“The American Scholar” was written and presented in the 1830s, when America was in a state of transition. Having won independence and devoted its energies to the creation of a functioning system of government and legal system for 50 years, Americans were now at leisure to focus on forming an American identity. To Emerson, this meant forging an original literary and artistic identity separate from the traditional European ones that continued to dominate America’s cultural landscape. Emerson maintained that this identity would not be formed solely in the library or the classroom, but through lived experiences and observations made in nature and at all levels of society. Ultimately, Emerson’s message is that American scholars should strive to achieve greatness and earn the world’s respect by putting aside the works of the past and creating something altogether new and exciting—something that could inspire a sense of oneness and national pride within American society.
Throughout this essay, Emerson makes it clear that America is on the cusp of change, but still needs a push in the right direction before it can begin to fully crystallize an identity through artistic work. “Our day of dependence,” Emerson claims, “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.” This statement is particularly powerful because of how recently America had won its independence—by claiming that America is still “dependent,” Emerson seeks to motivate his audience to recognize and throw off what chains still connect their identity to that of England and other European countries. However, Emerson also acknowledges that times of revolution—even just of artistic revolution—can be difficult for society to work through, especially as “the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared.” This is why Emerson also tells his audience of scholars that they must be self-reliant and fearless as they move forward with their creative work. To further his point, Emerson also tells his audience that Americans are “already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame.” Once again, Emerson plays on his audience’s sense of national pride to shock them into action.
Emerson’s opinion was that the state of education in America was part of what prevented scholars from producing the kind of groundbreaking work that they studied in universities. To produce really great work, he argued, scholars must supplement their formal education with lived experience and action. Emerson writes, “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.” This emphasizes his belief that formal education could be too limiting if it’s not supplemented first-hand experiences and observations. Rather than passively absorbing the ideas of others, Emerson urges young scholars to formulate new ideas of their own. Furthermore, Emerson believed that the creation of a new literary tradition meant the creation of a new language, which primarily happened in “the field and the work-yard” and not in the classroom. Therefore, a truly great scholar takes advantage of every opportunity for action in all levels of society, but particularly the working class. After all, Emerson recognizes the greatest hope for successful artistic revolution in the burgeoning trend of making “the near, the low, the common” the focus of observation and art. In elevating the lower classes by portraying them in respectable and accessible art, the scholar helps support the radical ideas of human equality that America was founded upon.
America had already won political independence, but Emerson believed that it would never truly be its own country if it wasn’t creating its own art. If done correctly, the creation of a distinctively American artistic identity would not only earn the world’s respect, but could unify and elevate the nation in its own estimation. Emerson acknowledged that the country had already made a name for itself for its “exertions of mechanical skill,” but to really put it on par with more developed countries it must rouse its “sluggard intellect” and focus its energies on artistic development. However, Emerson also admits that there are many who look down on the “study of letters,” preferring studies that bring about more tangible results. To combat this, Emerson argues that, “Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind.” Those who can do this, as Emerson knows, are those who are ultimately recognized as having a lasting and profound impact on the world. If American scholars can direct their energies towards creating instead of imitating, Emerson declares that, “A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” This means that not only would America establish itself as a force to be reckoned with artistically, but it would inspire and pave the way for all Americans to live up to their full potential.
“The American Scholar” was Emerson’s call to action: it was meant to inspire a new generation of American poets, novelists, and thinkers to take the national reins and lead the country into a new phase of artistic development. In doing so, the American scholar would also help form a unique cultural identity for the United States and thereby reestablish a sense of unity and equality in American society, which was becoming increasingly divided along social lines.
Creation and National Identity ThemeTracker
Creation and National Identity Quotes in The American Scholar
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.