The period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, though a time of cultural ferment in the former colonies, was marked by an identity crisis. It was a time when the country was young and the influence of European art and philosophy... [more]
The period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, though a time of cultural ferment in the former colonies, was marked by an identity crisis. It was a time when the country was young and the influence of European art and philosophy was strong. The most praised writers were sycophants: Cooper wrote in the tradition of Scott, Washington Irving in the style of Addison. In short, America had not yet found itself.
But a true American son emerged in the form of Ralph Waldo Emerson, born 27 years after the United States achieved independence. As soon as this writer stepped onto the scene, he established a fresh direction for American literature and philosophy. What had already been accomplished in the sphere of American politics, Emerson applied to culture. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared Emerson's ground-breaking speech, "The American Scholar," to be the Declaration of Independence for intellectuals. In it Emerson asked, "Why should not we enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition and a religion relevant to us?"
Emerson demanded a new ideal for America. He took the spirit of independence exemplified by the nation's founders and adapted it to a working philosophy of life. The American, Emerson stated, must be at once an individualist, a radical, a naturalist, and a scholar. He must withstand the demands of society to stand on his own philosophical feet. In short, Emerson commanded that the American always be "Man Thinking."
Emerson's life reads like a veritable who's who of major historical figures. From Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman to Thomas Carlyle, Henry James, Samuel Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, Emerson's contacts demonstrate the central place he occupied in American letters. As a philosopher, Emerson put transcendentalism on the map with his book 'Nature' (1836). A heady mix of Hinduism, Romanticism, and Christianity, transcendentalism believed in "the power of thought and of will, in inspiration, in miracle, in individual culture." Where a materialist would base his epistemology on hard facts, the transcendentalist felt that knowledge came through poetry more than logic.
Underneath the idealism of Emerson's philosophy, however, was a life marked by much personal pain and suffering. Emerson was only eight years old when his father died. Later he would endure the deaths of three of his brothers and the passing of his first wife after less than two years of marriage. Emerson himself didn't have the best of constitutions; he was often forced to leave the harsh winters of his home in Concord, Massachusetts, for the sun of Florida or Italy. But despite -- or perhaps because of -- his personal troubles, Emerson spent his days in busy pursuit of ideas. He spoke from podiums across the expanding nation to disperse the philosophical wisdom he'd gained in the still moments of his evenings. Essayist, poet, lecturer, philosopher -- Emerson was, after Benjamin Franklin, the first American Renaissance man. [show less]