemajor influences: nature, books (or what Emersoncalls "the mind of the Past"), and action. What isnoteworthy about this list, of course, is the demotionof books and formal learning to a secondary positionin the hierarchy of influences. Or, conversely, theelevation of nature to the primary position. Of course,those familiar with Emersons little book Naturewould not be surprised. And the sense in whichEmerson thinks of nature as a teacher to the potentialscholar, "this school-boy under the bending dome ofday" (p. 86), corresponds to the uses ofnatureommodity, beauty, language, and disciplines heenumerates and describes them in Nature. Particularlyhe has in mind the last of these uses, "discipline," bywhich he means something like "teaching": natureteaches us through its immense richness and varietyand invites us to probe and fathom its complexitythrough our lower intellectual faculty, theUnderstanding. But nature also appeals to our higherfaculty, the Reason, to intuit underlying truths and thedivine laws that animate all creation. Referring to theprocess of sealing an envelope with a wax sealimprinted on the paper, Emerson employs one of hismost resonant metaphors to describe the relationbetween nature and the mind or spirit that brings itforth: "He shall see that nature is the opposite of thesoul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and oneis print." And thus, as he concludes, "the ancientprecept, Know thyself, and the modern precept,study nature, become at last one maxim" (pp. 86,87).The next section of Emersons discourse takes up the education of the scholar by books ("themind of the Past"), in what must have been to his auditors the most surprising if not the mostperverse part of his address. Not only is this traditional mainstay of education relegated tosecond place, as it were, but book learning also undergoes further disparagement. Theproblem of the book, for Emerson, is the same problem that attaches to any doctrine or form;it supplants the original thought or spirit that created it: "The sacredness which attaches to the
act of creation,he act of thought,s instantly transferred to the record. . . . Instantly, the bookbecomes noxious. The guide is a tyrant" (pp. 889). Books thus become a bar to originalthought, and traditional education becomes an exercise in imitation. The right use, indeed theonly legitimate use of books is to inspire, to prompt us to think originally or, as Emersonphrases it more boldly, to "read God directly" (p. 91). If this last notion made some in theaudience uneasy, as verging on heresy, it would get worse, for Emerson would return toHarvard the following year and, in his speech to the divinity school students, employ thissame critique of the book to attack orthodox Christianity and its reliance on a literalinterpretation of the Bible.Lest one think, on the basis of this principle, that one can simply do without books or formaleducation, Emerson ends this section with an important caveat that puts us all back in theclassroom: "Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. Historyand exact science he must learn by laborious reading." Yet even here, in getting back tobasics, Emerson has a dig for Harvard: speaking of colleges, he says, "they can only serve us,when they aim not to drill, but to create" (p. 93). Because the traditional Harvard pedagogyinvolved endless numbing recitations sections, his implication is clear.The third influence on the scholars development is action, and by his emphasis on thisrequirement Emerson seeks to counter the stereotype, especially common in nineteenth-century America, that intellectuals reside in ivory towers and shirk the rough-and-tumble ofordinary life and work. The ground for the scholars action is the same principle that Emersonannounces in the "Nature" section of the essay: nature and the world correspond to the selfand provide the tangible means to both self-knowledge and productive action: "The world,hisshadow of the soul or other me, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock mythoughts and make me acquainted with myself. I launch eagerly into this resounding tumult"(p. 95). Besides, thought and action participate in what Emerson calls "That great principle ofUndulation" or Polarity, by which apparently opposite qualities actually depend upon oneanother and call one another into being. This principle is "ingrained in every atom" andpartakes of the overarching polarity of Power and Form in life, as Emerson would sketch it in"Experience" a few years later (p. 98).The education of the scholar completed, it remains for Emerson to sketch his duties and toaddress the larger issue of how to solve the problem of Americans long-standing sense ofcultural inferiority with respect to Europe. His duties are rather easily dispensed with; they areconveyed in a sort of pep talk that Emerson addresses to the audience (and to himself) out ofhis own experience and hopes for his fledgling career as public intellectual. Though thescholar is liable to suffer disdain, poverty, and solitude in keeping on the right track,eventually he emerges as a hero:He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, bypreserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies,melodious verse, and the conclusions of history. Whatsoever oracles thehuman heart in all emergencies, in all solemn hours has uttered as itscommentary on the world of actions,hese he shall receive and impart. (Pp.10102)The concluding section of the essay is devoted to an anatomy of the power that the Americanscholar will need to draw upon to produce this transformative effect on culture. This powercomes from a simple yet profound shift in how culture itself is defined and conceived: "This
revolution," Emerson says, "is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea ofculture. The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of a man"(p. 107). In thus locating the source of culture within the individual radical "domestication" ifever there was onemerson disposes of the principal negative condition that had stood in theway of Americas cultural independence and maturity. Suddenly, instead of looking to Europewe could simply look within. The embarrassing disparity between the long history ofEuropean cultural production and the paucity of the same in the United States could betranscended or rendered moot by the realization that Culture with a capital "C" did not consistof the monuments and artifacts stored in museums or libraries but in the potential for self-culture within the individual. This is "domestication" in a double sense: domestic as opposedto foreign, and domestic as pertaining to the individual and the internal as opposed to thepublic and the external. This subtle but profound shift in the conception of the sources, theexpression, and the transmission of high culture is what distinguished Emersons call forAmerican literary independence from the myriad of such pronouncements that preceded it.This is the foundation of Emersons claim at the beginning of the essay that "our longapprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close" (p. 81), and his assertion, at theend of the essay, that "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe" (p. 114).Another sense of this domestication pertains to the subject matter of American art and theartists treatment of materials. There follows from Emersons individual basis of culture,which in turn comes from a belief in each persons ability to access the divine and itsmanifestations in the world, a democratizing and anti-hierarchical turn in the arts.Interestingly Emerson sees this trend as already having happened, not as prospective: "thesame movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state,assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and thebeautiful, the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized" (p. 110). Thus Emersondoes not so much predict the radical democratic practice of Walt Whitman and the realists aslook back to English poets of the previous century and early-nineteenth-century Romantics:"this idea has inspired the genius of Goldsmith, Burns, Cowper, and in a newer time, ofGoethe, Wordsworth, and Carlyle" (p. 112). There is no call yet, as there would be a fewyears later in "The Poet," for poets to sing specifically American songs celebrating therichness and diversity of the United States, and there are no Americans in Emersons list ofliterary models. Instead there is a kind of generic invocation of the ordinarythe meal in thefirkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat"one of which has aspecifically American valence (p. 111). In fact, that already archaic word "firkin" signals thatEmerson is chiefly thinking along pre-existing literary lines, much as his own poetry, for allthe radical implications of his theory, remains largely grounded in conventional poetic dictionand forms.Nevertheless, "The American Scholar" gave American intellectuals and would-be writers afirm basis for overcoming their sense of cultural inferiority with respect to Europe andespecially England. Neither the immediate prospects for literature nor the materialisticobsessions of contemporary business culture (in which idealistic young people have no choicebut to "turn drudges, or die of disgust") were promising, but the long-range outlook, based onnature, self-culture, and a healthy skepticism about received wisdom, was hopeful (p. 114