Last Sunday’s essay in the New York Times Magazine by Benjamin Anastas bordered on the sacrilegious. Anastas disparaged a sacred text of American individualism, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance,” calling it “high-flown pap” and “the most pernicious piece of literature in the American canon.” Anastas criticized it on many grounds, including its author’s arrogance, but most critically for endorsing, perpetuating, and perhaps being responsible for American self-absorption. He could have gone farther.
It is striking that this essay has been for so long a feature of American high school and college reading lists, since it forcefully, if biliously, presents a harshly individualistic version of American culture.
Only What Rejoices Me
Emerson argues against conformism, going along with the crowd, submerging one’s identity. Americans applaud such sentiments. But he goes on to argue for an almost hermit-like, Ayn Rand-ish selfishness: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature,” he wrote. “I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. . . . I will do strongly . . . whatever only rejoices me, and the heart appoints.” Emerson rejected any suggestion that the individual “make other’s conditions [his] own” or submit to any group.
That included submission to or even much concern for family. “Why should we assume [responsibility for] the faults of our friend, or wife, or father, or child, because they sit around our hearth, or are said to have the same blood?”
Emerson’s protege, Henry David Thoreau, followed in this vein. Walden (1854), another part of the American canon, is celebrated as a proto-environmentalist memoir, but seems at least as much a declaration that one Thoreau alone was better than others together. “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools. . . . Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf. . . . Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are . . . hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (unless Thoreau needed to borrow a comfort; his cabin was near Emerson’s and his mother’s homes).
Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849) is a landmark reference in the Ghandian-King tradition. But it appears that Thoreau was willing to go to jail to defend his moral and intellectual superiority, not to sacrifice for the unfortunate, nor to fight for social justice. In the book, Thoreau mocks the man who might care about helping widows and orphans and goes on to say, “It is not a man’s duty . . . to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong,” but just to “wash his hands of it.” Being true to oneself, as Emerson would agree, is all that matters.
Many an American student has dutifully labored through these texts without absorbing the radical individualism they entail. Just as well, for these views do not really reflect America’s complex individualism. American culture is a full-blown product of western individualism but combines it with a commitment to voluntary community. Emerson and Thoreau’s antecedents in New England worked to forge strong communal ties. In his famous 1630 speech to Puritans sailing toward Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop preached, “We must be knit together in this work as one man . . . [W]e must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes . . . our community as members of the same body.”
Early Americans struggled to resolve the tension between hyper-individualism and this sort of religious hyper-communalism. In the end, they developed a culture of voluntarism, one in which a person best reaches his or her personal ends together with others in freely chosen fellowship, often manifested in our grass-roots churches, associations, and clubs. (For more on this, see Chapter 4 of Made in America.)
To take the Emersonian message undiluted is to accept a libertarian and solipsistc individualism that is neither faithful to American history nor a route to a just society.
Michael Kimmel noted, in an email, that Emerson and Thoreau’s stance against community was also a quite “gendered” claim of masculine independence, the myth of the “Self-Made Man.”
Update (Nov. 6, 2015)
In the October 19, 2015, issue of The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz wrote a scathing indictment of Thoreau (“Pond Scum”), which in turn drew scathing attacks across the web and in The New Yorker letters-to-the editor page, November 9.