Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was a giant among men – a humanist, a physician, a poet, a reformist and most importantly the most loved of Harvard medical school dean of all times. He was instrumental in shaping the minds of several young Americans of his generation. His scholarship and guidance were instrumental in shaping the students of his time who went on to become the pillars of the 19th century America. When a man of such intellectual integrity declares a certain speech to be the “Intellectual declaration of independence,” it is nothing that can be dismissed as empty platitude.
It was the roughly the 60th year of the birth of the United States. The priority of a vast and rich nation after it declares independence is to gain the independent identity it fought for and to assert its philosophy in no uncertain terms to the world. While negation of the oppressor’s culture is a valid enough ground to gain independence, it is not sufficient to define a country and its philosophy only in terms of what it is not. Intellectual independence was the need of the hour and the lack of it a national vacuum. Into this vacuum, Emerson shone a beacon which for the next century ( by most conservative estimates) guided the American scholar to embark on pursuits that would differentiate the new world from the old and lead it to take its predominant position in shaping world history. “Politically independent, the United States was still the cultural vassal of Europe” (Axelrod 102). Emerson allowed the American intellect and the American scholar to break the shackles of cultural dependence on European system of study and philosophy to embark on a journey of individual identification which, he foresaw, could result in an alternate system of living. His speech was of such poignant purpose that “Holmes said, (those who had heard the speech)”went out from it as if a prophet had been proclaiming to them ‘thus saith the Lord’” (Axelrod 102)
It is impossible to think of any other wholly intellectual speech that could have such a lasting influence on the psyche of a nation. If it is listed in the annals of history as one of the most influential instances of independent America alongside the likes of Pittsburgh address, especially on a topic as philosophically isolated from public conscience as a transcendental proclamation, its gravitas can only be left to conjecture and imagination.
“The poet James Russell Lowell remembered it “as an event without any former parallel in our Literary annals”” (Axelrod 102). Delivered to a society so highly secretive and reflective of the cultural dependence of American scholarship on the studying by rote of Greek texts and measured by its degree of imitation of its European models, Emerson’s speech was a brave new declaration of intent and an appeal made at the heart of the malaise as he saw it.
Emerson did have his own philosophical leanings which might have highly influenced his opinions and thoughts. But as is so common with most great thinkers, the pronouncements of his deeply held beliefs only enabled thinkers, philosophers and intellectuals who followed him to think on their own. His speech, though influenced or motivated by his own philosophical perceptions steeped in transcendentalism, was actually a list don’ts that an American scholar then and now, can follow to avoid the pitfalls of parasitical thinking processes. Emerson’s belief in Transcendentalism was as an exclusively individual and idealistic project. But the process by which he reached his philosophy was the constant negation of the existing and adopted philosophical doctrines of Europe. His transcendentalism was the communion of the common with the cosmic. That is the reason his speech at the Phi Beta Kappa society in 1837 also had similar traits (which perhaps lent the universal and immediate appeal to his ideas and ideals),
“He constantly tacks between the common and the cosmic. But the urge for just such a connection has been a persistent feature of American cultural criticism. Here, Emerson provides a singular illustration and a prototypical defense of the tradition” (Horwitz 302)
In trying to define the dangers of not defining a modern and individual way of thinking for such a young nation with a lot of potential to adopt a non-dogmatic and fresh thinking, Emerson says
“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.”(Emerson 6)
Most of the American literary and philosophical tradition that followed Emerson’s momentous speech is, to a large extent, influenced by the need for action. He successfully dragged philosophy and intellect away from the safe confines of academics into the real world – the real world where doing was equally, if not more important than thinking and saying. “his admonition in The American Scholar that the most highly valued component of the successful scholar is a commitment to action”. This censure delivered with the most scholarly of attitudes might be the impetus that made the 19th century industrial revolution quite US centric. The rapid pace of growth in both economic and technological fields can be attributed to this speech. It transformed the thinking and the lives of American scholars and led them to show it in action the translation of their celebrated thoughts. For instance,
“culture is not produced in the poet’s study but by the experience acquired out of it….ideal poet, would thus be some one who had come to know “ the meal in the firkin” and “the milk in the pan,” and “the ballad on the street” as ingredients for future creations. To know them requires labor – “(Parrish 61)
Most American Literature of the 19th and the early 20th century has been distinguished by the inclusion of rapid cultural activity as part of their cultural milieu and setting. The profound Gatsby to a light hearted Tom Sawyer have all been men of intense and extreme action, which reflected life in two planes: the practical – which is external, and the philosophical – which is internal. The additional gravitas lent to American Literature of the last two centuries is because of the creation of believable characters that are not captured by inaction even in the midst of the most severe philosophical identity turmoil. A nation of doers had literature that could reflect its passion for action, rather than the premeditated and contrived philosophical goings-on from the European literature.
Alongside the initiation of American scholar into the new world order of thinking and influencing the intellectual path of the nation, Emerson also contributed to the religious perceptions of a society that was dominated by the religious beliefs and practices of the dogmatic old world. The contribution of Transcendentalism as expressed in “Nature”
, a paper published a year before this momentous speech, and Emerson paved the way of religion which was more heartfelt and inclusive. The influence of Emerson and the like on the religious belief and practice system of a newly independent nation gave the moral courage to explore newer genres of literature which had the audacity to take on all established dogmas.
A structure that is its own master and a society filled with characters so close to the life a young nation, and writings that reflect the anguish of growing up , as an individual and a society, an idiom that suits the coming to age of a new world order – these are the gifts of liberated minds. In these efforts, at some root of it, lies the influence of Emerson’s “The American Scholar” A compulsory affiliation to the Greek and Latin texts, a predetermined method of decoding and deciphering life, and a minimal independence in expressing the stories that remain untold, were the hallmarks of American Literature till this “intellectual declaration of Independence” came along. This gave birth to the adventurism in all arts which ultimately led to the cultural identity of United States.
“He knew that he had crossed a line, but it was one he believed he had to cross in order to awaken his contemporaries from their intellectual and imaginative stupor. “ I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man” he wrote” (Myerson 26). Wake up they did, and the literary movement of the 19th and the 20th century English is dominated by a new country which was taking rapid strides in displacing the traditional super powers in all fields of human endeavor. American literature acquired the necessary validity and the gravitas required to hold its own against the literary movements of the English. It was not necessarily a competition but the final step towards establishing a new and fresh world order in Literature completely reflective of the social-political reality.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American scholar: an address” The Laurentian press, 1901
Axelrod, Alan and Charles Phillips. “What Every American Should Know About American history 225 Events That Shaped the Nation”. Cincinnati: Adams Media 2008
Horwitz, Richard P. “The American studies anthology” Maryland: Rowman ; Littlefield, 2001 :
Buell, Lawrence. “Emerson” Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 2004
Parrish, Tim. “Walking blues: making Americans from Emerson to Elvis”. Massachusetts: Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2001
Myerson, Joel. “A historical guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson”. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2000