In his speech entitled “The American Scholar,” Emerson (1803-1882) urged the young country to develop a national intellectual life separate from long lasted colonial influences. He also criticizes his audience, condemning academic scholarship for its reliance on historical and institutional wisdom. Each sentence of this speech has been decorated with force, subtlety, impressiveness, and poetic beauty. Let’s see the content and style of the lecture ‘The American Scholar.’
More Notes: The American Scholar
The lecture falls into two parts. The first part contains an account of the influences operating upon the American Scholar to educate him. This part is further divided into three parts, one part dealing with the effects of Nature, the second with that of books, and the third with that of action. The second part contains Emerson’s view of the duties of the American Scholar. The lecture ends with analyzing the state of affairs prevailing in America and Emerson’s view of future possibilities.
After giving a brief introduction, he comes to the various education sources open to the American Scholar. He has Nature, books, and his own actions as sources of his education. Their combined influence will transform him from a little bookworm into a man of broad culture and make him a “man thinking.” Emerson assured the scholars who were listening to him to let the American scholar be no longer timid and imitative and not be too deferential to European writers and intellectuals. Instead, let him be self-reliant and rely on the annals of his own country. Let “the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide.” “Then the huge world would come round to him,”
More Notes: Suggestions
The influence of Nature is the first and foremost influence that operates on the scholar. Let him open his soul to nature, and then nature’s influence will flow into him and mold his soul. He will thus become aware of the oneness of the human soul and the soul of nature, which are both derived from the same source. Nature then became to him the measure of his achievement. As much as he is ignorant of nature, he does not yet have so much of his own mind. Thus, he combines the two maxims, ‘Know thyself,’ the ancient with the modern, ‘study nature’ in one concept.
Books depicting the mind of the past are the second significant influence that operates on the scholar’s mind. Books serve as precious lamps where the flame of thought is rekindled in the hours of darkness. This fact is well-known. If he is to grow into “Man Thinking,” the true scholar must not be suppressed by books that are merely instruments of his transformation. Books are for idle hours. It is wrong for young minds to devote themselves too much to the writings of others and allow themselves to be tyrannized by them. Young men need not allow themselves to be influenced too much, even by such great writers as Cicero, Locke, and Bacon. Books of the past might have been of great use in their age, but now they must be used with great warning. In his opinion, every age writes its own books, or at the most, it writes for the following period, so they must think about what they read and use what is universal and permanent. They must learn to sift and analyze what they read critically.
Emerson demanded more energetically than ever before the importance of action. A thinker, a scholar, must be a doer also, just as a doer must be a thinker also. Practical men mock theoretical men as if theoretical men are unable the act. Action is essential for the scholar, though the action is to be subordinate to speculation. Without action, the scholar is not yet a man. Without action, thought can never grow up into truth. Only action can complete thought. Reading should be creative. It must make him see into the heart of things and understand the truth. He advises the scholar that he must be free from dependence on the books of other countries, as well as from slavery to all books, to the mind of the past. He must be culturally independent.
The scholar’s first and most important duty is to develop courageous self-trust and a mind that will be a storehouse of wisdom for other people. This is a difficult task, Emerson says, because the scholar must tolerate poverty, adversity, boredom, isolation, and other privations while following the path of knowledge.
Emerson’s prose style in his address is noted for its aphoristic quality and epigrammatic brevity. He utters a series of short citational statements without logical unity of speech but bound together by the principle or intellectual atmosphere of the source from which they proceed. His many sentences are remarkable for their poetic beauty. Like Bacon, he used several stylistic devices such as figures of speech, analogy, antithetically balanced sentences, epigrams, aphorisms, rhetorical devices, etc.
To sum up, Emerson is one of the greatest American essayists of the nineteenth century. He is quite different from other essayists. His essays are very long and loosely constructed. His style for writing essays is philosophical and full of his wisdom. ‘The American Scholar’ is a declaration of American independence on cultural matters, and it is very effective because of its grand style.