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The Role and Significance of Nature in the American Scholar

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Published In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar, examines nature as an important “influence(s) upon the mind” (515). By 1837, the United States had enjoyed six decades of independence and was beginning to establish a culture andidentity separate from that of Europe.With Emerson at its helm, the Transcendentalist movement became a literary component of this new identity in the early 19th century. According to Emerson, nature contributes to the development of the uniquelyAmerican intellectual by fostering within him knowledge of self – thus contrasting the Colonial view of the wilderness as unholy.

In respect to nature, the reader may examine a noticeable shift in tone between early American textsand Emerson’s work. While earlier writings such as William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation and Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative hold dismalviews of nature,The American Scholar employs a more delightful and idealistic tone.Emerson’s writing seems to be full of hope for a bright and promising American future. Emerson asserts that an understanding of and appreciation for the natural world is essential for young scholars in America because of the relationship between the laws of nature and “the law of the human mind” (515).Like his contemporaries, Emerson viewed nature as a cyclical and unending representation of God’s “own spirit” (515) and inherent goodness. By extension, Emerson asserts that scholars should strive to appreciate nature as a physical counterpart to the human soul intended to “answer it part for part” (516). This philosophy deviates from the writings of early settlers, who viewed the untamed American landscape as a literal manifestation of hell. Emerson and the Transcendentalists viewed the same landscape as evidence of a divine creator, his beneficence, as well as evidence that the same spirit of goodness resides in all of mankind. Thus, as earlier writers maintained that the wilderness was abysmal, profane, and totally isolated from the Creator, Emerson paints the like as a place of uniformity with God “whereby contrary and remote things cohere” (515). In other words, everything is connected. From the author’s perspectivea scholar can never truly understand himself without understanding nature.Appropriately, the opposing views on nature and the American landscape provide a framework to better understand the soul of the country itself.

It is likely that Emerson’s philosophy was an outgrowth of the American cultural premium on freedom and independence. The United States was birthed from a spirit of revolution and rebellion. As we examine the shift in the literary views on nature exemplified in The American Scholar, we begin to see a symbolic reflection of the above principles. We see the shift begin to take place as early as the 1780’s in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson, a man who epitomizes the Revolutionary spirit to many, can be viewed as an early subscriber to the view of nature that Emerson would later solidify. In his essay, he marvels over the Natural Bridge as “the most sublime of Nature’s works” (Jefferson 277). A scholar himself, Jefferson and his text are symbolic of the deviation from Puritan viewpoints. The Puritans and other colonial settlers were still very much connected to Great Britain. The Puritan descriptions of a “vast and howling Wilderness” (Rowlandson 131)“full of wild beasts and wild men” (Bradford 83) represent the Old World philosophy carried over from Great Britain. In contrast, Emerson’s Transcendentalist view of nature represents a coming of age of sorts. Not only is the Emersonian view of nature a guideline for a rising class of uniquely American intellects, it is a historical marker that signifies a rejection of the British cultural remnant in favor of something fresh and free.

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