EMERSON’S SOCIAL REFORMS: IT’S IMPACT ON AMERICAN WOMEN

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By BIBHUTI PATI

The leading figure among the pioneers of the Renaissance in American literature was Ralph Waldo Emerson who had profound impact on American Society in the nineteenth century. He was also the chief person who led the group known as transcendtalists who were responsible for the movement known as transcendentalism that paved the way for a new outlook and attitude leading to the development of radical intellectual thinking among the young men and women of America.

Descended from a long line of Puritan ministers, Emerson devoted himself to the task of intellectual exploration and leadership with the single minded integrity that his ancestors had given to the worship of God. In his lifetime he propagated his ideas through his public lectures and in his two volumes of essays and other writings. But the quality of his mind can best be appreciated through his private journals kept for nearly sixty years.

Emerson’s central message was self-reliance. Every individual, he believed, shared in the divinity which pervaded the universe and should therefore learn to trust his own intuitions, even when they conflicted with convention and tradition. “In all my lectures”, he said, “I have taught one doctrine, namely the infinitude of the private man”. In proportion as men acquired a genuine self-reliance, he believed, any form of coercive authority would become unnecessary. He applauded the “gradual casting off of material aids, and the growing trust in the private self that supplied powers of the individual”, and looked forward to a society of free men in which order would be “maintained without artificial restraints as well as the solar system.” “The appearance of character,” he declared, “makes the state unnecessary…”This was a spiritual reaffirmation of the democratic ideal, and in Emerson’s writings it was closely associated with a nationalistic faith in America. In his Phi Beta Kappa address of 1837, in “The American Scholar” (which has been called an “intellectual Declaration of Independence”), he urged American writers to abandon the imitation of “the courtly muses of Europe.” “Let us have done with Europe and dead cultures, let us explore the possibilities of our own new world.”

The doctrines of Emerson derived from the various essays and lectures became the cardinal principles of American society during his lime. In fact Emersonianism was the product of a society in which the moral discipline of Puritanism had become almost second nature, so that it was easy to equate self reliance with virtue, and of an epoch in American development when the possibilities of progress seemed limitless. But Emerson was greater than his philosophy. His writings were filled with acute observations of contemporary men and institutions and insights into human psychology. As a critic of the American life of his time, he was always shrewd and often profound. And he could express his ideas with a pungency and a poetic vividness which made him one of the great phrasemakers of literature. Thus Emerson glorified American individualism and praised the egotism which enabled men to become self reliant.

Among the most impressive and important work of Emerson are : Nature, 1836, The American scholar, 1837, The Divinity School Address, 1838, Essays, first Series, including self-Reliance, the Over Soul, Love, Friendship, History etc. 1841, Essays, second Series 1841, Representative Men, 1850 and many other prose works and some volumes of poems. Among these works, the most important and significant essays are Self-Reliance, the American Scholar, Nature, Over Soul and others.

However, many critics consider “Self-Reliance” as Emerson’s best work. Surely it is his fullest and finest expression of the theme of moral and intellectual independence. Emerson’s concept of independence, or individualism, is not to be confused with self indulgence. For in this significant essay Emerson is calling on the individual to ignore accepted beliefs, popular opinion, and social pressure, and to rely instead on his conscience, his scrupulous sense of what is true and what is good. As he says in the final sentences, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles. He further says :

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny ; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers and benefactors, obeying in Almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark. (Emerson – Self-Reliance, An Introduction to American Literature- Eurasia publishing House, New Delhi. P-62.)

Putting great emphasis on individual originality, he further says, Insist on yourself ; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation ; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it”. (Ibid P.79)

Similarly in his essay on ‘The American Scholar, Emerson puts emphasis on self trust : “In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be-free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, “without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.” Brave ; for fear is a thing which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance”. (The American Scholar Ibid. P-55)

Thus like other Transcendentalists, Emerson was eager to bring out the best possible potentialities in man. However he is sensible in his eulogy of man. Those who censure Emerson and others may note that by putting over-emphasis on man’s powers, he and others were stirring up human beings out of mental and spiritual hibernation. What he said of man was his optimism about and expectation of man. His desire to fuse soul with the Over-Soul may be for the same purpose. It may be called an act of creativity. For here Emerson is making an appeal to get full, uninhibited freedom. Such freedom only enables us to experiences possibility, to see the potential in the world around and within us. Here it may be noted that Emerson was a true freeman. Hence he knew freedom. Perhaps it explains his concept of Man-thinking. And in that state only microsm knows the macrosm. Every member of the club intended to work along this mode of thought. And so for them it became a sort of creative act of individual. For Emerson, in particular, it became an act with cosmic and universal significance. It is capable of encompassing all branches of human life. It speaks of the spirit of humanism. It means order and discipline or a moral path of Emersonian version. It is a mystic way of seeking harmony between the old and new.

Here it is necessary to note that during this time American society was fast changing and moving towards a new order as Robert Spiller rightly says, “In the creation of this new world of the mind, America became, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a vast laboratory in which ideas formed in England and Western Europe could develop into action without being hampered by the laws, customs, and traditions of an obsolete feudal society. The difference in those years between America and Europe was that the things which could be only talked about in Europe, in America could be actually done. The great religious, political, and intellectual revolution that moved from the Renaissance and the Reformation into the Enlightenment and the age of Reason became, in the colonies of the Atlantic seaboard, the pattern of everybody life”. (Robert E. Spiller, Backgrounds, The Cycle of American Literature, Macmillan, 1956 P.16)

Among all the works of Emerson, his essay on Self-Reliance had tremendous impact on American society, writers, poets and statesmen of the time. Self-Reliance, for him, is God-Reliance. This is also made of the same metal. This gives man immense power to know the truth through intuition. In Self-Reliance, Emerson says: “A man should learn to detect and watch the glam of light which flashes across his mind from within more than the luster of the firmaments of bards and sages “. According to him the heart of the man is the teacher. The main thrust is on the infinitude of man. In such a doctrine, it is the individual who counts most. Emerson thus awakened the American writers to develop their independence of mind. Everyone must try to discover the truth for himself. As an individualist, Emerson rejects the teaching of poets, sages, books, history, society, and so on. Since America’s days of dependence on the knowledge of other lands draws to an end, the American writer stands apart and stands above.

Actually the central aim of Emerson was to liberate the American mind to set it free from the crumbling ethical obsessions of Puritanism, to break in hard thinking, to make liberty more real on the intellectual plane than it could have been in the political plane.

Emerson, therefore, through his epoch making works, inspiring lectures and original thinking appeared as a great social reformer whose chief aim was to bring about a real change in the mind, outlook and attitude of the America society.

Thus under the influence of the pioneers of American Renaissance chiefly led by Emerson, the American nation moved after 1890 from its continental security in isolation to the world stage as a power to be considered  in world affairs. The population of America had tripled over the seventy-five years period to one hundred and eighty million in 1965. The occupational life of the people had changed markedly and the leisure time available and the family activities pursued in that leisure time had been greatly changed by the industrial developments. Education and the cultural life related to educational level had also undergone steady change.

(to be concluded….)

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