Reading Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in a Survey Course

ImageI am not going to say who I am talking about, but let’s just say that I know someone who got

Envy is Ignorance; Imitation is Suicide”

tattooed across her lower abdomen as a teenager. She picked the quote out of a book of previously-done tattoos compiled by the tattoo parlor. I’d love to see Ralph Waldo Emerson’s face when he found out that people are getting his words tattooed on their bodies, often without even knowing he wrote them. Is it better that they have no idea who wrote the words? At least they aren’t just doing it to be “literary.” The teenage girl I mentioned above was not making a literary reference; she was mad at her parents.

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In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson is tired of people who do not think for themselves. It is actually rather hard to think about, because he wrote this in a way that sounds like he is trying to inspire people to think for themselves, but in order for that to happen, the readers would have to accept Emerson’s way of thinking. It hurt my head to think about it that way, so I stopped.

But then I realized that we were reading this in a survey course. These courses are often designed to make sure that students gain an understanding of the literary canon of a certain time period or writing culture. You can’t be a successful English major without being about to make an offhand remark about post-modernism, right? Isn’t there just something so Orwellian about that? Emerson would not be happy about survey courses, in my opinion. He writes, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (269). Yet here we are, reading the words of America’s early sages, Emerson perhaps the most well-known of them all.

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thought” (Emerson 269). How did Emerson know that one day in the early 2000’s, a teenage girl would have this exact thought? She would ignore it, thinking she was nuts, until she read Emerson and he felt the same way. On that day she knew she was onto something! Snark aside, it is interesting that it takes a reassurance by an American man of letters to let people know that their ideas are also worth something. This sentiment seems to really have taken hold in our current society. Think of the Facebook overshare, the Instagrams of lattes. Is this what Emerson wanted? What would Emerson think of the political meme?

i-dont-always-watch-fox-news

Today, it is much easier for us to share our thoughts. Look what I am doing right now; my ideas are being posted to the internet as part of a class assignment. “I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson 271). Emerson’s Twitter would be hilarious. He would be ripping people apart without any concerns, as he did not care for the opinions of others. Although, he felt “man must be a nonconformist,” so perhaps he would hate all normal social media platforms (Emerson 271). He would just have his own ad-free blog.

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