Where Would Emerson Find His Scholar Now?

His speech was called “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.” Its theme was the universe itself; its hero, Man Thinking. Now, one hundred and seventy-five years later, a noted scholar sees Emerson’s great vision as both more beleaguered and more urgent than ever.

ON AUGUST 31, 1837, THE DAY AFTER COMMENCEMENT—they don’t seem to have gone in for vacations in those earnest times—the academic year at Harvard was ushered in with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s address to Phi Beta Kappa on a stock topic, “The American Scholar.” The meeting was held in the First Parish Church, on the exact spot where Anne Hutchinson had been examined for heresy two centuries before. Read more »

Three Sisters Who Showed The Way

Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody managed to extend the boundaries that cramped the lives of nineteenth-century women. Elizabeth introduced the kindergarten movement to America, Mary developed a new philosophy of mothering that we now take for granted, and Sophia was liberated from invalidism by her passionate love for her husband.

Other men,” Ralph Waldo Emerson told an admiring crowd in Boston’s Odeon Theater toward the end of 1845, “are lenses through which we read our own minds.” The eminent philosopher then went on to tell his audience of the importance in their lives of “Representative Men,” such as Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. “These men correct the delirium of the animal spirits, make us considerate, and engage us to new aims and powers,” Emerson concluded. “Thus we feed on genius....” Read more »

Thoreau Walks The Cape

In the blustery days of late fall, the traveler still can find the sparseness and solitude that so greatly pleased the Concord naturalist in 1849

One morning in early October 1849, Henry David Thoreau peered through the rainstreaked window of a stagecoach as it rolled along a sandy, rutted road on the north shore of Cape Cod. He found the landscape bleak and almost bare of trees, the houses poor and weather-beaten. Even the women’s faces were cheerless. “They had prominent chins and noses,” he wrote, “having lost all their teeth, and a sharp W would represent their profile.” Read more »

Traveling With A Sense Of History

From Fort Ticonderoga to the Plaza Hotel, from Appomattox Courthouse to Bugsy Siegel’s weird rose garden in Las Vegas, the present-day scene is enriched by knowledge of the American past

To grow up in New England is to grow up with an inescapable sense of history, a heritage that a New Englander carries with him wherever he goes. Read more »

Ten Books That Shaped The American Character

Walden is here, of course; but so too is Fanny Farmer’s first cookbook

America is not a nation of readers, yet books have had a deep and lasting effect on its national life. By comparison with the Russians, whose thirst for books—especially contraband books—is legendary, we pay them scant attention; Walker Percy once dolefully estimated that the hard-core audience for serious literature in this country of two hundred and thirty million is perhaps one or two million, and he probably was not far off.Read more »

Thoreau’s Vacation

EARLY IN THE afternoon of the last day of August 1839, Henry David Thoreau and his brother John put a homemade dory in the Concord River, not far above the bridge where the Minutemen had fired on British troops sixty-four years before. They traveled light. For food they took melons and potatoes grown in their own garden and a few other provisions. For shelter they had a tent, also made at home, and for warmth a pair of buffalo skins.Read more »

Fear Of The City 1783 To 1983

The city has been a lure for millions, but most of the great American minds have been appalled by its excesses. Here an eminent observer, who knows firsthand the city’s threat, surveys the subject.

EVERY THURSDAY , when I leave my apartment in a vast housing complex on Columbus Avenue to conduct a university seminar on the American city, I reflect on a double life—mine. Most of the people I pass on my way to the subway look as imprisoned by the city as my parents and relatives used to look in the Brooklyn ghetto where I spent my first twenty years. Yet no matter where else I have traveled and taught, I always seem to return to streets and scenes like those on New York’s Upper West Side. Read more »

Was It Legal? Thoreau In Jail

When Constable Samuel Staples of Concord, Massachusetts, placed Henry David Thoreau under arrest for nonpayment of his state poll tax in late July of 1846, he had no idea that his act would bring about international repercussions a century later. On a less important but perhaps equally interesting level, neither of them evidently was aware that the arrest was extralegal—a fact that has just now come to light. Read more »

Exit Lines

About to die at the untimely age of forty-four in 1883, Dr. George Miller Beard, a Connecticut physician and pioneer in neurology, remarked: “I should like to record the thoughts of a dying man for the benefit of science, but it is impossible.” And with those words, Dr. Beard passed beyond further speech. Regardless of their inner thoughts, we do at least know what many individuals uttered before giving up the ghost.Read more »