Summary and Analysis of The American Scholar
Emerson opens "The American Scholar" with greetings to the college president and members of the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College. Pointing out the differences between this gathering and the athletic and dramatic contests of ancient Greece, the poetry contests of the Middle Ages, and the scientific academies of nineteenth-century Europe, he voices a theme that draws the entire essay together: the notion of an independent American intelligentsia that will no longer depend for authority on its European past. He sounds what one critic contends is "the first clarion of an American literary renaissance," a call for Americans to seek their creative inspirations using America as their source, much like Walt Whitman would do in Leaves of Grass eighteen years later. In the second paragraph, Emerson announces his theme as "The American Scholar" not a particular individual but an abstract ideal.
The remaining five paragraphs relate an allegory that underlies the discussion to follow. According to an ancient fable, there was once only "One Man," who then was divided into many men so that society could work more efficiently. Ideally, society labors together — each person doing his or her task — so that it can function properly. However, society has now subdivided to so great an extent that it no longer serves the good of its citizens. And the scholar, being a part of society, has degenerated also. Formerly a "Man Thinking," the scholar is now "a mere thinker," a problem that Emerson hopes to correct successfully by re-familiarizing his audience with how the true scholar is educated and what the duties of this scholar are.