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Emerson’s The American Scholar, Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience, Douglass’ Narrative of the Life‎ Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Nov 8th, 2021


The importance of literature in our lives is impossible to exaggerate, partly because it represents the accumulated knowledge of the best minds of mankind through the whole course of human history, partly because it is the manifestation of knowledge every individual is able to obtain, to master and to apply further in his or her life. One can say that the literary heritage of the humanity is the potential limit of knowledge one can generate at a definite moment without creating something of his or her own and without enriching it. Knowledge is the most precious treasure in a human life, which more than that gives wisdom and guidelines for future improvement and initiates contribution to the overall wisdom of eternity. This is what every individual who has doubts or considerations on the issue of whether he or she should read or not and what reading may give to a person.

It is clear that reading should not be conducted in an unorganized way – this activity may only pollute the human mind and give no structured knowledge to the reader, which is likely to eliminate the motivation and generate disappointment in reading in general. It is desirable that every person should identify for him- or herself what areas are interesting for them and focus their attention on these particular materials.

But still, there is always such a notion as general knowledge – the materials that give the enrichment to the human soul, that contribute to his understanding of society, the surrounding world, spirituality, morale and empowerment. These materials may be met in the whole scope of literature produced within dozens of centuries unexpectedly and open up the boundless horizon of activities, discoveries and inferences the reader may have not even supposed to reach. In order to choose the right path of cognition in the literary sphere it is always desirable to choose certain patterns, some authorities on whose opinion the individual may rely in the choice of literature.

Identifying these authorities is purely individual, as every person will have a subjective opinion on this issue. Some people turn to parents, others to friends, tutors or mass media idols. However, one should not forget about such an option as turning to literary giants who themselves achieved a tremendous success in the literary sphere and share their experience on where they took the source of their inspiration and wisdom, on who they relied and what they learned from the experience of the past.

The works to be discussed in the present paper are the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson “The American Scholar”, Henry David Thoreau “Walden and Civil Disobedience” and Frederick Douglass “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass: an American slave‎”. These authors have made an enormous contribution to the development of American literature on the whole, being at the same time the propagators of purity of literature free from politicizing or any other impact of tendencies, people and events that do not have any connection with the greatness of the human mind’s expression. What is more particular about these books is that the authors include their guidance of reading, their recommendations on what works a reader should pay attention to in order to make another step forward in his or her moral, spiritual and intellectual development. They justify their opinion with the inferences they personally made from these authors’ books in their time to emphasize the importance of thematic reading, thus giving guidance for those who are lost in the enormous flow of unsorted literature and cannot find their way of mastering knowledge. They also include their personal importance they assign to these books, making the major emphasis on personal experience, thus becoming entitled to give advice on the point. So, the major sense of the present work is to find out why reading is so important, what these authors advice their readers to read and why the mentioned authors consider this literature important not only in their lives but for the whole humanity.

Frederick Douglass

Starting the present analysis from the book of Frederick Douglass “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass: an American slave‎”, it is first of all necessary to say a few words about the book itself and its significance in the whole course of American literature. Frederick Douglass was a foreground representative of the Abolitionist party, being used for a more picturesque representation of the Abolitionist needs and agenda, being more able to convince the public in the necessity of Abolition of slavery. He spoke in an expressive way and managed to produce the necessary effect on the public. However, he was considered unable to write in a correct literary language – as an African American person he faced this discrimination even after being freed from slavery. Thus, the narrative was a powerful act of resistance to the prejudice of the hypocritical American society who wanted to free their slaves but were still unwilling to give them the whole set of freedoms, including the freedom of expression.

The main focus in this book relevant for the present discussion should be made on chapters 6 and 7 where the author describes the way he was taught to read and what impact in his life this fact produced. Before being able to read, the author did not feel the power reading had and did not know the possible impact it could make on his life. However, after hearing what his master said about reading, Douglass gradually came to understanding the fact that reading would matter much to him. The words of Mr.Auld pertaining to the fact that his wife started to teach a slave reading, bear a highly symbolic sense even for the contemporary generation of people making the first steps on the way of their intellectual evolution and stresses the power reading may give to a thinking human being:

“Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy” (Douglass, 2008, p. 33).

By this passage the author clearly shows, though on a practical example, the symbolism of an uneducated person being a slave. As soon as the person knows how to read, he will ever be contented with the level of his intellectual development and will strive for more. As it happened in case with Frederick Douglass, as one will see further, reading changed his life and made him aspire for things unbelievable and unconceivable for a slave.

In further passages the author passionately describes the tiniest opportunity he used to obtain a smallest part of knowledge, how he fed poor little boys in the streets to ask them to teach him some more reading, and how irrepressibly he strove towards self-improvement. And indeed, at that moment of time he became obsessed by the idea of his being a slave for his whole life, which disturbed him and caused strong inner irritation and discontent. His masters turned out to be right when saying that a thinking, reading slave would never be able to be a good slave who was capable of only fulfilling the established tasks.

At that moment the author came across the book of Sheridan “The Columbian Orator” that produced a powerful effect on his life, perception and future. The main fragments that impressed the author were the talk between the master and the slave who managed to prove to the former that slavery was an evil, justifying the reasons for three escapes of his, and the speech devoted to the role of church in the justification of slavery. This was a turning point in the life of Douglass – then he told the reader about the power of reading he felt and the importance of the book he first read. The impression was mostly built on the fact that the slave, the hero of the book, managed to win his freedom by appealing to the common reason of his master and managed to achieve the truth. For Douglass reading also became his pursuit of truth – he hoped that with the help of reading every person would search for his or her own truth and would choose the book that would have major influence on their life. As it follows in the narrative, reading that book about unrestrained freedom and power of wisdom that may defeat any unfairness the author began his fight for freedom and finally achieved what he so passionately desired. This is why reading is so important for Frederick Douglass and this is why he mentions the book that had such decisive importance in his life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The address of Ralph Waldo Emerson made in 1837 titled “The American Scholar” pertains to the same topic – the author investigates the reasons for people to read, the knowledge they should look for in the books and how they should choose their books. This address is especially important in the context of the present discussion because of its main emphasis on reading and literature on the whole in the intellectual development of an individual and the society in general. The author states that scientists are people who have nothing but the treasure of their knowledge; this is why the contenders who want to achieve success in the scientific area have to accumulate their experience, wisdom and knowledge from different sources. The author himself indicates the following sources: nature, the experience of the past, and action.

When speaking about the experience of the past, Emerson diminishes the role of Cicero, Locke and Bacon stating that their ideas are not mature enough to be taken as an obligatory source of wisdom or knowledge. He states the main reason for these authors’ being so popular is the bureaucracy of the high education system that is slow to evolve and keep up to date with the newest literary tendencies. At the same time the author distinguishes some “best books” that “impress us with the conviction, that one nature wrote and the same reads” including the works of Chaucer, Marvell and Dryden in the list (Emerson, 1837).

In his considerations Emerson also goes beyond the scope of classic knowledge given by literary works; he includes the striving to resemble the forefathers of literature, the compliance with their great and thoughtful traditions, and the discontent with the present state of literature and social life that makes a certain impact on the manner and strength of expression. He admires such authors as Goldsmith, Cowper, Goethe, Wordsworth, Carlyle and others, assessing their works in a critical way and admitting that the style of writing they have is completely different; however, he cannot help stating that all of them gave inspiration to forthcoming generations of creators, thus accepting their unique role in the contemporary literary process.

“The drop is a small ocean. A man is related to all nature. This perception of the worth of the vulgar is fruitful in discoveries. Goethe, in this very thing the most modern of the moderns, has shown us, as none ever did, the genius of the ancients” (Emerson, 1837).

Emerson’s way of appreciation of one author is particularly impressive – the author appraises the activity and the literary heritage of Emanuel Swedenborg, paying tribute to the power of his expression, the wisdom of his thought and the agility of his beliefs and character. The appreciation of Emerson goes beyond all measures; however, Emerson clearly explains why he would put this author on the highest place and why knowing him should be a must for every intellectually developed or developing personality.

“The most imaginative of men, yet writing with the precision of a mathematician, he endeavored to engraft a purely philosophical Ethics on the popular Christianity of his time. Such an attempt, of course, must have difficulty, which no genius could surmount. But he saw and showed the connection between nature and the affections of the soul” (Emerson, 1837).

Emerson is highly concentrated on inspiration, thus being more similar in his views to the way Douglass treats literature – as a source of inspiration. However, their difference o perception of reading lies within the scope of influence it had on their life. It goes without saying that Douglass perceives one book, “The Columbian Orator”, as a guideline in his lie and freedom, while Emerson appreciates pure inspiration and focuses on a larger set of writers.

Henry David Thoreau

Proceeding to the analysis of Henry David Thoreau, his “Reading” chapter, it is clear that Thoreau is of a bit other opinion about the purpose of reading. This famous representative of Transcendentalism sees the initial aim of reading in being kept up-to-date about the destiny of his country and fellowmen, in appreciating people who whose genius is not recognized in the time when they write, with a vague perspective of being recognized after death. Thoreau speaks about reading as dealing with truth and the way to acquire immortality, as compared to other mortal activities. He himself states that the environment he has chosen, living in the wilderness, is highly positive and favorable for reading, which suits him much. Thoreau is very critical towards reading and thinks that some books are useless, compared to other writings that enrich our soul and mind – comparing the book by Homer he could not get to because of being busy with building the house, he tells about two plain books he read and says that he himself was ashamed of doing that. This fact indicates his being very picky and selective about reading, which he advises to other people as well. The writer sees the problem of contemporary people in following blindly the choice of literature offered by so-called specialists, while in reality this choice remains highly doubtable.

“If we will read newspapers, why not skip the gossip of Boston and take the best newspaper in the world at once? – not be sucking the pap of “neutral family” papers, or browsing “Olive-Branches” here in New England. Let the reports of all the learned societies come to us, and we will see if they know any thing. Why should we leave it to Harper & Brothers and Redding & Co, to select our reading?” (Thoreau, 2005, p. 89).

Thus, drawing a conclusion from the works being considered in the present research, it is necessary to emphasize the role they attribute to reading as the main source of creativity, agility of thought and mind, the incentive to progress and innovation as well as the main source of wisdom, development and improvement. Every individual should be actively engaged in reading; however, it is important to be able to independently sort out the necessary set of literature to be studied – this is the main precondition of intellectual development and enhancement.


All three writers have a very specific attitude to reading as it had a great influence on their life and made them what they have eventually become. They pay tribute to selected authors and recommend them with a fair justification of their choice; however, they do not diminish the importance of reading on the whole, only calling people not to follow others’ preferences and to make their independent choice for themselves. Douglass cherishes reading as a decisive point in his life and names one book that played the major role in his life. This point is supported by Emerson as well – but Emerson judges more widely about a respectable literary choice and attributes the main function of inspiration to literature; Thoreau speculates on the essence of reading on the whole and worships books as a storage of wisdom, immortality and truth.


Douglass, F. (2008). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. READ BOOKS, 144 pp.

Emerson, R.W. (1837). . Web.

Thoreau, H.D., and Levin, J. (2005). Walden and Civil Disobedience. Spark Educational Publishing, 315 pp.

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