Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Self-Reliance Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson—an American essayist, lecturer, and philosopher—was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803. The son of a prominent Unitarian minister, Emerson entered Harvard at 14 and completed his education at Harvard Divinity School. Emerson served as a pastor at Boston’s Second Church from 1829 to 1832 but resigned a year after the death of his first wife and during a period in which he began openly expressing doubts about the church. After traveling for several months in Europe in 1833, Emerson returned to the United States to begin a career as a lecturer. He married his second wife and moved to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1835. 1836 was a pivotal year in Emerson’s life. He helped arrange the first meetings of the Transcendental Club, an intellectual group devoted to renovating American culture and literature, and he published “Nature,” an important essay in which he articulated the key tenets of transcendentalism, a philosophy that prized individuality above all else. In 1837, he gave a lecture, “The American Scholar,” on the need for a uniquely American literature, a theme that persisted in his work over the years. In the years that followed, Emerson began his friendship with Henry David Thoreau, another important transcendentalist and someone who encouraged Emerson to keep the journals that became important sources for his writing. Emerson also helped to establish the transcendentalist journal called The Dial, and he published several essay collections that established him as an important American intellectual. Emerson’s health began declining in the late 1860s, and he ended his career as a lecturer in 1879. Emerson died in 1882 in Concord, Massachusetts, of complications of pneumonia.
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Historical Context of Self-Reliance

“Self-Reliance” and transcendentalism in general reflect a movement to reform the Unitarian religious tradition of Emerson’s childhood and early adult life. Like many of the older faiths of early America, Unitarianism was attacked in the early 1800s because it failed to provide an emotionally satisfying experience for its adherents and it didn’t offer relevant guidance on how to function in a US that was undergoing rapid cultural changes and confronting important political issues, including slavery and the rights of women. Emerson’s work also reflects the influence of Romanticism, a nineteenth century literary movement that celebrated the importance of the individual, imagination, and irrationality.

Other Books Related to Self-Reliance

Emerson’s “Nature,” published in 1836, offered one of the earliest formulations of the ideas later developed fully in “Self-Reliance.” Emerson’s influence is also reflected in the work of other members of the Transcendentalist Club. Henry David Thoreau, arguably the most famous of Emerson’s peers, wrote Walden Pond, or Life in the Woods, (often called just Walden) in 1854. In the work, he recounts how his retreat into nature and solitude allowed him to become a more self-reliant individual and thus enabled him to live out the abstract notions expressed in Emerson’s essay. Margaret Fuller, a woman whose association with the Transcendentalist Club went against the grain of nineteenth century intellectual subordination of women, published “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women” in 1845 in The Dial, the journal of the Transcendentalist Club. Her work offered a feminist critique of women’s roles and was grounded in important transcendentalist ideas about individualism.
Key Facts about Self-Reliance
  • Full Title: “Self-Reliance”
  • When Written: 1832 to 1841
  • Where Written: Concord and Boston, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1841
  • Literary Period: American Transcendentalism, American Romanticism
  • Genre: Essay, philosophical text
  • Antagonist: Conformity
  • Point of View: Multiple points of view, including first-person, second-person, and third-person

Extra Credit for Self-Reliance

Baby Genius. At 14, Emerson was the youngest member of his class at Harvard.

The Sage of Concord. Emerson’s outsize influence on nineteenth century American thought and culture made his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts (which was already the site of an important American Revolution battle and home to many important writers) even more famous. He was known as “the Sage of Concord,” and his home there is a National Historic Landmark.