By: Benjamin Nechmad
Nineteenth Century Americans were living in a young country, one that was awash with immigrants from across the ocean, bringing with them a colorful array of cultures. However, there was no apparent “American” culture that had been established due to the uniqueness and chaotic nature of the fledgling state. Ralph Waldo Emerson established a uniquely American voice by combining his experience as a pastor, the principles of freedom and independence that helped establish the country, and the sprawling and beautiful scenery that characterized the American landscape. All of the ingredients for an American culture were present and Emerson skillfully wove them together in his work Nature.
America was founded on the belief that every person should be free and allowed, as individuals, to contribute to the betterment of the country and society. Nature is fundamentally about individuality and one’s own personal ability to better themselves by comprehending the mystical and supernatural nature of the wilderness and understanding a higher sense of purpose. Once someone betters themselves, they are by default bettering the whole of society along with them. Each person, regardless of race, creed or religion, is free to contemplate and learn from the beauty that envelops them. He explains,
“Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.”
Emerson is highlighting the fact that everyone inhabits the same physical world and therefore, regardless of where people start out, they have the potential to establish their own personal legacy by engaging with their surroundings and actualizing their potential. This holds true whether the person is a simple blacksmith or a world-renowned scientist.
Nature, according to Emerson, is a universally accessible connection to God and ultimate fulfillment. There is no canon or dogma that can prevent the common person from connecting to the world around them in a spiritual and meaningful way. It is in this realm that the individuality of the American soul has the ability to flourish. This is where Nature is clearly seen as a fundamentally American text. No matter where a person stands in life, they have the ability to find meaning through individual contemplation of morality and self-betterment. He is speaking to an audience that only recently banded together as low-level colonists and farmers to overthrow an imperial power. The vast and unexplored North American wilderness was untainted by any classist society. According to Emerson, it could inspire anyone who was willing to open their eyes and look. The physical landscape of the country itself represented freedom and individuality, the mentality of the American people was represented by the wilderness. Emerson explains,
“The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”
Nature is not only a “metaphor for the human mind,” it is a representation of the American spirit of individuality. Each part of nature works together in an unending cycle, much like cogs in a clock. This can also be related to the importance of each and every American and how everyone, regardless of background, is essential to the success of the country.
– “Lake Squam from Red Hill” by, William Trost Richards (American, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1833–1905 Newport, Rhode Island)
This painting is a clear representation of the American perception of nature, namely the newly discovered landscapes that made up huge swaths of the new country. The scene is vast and brightly colored with shimmering sunlight reflected on the water. With tall mountains in the distance, the painting conveys a strong sense of hope and purpose. These characteristics are indicative of the bright future that Americans saw for themselves.
The painting also represents the aforementioned sense of individuality. Untouched by the burdens of society, nature is beautiful in its purest form, just as individual people are. Everyone is a part of nature and it is a part of us. According to Emerson, contemplating this scenery allows us to find the beauty within ourselves and understand our individual purpose.
Osgood, Samuel. “Excerpts from: Samuel Osgood. “Nature.” The Western Messenger.” 1837 Review: Nature. Accessed November 07, 2017. http://www.transcendentalists.com/nature_review_emerson.htm.Phillip F., Gura.
“Transcendentalism and Social Reform.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. July 30, 2012. Accessed November 07, 2017. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/first-age-reform/essays/transcendentalism-and-social-reform.