POETRY/SHORT STORIES: Ralph Waldo Emerson “On America”

On another wintery day in America, while schools and public buildings are closed for the second nor-easter of this 2018 March week, we at the Rocklandpost decided to publish an excerpt from a mid to late 19th century classic written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former journalist turned beloved American writer and poet.



America, for Emerson, was the wave of the future. It follows that in his best and worst of times, when corrupt government, slavery and civil war were almost capsized in American Democracy, he would be enraged at the distance between reality and dream. Thus he found cause to love his ideal of America while hating the political life of the real America he inhabited. Here he swings between the magnetic poles of those feelings.


…We only say, Let us live in America, too thankful for our want of feudal institutions. Our houses and towns are like mosses and lichens, so slightly and new; but youth is a fault of which we shall daily mend. This land too is as old as the Flood and wants no ornament or privilege which nature could bestow. Here stars, here woods, here hills, here animals, here men abound, and the vast tendencies concur of a new order. If one the men are employed in conspiring with the designs of the Spirit who led us hither and is leading us still, we shall quickly enough advance out of all hearing of others’ censures, out of all regrets of our own, into a new and more excellent social state than history has recorded.

The apple is our national fruit. In October, the country is covered with its ornamental harvests. The American sun paints itself in these glowing balls amid the green leaves, the social fruit, in which Nature has deposited every possible flavor; whole zones and climates she has concentrated into apples.

I am afraid you do not understand values. Look over the fence at the farmer who stands there. He makes every cloud in the sky, and every beam of the sun, serve him. His trees are full of brandy. He saves every drop of sap, as if it were wine. A few years ago those trees were whipstocks. Now, everyone of them is worth a hundred dollars. Observe their form; not a branch nor a twig is to spare. They look as if they were arms and fingers, holding out to you balls of fire and gold. One tree yields the rent of an acre of land.

There is no event but sprung somewhere from the soul of man; and therefore there is none but the soul of man can interpret. Every presentiment of the mind is executed somewhere in a gigantic fact. What else is Greece, Rome, England, France, St. Helena? What else are churches, literatures, and empires? The new man must feel that he is new, and has not come into the world mortgaged to the opinions and usages of Europe, and Asia, and Egypt.

The sense of spiritual independence is like the lovely varnish of the dew, whereby the old, hard, peaked earth and its old self-same productions are made new every morning, and shining with the last touch of the artist’s hand. A false humility, a complaisance to reigning schools or to the wisdom of antiquity, must not defraud me of supreme possession of this hour. If any person have less love of liberty and less jealous to guard his integrity, shall he therefore dictate to you and me?…Now the were are here we will put out own interpretation on things, and our own things for interpretation.

All our political disasters grow as logically out of our attempts in the past to do without justice, as the sinking of some part of your house comes of defect in the foundation. One thing is plain; a certain personal virtue is essential to freedom; and it begins to be doubtful whether our corruption in this country has not gone a little over the mark of safety, so that when canvassed we shall be found to be made of a majority of reckless self-seekers. The divine knowledge has ebbed out of us and we do not know enough to be free.

We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materalism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer; then in the Middle Age; then Calvinism. Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundation of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi, and are as swiftly passing away. Our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boats and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.

In America the geography is sublime, but the men are not: the inventions are excellent, but the inventors one is sometimes ashamed of. The agencies by which event so grand as the opening of California, of Texas, of Oregon, and the junction of the two oceans, are effected, are paltry- coarse selfishness, fraud and conspiracy; and most of the great results of history are brought about by discreditable means.

Concord Hymn

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.


The foe long since in silence slept;

Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;

And Time the ruined bridge has swept

Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.


On this green bank, by this soft stream,

We set today a votive stone;

That memory may their deed redeem,

When, like our sires, our sons are gone.


Spirit, that made those spirits dare

To die, and leave their children free,

Bid Time and Nature gently spare

The shaft we raise to them and thee.


There, I thought, in America, lies nature sleeping, overgrowing, almost conscious, too much by half for man in the picture, and so giving a certain tristesse, like the rank vegetation of swamps and forest seen at night, steeped in dews and rains, which it loves; and on it man seems not able to make much impression. There, in that great sloven continent, in high Alleghany pastures, in the sea-wide sky-skirted prairie, still sleeps and murmurs and hides the great mother…

Let us honestly state the facts. Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons , but perceivers of the terror of life and have manned themselves to face it.

The spirit of our American radicalism is destructive and aimless; it is not loving; it has no ulterior and divine ends, but is destructive only out of hatred and selfishness. On the other side, the conservative party, composed of the most moderate, able and cultivated part of the population, is timid, and merely defensive of property. It vindicates no right, it aspires to no real good, it brands no crime, it proposes no generous policy; it does not build, nor write, nor cherish the arts, nor forster religion, nor establish schools, nor encourage science, nor emancipate the slave, nor befriend the poor, or the Indian, or the immigrant. From neither party, when in power, has the world any benefit to expect in science, art, or humanity, at all commensurate with the resources of the nation.

You who quarrel with the arrangements of society, and are willing to embroil all, and risk the indisputable good that exists, for the chance of better, live, move, and have your being in this, and your deeds contradict your words every day. For as you cannot hump from the ground without using the resistance of the ground, nor put out the boat to sea without shoving from the shore, nor attain liberty without rejecting obligation, so you are under the necessity of using the actual order of thing, in order to disuse it,; to live by it, whilst you wish to take away its life.

The past has baked your loaf, and in the strength you would break up the over. But you are betrayed by your own nature. You also are conservatives. However men please to style themselves, I see no other than a Conservative party. You are not only identical with us in your needs, but also in your methods and aims. You quarrel with my conservatism, but it is build up of your own; it will have a new beginning, but the same course and end, the same trials, the same passions; among the lovers of the new I observe that there is a jealous of the newest, and that the seceder from the seceder is as darnable as the pope himself…

last paragraph withheld for another day.


-excerpt taken from ‘Emerson: Selections from ‘Self-Reliance, Friendship, Compensation, and other great writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson’, page 45.




Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.

Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature“. Following this work, he gave a speech entitled “The American Scholar” in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. considered to be America’s “intellectual Declaration of Independence”.[3]

-from wikipedia


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