Ralph Waldo Emerson, considered the father of the American Literary Renaissance, wrote many essays to ultimately change the societal values surrounding him. In “Self Reliance”, Emerson conveys his philosophical idea that every individual has their own individual genius speaking universal truths. However this tends to be a hard to achieve with society imposing conformity, traditions, and institutions on society. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -that is genius”(19). Emerson values individuality and believed that thinking for one’s self and trusting original ideas, help reach a universal truth that will ultimately benefit society as a whole. Thoreau, Whitman, Dickson, and Frederick Douglass, and Hawthorne’s writings all have an “Emersonian” essence of self-reliance and individual genius by conveying themes of individuality and non-conformity.
Similar to Emerson, Thoreau dislikes institutions and promotes non-conformity. He believes the government stands in the way of individuality because the majority, instead of the individual thinker, makes decisions. Thoreau takes Emerson’s “Self Reliance” philosophy further by becoming an activist while following his conscious or individual thoughts. An example is Thoreau protesting slavery using Civil Disobedience, “If one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this co partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America”(9). Thoreau encourages disobeying unjust laws in order to change them. Eventually, he stops paying his poll tax for six years and is imprisoned. Acting as an individual by disobeying unjust laws is what will change the laws. When the individual follows its conscious, or what Emerson would call “individual genius,” the universal truth would be apparent that unjust laws should not be followed. Thoreau refuses to let the system of government define the individual and supports individual genius through individual action and protest against unjust laws.
Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman’s poetry contains the same themes of Emerson but writes in a more concrete way opposed to abstract theories. Dickinson writes mainly of the self-reliant, private individual. Many of Dickinson’s poems such as, “I Died for Beauty” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” deal with immortality. She views death as private thing that everyone goes through alone, isolating everyone. In contrast, Whitman portrays a more democratic side of the universal self. He differs from Emerson believing that society is inspirational to the individual opposed to drowning out the individual thought. The Poem, “Song of Myself” says everyone is an individual but differences should not separate everyone. “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, Born here of parents born here from parents the same and their parents the same.” Whitman believes the differences between each individual are not important because the same universe created everyone. However he does realize the importance of not conforming to everyone when saying, “I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard”(26). Whitman speaks through is individual genius even if what he says is not agreed upon. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance influenced both poets to speak their universal truths through their poetry.
Frederick Douglass’ autobiography was not knowingly written with the influence of Emerson but is living proof of the philosophy of self-reliance. Douglass lived a much different life from Emerson, being born into slavery and witnessing humanity being stripped away from fellow slaves. Slaves would be whipped, beaten, and sometimes even shot. After witnessing his own aunt beaten as a young boy, Douglass comes to the realization, more similar Whitman, that everyone shares a universal human nature. This is more democratic compared to Emerson’s more individualistic idea, believing all men are equal. Douglass determined to dedicate his life to the emancipation of all slaves does also compare with Emerson later on in his life. By befriending other boys in his neighborhood, Douglass learns to read and write. He finds this as a necessity to speak universal truths and express his own genius and be credible to others. Douglass compares with Emerson through his actions but differs in the life that he lived.
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles”(32). These last two lines from “Self Reliance” essay represent Emerson’s individualistic concepts. Emerson values the equal individual that is in touch with their universal genius. Thoreau promotes this individuality and non-conformity through civil disobedience. Through poetry, Dickinson and Whitman speak their own genius. Whitman thinks more democratically while Dickinson values the private individual. Fredrick Douglass is proof of finding his own genius and universal truths and uses these concepts to help free himself and fellow slaves of the deprivation of universal humanity that all men deserve. Though these writers may ultimately be trying to convey different messages, all contain the theme of self-reliance and influence of Emerson.
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