Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalist Philosopher


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 12: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalist Philosopher
Nov. 4-8, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Emerson’s work.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read “Ralph Waldo Emerson” and “Self-Reliance.”


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: Summarize what Emerson means by “Self-Reliance.”  What does this term mean to you?

Presentation: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalist Philosopher (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning

Nature: Like many American writers, Emerson took an interest in nature.  What does he have to say about nature in “Self-Reliance”?  In particular, consider how he characterizes nature and humans’ relationship with it.

Style: Emerson’s is one of America’s great prose stylists.  Identify particular features of his style and explain how they contribute to the meaning or effect of “Self-Reliance.”

Tone: What is the tone of this essay?  Identify particular features that help to shape this tone.  What impact did this tone have on you as a reader?

Self: Building on your response to the “Think Fast” exercise, discuss Emerson’s emphasis on the self and the individual.  Do you find his argument convincing?  Defend your position.

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: In a brief essay (200-300 words), use details from works by Ralph Waldo Emerson and at least one other writer we have studied to discuss the importance of the self.  How should one balance the inspiration and the needs of the self with those of the community?

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with some of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • Transcendentalism
  • style
  • prose
  • essay
  • tone


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the resource listed below:

All American: Ralph Waldo Emerson features a chronology and details of Emerson’s family, homes, and occupations.

Updated October 29, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


Returning from our sea voyage with Herman Melville, we turn now to a writer who was perhaps a bit more grounded, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Please note that your complete portfolio is due on the Web on November 18.  You may want to take time now to review the instructions for this assignment on the syllabus.  Next week, you will have the opportunity to bring a draft of this portfolio to class, where we will conduct a draft workshop on the various components.


Although he wrote no fiction and less poetry than many other poets, Ralph Waldo Emerson is perhaps the most important figure in the history of American literature.  As a writer of essays and lectures, he was a master stylist, renowned for the clarity and rhythms of his prose.  Several of his essays--notably Nature, "Self-Reliance," and "The American Scholar"--are among the finest in English.  Among the principles that Emerson eloquently addressed in these and other works are the individual's unity with nature, the sanctity of the individual, the need to live in the present, and the role of the poet in society.

Emerson's chief contribution to American letters, however, came in the form of his enormous influence on other writers and thinkers.  In the 1830s, for example, he became a leader of American Transcendentalism--a philosophical, literary, and social movement--and so influenced Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson and Transcendentalism even shaped the ideas of non-adherents, such as Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe, who defined their own philosophical and aesthetic principles partly by criticizing the Transcendentalists.

Emerson's ideas about poetry--perhaps in particular his contention that "it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem" in the essay "The Poet"--also profoundly influenced Walt Whitman.  Indeed, Whitman's preface to Leaves of Grass reiterates many of the same principles expressed in The Poet, including the role of the poet as voice of the people.  Like Thoreau, Whitman also owed much of his recognition to Emerson, whose praise of Leaves of Grass--"I greet you at the beginning of a great career. . . . "I find incomparable things said incomparably well."--Whitman printed on the back of the books.

Finally, Emerson's insistence that humans live in the present and trust their own impulses helped American writers forge their own identities at a time when European influence was still high and American confidence perhaps was still low.  After hearing Emerson deliver address called The American Scholar to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837, fellow writer Oliver Wendell Holmes called the speech "our intellectual Declaration of Independence."


In our next lesson, we will look at another Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.