Romantic poet, amateur orientalist, prolific essayist and speaker (author of “Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” and “The American Scholar,” to name a few), and a leader of the Transcendentalist movement: these are but a few of the descriptors necessary to capture the contribution of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), on this anniversary of his death.
Not a few schools have required elementary-age children to memorize Emerson’s poem-tribute to the Minutemen who fought and died in one of the first battles of the Revolutionary War. “Concord Hymn” proffers those unforgettable lines: “Here once the embattled farmers stood / And fired the shot heard round the world.”
More than mere lovely lines, Emerson’s ideas were combustible, challenging the educational and cultural status quo. He forcefully argued that America must produce a literary and scholarly community of its own–independent of Britain and Europe. Moreover, Emerson was part of a larger cultural project that included such notable thinkers as H.W. Longfellow, H.D. Thoreau, W. Whitman, J.R. Lowell, and several other members of the “Saturday Club,” an intellectual and literary circle that gave birth to one of the country’s oldest periodicals, The Atlantic Monthly.
May Emerson rest in peace. And, may America’s intellectual and literary leaders embrace Emerson’s civic challenge to “The American Scholar”:
He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history…