Some listed here may now be out of print or unavailable. (Sacks)
Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" is often the first or only exposure students get to Emerson's thought. Here are some resources to help understand this essay:
An essay introducing the background and context of Transcendentalism, for help in understanding where Emerson's ideas came from.
From Emerson himself, with some dictionary and other simple definitions listed as well.
Basic information on Transcendentalism - links to the two items above plus more.
- HTML searchable copy of the text at
Ann Woodlief's excellent introduction to the Emerson essay, Self-Reliance.
An article by Alfred I.
: This page includes a random quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and also provides an easy way to add a similar random quote to your own personal, educational or nonprofit web page.
: Participate in discussingEmerson, Thoreau and other Transcendentalists. Students often post questionsthere (but please don't ask us to do your homework for you!); people often needhelp identifying a quotation; Transcendentalist scholars and enthusiasts areinvited to help answer the questions and to discuss issues. Please joinin!
: OtherTranscendentalists and people close to that circle, including Margaret Fuller,Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, A. Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott,Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Ripley, F. B. Sanborn, Jones Very, T. W. Higginson,O. B. Frothingham, William Ellery Channing, Lydia Maria Child, Moncure Conwayand many more.
Looks at the problem of selfhood in Emerson's essay and relates that to relevance today, especially in religious belief in our increasingly-secular age.
A short essay, some selections from the essay, and some excellent questions for thinking about Emerson's ideas.
A short introduction to American culture about 1841, looking at Emerson's essay and its relationship to ideas of democracy, culture and the masses.
A Unitarian Universalist minister muses about the position of Emerson in that faith today, where he's often considered a "prophet of religious liberalism." - about the book and its author
- by Bryan Caplan - Kristen Rosenfeld - Piper S.
As a prominent figure in the Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson also led the reaction against Unitarianism. Emerson’s father, William Emerson, was a minister of the First Church of Boston, which was a Unitarian congregation. Like his father, Ralph Waldo Emerson was an ordained Unitarian minister. On July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous “Divinity School Address” to Harvard Divinity School. In his address Emerson presented the idea of breaking free from the traditions of institutionalized religion, denounced organized religion as a whole, and stated that every man was divine.
During the early to mid-nineteenth century the Unitarian denomination experienced a counter-reformation, which started with the Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists were a constituency within the Unitarian church that desired to reform the church. They wanted to rid the church of its rationalism and infuse a naturalistic religion. The movement away from a rational religious understanding to a naturalistic one necessarily would include transforming the Unitarian view of God. The Transcendentalists were writers and thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, and most importantly, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many of the Transcendentalists were brought up in the Unitarian church. They preached the idea of finding God through nature and natural experience. The Transcendentalists’, especially Emerson’s, ideals of individuality and self-reliance moved Unitarianism from corporate experience and traditional worship to an emphasis on individual worship.
These works are complemented by the collection, which encompasses the work of her father, Transcendentalist philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott. Special Collections’ newest acquisitions of works by Transcendentalist writers include a 1903 anthology, The Poets of Transcendentalism, which collects many of the poems printed in the short-lived periodical The Dial, and the first edition of Bronson Alcott’s memorial collection Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Estimate of his Character and Genius (1882).
L. Tom Perry Special Collections contains many early publications by the Transcendentalists, from works by major figures of the movement like Ralph Waldo Emerson (including his seminal essay, Nature), Henry David Thoreau (a first edition of Walden is pictured here), and Theodore Parker; to lectures given at the Concord School of Philosophy.
The divinity school address caused a great stir among Unitarian leaders. Andrews Norton, who was in the audience at the Divinity Hall address, abhorred Emerson’s ideas and wrote a response entitled, “The Latest Form of Infidelity.” Others, such as Theodore Parker, embraced the address and found the message liberating. As a member of Emerson’s Transcendental Club, Parker agreed with Emerson and felt that the Unitarian church was too caught up in tradition.
slaveholder were in stark contrast. But certainly, Emerson's later writing was more interested in relationships among people, and ethical behavior, than early works like "Self-Reliance" may indicate. Nevertheless, the worldview expressed in "Self-Reliance" is not, I would contend, one of radical separation of the individual from the rest of the universe, though Emerson has sometimes been accused of that view.
[The following are excerpts of a paper submitted in April for Senior Honors research in the Department of History and Political Science, School of Arts and Sciences, Longwood College, Virginia. Bibliographical information in the footnotes has been edited to conserve space. We believe the author sheds needed light on how the Christian convictions of American Unitarianism were destroyed by Emerson’s assault on the Bible and his assertion that all people are divine. Sounds like “ye shall be as gods” (Gen. 3:5 – KJV)].