American Voices: Ralph Waldo Emerson

The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Southworth and Hawes (1843-62) “Ralph Waldo Emerson”, 1857, Albumen print. George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered “The American Scholar,” a speech calling for a new, specifically American way of thinking. He developed a philosophy, termed Transcendentalism, based on the bounty of nature. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” he wrote in Nature (1836). “Standing on the bare ground…all mean egotism vanishes.”

Emerson’s Transcendentalism also emphasized independence and self-reliance. This belief in “the infinitude” of the individual and the importance of thinking for oneself greatly influenced many other writers, most notably Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

“Emerson’s essays are filled with surprising ideas. For him, the basis of spiritual and cultural life was nature, and he advocated for intuition, not logic; the present moment, not the past; and everyday experience rather than sacred texts or ceremonies. He articulated these thoughts through a quick succession of dazzling aphorisms seeking what is truly new.”
—Reginald Gibbons, Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities, Northwestern University

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study, courtesy Concord Free Public Library

In this book-filled study in his Concord, Massachusetts, home, Emerson discussed issues like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s rights with such fellow writers and thinkers as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Peabody, Daniel Webster, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Select Works by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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