The American Scholar

Ralph Waldo Emerson Character Analysis

The author and narrator of “The American Scholar,” Emerson is specifically addressing American college students to inspire them to lead the country into an artistic revolution that will earn them the entire world’s respect. Emerson believes that nature mirrors humanity, so by studying the complexities and unities in nature, one can learn all about society, as well. As a leading transcendentalist thinker, Emerson embraces unity among individuals and believes that it can be achieved through the production of new philosophies, books, and art. On the other hand, Emerson also encourages individuality, especially in the scholar. He believes that for a scholar to produce truly great work, they have to be more self-reliant and leave behind the antiquated philosophies that they study in books. Although the country was still young when Emerson delivered the essay as a speech in 1837, Emerson believed that the rest of the world was had decided that no American was intellectual enough to create respectable works of art, and so he turns to the new generation of American college graduates to prove the rest of the world wrong. To that end, Emerson encourages his audience to break away from European ways of thinking and styles of art to create something new and distinctly American.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Quotes in The American Scholar

The The American Scholar quotes below are all either spoken by Ralph Waldo Emerson or refer to Ralph Waldo Emerson. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Dover Thrift Editions edition of The American Scholar published in 2009.
The American Scholar Quotes

Perhaps the time is already come when it ought to be, and will be, something else; when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:
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The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man—present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:
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He shall see that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments. So much of nature as he is ignorant of so much of his own mind does he not yet possess.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 151-152
Explanation and Analysis:
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Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 152-153
Explanation and Analysis:
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I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:
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Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:
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Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town; in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with man men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:
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He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds. He learns that he who has mastered any law in his private thoughts, is master to that extent of all men whose language he speaks, and of all into whose language his own can be translated.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 158-159
Explanation and Analysis:
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It is a sign—is it not?—of new vigor when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic: what is doing is Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker)
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:
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Mr. President and Gentlemen, this confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar. We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:
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We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. The dread of man and the love of man shall be a wall of defense and a wreath of joy around all. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.

Related Characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson (speaker), The American Scholar
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:
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Ralph Waldo Emerson Character Timeline in The American Scholar

The timeline below shows where the character Ralph Waldo Emerson appears in The American Scholar. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The American Scholar
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Emerson begins by noting that the beginning of another school year is an occasion of “hope,... (full context)
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Emerson expresses his opinion that the “sluggard intellect” of America is on the cusp of waking... (full context)
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Emerson summarizes an “old fable” about how the gods “divided Man into men, that he might... (full context)
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Emerson further explains that Man has the capacity to fulfill all the necessary roles in society,... (full context)
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...understanding the importance of their work in relation to other people from different social classes. Emerson argues that individuals essentially become the things they work with rather than develop into complete... (full context)
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The scholar, according to Emerson, is society’s “delegated intellect.” If the American Scholar has achieved the “right state” then they... (full context)
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Emerson tells his audience that he is going to explore the “main influences” on the development... (full context)
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To make sense of nature, the scholar begins classifying what they see. Emerson asserts that the “young mind” thinks “every thing is individual, stands by itself.” However, Emerson... (full context)
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While the scholar is still a “schoolboy,” Emerson states that they will realize that they come from the same “root” as the natural... (full context)
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...is the “mind of the Past,” specifically in the form of books. Books, according to Emerson, allowed past scholars to share their perceptions of the world around them in the form... (full context)
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Although books are an importance influence, Emerson also states that “none is quite perfect” because nobody can completely prevent “the conventional, the... (full context)
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However, Emerson also warns that “hence arises a grave mischief” as people place more importance on the... (full context)
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Emerson also warns that, “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.”... (full context)
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In order to read books without abusing them, Emerson prescribes “periods of solitude, inquest, and self-recovery” while reading. Furthermore, he says that books should... (full context)
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Emerson describes the pleasure the reader gets from reading a book and finding that the author... (full context)
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Emerson also admits that books are important because they can feed the human mind. He notes... (full context)
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...books to “teach elements” that will encourage scholars to create their works. That, according to Emerson, is the college’s primary duty. (full context)
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The final major influence over the scholar that Emerson discusses is action. He mourns the fact that scholars—and particularly clergy—are looked down upon by... (full context)
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Emerson believes that one can judge how much life experience a scholar has by how they... (full context)
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As important as action is, Emerson also states that it will be difficult to truly think about it until it is... (full context)
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Not only must the scholar take action, according to Emerson, but they must put as much of themselves into everything they do that they can.... (full context)
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Additionally, varied experiences introduce the scholar to new vocabularies. Emerson states that “frank intercourse” with a variety of different people from different backgrounds will introduce... (full context)
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The “final value” of action, Emerson writes, is that it can cause thought. Emerson compares this to cycles in nature, such... (full context)
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Emerson goes on to state that it is “unhandselled savage nature” that creates new ideas and... (full context)
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Emerson moves on to the duties of scholars, explaining that they “are such as become Man... (full context)
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Instead of enjoying all the benefits of society, Emerson says that the scholar will find comfort in the knowledge that they are “exercising the... (full context)
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Because their job is so important, Emerson advises the scholar to “feel all confidence” in themselves as one of the few who... (full context)
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Emerson also prescribes introspection for the scholar, arguing that getting to know oneself is important in... (full context)
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Self-trust is fundamental to the scholar, who should always be “free and brave.” Emerson asserts that scholars must put their fear “behind [them]” because fear is born of ignorance,... (full context)
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Emerson criticizes the notion that “the world was finished a long time ago.” The scholar recognizes... (full context)
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Emerson believes that “man has been wronged; he has wronged himself.” According to Emerson, individual men... (full context)
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Emerson notes that it is natural for people to focus on earning money or power because... (full context)
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Emerson claims that society has “quite exhausted” the books that were once great, so there is... (full context)
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Emerson says that time has been divided by the ideas which dominated them, namely the Classic,... (full context)
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In reply to those who “bewailed” the times as “the age of Introversion,” Emerson asks why that should be considered a negative thing. If society is tormented by its... (full context)
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In fact, Emerson recognizes signs that revolution has already begun and is optimistic about what they portend. Specifically,... (full context)
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Emerson says that the ideas inspired by everyday life and people are what gave genius to... (full context)
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Emerson singles out Emanuel Swedenborg as one who had been widely underappreciated in his own time.... (full context)
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Emerson writes that another sign of impending revolution is the “new importance given to the single... (full context)
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Emerson specifically believes that it is the American Scholar who will bring about a revolution that... (full context)
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...of America “eats upon itself” because it believes it can only “aim at low objects.” Emerson mourns that there are young Americans who dream of making big changes, but get discouraged... (full context)
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Emerson also criticizes the notion that all people should be judged “in the gross, in the... (full context)