The Paradoxical American Individual

by Jared Silverstein

In the course of daily activity, the values instilled in an individual regarding family, work, and community go largely unquestioned. How do people obtain their values, and from what traditions do they arise? At the time Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Self-Reliance, America was only in its 65th year as a nation, and with a budding society there follows many perspectives an individual can adopt to partake in such a society. During this period in Antebellum America, a common theme was arising in every facet of culture. Whether regarding literature, legislature, or religion, the prevailing American discourse implied “…the assertion of the worth of the totally liberated, atomistic, autonomous individual” (Ward 1974, 13). But with the emphasis on the individual pervading and influencing the entire society, a highly complex relationship between the individual and the nation forms. Alexis de Tocqueville very accurately assessed this complexity, bringing attention to “…the dialectic between the subjection of the individual to the national ideal and the subsequent celebration of the aggrandized self” (Haselstein 1998, 406). Tocqueville also details the uniquely American phenomenon of the market driven individual not seeing the natural landscape of the country as an aesthetic subject, but that of representing economic profitability; it follows that the Transcendental reaction to this in which the sublime is recognized in the landscape is also uniquely American (406). With this growing confusion among the American citizen as to his relationship with the nation, Emerson’s impetus for writing Self-Reliance becomes clear, as does the explanation for its provocative, persuasive, and unwavering tone. Emerson establishes in Self-Reliance the full-blown war between the divinity of the individual soul and the conformist demands of American market capitalism.

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. (3)

Emerson explicitly takes an almost combative stance against the corporate nature of American society, as he perceives it to be a direct assault on the purity of individual expression, as well as masculinity itself. Much of the content in Self-Reliance can be generalized as Emerson urging the individual to reject all notions of traditional values, and instead act upon his own convictions arrived at by aligning himself with the purity of God.

… Yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. (7)

This stress on the unassailable nature of God’s will extends from traditional notions of the American sublime, which itself is a long-standing albeit dynamic ideology, established “…to cover the entire historical space from Puritanism to Postmodernism” (Haselstein 408). Along this religious thread, Emerson details the behavior of the truly sovereign individual in relation to the family, asserting that monogamy is presumed to be virtuous (14). Despite Emerson’s constant attack on those who follow faith blindly, condemning ill-motivated philanthropy in previous passages, the religious values so deeply entrenched in the American mind seem to arise in Emerson’s declarations. The virtues that Emerson instills in the image of the self-reliant individual at times seem arbitrary in this manner.

Transcendentalists at this time reclaim the American sublime in poetics, and a prevailing notion of that ideology is how the self becomes fully realized in perceiving the boundless and infinite nature of the American landscape as well as the entire cosmos (Haselstein 412-6). Emerson’s writing serves to effectively portray this uniquely American interpretation of the sublime, writing:

For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. (10)

Even more fittingly, Emerson urges the consideration of the self-sufficing nature of the maturing plant, self-righting tree, or budding flower as examples by which people can derive their own notions of self-reliance (13).

The Beeches - Asher Brown Durand

 The Beeches – Asher Brown Durand. Here, the better portion of the painting is devoted to a dark portrayal of a natural setting, contrasted with a lone shepherd, illuminated by a seemingly divine light. Durand illustrates the duality of the American sublime, complementing the venerable work of the fittingly self-reliant shepherd with the romantic mysticism of the environment, almost as if it imbues him with a greater spiritual significance. The distant extent of the horizon also serves to create a boundless scope to man’s existence, very much in alignment with Emerson’s vision.

Another aspect of Self-Reliance­ is the emphasis on productivity and legacy. When arising from conformist motivations, these are the very facets of corporate American ideology Emerson aims to critique. Emerson defines a clear correlation between self-sovereignty and doing productive work, in particular original work done to a grand extent, writing, “But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work and you shall reinforce yourself” (5). He also goes on to advocate “…tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs [of the nation] out the window,” and by doing this the individual will “…restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history” (15). As market capitalism in American was taking root, “It seemed to offer a good compromise individualism that allowed coordinated force and personal greatness” (Newfield 1991, 664). From Emerson’s perspective, personal greatness is hollow when motivated by the prevailing economic and material interests instilled by the nation’s dogma; he aims to reassert the more honorable motivations of the self-sovereign individual into productivity (15).

As Emerson grapples with the concept of the American individual, the complexity of the subject becomes apparent, for Emerson could not arrive at his conclusions without being influenced by the very sentiments present in the society he is critiquing. Perhaps he would not so strongly emphasize the intrinsic need to produce great works in one’s lifetime if he was not born from a society that already stressed such virtues when it came to a collective duty. From the clear religious, agrarian, and capitalist themes present in Self-Reliance at its time of writing, an emerging uniquely American voice can be discerned.




Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882. Self-Reliance. White Plains, N.Y. :Peter Pauper Press,  1967.

Haselstein, Ulla. “Seen from a Distance: Moments of Negativity in the American Sublime (Tocqueville, Bryant, Emerson).” Amerikastudien / American Studies 43, no. 3 (1998): 405-  21.

Newfield, Christopher. “Emerson’s Corporate Individualism.” American Literary History    3, no. 4 (1991): 657-84.

Ward, John William. “Individualism: Ideology or Utopia?” The Hastings Center Studies 2,        no. 3 (1974): 11-22.



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