American Literature I (Fall, 2004; Seton Hill University)

Discuss: Emerson & Thoreau

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are the central figures in the American Transcendentalist movement. We will look at both men as writers of essays that helped define a uniquely American culture.


These people, mostly New Englanders, mostly around Boston, were attempting to create a uniquely American body of literature. It was already decades since the Americans had won independence from England. Now, these people believed, it was time for literary independence. And so they deliberately went about creating literature, essays, novels, philosophy, poetry, and other writing that were clearly different from anything from England, France, Germany, or any other European nation.

Another way to look at the Transcendentalists is to see them as a generation of people struggling to define spirituality and religion (our words, not necessarily theirs) in a way that took into account the new understandings their age made available. -- What is Transcendentalism?

While transcendentalism in America was characterized by a rejection of European influcences, European transcendentalists shared the Americans' desire to embrace intuition and inspiration. The transatlantic movement was a reaction against the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment. The Englightenment was, of course, a reaction against Romanticism (which celebrated noble human passions such as heroism and patriotism, in addition to lofty love) and against traditional religion (with its rituals and mysteries).

Thoreau, who is revered as America's first ecologist, was Emerson's protege. When Thoreau died young, Emerson wrote, in his eulogy of Thoreau, a passage that helps explain both men's philosophy:

No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversion from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt. He listened impatiently to news or bonmots gleaned from London circles; and though he tried to be civil, these anecdotes fatigued him. The men were all imitating each other, and on a small mould. Why can they not live as far apart as possible, and each be a man by himself? What he sought was the most energetic nature; and he wished to go to Oregon, not to London. "In every part of Great Britain," he wrote in his diary, "are discovered traces of the Romans, their funereal urns, their camps, their roads, their dwellings. But New England, at least, is not based on any Roman ruins. We have not to lay the foundations of our houses on the ashes of a former civilization."

Required Readings

Emerson: (biography) Read Ann Woodlief's Study Questions for "Self Reliance" (I'm not actually going to collect the exercise discussed on that page, but the study questions will help you make your way through this complex text) and the full text of Self-Reliance (about 18 pages when printed out)

Thoreau: (biography). Start with Civil Disobedience(about 15 pages when printed out), then read a short paper (4 printed pages) on the history of the critical reaction to Thoreau's essay: "Transcendental Legacy: Political Reform". (The short paper calls Thoreau's essay by its original title, "Resistance to Civil Government.")

Discuss Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter 3 (Chapters 16-24)

Discuss Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter 2 (Chapters 10-15)

Poe and Drugs

Fields of Green: Poe

Edgar Allen Poe was a drug addict.

Does this detail about Poe's life help us to understand and appreciate his literature? Or should Poe's works stand on their own? What do you think?

Reader involvement in 'Bartleby the Scrivener'

In Reflections on Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, Katie Atkins observes,

Bartleby's resistance to the task at hand becomes spellbinding: one wants to read on, one wants to know why Bartleby won't, and one wants to know the outcome of the story.

It's pretty clear from the student comments that not everyone enjoyed Bartleby (aren't you glad we did "An Occurence at Owl Creek" first?).

While Renee felt "like I wasted 23 pages of my entire life, hours of my precious college time," Sara actually "enjoyed all of the redundance of the story."

Trisha Wehrle on 'Bartleby'

Trisha makes some excellent points in TrishaWehrle: Huge Contrast in "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

This is supposed to be a "story of wallstreet" and when I first think of Wallstreet choas and confusion comes to my mind. Wall street is a place of business and economic growth and one might assume that individuals placed in this environment would be energenic, and money hungry.

On her blog, I asked, "What do you think Melville was trying to say, when he placed this particular narrator in a story with the even more passive Bartleby?"

Discuss Melville, ''Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street''


I AM a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener the strangest I ever saw or heard of. While of other law-copyists I might write the complete life, of Bartleby nothing of that sort can be done. I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.
Download the full text of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street".

The full text will take about 23 pages to print out. The version on "" is already nicely formatted, so I am not posting the whole text here.