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Orbiting a Smaller Star: Emerson’s “American Scholar”

I have never been asked to deliver a commencement speech, but if I were, I would hardly expect that my words would change the lives of the graduates hearing it. I can’t recall if we had a speaker at my high school graduation, and only the faintest glimmer of memory persists from my college graduation. (I skipped out on both my graduate school exercises, much to my mother’s chagrin.) Commencement speeches, it seems, should be long on platitudes and short on the hearers’ memory. Why then do we hang on to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
“American Scholar,”
which was essentially from that genre, as if it had the status of holy writ?

Like much of Emerson’s writing, “American Scholar” begins with some rather unsupportable generalizations. Apparently, before he spoke, no one in America had the slightest original thought, at least a thought not truly rooted in Europe. Near the essay’s beginning, Emerson declares, “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.” Had Emerson not heard of such minor American intellects as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson? Certainly those and other early American thinkers had their ties to Europe, but Emerson, with his deep immersion in German Idealism can hardly count himself untethered to the Old Country. But we should forgive Emerson for such an absurd overstatement in the context of an academic speech. These ideas are designed to set up his overall argument as to the nature of a proper American scholar.

What should this scholar be? He should be independent, self-reliant, and not restricted to the musty confines of the library. As I re-read Emerson’s words in this regard, I find a good deal to cheer, a good deal that I would like to pass on to the students of today.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.

In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

And then Emerson lines out a three-fold program for “Man Thinking,” focused on the present (Nature), the past (Books), and the future (Action). Restricting himself to any one or two of this triad restricts the thinker from fully accomplishing his humanity. That much of Emerson’s speech, I think, serves as good advice to anyone who pursus the life of the mind.

Where I struggle with Emerson in this essay comes in part of his discussion of books.

I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.

Of what book does he speak in this case? Given Emerson’s position as one who finds Unitarianism too constricting for his “active soul,” it seems reasonable to believe that the book Emerson cautions the would-be scholar about is the Bible. Certainly one does not want to be “warped out of my own orbit,” right? But let’s follow Emerson’s metaphor for a moment. How can one be warped out of one’s own orbit? Can we orbit ourselves? And orbit, by definition, revolves around something else. What does Emerson imagine himself orbiting? Himself? Or some invisible something, some mass of dark matter–perhaps the Oversoul? To be warped out of one orbit and into another, one must encounter a stronger gravitation. Do I truly want to avoid a book that can reasonably exert a sufficient gravitational force to change my orbit? Or do I want to remain in my own solipsistic orbit?

Certainly, if one is being tugged by the gravitational pulls of books by mere mortals, but if the book in question possesses a bit more authority, shouldn’t one happily orbit it? If the Bible is what Evangelicals claim for it, then Emerson is a fool. If it isn’t, then he is completely right. As I read this passage, I hear an intelligent man completely in love with his independent intellect and frightened that the Bible might exert some genuine claims upon his thought.


Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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