Literature Study GuidesThe American Scholar

The American Scholar | Study Guide

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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At a Glance

In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered "The American Scholar" as a convocation speech to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society. In this speech he enumerated the nature and duties he believed an intellectual should have in this specific moment in history. Emerson, one of America's early well-regarded philosophers, was a founding luminary of transcendentalism, which advocated that God could be understood through inspiration gained by observation of and connection with creation, or nature, rather than by pure reason. This speech, presented to an early class at Harvard, is known as "America's intellectual Declaration of Independence," a phrase first spoken by American physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–94). It came at a time when America had few institutions of higher learning relative to Europe, but it predicted a rise in America's scholarly prominence because only America, in Emerson's estimation, had the democratic spirit necessary to elevate every person to becoming a fully realized intellectual.

About the Title

"The American Scholar" references both Emerson's audience at Harvard and his idealized vision of an intellectual at the moment in history when he delivered the speech. He believed the America of his time represented a uniquely democratic moment in history in which every man could be encouraged to become his best intellectual self. Emerson saw this as preferable to bowing to entrenched convention or furthering hierarchies that elevated a few and suppressed the majority.


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