Cover image for Understanding Emerson : "The American scholar" and his struggle for self-reliance
Understanding Emerson : "The American scholar" and his struggle for self-reliance
Sacks, Kenneth.
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xii, 199 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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PS1615.A84 S23 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A seminal figure in American literature and philosophy, Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered the apostle of self-reliance, fully alive within his ideas and disarmingly confident about his innermost thoughts. Yet the circumstances around "The American Scholar" oration--his first great public address and the most celebrated talk in American academic history--suggest a different Emerson. In Understanding Emerson , Kenneth Sacks draws on a wealth of contemporary correspondence and diaries, much of it previously unexamined, to reveal a young intellectual struggling to define himself and his principles.

Caught up in the fierce dispute between his Transcendentalist colleagues and Harvard, the secular bastion of Boston Unitarianism and the very institution he was invited to honor with the annual Phi Beta Kappa address, Emerson agonized over compromising his sense of self-reliance while simultaneously desiring to meet the expectations of his friends. Putting aside self-doubts and a resistance to controversy, in the end he produced an oration of extraordinary power and authentic vision that propelled him to greater awareness of social justice, set the standard for the role of the intellectual in America, and continues to point the way toward educational reform. In placing this singular event within its social and philosophical context, Sacks opens a window into America's nineteenth-century intellectual landscape as well as documenting the evolution of Emerson's idealism.

Engagingly written, this book, which includes the complete text of "The American Scholar," allows us to appreciate fully Emerson's brilliant rebuke of the academy and his insistence that the most important truths derive not from books and observation but from intuition within each of us. Rising defiantly before friend and foe, Emerson triumphed over his hesitations, redirecting American thought and pedagogy and creating a personal tale of quiet heroism.

Author Notes

Kenneth S. Sacks is Professor of History at Brown University. His books include Diodorus Siculus and the First Century (Princeton) and Polybius on the Writing of History .

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

In 1837, Emerson was invited to give the Phi Beta Kappa address to his alma mater, Harvard University. Sacks (history, Brown Univ.) sees the oration as a turning point in both Emerson's life and American letters, and he includes the entire address as an appendix. He limns Emerson as insecure and doubtful of his own ability and viewpoint prior to the address-in which he excoriates the academy for emphasizing "book learning" instead of encouraging "intuition"-but as subsequently emerging as his "own man," so to speak. The narrative relates Emerson's contacts with notable figures of the time, including Thomas Carlyle, Charles Wilson Elliot, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and others, and shows how Emerson was influenced by the thought of Plato, the Stoics, Goethe, Locke, and especially Kant, elements of whose writings are seen in the Transcendentalism of the time. In addition, Sacks shows how his thought has influenced American pragmatism. Although the case Sacks makes about Emerson's importance as an essayist, poet, and philosopher seems somewhat forced, this is a detailed, rigorous, yet highly readable and engaging story that belongs in American intellectual history and literature collections in academic and public libraries. [The bicentennial of Emerson's birth was May 25.-Ed.]-Leon H. Brodsky, U.S. Office of Personnel Management Lib., Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.