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February 26, 2024
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‘The American Scholar’ at UMass Boston

In memory of Ed Gittleman, professor of 19th century American literature at UMass Boston

“A Scholar is a candle which the love & desire of all men will light. Let it not lie in a dark box. But here I am with so much all ready to be revealed to me as to others if only I could be set aglow.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal 10:28, March-April 1847 

How do we get ourselves psychologically ready for school when the calendar flips from August to September? Even though we’re excited about the school year ahead, when we kick off those sandals, squeeze into more restrictive footwear and trade in the beach reads for textbooks, we know the pace is about to pick up, and rapidly. How will we keep from being overwhelmed by the workload? What do we want to get out of our college experience? What do we have to give to it? Will we be inspired? Will we, in turn, be a source of inspiration? 

I should have some thoughts on these questions. For more than a half-century,  September has found me getting ready to go back to school. First it was as a college student, then as a high school teacher and now as both a student and a teacher in the OLLI program here at UMass Boston. For years, my summers have been spent working, running workshops or caring, first for kids, and then for grandkids. You too have probably spent your summer engaged in alternative activities. So, how should we prepare for the school year ahead? 

I would like to recommend hitting reset with a few hours spent reading any essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yes, our locally sourced philosopher, the Sage of Concord. He is a font of encouragement and good cheer—someone who can make us feel able to overcome the obstacles that we are bound to encounter. 

This year, I turned to “The American Scholar.”  

“The American Scholar” was originally a lecture that Emerson delivered in 1837, to the Cambridge Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, an organization whose meeting he described as “a friendly sign of the survival of the love of letters among a people too busy to give to letters any more.” Considering that his audience included James Russell Lowell, Richard Henry Dana and Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others, we start with a sense that he might not be entirely satisfied with the state of scholarship in America. Emerson was thirty four at the time and he liked to nettle his audiences, however subtly.  

By the way, I include myself in Emerson’s audience, although surely someone who looks like me was not in the room. In nineteenth-century Cambridge, this literary club was certainly all male and the idea of a scholar that Emerson goes on to develop is masculine, as were the university students of his time. Still, like every self-respecting female scholar, I have no problem responding as if Emerson were addressing me. It’s the way I’ve read the past all my life, and the ideas I’ve been able to access with this attitude have been worth looking past any author’s lapses. 

What does Emerson say about his topic? Here I must admit that, for any of Emerson’s essays, I have to work very hard to determine this. And once I get there, it often doesn’t look like much. In this lecture, Emerson’s topic is the ideal American scholar. He prescribes the education of such a scholar, his duties and how this scholar should respond to his times. The education of the scholar, according to Emerson, should include nature, the past and action. Nature, because the elements and laws of nature correspond to the those of man’s elusive spirit, so studying the natural world provides insights into the mystery of the self. Reading the past is important but only to the degree of which the reading inspires original thought—Emerson was no fan of bookworms. And action matters because, through action, thought ripens into truth. The duties of a scholar are comprised in self-trust: a scholar cannot let others interfere with what he determines, through his own careful study, to be significant. Finally, the American scholar should respond to his place in time by harnessing its possibilities. 

So, what’s particularly inspiring about that message? To answer, I’ll need some quotations. It is not so much what Emerson says but the way he says things that gives us wings as we read him.  

Concerning nature, he notes that the root of nature is the soul and every element in nature has its counterpart in the soul. “Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind…And in fine, the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept,  ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.” With these words, Emerson warns us against introspection, counterintuitively encouraging us to looking outward to discover the inmost  secrets of our own being. 

Books, he notes, preserve the truths found in the past. But though he considers books sacred, he asserts they are not complete or perfect. The writers of the past should not be our tyrants, but our guides to future insights. “Books are the best of things, well-used; abused, they are among the worst. What is the right use?…They are for nothing but to inspire.” Thus, Emerson urges us to use our learning materials to generate creativity and original thought. “The one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul—the soul free, sovereign, active. This, every man is entitled to, this every man contains within him, although in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn.” Note that “every man,” not just a chosen few, have the capacity for this active soul. This active soul will create. To Emerson, creating is evidence of the divine within us. “Books are for the scholar’s idle times.” Original thinking and direct discovery are what we scholars can and should do. When we read, Emerson instructs us to read creatively. “When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.” And what of his observation on college itself? “Colleges…have their indispensable office—to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youths on flame.” Okay, we scholars are not all still young, but isn’t this what we want from our dear UMass Boston? 

Without action, Emerson asserts, thought cannot ripen into truth. But the final value of action, like that of books, is that it is a resource. “A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think…Let the grandeur of justice shine in his affairs. Let the beauty of affection cheer his lowly roof.” Once again, Emerson recognizes the potential for greatness in ordinary people.  He sees humble circumstances as no impediment to nobility. 

In detailing the duties of the scholar, Emerson says, “The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances…He is one who raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble  biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.” Are these not uplifting and empowering aspirations? 

“The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum,  some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depends on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought that the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and the honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom. In silence, in  steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time—happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly.” 

In case you think Emerson must have penned these words in a time more fortunate than our own, it is helpful to recall a few things about the 1830s. Tuberculosis was rampant at that time. It is estimated that a third of Boston’s population suffered from this disease which had a catastrophic effect on Emerson’s life. Due to this epidemic, Emerson lost his cherished young wife Ellen Tucker in 1831, and his beloved brothers Edward and Charles in 1834 and 1836, respectively. Moreover, April 1837 marked the beginning of a banking crisis: the Panic of 1837. It led to a five-year depression and great financial hardship throughout the country. Comments in Emerson’s journal indicate that this economic disaster was one thing much on his mind as he wrote “The American Scholar.” And then there were the deeply divisive issues of the time. Slavery was still the law of the land and voting rights were in the hands of very few people in the nation. So how does Emerson respond to personal and public crises? “If there is any period one would desire to be born inis it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side, and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historic glories of the old, can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era? This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

There are assertions here to argue with; there are a multitude of situations where these statements might apply. Emerson would certainly want you to pursue whatever he’s brought to your mind. But the particular situation we’re interested in is how Emerson’s words help us to prepare to make the most of the upcoming school year. What has he suggested?

Reach out. We are on a journey of self-discovery but that isn’t a call to introspection. Interactions with the world around us, and especially the people around us, are important ways to come to know who we are and how we should live. Start a conversation with that stranger sitting next to you in the classroom; probe the learning together; make a point of ensuring that the people in the room with you are no strangers to one another at the semester’s end. 

Set high goals for yourself. Emerson assures us that we can find the capacity we need, if only we believe in ourselves. Try to master whatever a class has to offer. As you read, actively seek your response to your reading. Note your observations, record your uncertainties, share these with the class. Pay attention to how others respond. Such active learning will enable you to create an original response and come to know yourself in the process. 

Get involved. Each community activity opens doors to others. With each attempt you come to know your talents and preferences better so that you can hone in on what’s going to be a good fit for your life. Once you find what you’re passionate about, pursue its truths steadily.  

Take the long view of whatever happens. If it’s a situation where you have control, do what you can. But don’t let bad news be a disabling distraction, or worse, a source of paralysis.  After all, Emerson did not try to cure TB or solve the economic crisis of his day. He did, however, come to advocate for the abolition of slavery and the establishment of universal suffrage. Stay hopeful, cheerful, and focused on your path.  

In his journal, Emerson likened a scholar to a candle, and to the light that everyone loves and desires. His words invite us to light our candle at his fire and take a good look around. As we begin our school year, there is “so much all ready to be revealed.”