Thursday, May 25, 2006

On this day in literature . . .

~ 1803 ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson is born in Boston, Massachusetts.

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctines of the church. On my saying, "What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?" my friend suggested, "But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it. . . .
Emerson's "Self-Reliance" is often regarded as the most influential and most representative essay of the 19th century. His assertions about the nature of man sound rather up-to-date to modern ears. When I teach Emerson, I have to remind my students how shocking some of his statements were. It's also a good reminder that error is never "new." It just gets continually repackaged. Emerson's influence on American Romanticism (and the periods that followed) cannot be measured.


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