The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson
by Feross Aboukhadijeh, 12th grade
Literary devices like metaphor, simile, and repetition are used in literature to convey a special meaning to the reader. Often these devices are used to make an idea clearer, emphasize a point, or relate an insight to the reader. In his famous oration The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson uses literary devices to communicate the theme and purpose of his speech. Ever since Emerson gave this now-infamous speech to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837, it has been a cornerstone of American literature, defining the scholar’s role in American society. In fact, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a famous 19th century American poet, called The American Scholar an “Intellectual Declaration of Independence” for America. Certainly, Emerson’s promotion of a uniquely American scholarship influenced a generation of American scholars—and continues to influence scholars until this day.
Emerson’s main theme, or purpose, in The American Scholar is to call on American scholars to create their own independent American literature and academia—separate from old European ties of the past. His speech served as the inspiration for many future American writers, artists, and philosophers to create their own ideas, without regard to Europe and its antiquated traditions. To this end, Emerson uses literary devices to make various points in support of his overall theme.
Emerson makes frequent use of metaphor throughout his oration. One of the most powerful metaphors he used was the description of American society in 1837. According to Emerson, society used to be united and whole but it became divided and “compartmentalized” as men began to serve narrower and more specific purposes in their work lives. The farmer farms. The salesman sells. The preacher preaches. And so on.
"But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power [which is society], has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man." (Paragraph 4)
Emerson paints a powerful image in this passage, with the use of multiple metaphors. First, he compares society to a fountain of power which has become nothing more than spilt drops of water—making clear his views on the negative effects of job specialization on society. Second, he compares the members in society to “walking monsters”—individual body parts trying to function on their own, but never succeeding.
By demonstrating the fragmentation of society, Emerson draws attention to American scholars’ own place within this fragmented society. Like everyone else, scholars have also become too narrowly specialized. Scholars who were once thinking men (what Emerson likes to call the “Man Thinking”) have become “mere thinkers,” lacking the ability to act upon their thoughts. In making clear the scholars’ current status in society, Emerson hopes to influence them to act upon their duties as scholars. Through these metaphors, Emerson is telling all people who call themselves scholars that in order to become real men—real human beings—they need to confirm their existence through action. In other words, they need to take an idea from its initial form as a mere abstraction and turn it into something real and concrete. In doing so, these scholars have proven themselves to be complete men, adept at investigating, understanding, studying, and acting.
Another example of an essential comparison in Emerson’s speech is the simile which compares the future of poetry to a burning star in the sky. Emerson wishes to eradicate the notion that only antiquated literature from Europe has literary merit. “Who can doubt, that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the constellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall one day be the pole-star for a thousand years?” (Paragraph 1). In this passage, Emerson uses simile to demonstrate his firm believe in the positive future of intellectualism (more specifically, poetry) in American life. Emerson believes that despite the public’s frequent talk about the reduced quality of the contemporary poetry, the poetry will be brought back to life when American scholars realize the power of their words to effect change in society. Emerson wanted American authors to feel empowered by his speech, like the power and energy of the star, lightyears away.
Emerson also uses repetition to emphasize his belief that truly complete men are not tied to any one job or profession. Rather, enlightened men are every profession at the same time. “[A complete] Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier” (Paragraph 4). The parallel structure of the last sentence in the quote conveys a sense of importance about the content of the quote. Emerson uses repetition to draw attention to the fact that a man is capable of being every profession at once—and it is only when he pursues an understanding in a multiplicity of fields that he can call himself a man.
Emerson’s final message to his listeners was that the literature of the past is not worthy of worship and reverence in today’s world. According to Emerson, every generation must write its own literature, because older literature from previous will never have the same powerful effect on today’s audience that it had on its original audience. “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this” (Paragraph 12). Emerson uses a metaphor to make this point even clearer. Literature only suits the era in which it was written. “As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to cotemporaries, or rather to the second age” (Paragraph 12). Emerson compares artists to air pumps in order to prove his point that all artists will include some “perishable” elements in their books that will cause their books to be less valuable to the next generation, just as all vacuums will leave some air in a container. According to Emerson, this is a reason to rejoice! He seeks to encourage the current generation of scholars to write their own great literature and forget about the old European classics.
Using literary devices like metaphor, simile, and repetition, Emerson conveys special meaning to the reader on numerous occasions throughout his oration. His skilled use of these devises emphasizes his main points and often creates vivid imagery in the reader’s mind. No doubt, The American Scholar is a powerful piece of literature with an essential message. It calls out to American scholars to change their current lifestyles and create lives of worth and matter. Emerson’s arguments against the idolization of classic literature help to spark a revolution in American literature that had a profound effect on American culture and academia for hundreds of years.
Cheevers, Susan. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau; Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. Detroit: Thorndike Press, 2006. 80.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Addresses.” Nature; Addresses and Lectures. The American Scholar. 30 Mar. 2008. 30 Apr. 2008 <http://www.emersoncentral.com/amscholar.htm>.
Mignon, Charles W. “The American Scholar: Introduction to the Essay.” CliffsNotes. 30 Apr. 2008 <http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/Emerson-s-Essays-The-American-Scholar-Introduction-to-the-Essay.id-95,pageNum-14.html>.