Unit Descriptions: In participating in this unit, students will be able to identify and understand the key themes of Transcendentalism, and be able to draw connections between those themes and issues that are relevant today.  They wil also be able to synthesize the main messages in Transcendentalism and apply them to various forms.

Unit Goals:

  1. Draw connections between Transcendentalism and the Enlightenment period. I want students to be able to see how Transcendentalism both builds on the previous unit and also how it deviates from it. I will do this by having them takes notes on Transcendentalism, and along with their notes from the last unit, create a Venn Diagram to create a visual representation of the comparisons and contrasts.
  2. Students will develop and demonstrate an understanding of the major themes of Transcendentalism, such as independence, civil disobedience, nature, and simplicity, by discussing in class and demonstrating their knowledge creatively through a Body Biography, sketch of Thoreau’s cabin, and letter-writing.
  3. Students will draw connections between Transcendentalism and their own lives by personally relating to the material. They will do this throughout the unit by constant journal writing, an anticipation guide, and double-entry reading journals.
  4. Students will think like Transcendentalists by applying the themes of Transcendentalism to other forms, including popular culture. They will do this for an assessment, rather than a traditional multiple choice test, by thinking like a Transcendentalist to respond to songs, images, and a modern book. They will also be applying Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience to other social movements by analyzing civil disobedience in MLK Jr., Gandhi, and Rosa Parks.

Essential Questions: 

  • What is Transcendentalism?
  • What are the main elements of Transcendentalism?
  • How does Transcendentalism differ from literature we’ve read in the past?
  • How is Transcendental thought reflected today?
  • How does Thoreau argues against submission to government policies that individuals deem immoral?
  • How does Thoreau  critique the representative democracy?

CCS and Skills

  • Reflect and respond expressively to texts so that the audience will: investigate connections between life and literature.
  • explore how the student’s life experiences influence his or her response to the selection.
  • recognize how the responses of others may be different.
  • articulate insightful connections between life and literature.
  • consider cultural or historical significance
  • Demonstrate the ability to read, listen to and view a variety of increasingly complex print and non-print expressive texts appropriate to grade level and course literary focus, by: selecting, monitoring, and modifying as necessary reading strategies appropriate to readers’ purpose.
  • identifying and analyzing text components (such as organizational structures, story elements, organizational features) and evaluating their impact on the text.
  • providing textual evidence to support understanding of and reader’s response to text.
  • demonstrating comprehension of main idea and supporting details.
  • summarizing key events and/or points from text.
  • making inferences, predicting, and drawing conclusions based on text.
  • identifying and analyzing personal, social, historical or cultural influences, contexts, or biases.
  • analyzing and evaluating the effects of author’s craft and style.
  • analyzing and evaluating the connections or relationships between and among ideas, concepts, characters and/or experiences.
  • identifying and analyzing elements of expressive environment found in text in light of purpose, audience, and context.
  • Interpret meaning for an audience by: interpreting the effect of figures of speech (e.g., personification, oxymoron) and the effect of devices of sound (e.g., alliteration, onomatopoeia).
  • analyzing stylistic features such as word choice and links between sense and sound.
  • demonstrating how literary works reflect the culture that shaped them.
  • Develop thematic connections among works by: connecting themes that occur across genres or works from different time periods.
  • Assess the power, validity, and truthfulness in the logic of arguments given in public and political documents by: identifying the intent and message of the author or artist.
  • recognizing how the author addresses opposing viewpoints. articulating a personal response to the message and method of the author or artist.
  •  selecting, monitoring, and modifying as necessary reading strategies appropriate to readers’ purpose.
  • identifying and analyzing personal, social, historical or cultural influences, contexts, or biases.
  • making connections between works, self and related topics. analyzing and evaluating the effects of author’s craft and style.
  • analyzing and evaluating the connections or relationships between and among ideas, concepts, characters and/or experiences.
  • Interpret the significance of literary movements as they have evolved through the literature of the United States by: relating ideas, styles, and themes within literary movements of the United States.
  • understanding influences that progress through the literary movements of the United States.
  • evaluating the literary merit and/or historical significance of a work from Colonial Literature, the Romantic Era, Realism, the Modern Era, and Contemporary Literature
  • Analyze the relationships among United States authors and their works by: making and supporting valid responses about the text through references to other works and authors.
  • comparing texts to show similarities or differences in themes, characters, or ideas.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the conventions of language by: revising writing to enhance voice and style, sentence variety, subtlety of meaning, and tone in considerations of questions being addressed, purpose, audience, and genres.


Body Biography

For your chosen person, you will create a body biography – a visual and written portrait illustrating several aspects of the character’s life and act of civil disobedience. After completing this portrait, you will participate in a “showing” of your masterpiece where you will verbally explain your choices to the class. In this showing you should:

  • • Discuss what makes this person significant.
  • Review the significant events and choices involving this person communicate to the class the full essence of your person by emphasizing traits promote discussion of your character


Although I expect your biography to contain additional dimensions, your portrait must contain:

  • •An outline of the person’s body
  • A review of significant points in the text
  • Visual symbols
  • The five most important quotes regarding your person
  •  The significance of this person’s act of civil disobedience.

You have many possibilities for filling up your paper; as always, the choices you make should be based on the text.

Things to consider

  • Placement: Carefully choose the placement of your artwork. For example, the area where your person’s heart would be might be appropriate for illustrating the important relationships within his or her life.
  • Color: Colors are often symbolic. What color do you associate with your character’s primary trait? Why?
  • • Symbols: What objects can you associate with your person that illustrate that person’s essence? Are there objects mentioned within the text itself that you could use?
  • Changes: How has your person changed the world?

Transcendentalism Vocabulary  1. Transcendental 2. conformity 3. anaphora 4. aversion 5. admonition 6. tumultuous 7. individualism 8. idealism 9. intuition 10.self-reliance 11.expedient 12. evitable 13.alacrity

Day 1

Objectives: Students will be able to identify the major themes of Transcendentalism; compare and contrast elements of Transcendentalism to the Age of Reason

Aim: What are the major themes  of Transcendentalism? How different or similar are they from the ideas from the Age of Reason?

Do Now: Watch a video clip “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas;

The Ideal in America  A preview of the Emerson documentary.

This video exemplifies several elements of the Transcendentalism movement including a love for (untamed) nature, rejection of materialism/ “civilized” society, rejection of government imperialism, belief in wisdom that can be found through nature and intuition rather than logic and reasoning. Write down the thoughts, emotions, key points, etc. that come to mind.

Teaching Points:

Notes on Transcendentalism-

a. How Transcendental ideas came about:

 As a spin off of the Unitarian Universalist church

Unitarian Universalist tenets:

  1. Christ was revered, but not sanctified.
  2. People are divine.
  3. Gospels are aligned with great thinkers (Socrates, Aristotle, Shakespeare, etc.)
  4. People sought to become more spiritual, better read, less materialistic, even vegetarians, for example.
  5. As a reaction to Puritan ideology, there was the desire to create a Utopia and do the “moral” thing.
  6. Focus was on the individual, the ideal, and nature.

Transcendentalism Basic Principles:

  1. Definition: Transcend—to rise above, to pass beyond limits.
  2. Basic truths of the world lie beyond the knowledge we obtain by our senses.
  3. Through intuition, rather, we can “know” the existence of our soul.
  4. The human spirit can transcend to a higher, spiritual plane—above the material world, know fundamental truths about life and death, experience a union with God through an altered state of consciousness, and can know an ultimate spiritual reality.
  5. Intuition allows you to transcend. Emerson says that intuition is the “highest power of the soul”—a power that “never reasons, never proves (but) simply perceives.”
  6. The divine intellect allows man to make good decisions
  7. Man can unite with God through nature—In other words, nature is the church.
  8. Divine nature—God is in man and in all living things. Therefore, nature is divine.
  9. There is the “oversoul” (Emerson’s word for the divine intellect). We all have one, and the oversoul, when found through divine insight, points the way to perfection and salvation.
  10. There is a unity with God, humanity, and nature because we all share a universal soul.
  11. We are all open to direct, moral guidance.
  12. We are our own church. Therefore, there is no need for structured religion. Emerson says “Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
  13. Man’s purpose is to be introspective and get divine guidance in learning to understand the nature of God and search for divine meaning of oneself and all living things.
  14. If we live in harmony with nature, we can transcend.
  15. We can find truths in nature, communicate with it, and read it.
  16. Nature is the source of goodness and inspiration.
  17. Through Nature is God.
  18. Nature is symbolic of the spirit because nature shares with humanity the universal soul.
  19. Individualism—We can transcend if we are individuals.
  20. Like the Puritans, we can experience God firsthand, but unlike the Puritans, there are not an “elect” few.
  21. Each person is inherently good.
  22. To be an individual, one must live free of society’s beliefs and habits. Society, after all, is corrupt because it is uniform, rigid, and materialistic. The Transcendentalists would see the individual as more important than society.
  23. Every human can transcend, is divine, is equal, and capable of knowing God.
  24. After one transcends, he or she will do the right thing for him or herself, and ultimately, for society. Take care of the self, and then the rest will fall into place.
  25. Man should live for ideals, not materials.
  26. Man should be a nonconformist.
  27. Follow one’s instincts.
  28. Be an optimist.
  29. Literature should be as free from conventions are we should be.
  30. Work hard, but do not let your success be determined by material gains.
  31. Transcendentalism is NOT a religion, but merely a philosophy of spirituality.
  32. Note, because the Transcendentalists wholeheartedly appreciate individual thought over that of the group, they frequently disagreed with one another.
  33. Similar to Aristotle’s dictum—“Know thyself,” Transcendentalists believed that all knowledge begins with self-knowledge.
  34. The life is more important than the afterlife, according to the Transcendentalists, because, as Emerson says, “the one thing in the world of value is the active soul.”
  35. Emphasis should be on the here and now, as Thoreau says: “give me one world at a time.”
  36. Evil is an absence of good.
  37. Emphasis is on Self-reliance, not Fate or predestination.

Transcendentalists left these legacies:

  1. They influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. through the notion of Civil Disobedience.
  2. They influenced the beat generation of writers and artists during the 50’s and the “young radicals” of the 60’s and 70’s, where anti-war, anti-government, and anti-materialism ideologies existed.
  3. Meditation and the New Age movement.
  4. Modern writers like: Frost and Ginsberg.

Anticipation guide: Students will respond to a handout asking them to agree or disagree with the following statements (followed by one sentence of explanation)

  • – a. A simple person who lives in the county has a greater wisdom and insight into the mysteries of life than a sophisticated person from the city.
  • b. Logic and facts are more important than emotions and feelings
  • c. Nature should be controlled by humans.
  • d. People should follow standards and traditions set forth by society
  • e. We should never be satisfied with the status quo, but rather we should desire radical change.
  • f. The needs of individuals are more important than the needs of society as a whole.
  • g. People should act with moderation and self-restraint and avoid expressing the extremes of their personalities in public.
  • e. I tend to follow my gut instinct in most situations
  • f. I tend to see the glass half full 5. Class discussion of anticipation guide (15m)

Class reads “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman, which is a very short poem that is an excellent example of Transcendentalist thought

Class discussion:

  • a. How does the speaker feel about science?
  • b. Was Walt Whitman
  • a Transcendentalist? Why?
  • c. How is this poem different from past works we’ve read? What characteristics of Transcendentalism does it have?
  • d. Have you ever felt like what you were being taught in school could be learned better through experience? Why is it important to go to school and get real life experience?

Summary: Questions, comments, concerns

Homework: – Students will read “from Nature” by Emerson as well an excerpt from ” Civil Disobedience” by David Henry Thoreau ,and complete double entry journal with at least five quotes.


Notes on Transcendentalism

A. Historical Background

  • The American Revolution inspired artists to create an American identity separate from England.
  • To a large degree it was the creation against the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, especially its emphasis on the power of human reasoning, formal decorum and the suppression of the imagination or “fancy”.
  • Radical changes in political life.
  • Industrialization was booming, cities were expanding
  • The Gold Rush and westward expansion
  • Technological advances.

B. Transcendentalist Beliefs


  • Nature was an escape from the evils and materialism of society
  • Nature is a manifestation of the divine
  • One can reach a higher level of spirituality and truth in nature
  • Nature should remain pure and untamed
  • Oversoul: man, universe, and nature are intertwined


  • Fundamentally optimistic, convinced of the essential goodness of life
  • This optimism would later be shunned by the Dark Romantics, sometimes called the Anti- Transcendentalists
  • Belief that people are naturally good


  • Rejection of standard societal beliefs
  • Belief in being true to one’s self and following one’s intuition
  • Belief in nonconformity
  • Self-reliance

Other Main Elements

  • Suggests that every individual is able to connect to a higher truth through intuition
  • Civil disobedience
  • Reject material excess
  • Support of abolition and women’s rights
  • Remains very hard to define- a philosophical, literary and social movement.

 Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

  • Lived the ideas that Emerson espoused.
  • Spent two years living at Walden Pond in order to “live deliberately” a simple life in nature.
  • Wrote “Resistance to Civil Government” and “Walden.”
  • Thoreau refused to pay taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery, and he spent a night in jail because of this refusal.
  • A branch of Romanticism, along with Dark Romantics and Fireside Poets, which we will cover later.
  • Began in Germany
  • Immanuel Kant, philosopher
  • 1700’s
  • Developed in United States in 1836
  • Transcendental Club in Boston established
  • Boston
  • 1836
  • led by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Belief in a higher level of truth that can be attained through human reasoning
  • In determining the ultimate reality of God, the universe, the self, and other important matters, one must transcend, or go beyond, everyday human experience in the physical world

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)-The Father of Transcendentalism

  • Ordained a Unitarian minister in 1829, resigned after three years due to theological conflicts.
  • Settled in Concord, Massachusetts in 1836 and founded the Transcendental Club with his colleagues.
  • Banned from Harvard for 30 years following the Divinity School address.
  • Expressed Transcendentalist views in his essay, “Nature.”
  • Wrote “Self-Reliance.”

Thoreau Introduction

The validity of Henry David Thoreau and transcendentalism in the 21st century: the 19th century man still speaks to us today.

Goals: Students will be able to relate to the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau and be able to apply such wisdom to their lives. Students will be able to think and hopefully live a little more deliberately after exploring and applying Thoreau’s philosophy. Students will find value in the place where they live.

Homework: Students will read Thoreau’s “from On Resistance to Civil Government” and complete a double entry journal with at least 5 quotes.

Day 2


  • SWBAT identify the elements of Transcendentalism in Thoreau’s “Walden”
  • SWBAT identify imagery in Walden
  • SWBAT draw a creative sketch of Thoreau’s Walden to depict understanding
  • Students will be able to transfer Thoreau’s love and respect for nature and his place in the world to their own natural surroundings and place in their world. Students will sharpen their observation skills.


  • Reflect and respond expressively to texts so that the audience will:
    investigate connections between life and literature.
  • explore how the student’s life experiences influence his or her response to the selection.
  • recognize how the responses of others may be different.
  • articulate insightful connections between life and literature.
  • consider cultural or historical significance

Aim: How does the natural world described in Walden revel Thoreau’s transcendental ideas?


Do Now: Share double entry journal based on Emerson’s “Nature”.

Mini Lesson

  1. Walden was the most significant place for Thoreau and a source of inspiration. Thoreau teaches us that that one does not need to travel far to find curious and inspiring things. In fact, he spend most of his life in and around Concord, MA. He believes that the special places are the ones we know well. To him this place was Walden.
  2. Emerson is considered the “Father of Transcendentalism” and Thoreau is his student. Thoreau lived in an isolated log cabin at Walden Pond for two years in isolation. He stresses the importance of simplicity and escape from the industrialized, material-obsessed culture.
  3. play this video clip of nature images with relaxing music:
  4. Students will be asked to complete a journal that asks them to respond to the following questions:
    a. How are you affected by nature? Do you find comfort in it? Do you reflect the moods of nature?

b. What is the role of nature in your life?
c. What is meant by an individual’s spiritual side?
d. Is there a connection between the individual spirit and nature?
e. Define individualism(what it means to you)
f. If you have answered these questions, spend the rest of the time reflecting on nature in any way you choose.

Independent Discussion:

  1. In groups of two, students read excerpts from “Walden” by Thoreau. Students will sketch out their interpretation of Thoreau’s cabin and Walden Pond. They must use 5 quotations from the text to explain their depictions to show how Thoreau uses imagery.
  2. Now, watch a clip from the film Koyaanisquatsi , which shows images of nature contrasted with often negative portrayals of civilization. (polluted, busy, hostile.)
    a.  how are those images contrasted from the images of Walden?
  3. Become familiar with the following statistics:
    • In 1958, only 4 percent of American homes had dishwashers. Now more than half do.
    • Less than 1 percent had color televisions. Now 97 percent do. In addition, in the ’50s there were no microwave ovens, VCRs, or personal computers.
    • Today, many new homes have three-car garages and are nearly 900 square feet (the same as an entire house in the 1950s).
    • Americans fly 25 times as many passenger miles as they did in the 1950s.
    • Although Americans had fewer material goods, the number of Americans who say they are very happy peaked back in 1957.
    • Seventy percent of Americans visit malls each week, more than attend churches or synagogues.
    • On average, Americans shop six hours a week and spend only 40 minutes playing with their children.
    9. respond to the following questions:
    a. Are Americans too materialistic?
    b. Does money equal happiness?
    c. Why might people be so obsessed with buying mere “things?”
    d. What might Thoreau think about society today?
    e. What are ways to combat this obsession with money and materialism?

Assessment: How does the imagery in “Nature” reveal Thoreau’s transcendental ideas?


Each group will read 5-6 assigned pages from The Civil Disobedience and prepare for a 6-minute group presentation, in which you will-

  1. Summarize passage ( context)
  2. State the main idea of the passage
  3. Provide five quotations from the passage  to support or illustrate the main idea
  4. For each quotation, you will need to paraphrase and make a commentary that focuses on why the quotation relate to your main idea
  5. Provide a vocabulary sheet for the rest of the class
  6. prepare a quiz that contains 4-5 multiple-choice questions based on the passage( will be handed in on Tuesday so copies can be made for Wed’s class).
  7. On Tuesday, a handout will be provided for you to prepare for a Socratic seminar on ” Civil Obedience” .

Day 3-4

Objectives: Students will be able to demonstrate their understanding of Thoreau’s work ” Civil Disobedience” by presenting a PPP with the class.

Aim: How does Thoreau argues against submission to government policies that individuals deem immoral?


Mini Lesson:

  1. the use of rhetorical questions in the essay
  2. Thoreau’s plain rhetoric
  3. how do these two sections, one an attempt at alienation, and one an attempt at alliance, reconcile each other?
  4. Word play
  5. argument against the existence of a government
  6. a populist style

Small Group Presentation ( Day 3)

Each group will read 5-6 assigned pages from The Civil Disobedience and present for a 6-minute your reading of “Civil Disobedience” , in which you will-

  1. Summarize passage ( context)
  2. State the main idea of the passage
  3. Provide five quotations from the passage  to support or illustrate the main idea
  4. For each quotation, you will need to paraphrase and make a commentary that focuses on why the quotation relate to your main idea
  5. Provide a vocabulary sheet for the rest of the class
  6. prepare a quiz that contains 4-5 multiple-choice questions based on the passage( will be handed in on Tuesday so copies can be made for Wed’s class).
  7. On Tuesday, a handout will be provided for you to prepare for a Socratic seminar on ” Civil Obedience” .

Small Group Discussion (day 4)-

  1. Thoreau believes that people should not participate in injustice but that they do not have to actively promote a more just world. What is the difference between these two concepts, and why does Thoreau make this moral distinction?
  2. Is Thoreau’s conception of civil disobedience compatible with democratic government? Why or why not?
  3. What is Thoreau’s opinion on wealth and consumption? Why does he say that the rich are less likely to practice civil disobedience?
  4. What might Thoreau think about the role of government in today’s society? (In particular, think about the modern welfare state and the military complex.)
  5. How does Thoreau justify the moral need for civil disobedience? What principles does he rely on in his justification?
  6. In what ways is Thoreau’s essay based on the concepts of individualism and self- reliance?
  7. Thoreau combines his arguments about why people should practice civil disobedience with personal anecdotes and discussions specific to his own time and place. Is this a rhetorically useful approach? Why or why not?
  8. Would you describe Thoreau as optimistic or pessimistic about people’s ability to improve the world? Explain.

Homework for Day 4 lesson: Prepare for the Socratic Seminar.


  1. Arrange your desks in a large square or circle so every student can make eye contact with one another.
  2. Distribute the Outer Circle Activity and explain the directions and expectations. Review with the inner circle the rules for seminar behavior.
  3. Present the opening seminar question.

Seminar questions for “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau

OPENING  (choose one of the following to begin the discussion of the document)

  1. Do you like Thoreau and his ideas? Why or why not?
  2. What word, phrase or line do we need to understand to realize the importance of Thoreau’s work?
  3. What does Thoreau want use to believe?

CORE: (use these as a guide for your discussion. Choose one question. Discuss your answers and develop the ideas of the text. Move from question to question as you deem necessary. Do not feel tied to the list of questions. Let the discussion flow as long as you use the text and examples to support the ideas.)

  • Who is ultimately more important the individual, the citizens as a whole, or the government?

a. What role should we (as a citizen) play in society? What are the limits of government should follow in intruding in our daily lives?
b. Can the government restrict your beliefs?  Are there beliefs or actions that the government should try to alter?
c. Should we be forced to pay taxes for other people’s needs?

  •  Can we reach the government that Thoreau’s advocates?
    a. Are we a democracy in Thoreau’s eyes?  In your eyes?  In the textbook definition of democracy?
    b. What areas of our government today would Thoreau attack?  Defend.
    c. Are there leaders today that Thoreau would admire?  Detest?
  • In discussing the role of the individual, which quote best outlines your philosophy?


“if the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go… perchance it will wear smooth – certainly the machine will wear out…. If it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then , I say, break the law.  Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.


“an individual must do what his city or country demands of him or he must change their view of what is just.”


“ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

a. What problems or limitations do you see with the other views?
b. What should be the role between the individual and the government?

  • Under what circumstances should conscience outweigh the law?

a. What should the consequences be for someone who breaks the law?
b. Is there ever a valid reason to break a law?
c. Can you see yourself breaking a law for a greater cause?  Explain

CLOSING: (choose one)

  1. What are some situations today where we have examples of people who are working for changes in the name of justice and fairness?

a. To what extent should they go to accomplish their goal?
b. Do you applaud or criticize citizens who work for change?
c. What advice would Thoreau give them?

  1. What are the circumstances that would force you to be like Thoreau?
  2. If Thoreau were alive today how would he judge America?


  • Summarize the major points of the seminar and reflect on the key points you have gained from the discussion.
  • Read the article on ” How to become an non-conformist” and you can write a satire or an essay on the same topic.
  • Write a PBFF on the following passage-

Toni Morrison memorably wrote in Beloved, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” that a full life is about “allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold,” and that adhering to any prescriptive mode of living, even if it’s one that rejects the herd of mainstream culture, only flattens us into caricatures of our complete selves and transforms us into a herd of a different kind, one the cultural critic Harold Rosenberg famously called “the herd of independent minds.” (

Day 4-5: Transcendentalism ” Self Reliance” by Emerson

Objectives: SWBAT identify Thoreau’s main points in “Self-Reliance” and argue for or against them from the perspective of a modern reader.

Aim: In his essay “Self-Reliance,” how does Ralph Waldo Emerson define individualism, and how, in his view, can it affect society?

Text: Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”, 1841.

Material: copies of ” Self-Reliance”; copies of close reading questions


Do Now: As citizens of a bold, young nation, Americans have always taken tremendous pride in their personal liberty. Emerson nourished this individualistic creed with his essay “Self Reliance”. What associations do you make with the world self-reliance? How does self-reliance differ from selfishness and self-centeredness?

Knowledge/Skill Acquisition:

  1. Understanding: In “Self-Reliance” Emerson defines individualism as a profound and unshakeable trust in one’s own intuitions. Embracing this view of individualism, he asserts, can revolutionize society, not through a sweeping mass movement, but through the transformation of one life at a time and through the creation of leaders capable of greatness.
  2. Background Questions

    1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
    2. For what audience was it intended?
    3. For what purpose was it written?
    4. When was it written?
    5. What was going on at the time of its writing that might have influenced its composition?

Part A. Background

Ralph Waldo Emerson died in 1882, but he is still very much with us. When you hear people assert their individualism, perhaps in rejecting help from the government or anyone else, you hear the voice of Emerson. When you hear a self-help guru on TV tell people that if they change their way of thinking, they will change reality, you hear the voice of Emerson. He is America’s apostle of individualism, our champion of mind over matter, and he set forth the core of his thinking in his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841).

While they influence us today, Emerson’s ideas grew out of a specific time and place, which spawned a philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. “Self-Reliance” asserts a central belief in that philosophy: truth lies in our spontaneous, involuntary intuitions. We do not have the space here to explain Transcendentalism fully, but we can sketch some out its fundamental convictions, a bit of its historical context, and the way “Self-Reliance” relates to it.

By the 1830s many in New England, especially the young, felt that the religion they had inherited from their Puritan ancestors had become cold and impersonal. In their view it lacked emotion and failed to foster that sense of connectedness to the divine which they sought in religion. To them it seemed that the church had taken its eyes off heaven and fixed them on the material world, which under the probings, measurements, and observations of science seemed less and less to offer assurance of divine presence in the world.

Taking direction from ancient Greek philosophy and European thinking, a small group of New England intellectuals embraced the idea that men and women did not need churches to connect with divinity and that nature, far from being without spiritual meaning, was, in fact, a realm of symbols that pointed to divine truths. According to these preachers and writers, we could connect with divinity and understand those symbols — that is to say,transcend or rise above the material world — simply by accepting our own intuitions about God, nature, and experience. These insights, they argued, needed no external verification; the mere fact that they flashed across the mind proved they were true.

To hold these beliefs required enormous self-confidence, of course, and this is where Emerson and “Self-Reliance” come into the picture. He contends that there is within each of us an “aboriginal Self,” a first or ground-floor self beyond which there is no other. In “Self-Reliance” he defines it in mystical terms as the “deep force” through which we “share the life by which things exist.” It is “the fountain of action and thought,” the source of our spontaneous intuitions. This self defines not a particular, individual identity but a universal, human identity. When our insights derive from it, they are valid not only for us but for all humankind. Thus we can be assured that what is true in our private hearts is, as Emerson asserts, “true for all men.”*

But how can we tell if our intuitions come from the “aboriginal Self” and are, therefore, true? We cannot. Emerson says we must have the self-trust to believe that they do and follow them as if they do. If, indeed, they are true, eventually everyone will accept them, and they will be “rendered back to us” as “the universal sense.”

Daguerrotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daguerrotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Until the rest of the world accepts our beliefs, however, we will be out of step; we will be nonconformists. Emerson tells us not to worry. The essence of self-reliance is resistance to conformity. Indeed, nonconformity is a sign of strength: “Whoso would be a man,” he writes, “must be a nonconformist.” In a sense “Self-Reliance” can be seen as a pep talk designed to strengthen our resolve to stand up to society’s efforts to make us conform. “Nothing,” Emerson thunders, “is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” This is individualism in the extreme.

While “Self-Reliance” deals extensively with theological matters, we cannot overlook its political significance. It appeared in 1841, just four years after President Andrew Jackson left office. In the election of 1828 Jackson forged an alliance among the woodsmen and farmers of the western frontier and the laborers of eastern cities. (See the America in Class® lesson“The Expansion of Democracy during the Jacksonian Era.”) Emerson opposed the Jacksonians over specific policies, chiefly their defense of slavery and their support for the expulsion of Indians from their territories. But he objected to them on broader grounds as well. Many people like Emerson, who despite his noncomformist thought still held many of the political views of the old New England elite from which he sprang, feared that the rise of the Jacksonian electorate would turn American democracy into mob rule. In fact, at one point in “Self-Reliance” he proclaims “now we are a mob.” When you see the word “mob” here, do not picture a large, threatening crowd. Instead, think of what we today would call mass society, a society whose culture and politics are shaped not by the tastes and opinions of a small, narrow elite but rather by those of a broad, diverse population.

Emerson opposed mass-party politics because it was based on nothing more than numbers and majority rule, and he was hostile to mass culture because it was based on manufactured entertainments. Both, he believed, distracted people from the real questions of spiritual health and social justice. Like some critics today, he believed that mass society breeds intellectual mediocrity and conformity. He argued that it produces soft, weak men and women, more prone to whine and whimper than to embrace great challenges. Emerson took as his mission the task of lifting people out of the mass and turning them into robust, sturdy individuals who could face life with confidence. While he held out the possibility of such transcendence to all Americans, he knew that not all would respond. He assured those who did that they would achieve greatness and become “guides, redeemers, and benefactors” whose personal transformations and leadership would rescue democracy. Thus if “Self-Reliance” is a pep talk in support for nonconformists, it is also a manual on how to live for those who seek to be individuals in a mass society.

Describing “Self-Reliance” as a pep talk and a manual re-enforces the way most people have read the essay, as a work of affirmation and uplift, and there is much that is affirmative and uplifting in it. Yet a careful reading also reveals a darker side to Emerson’s self-reliance. His uncompromising embrace of nonconformity and intellectual integrity can breed a chilly arrogance, a lack of compassion, and a lonely isolation. That is why one critic has called Emerson’s work “deeply unconsoling.”1 In this lesson we explore this side of Emerson along with his bracing optimism.

A word about our presentation. Because readers can take “Self-Reliance” as an advice manual for living and because Emerson was above all a teacher, we found it engaging to cast him not as Ralph Waldo Emerson, a nineteenth-century philosopher, but as Dr. Ralph, a twenty-first-century self-help guru. In the end we ask if you would embrace his approach to life and sign up for his tweets.( pp. 65-67 in Lawrence Buell’s Emerson).

 Small Group Discussion:

Part B. Close Reading
  • Do Now: Activity 1: In pairs, share one idea by Emerson based on pages 1-11 that you strongly agree and one that you disagree. Find Emerson’s reasons for his arguments and then make connections with today’s world and use evidence from current events to argue against his view point.
  • Guided Practice-Activity 2: Share in small groups the “Text Analysis” notes based on the 1st paragraph. Share out in class.
  • Independent practice-Activity 3: Discuss notes from pages 12-15. In each small group, raise 2-3 questions ( based on the excerpt) you would like to discuss in the class.
Close reading questions based on para. 1:
  1. What is important about the verses written by the painter in sentence 1
  2. From evidence in this paragraph, what do you think Emerson means by “original”?
  3. In sentences 2 and 3 how does Emerson suggest we should read an “original” work?
  4. In telling us how to read an original work, what do you think Emerson is telling us about reading his work?
  5. How does Emerson define genius?
  6. Considering this definition of genius, what does Emerson mean when he says that “the inmost in due time becomes the outmost”?
  7. Why, according to Emerson, do we value Moses, Plato, and Milton?
  8. Thus far Emerson has said that we should seek truth by looking into our own hearts and that we, like such great thinkers as Moses, Plato, and Milton, should ignore what we find in books and in the learning of the past. What implications does his advice hold for education?
  9. Why then should we bother to study “great works of art” or even “Self-Reliance” for that matter?
  10. Based on your reading of paragraph 1, how does Emerson define individualism? Support your answer with reference to specific sentences.

End of the lesson assessment: Pose questions on a poster paper based on pages 12-15 of ” Self Reliance”.

Homework: Read and annotate pages 16-20. Ask 2-3 questions and bring them to the class for discussion. Analyze paragraph 34 ( handout) by responding to the specific questions.


Part C

Objectives: Students will be able to evaluate each other’s responses to the student-generated questions.

Do now: Post questions based on pages 11-15, 16-21 on a poster paper. Add your initial to each question.

Mini Lesson with Guided Practice

  • Share in pairs your responses based on paragraphs 1 & 34.
  • Whole class discussion to check understanding.

Independent Practice:

Select 5 from the posted questions and discuss in small groups. Be sure not to use your own questions.

Share out with the whole class your responses. Question ” owners” comment on and give a grade( evaluate) to the group responses.

Questions based on Paragraph 34 and pages 15-20

  1. What, according to Emerson, is wrong with the “social state” of America in 1841?
  2. Given the political context in which he wrote “Self-Reliance,” why might Emerson think that American society was no longer capable of producing “great and perfect persons”?
  3. What is Emerson’s solution for America’s problem, and how does that solution illuminate what he is trying to do in “Self-Reliance”?

Homework: Respond to questions based on para. 35 & 36; In a well organized essay explain what society would be like if everyone embraced Emerson’s idea of self-reliance. Your analysis should focus on Emerson’s attitudes toward law, the family, and education. Be sure to use specific examples from the text to support your argument.


Part D

  1. Paragraph 35 (excerpt): What does Emerson mean by “miscarry”? What context clues help us discover that meaning?
  2. What is the relationship between the young men who miscarry and the young merchants who fail in paragraph 35 and the “timorous, desponding whimperers” of paragraph 34?
  3. According to Emerson, how does an “un-self-reliant” person respond to failure?
  4. Emerson structures this paragraph as a comparison between a “city doll” and a “sturdy lad.” With reference to paragraph 34 what does the “sturdy lad” represent?
  5. What are the connotations of “city doll”?
  6. Compare a “city doll” with a “sturdy lad.”
  7. What point does Emerson make with this comparison?
  8. What do you notice about the progression of the jobs Emerson assigns to his “sturdy lad”?
  9. We have seen that Emerson hopes to raise above the mob people who will themselves be “great and perfect persons” and restore America’s ability to produce such people. What does the progression of jobs he assigns to the “sturdy lad” suggest about the roles these people will play in American society?
  10. Why does Emerson think that “a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men”?

Transfer:  What would be a society like if everyone embraced Emerson’s idea of self-reliance?

Homework:  In a well organized essay explain what society would be like if everyone embraced Emerson’s idea of self-reliance. Your analysis should focus on Emerson’s attitudes toward law, the family, and education. Be sure to use specific examples from the text to support your argument.


Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” Review

Objectives: Students will be able to argue whether Emerson’s ideal of self reliance has been adhered to in the American society.

Aim: What would the society be like if everyone embraced Emerson’s idea of self-reliance?

Do Now: Share responses in pairs your responses to questions based on para. 35 & 36.

Share in class to check understanding.

Mini Lesson with Guided Practice

Discuss the following guidelines in pairs. Peer review outlines.

The essay structure-

Introduction: Introduce the topic and define it. Briefly contextualize the topic and introduce the thesis.

Body Paragraph:

A. How does Emerson  discuss the idea of self-reliance in education? ( quotation, interpretation and making connection to current situations in education-description of the situations and why it has failed or succeeded and how the results support or go against Emerson’s ideas about education).

B. How does Emerson  discuss the idea of self-reliance relating to law? ( quotation, interpretation and making connection to current situations in law-description of the situations and why it has failed or succeeded and how the results support or go against Emerson’s ideas about education).

C. How does Emerson  discuss the idea of self-reliance relating to the family? ( quotation, interpretation and making connection to current situations in relation to the family-description of the situations and why it has failed or succeeded and how the results support or go against Emerson’s ideas about education).


Independent Practice

Use the new ideas generated from our discussion and complete the essay.

Homework: Read chapter 1 “Economy” in Warden by Thoreau.

Essay Rubric

Criteria/Grades A (90-100) B (80-89) C (70-79) D ( 65-69) F (64-)
Content: demonstrate understanding of Emerson’s ideas of self-reliance and the application of it in law, education and family Thorough and insightful Thorough and clear Some and inconsistent implicit and confused minimum
Analysis: Select & interpret the appropriate quotations that reflect Emerson’s ideas Appropriate, precise and insightful Relevant and clear Some relevancy but inconsistent Some but confusing minimum
Thesis: state the writer’s positionality of Emerson’s ideas on today’s society Clear, logical and  insightful Clear and logical suggestive vague none
Evidence: use references from the current events to argue for or against a claim Relevant,  precise and analytical Appropriate and relevant with some analysis Connections are implicit Some evidence but with minimum analysis none
Opposing Views: acknowledge the alternative views and supporting reasons Clear and reasonable Clear  and with some explanations implicit vague none
Refutation: use evidence from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” or other credible sources to support your rebuttal Strong, logical and insightful Logical and reasonable Implicit without development vague none
Language: Follow conventions Precise and well-thought of Well-thought of Some errors Many errors Errors that hinder understanding
Structure: use logical and coherent argument; make your thesis evolve Coherent and logical that demonstrates development Coherent  and shows  thesis development Some coherence inconsistent confusing