Individualism in Early American Literature

Topics: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Transcendentalism Pages: 7 (1085 words) Published: March 9, 2008
Early American literature is full of the spirit of individualism. This spirit can best

be described by Emerson when he says, "Good men must not obey the laws too well".

This view has long been an inspiration for future generations of Americans to start some

of the greatest reformations of our history. Among the literary units that show support for

Emerson's idea, there are three that are more powerful at conveying this spirit. The

Revolutionaries, the Transcendentalists, and the Dark Romantics, all support Emerson's

quote because they show that a truly righteous individual is not one that conforms to

society's standards, but rather judges his/her actions based on his/her reason and what

he/she has discovered to be right through experience.

Emerson defends his quote in Self-Reliance with his view that one cannot

derive his/her happiness from following society's standards, but rather from following

his/her own hard work. In this work, Emerson argues that "no kernel of nourishing corn

can come to him but through his toil" (Emerson 225). The reason given for this powerful

statement is because he states that "imitation is suicide" (Emerson 225). Emerson is

arguing for the need of people to be independent in thought. This means that if society's

standards do not follow the individual's reason, then the individual has the right to

disregard the law. Strong opposition, therefore, should be expected for those who attempt

to find truth through non-standard ways. After going through a list of great people who

were misunderstood, Emerson assures that "to be great is to be misunderstood" (Emerson 225). This changes the definition of a good person, from a good law-follower, into a self-

reliant, independent thinker, who makes wise decisions. Because of this new definition,

Emerson supports his own quote by showing that the laws were against the great people

of history, so a good man must not be preoccupied with the law.

The earliest time period that supports Emerson's individualism is the

Revolutionary era, from which, comes the "Speech to the Virginia Convention", given by

Patrick Henry. Individualism is present from the start because of Henry's support for

fighting against British authority. Every revolutionary is putting their life on the line

because each one is committing the highest crime, treason. However, Henry shows his

willingness to give his life for the sake of his country's independence with the statement

"give me liberty of give me death!" (Henry 104). Each revolutionary has made the choice

for themselves, arriving there because of their use of reason and their experience. As

Henry states it, "I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of

experience." (Henry 102). He goes on and argues, using logical appeal, the case for

declaring independence from Britain. Although, today most people see democracy as a

very effective form of government in colonial America, it was against all accepted

political philosophies of the time. Henry pays no regards to the laws and customs of his

time, yet today we see him as a hero who fought for freedom. Henry's speech supports

Emerson's individualism because it places the power of reason and experience against the

forces of the law and the standard monarchies of the time.

Just like Emerson; the other major transcendentalist, Thoreau, places the authority

of morality on the individual in "Civil Disobedience". Thoreau expresses this view even

more strongly and confidently with the bold statement "That government is best which

governs not at all" (Thoreau 249). He argues that government is of no real value for

society and only acts as "a sort of wooden gun that people hold to themselves" (Thoreau

250). Government is only seen as the opposition to an individual because in Thoreau's

mind, people are...
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