Individual or collective?

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In the opening paragraphs of his speech “The American Scholar,” Emerson critiques modern society’s distillation of man to single functions. He argues that subdivision of society to designated strains of labor quells the shared power of the One Man by reducing each to his individual occupation. In the case of the scholar, this distribution of function demotes them from a Man Thinking to a “mere thinker,” a mechanization of scholarship Emerson deems responsible for the “sluggard” American intellect. Interestingly, by identifying this dismemberment of the unified body as in part responsible for the breakdown of society’s intellectual capacity, Emerson conversely advocates for the value of human interconnectedness as a source of creative inspiration. Further, Emerson’s decision to redefine the practices of the American scholar in terms of relatedness to nature contributes to the association of true scholarship with collectivism. He argues that, while “to the young mind everything is individual,” through examination of the natural world, one “finds how to join two things and see in them one nature.” Thus, the American scholar draws upon the example set by nature to perceive human knowledge as cumulative rather than individual.

Interestingly, this emphasis on shared foundation comes into contrast with the prototypical American esteem for rugged individualism and the nation’s view of itself as a patchwork of disparate influences. The noted absence of this individualistic theme (one exemplified by the heroic and self-sufficient Hawkeye in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans) from “The American Scholar” perhaps reflects a turning point away from the notion of independence that defined the American revolution and towards the forging of a unified national identity. In accordance with this shift towards collectivism, as he looks towards the future of the American Scholar and their work, Emerson expresses his pleasure at the novel focus on more familiar and common subject matter rather than “the remote [or] the romantic.”

Though Emerson positions depictions of a unified, common life as antithetical to romantic ideals of individualism, in fact, his own writing, by presenting nature as parallel to the human soul and, thus, as a romantic force, seems to reflect the very subject matter he characterizes as passé. In fact, Emerson’s descriptions of nature align largely with the standard established by The Last of the Mohicans, which is almost romantic in its mystical descriptions of grand landscapes. Though Emerson predicts that future American scholarship will depict common, and therefore collective, subjects rather than romantic, individual subjects, one could argue that “The American Scholar” itself works against this assertion, blurring the boundaries Emerson attempts to delineate by romanticizing the collective human experience. Therefore, could it be said that American cultural identity, as outlined by Emerson, hinges on romanticized ideals of common life? (Isn’t this kind of the American Dream?)

(cited the Norton Anthology of American Literature 9th edition and The Last of the Mohicans by James F. Cooper, 1826.)

The Individual in Nature

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Emerson explores nature’s capacity to weaken the bounds of ego, and to return the individual to the greater whole. He illustrates how the act of being in the woods opens our perspective by removing the blinds of our personhood: “Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all” (183). In nature, one finds enlightenment with a means of connection that momentarily vanquishes their sense of self. Emerson allows the ground and the air to enfold him into their essence, and he gains universal understanding without a need for interpretation through the lens of his identity as an individual.

I recently listened to an episode of a podcast called Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris*. Harris hosted Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who, more than twenty years ago, experienced a hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain. Dr. Taylor explained that the left hemisphere is concerned with ego, and how we function as an individual in the world, while the right hemisphere controls focus on the present moment. Harris asked her if she felt terror as the hemorrhage occurred in her brain, but Taylor explained that she felt a peace that sounded similar to the disappearance of ego Emerson describes in Nature. The hemorrhage’s destruction of her left hemisphere meant that Taylor lost her perception of ego, which included the myriad of external stressors that pertained to her personhood. She existed entirely in the present moment as an energetic entity, and explained this sense of ultimate peace and unity she felt with the life force of the universe. When the individual fades, a oneness remains.

Emerson comments further on the isolation of perspective by stating how “[w]e are strangely affected by seeing the shore from a moving ship, from a balloon, or through the tints of an unusual sky” (199). Small reversals of viewpoint open vast windows into new possibilities. To stand on a sailing ship and see the majestic backs of waves that ripple inwards, rather than the foaming whitewater that creeps meekly away onshore, underscores the dimensional world that goes ignored by the individual cemented in their solitary perspective. Yet, nature provides endless reminders of how microscopic and stagnant our discrete points of view are. Emerson asks that “if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and vulgar things” (182). One can look upon stars and realize that some substance exists even at the very edges of their scope. That the human eye perceives the brilliance of a star as the tiniest white fleck must teach us that more exists than what we alone can fathom.

*Citation: “552: Understand Your Brain, Upgrade Your Life | Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor” from Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris)
**Note – page numbers correspond with those in The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1920-1865 (9th Edition).


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In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, he uses different qualities of children to explain what it means to fully love and understand nature. In chapter one, he explains that few adults can truly see nature and appreciate its many facets. He says, “the sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of a child” (183). This quote suggests that children can see and appreciate nature in a way that adults cannot. They not only see nature through their eyes but also through their heart. 

Emerson seems to believe that adults are at a disadvantage compared to children when it comes to experiencing nature. This connects back to Emerson’s opening idea in the introduction of the essay where he suggests we are very focused on the past. Instead of relying on past religion and tradition to understand the world, people should adopt a curious mindset and question what nature is, and figure it out for themselves. As we age, we somewhat lose a sense of wonder, and the want to be curious that young children do have. Emerson exclaims wise people do not lose their childlike spirit and curiosity about the world around them. The few adults that do see nature clearly and have a love for it, are the ones who have brought their childlike spirit into adulthood. 

While Emerson uses childlike qualities such as curiosity, and wonder to explain the positive aspects of loving nature, he distinguishes between the positive childlike and negative childish tendencies in regard to appreciating nature. Emerson stresses the importance of embodying childlike characteristics of wonderment in order to fully love and appreciate nature. On the other hand, in chapter two “Commodity”, he uses the negative tendencies of a child to relay what he thinks of miserable people in the world. He says, “the misery of man appears like a childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens” (185). Emerson claims the earth was created to support and delight humans and nature supports our existence. Therefore, people who are ungrateful and do not appreciate nature and how it sustains our lives, are childish and come off like a petulant child. 

While Emerson use’s children’s behavior to show the reader how they should love nature, he also uses their negative behaviors to show the audience what not to do. 



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Emerson’s thoughts on allegory in the greater literary context of his work are fascinating. In line with his thoughts on beauty — he calls it in the simplest words things that “give us a delight in and for themselves,” (186) epitomized by natural forms — he states that “wise men pierce this rotten diction,” language that has been corrupted by the increasing complexity and un-naturalness of man, “and fasten words again to visible things…hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories” (192). Images and natural figures are the basis for words and communication, he argues, so returning our ideas and thoughts to comparable images and natural forms solidifies their meaning and allows them to be communicated without loss. If allegory is “the blending of experience with the present action of the mind” and “proper creation” (192), and if “genius creates” (214), then allegory is an expression of genius.

This stance on allegory which positions it as an ultimate good reminded me of another writer from this time with strong opinions on allegory: Madame de Staël. In her “Essay on Fiction,” published around 50 years earlier in 1795, Madame de Staël rails against the concept of allegory. “Allegories can sometimes popularize useful truths,” she argues, “but the very example shows that in giving this form to thought we think we are bringing it down to the level of the common people. The need of images to understand ideas in an intellectual weakness in the reader: any thought which can be perfectly apprehended this way necessarily lacks some degree of abstraction or subtlety” (Staël 65). Allegories, to her, are one of the weakest forms of literature in existence. She considers the genre to be intellectually stifling, reducing complex and intelligent abstract thought into images which necessary simplify and weaken them. Emerson seems to find this simplification effected through images to be a major boon of allegory, and rather than an intellectual weakness, finds the need for allegory to explain ideas to be a symptom of the devolvement of language and communication.

Emerson seems to fundamentally disagree with Staël’s thinking, which was just a sort of entertaining thought for me while I was reading “Nature” until I noticed that he actually draws from her on the very same page! “The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics,” he writes (from the footnote: 
“adapted from Mme. De Staël’s ‘Germany’ (1813): ‘Even a mathematical axiom is a moral rule'”), to support his point that “parts of speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor for the human mind” (192). To me, this argument is still very much in line with what he has to say about allegory. Allegory works because human thought aligns with images and forms in nature, and thus we perceive nature as a metaphor for our thoughts. It’s fascinating to me that Emerson draws on Staël’s thinking when they seem so diametrically opposed on the concept Emerson is trying to prove.

But, on the other hand, it does make sense, having read “Nature.” Emerson perpetuates an idea that a person is entitled to essentially do with the world what he will and that all things in existence exist for the use of the individual. He writes, “Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will…he is entitled to the world by his constitution” (187). Considering he classifies nature as “all which Philosophy distinguishes as the Not Me, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body” (182), I cannot be surprised that Emerson chooses not to engage with the contradiction to his ideas that Staël would pose, but rather take the excerpt from her that fits his argument the best and leave the complicating attribution to the footnotes.

–Emma Swan

(cited the Norton Anthology of American Literature 9th ed and An Extraordinary Woman: Selected Writings of Germaine de Staël published by the Colombia UP in 1987.)

The American Scholar

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The American Scholar seems to play a role in what Scholars should search for as a part of humanity. To him, Scholars are of intellect and play one of the most critical roles in society, by driving social influence through knowledge. At the beginning of his essay, Emerson states that a scholar draws from three subjects: nature, books, and action. A scholar cannot truly achieve all knowledge unless they learn from these three subjects and experience the full throttle of humanity with all of its pain and happiness. 

I found the choice of the subject nature and thereby the role of “planter” interesting from an American writer’s perspective. Agriculture and land are the foundation on which America is based, therefore, the role of the planter is the quintessential role of the first Americans. Squash, corn, and other vegetables are a part of the domestic breeds in America that sustained life pre-colonialism and after. Speaking of the pre-colonialism time period, the true American will always have ties to the Native Americans and the influence of their development of the land. The connection between Native Americans and early American Farmers is present within not only Emerson’s literary work but today’s society. The concept of land is strictly American because the concept that one individual owns the land, is a Western ideology, not Native American, and the concept of the “New Frontier” and owning “new” land is American. The fight for land between the Native Americans and colonials is what framed America’s culture. The more land the colonizers took, the more Americanized they became and the wider the power gap. 

I would say the topic of Scholarly knowledge from books is an obvious connection, one that relates to our class on American 19th-century literature. Colleges, according to Emerson, are built on books. Books specifically made by thinkers, ones that not only seek their own thinking but, also go beyond blindly accepting the curated information given to them. Meaning that one should not accept the knowledge they learn from their place on Earth, aka; where they were raised. The observation of humanity as a whole is of key importance in the idea of the book. He also states that History and exact science must be learned by reading to the fullest extent. “Life is our dictionary,” is the perfect saying for one that looks for scholarly action(217). 

Emerson craves individual and originality in a person, “to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”(212) The idea that one would rather think over action is insulting to an American Scholar because of its region’s birth in rebellion and freedom. Freedom is not created without action, one cannot just think up freedom and have it. But what is even worse to Emerson is the idea that men would copy others’ thoughts. Originality is the only true thing a scholar can hold on to, it is what connects the Scholar to his name, without it he is just a man thinking on others’ thoughts. Emerson on the same page writes the “scholar the only true master?” do you believe this? 

Ironically Emerson quotes, “Know thyself,” which is a phrase often used by Hamilton students or one could argue, young scholars. 

  • Zoë Reinert


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John Hern

I grew up in New York.  Not in the Adirondacks in particular, but certainly in Upstate.  We learned about the Iroquois Confederacy in elementary school.  We never broached the topic too deeply, of course, since third graders aren’t necessarily equipped to discuss the nature of American and European imperialism, but we talked about their culture.  How they build longhouses, some of the stories from their culture, and so on.  It always felt to me that there was a sense of loss in it all.  “These people were here, and now they aren’t.”  That’s not entirely accurate to say, but it’s true that what was once a large number of people has been so greatly reduced.

It makes it unusual to come from that to The Last of the Mohicans. Despite being from Upstate New York just like me, Cooper takes a far more dismal view of the Iroquois. He treats them as little better than animals. He purposefully confuses the truth about these people, from which European power they sided with to what nations are a part of the Confederacy (the Huron were not). None of them are even deemed to be worthy of having names except for Magua and Reed-that-bends, and Reed-that-bends is executed for cowardice. To say that their portrayal here is unflattering would be the understatement of the century.

It almost makes me wonder what exactly Cooper’s problem was. I seem to remember that Cooper’s family was involved in shady land deals that took land from the Iroquois and that he made them look bad on purpose to make himself feel better about it. Still, the amount of vitriol inherent in this book would seem to be even more than a personal vendetta could compensate for by itself. I highly doubt it has one definitive source.