Tuesday, March 1, 2011


The following 500-word essay on Emerson is a piece I was commissioned to write for the Study Unit on the Transcendentalists in Prentice Hall Literature: The American Experience (2007), a 1,378-page high school textbook presently in use in our nation's schools. It appears on pages 386-87. Among the other authors who contributed introductions for different Study Units are Arthur Miller, Nell Irvin Painter, Gretel Ehrlich, and Tim O'Brien. See also my longer introduction for Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Signet Classic edition, 2003.

At age 16, when I was an Illinois boy trying to figure out where my place might be in the tempestuous, rapidly changing decade of the 1960s, and long before I became a black American novelist and philosopher, my teachers at Evanston Township High School placed the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson  in front of me. I’m thankful they did.

In grand fashion, “Self-Reliance” gave me permission to be a free-thinker and to rigorously question everything around me---from the status quo to social cliques in my school, from neighborhood gangs to 80-year-old social “conventions” that enshrined racial segregation in the South and North. Emerson gave me the courage to resist the pressure to conform to things that were unreasonable, to always trust myself, to dream “impossible dreams,” and value my own individual voice and vision, even if doing so resulted in disapproval and being unpopular with the hip “in crowd.”

Just as he served me well in my teens, Emerson’s belief in “the infinitude of the private man,” and his identification with all forms of life, proved to be reliable guides during my adult years. First, because he defined so beautifully the values that eight generations of Americans regard as the basis for our national character and core beliefs, particularly his devotion to what he called “the republic of Man.”

He condemned the institution of slavery, championed the right of women to vote, and spoke out against the “wicked Indian policy.” In his journal of 1848, Emerson dreamed of an America that would one day be an “---asylum of all nations, the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles & Cossacks, & all the European tribes---of the Africans, & of the Polynesians (who) will construct a new race, a new religion, a new State, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting pot of the Dark Ages…”

 He truly believed, and made me see, how “It is our duty to be discontented, with the measure we have of knowledge & virtue, to forget the things behind & press toward those before.”

  Secondly, Emerson has long inspired me---as he does anyone with an adventurous spirit--- because he challenges us to be flexible and resourceful, like the “sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet.” All those are our possibilities. There is nothing, Emerson says, that we cannot achieve if we believe in ourselves. As a Transcendentalist, he was a restless and  superbly civilized man who went beyond (or transcended) the ordinary, the outdated, and the unoriginal for, in his own words, he chose “to unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred, none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.”

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