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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Excerpts from Emerson's Essay
"Self-Reliance"

Self-reliance is a trait Americans have long valued. Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1841 essay "Self-Reliance" was very popular throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Following are excerpts from the essay:

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide;.... that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried....

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion....

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlor....

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township...and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls! He walks abreast with his days and feels no shame in not "studying a profession," for he does not postpone his life, but lives already....

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky....

Questions for Reading 3

1. What do you think Emerson meant when he said "imitation is suicide"? Do you agree?

2. Summarize Emerson's view on why self-reliance is society's "aversion." Did Bill Keys experience some of this aversion?

3. Emerson might have characterized Bill Keys as "always like a cat [falling] on his feet." Why is this better, in Emerson's view, than being a "city doll"?

4. What does Emerson think that civilized man has lost? Why? Do you think this applied to Bill Keys?

Reading 3 was excerpted from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), as reprinted from the standard edition prepared by Edward Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 12 vols. (Boston, 1903-04).

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