Survey of American Literature I

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Discussion Questions:  Emerson and the “Self”


1.     How do you define self-reliance?


2.     As a phase of growth, perhaps, Emerson’s preoccupation with the self may be necessary to the development of self awareness and the individual identity (think of a teenager’s “don’t try to tell me anything” stance).  But as a permanent philosophy and way of life, cannot it also be insulating and self-restricting?  After all, don’t we expect adolescents to grow out of their egocentric worlds?


3.     The central question for Emerson was “How shall I live?” 


            How do you answer this question?  How do you reconcile your life with:










4.     Of family and friends, Emerson said, “I cannot sell my liberty and my power, to save their sensibility.”


            “I must have children, I must have events, I must have a social state and history, or my thinking and speaking want body or basis.  But to give these accessories any value, I must know them as contingent and rather show possessions, which pass for more to the people than to me.”  (from Works, 6: 158)


            What do you do if your pursuit for “self-reliance” causes your friends and family pain?


5.     Emerson feared that the rapid westward movement threatened to subvert God’s plan for America which He had intended to be an example to the world.  Emerson did indeed subscribe to the notion of Manifest Destiny.  “Will it not be dreadful to discover that this experiment made by America, to ascertain if men can govern themselves, does not succeed?”


            In an essay titled “Fate,” Emerson said, “Cold and sea will train an imperial Saxon race, which nature cannot bear to lose…All the bloods sit shall absorb and domineer: and more than Mexicos, the secrets of water and stream, the spasms of electricity, the ductility of metals, the chariot of the air, the ruddered balloon are awaiting you.”


            Although critical of specific instances of white mistreatment of the Native Americans, Emerson accepted without question the theory that it was America’s destiny to displace the Indians.  In 1826 in his journal he wrote:  “It is the order of Providence that great objects must be purchased by great sacrifices…It seems to be out of  a sort of obedience and acknowledgment of this high and melancholy necessity…that America has yielded up her vast indigenous family tribe after tribe to the haughty Genius of Civilization.”  Emerson maintained that the Indians had disappeared because there was no place for them.  “That is the very fact of their inferiority.  There is always place for the superior.”


            In 1840 he wrote of the Black race:  “It is plain that so inferior a race must perish shortly like the poor Indians.”


            Is this the ultimate conclusion of a philosophy of self-reliance?  Or is Emerson a product of his personal and social environment?