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Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” 1837

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this Primary Source to introduce the Transcendentalist movement.


On August 31, 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a speech to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College. At that time, Emerson had already established himself as a respected writer and one of the foremost proponents of the transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism was a philosophical and literary movement that began in the late 1820s and grew in popularity throughout the 1830s. Transcendentalism held that human beings are innately good and possess a capability to make sense of the world around them by relying on subjective intuition—an acquisition of knowledge based on personal experiences. Immersion in and respect for the natural environment was of tremendous importance to transcendentalists. In his speech, which he ultimately had transcribed into a widely read essay, Emerson encouraged his audience to develop an appreciation of nature. Because the United States was still a new nation whose scholars often turned to European academic texts for guidance, Emerson also urged the students and faculty to use their subjective intuition to produce scholarship and works of literature that would allow America to be recognized by an international audience.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this speech and who was the intended audience for this document?
  2. How well established was the transcendentalist movement at the time this speech was given?

Vocabulary Text
The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, Night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar must needs stand wistful and admiring before this great spectacle. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find,—so entire, so boundless. . . .
avarice (n): greed

indolent (adj): lazy

complaisant (adj): willing to please others

decorous (adj): polite and restrained

drudge (n): person who does tedious or unpleasant work
. . . We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant. See already the tragic consequence. The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself. There is no work for any one but the decorous and the complaisant. Young men of the fairest promise, who begin life upon our shores, inflated by the mountain winds, shined upon by all the stars of God, find the earth below not in unison with these, but are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust, some of them suicides.
What is the remedy? They did not yet see, and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career do not yet see, that if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him. . . . We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. Then shall man 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.

Comprehension Questions

  1. According to Emerson, what is the most important influence on the mind?
  2. What parallel does Emerson see between the human spirit and nature?
  3. Describe Emerson’s opinion of the state of American academia in 1837.
  4. What is the “remedy” that Emerson prescribes to cure the illness afflicting American academia? How is this remedy in line with transcendentalist principles?
  5. What does Emerson conclude that American scholars must do to improve the human condition?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. When describing his vision of the American scholar, Emerson frequently refers to men. What does the general absence of women throughout the document suggest about the status of women in American society during the 1830s?
  2. Emerson’s lecture to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College marked a defining moment in his career and a pivotal moment in the history of American intellectualism. Why was this so?

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