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.)