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The main purpose of is to recover for the present generation the direct and immediate relationship with the world that our ancestors had. "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?," Emerson asks, with emphasis on the word "also." He goes on to inquire, "Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?" He had already discussed the poetry of tradition in his English lecture series. is an inquiry into the conditions necessary for a modern literature of insight.

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In December 1839 Emerson gave two lectures on literature as part of a series called "The Present Age," much of the material of which went into a paper called "Thoughts on Modern Literature," published in the in October 1840 and reprinted in (1893). Here Emerson lists, in order of importance, three classes of literature. "The highest class of books are those which express the moral element; the next, works of imagination; and the next, works of science." Though he calls "the first literary genius of the world, the highest in whom the moral is not the predominating element," he insists that 's work "leans on the Bible: his poetry supposes it." By contrast, "the Prophets do not imply the existence of or ." is secondary, the prophets of the Bible are primary. These views compensate and balance those in the Divinity School address. Indeed seems to have been intended by Emerson as a sort of corrective of some of his early views and various misinterpretations of them. One of the best things in "Thoughts on Modern Literature" is a long and very specific treatment of the problem of subjectivity. Defending the subjectivism of the age, Emerson is at great pains to distinguish true subjectivism (the right of each single soul, each subject "I" to "sit in judgment on history and literature, and to summon all facts and parties before its tribunal") from narrow-minded insistence on one's own personality or mere "intellectual selfishness." "A man may say , and never refer to himself as an individual," says Emerson in a phrase that prefigures his concept of the representative poet.

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Books of course are an important part of "The American Scholar," and Emerson gives a description of what he calls "the theory of books." "The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him--life; it went out from him--truth." But once the book is written, says Emerson, there "arises a grave mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation,--the act of thought,--is instantly transferred to the record." The book is now regarded as perfect, untouchable, unimprovable, and what might have been a guide becomes a tyrant, leading the young people in libraries to read and admire the books of others when they would be better off writing their own. By overvaluing the finished book and underrating the act of book writing, we become mere bookworms, a book-learned class who value books as such. "Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees." "The American Scholar" makes a major protest against what has called the burden of the past and what Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. Books "are for nothing but to inspire," Emerson declares. "I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system." Books must not be overestimated. They can too easily intimidate us and make us forget that "the one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul." Another way to keep the great work of past writers in proper perspective is to read actively and not passively. "There is then creative reading, as well as creative writing." The most valuable part of the text may be what the reader brings to it. "When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion." Emerson is set against any suggestion that we should worship the great books of the past. We can learn from them, of course, but "the man has never lived that can feed us ever." The human spirit, fluid and restless and charged with heat and energy, will always be breaking out with new experiences, and Emerson draws on personal observation from his Italian trip of 1833 to make a bold metaphor of the human mind as "one central fire which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples."

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Emerson calls 's work the bible of educated people, claiming that it is "impossible to think, on certain levels, except through him." Swedenborg saw, and stands for, the interconnectedness of human beings and nature. and Goethe exemplify and stand for the power to express, to convert life into life-giving words. Emerson ends each essay with a review of the shortcomings of the subject. is too literary, not enough the prophet. Swedenborg is over-whelmed by a private and rigid symbolism his reader cannot fully share. The effect of these negative conclusions is to prevent the reader from idolizing or enthroning , Swedenborg, or any other great person. The great ones are of interest to us only because each has something to teach us, and it is the present reader, the student, and not the great writer or teacher whom Emerson really cares about. Each great representative figure "must be related to us, and our life receive from him some promise of explanation." So the praise of Goethe, whom Emerson seems to have admired above all writers, is for such things as the creation of Mephistopheles in (1808-1832). In order to make the devil real, Goethe "stripped him of mythologic gear, of horns, cloven foot, harpoon tail, brimstone and blue-fire, and instead of looking in books and pictures, looked for him in his own mind, in every shade of coldness, selfishness, and unbelief that, in crowd or in solitude, darkens over the human thought." Thus Goethe reimagines Mephistopheles: "He shall be real; he shall be modern; he shall be European; he shall dress like a gentleman." The result, says Emerson, is that Goethe "flung into literature, in his Mephistopheles, the first organic figure that has been added for some ages, and which will remain as long as the Prometheus."

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Emerson spent the rest of his life centered in Concord, with another trip to England in 1847-1848, one to California in 1871, and a final trip to Egypt in 1872. Each winter he would travel through New England and the East Coast, and as far west as there were cities on his annual lecture tour, for which he was his own booking agent, advertiser, and arranger. The rest of the year he spent in Concord, which soon became one of the intellectual centers of the country, a sort of American Weimar. The group around Emerson, usually called the Transcendentalists, were defined in one way by Emerson's 1838 Divinity School address, which offended orthodox Unitarians by locating religious authority in the religious nature of human beings, rather than in the Bible or the person of Christ. The , a new magazine founded by the group and edited first by , showed the group's interest in the literature of Idealism. In religion, in philosophy, and in literature, the group around Emerson was liberal, learned, forward-looking and reform-minded. The Emersonian "movement" (it was Emerson who said there are always two parties in society, the Establishment and the Movement) or "the newness" was eventually overshadowed by the Civil War, the coming of industrialism, and the rise of realism. But in the late 1830s, 1840s, and into the 1850s, Emerson was at the center of much that was new, exciting, and vital in American cultural life.

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(1850), a book made up of lectures first given in 1845 on , Swedenborg, Montaigne, , Napoleon, and Goethe, is the fullest account of Emerson's biographical approach to literature. This subject is not new with him. It goes back at least to his early lecture on , but it now has a new emphasis. Just as he had once claimed that there is properly no history, only biography, so comes close to saying there is properly no literature, there are only literary persons. "There must be a man behind the book," he says of Goethe. "It makes a great difference to the force of any sentence whether there be a man behind it or no." Emerson's representative figures are his Plutarchan heroes. The book is a pantheon of heroes, chosen not from among warriors (except for Napoleon), but from among thinkers and writers, who are of use to us because they represent or symbolize qualities that lie in us, too. They are essays in symbolic literary biography. Assuming that language is representative, that is, symbolic, Emerson says that "Behmen and Swedenborg saw that things were representative." Then, moving, not toward circular idealism, but toward biography, he states: "Men also are representative: first of things, and secondly, of ideas." Emerson identifies in each of his figures some permanent quality of the human mind. He is also a prestructuralist in that he believes that the world people make and inhabit is determined partly or even largely by the structure of the human mind. "Our colossal theologies of Judaism, Christism, Buddhism, Mahometism are the necessary and structural action of the human mind." It follows from this that our reading is a process of recognizing our own thoughts, or capabilities for thought and imagination, in the work and lives of others. Emerson sums this up concisely. "The possibility of interpretation lies in the identity of the observer with the observed." The democratic aesthetic also follows from this. "As to what we call the masses, and common men,--there are no common men. All men are at last of a size; and true art is only possible on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere."