Cultural Context

Even before Emerson delivered his famous "American Scholar" address in 1837, American culture and the capacity of American thinkers to come to their own conclusions had been defended. Lawyer and congressman Charles J. Ingersoll had delivered his "Discourse Concerning the Influence of America on the Mind" before the American Philosophical Society in 1823. Dr. William Ellery Channing had, in his Remarks on American Literature (published in 1830), urged the creation of a "native literature" that would be something other and better than a "repetition of the old world." Simultaneously with the ascent of Jacksonian democracy, a vigorous popular culture thrived, based upon our national experience and identity. This culture existed side by side with more complex forms of expression — Transcendentalism, for example, and aesthetic Romanticism, in the work of such artists as Washington Allston and the Hudson River School — that drew openly on foreign thought and trends.

During the period between about 1825 and the Civil War, there was a proliferation of institutions designed to enrich the average person and to promote self-culture. The lyceum (an organization providing public lectures, concerts, and other entertainment) was established in America in 1826, and spread quickly. The social library (a partnership of individuals each contributing money toward the maintenance of a book collection which each had the right to use) multiplied to promote the "general diffusion of knowledge," as worded in the by-laws of one Massachusetts social library. The public library movement gained momentum mid-century, providing opportunities for reading to many who had not had easy access to book collections. Museums were established and exhibitions set up for the edification of the middle class. The Smithsonian Institution was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1846, through the bequest of James Smithson, who, at his death in 1829, left $500,000 to the United States for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The Crystal Palace Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations was held in New York City in 1853. Aesthetically conceived parks and public spaces were designed by landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted, who undertook the design of New York's Central Park in 1857.

Mass entertainment of many kinds flourished. Circuses were popular. P.T. Barnum's freak show made its debut in 1837; his American Museum was opened in 1842. People in small towns as well as in cities enjoyed various types of musical performances and theatrical productions, including burlesques and tableaux vivants (posed stage presentations of static scenes by costumed participants). Blacks and Native Americans were portrayed on stage: The African Company (the first black acting group) began to present plays in New York in 1821; white actors began to play black roles in blackface; and numerous plays about Indians were written and portrayed in the years leading up to the Civil War. Journalists celebrated folk heroes like Davy Crockett. The availability of popular novels increased through advances in the technology of printing and bookmaking and in distribution and marketing. Prints like those of Currier and Ives circulated widely. Newspapers, magazines, and illustrated weeklies like Frank Leslie's Illustrated and Harper's Weekly had large readerships. As the country grew and as transportation and communication improved, a market existed for works that promoted the standardization of language and of a body of shared knowledge. Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language was first published in 1828. The Encyclopedia Americana appeared between 1829 and 1833. McGuffey's Eclectic Readers began to appear in 1836. Baseball started to take its place as a national preoccupation. Phrenology — the study of the size and shape of the skull as a measure of character and intellect — drew popular attention in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s. Spiritualism drew similar attention in the 1850s.

Of all the manifestations of popular culture during this period, the New England Transcendentalists were most closely and actively associated with the lyceum. Emerson, Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Jones Very, Frederic Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, and others among them were lyceum speakers. Emerson and Thoreau were speakers at the Concord Lyceum (formed in 1828). Emerson was its most frequent speaker, and Thoreau served as its secretary. The lyceum was a powerful medium for disseminating knowledge and ideas and was important in communicating Transcendental philosophy to parts of the country outside New England.

Preceded by the British mechanics' institutes, the first lyceum in America was established at Millbury, Massachusetts, by Josiah Holbrook, in 1826. The lyceum, a vehicle for adult education, grew out of the Enlightenment ideal of making knowledge available to all, not just to the privileged. (The constitutionally stated purpose of the Concord Lyceum, for example, was "improvement in knowledge, the advancement of Popular Education, and the diffusion of useful information throughout the community.") In addition to providing programs of lecture and debate, lyceums also promoted libraries and museums. The lyceum was not confined to New England. Once established, it spread rapidly westward as new regions were settled. Popular lecturers traveled long distances by railroad to speak. Lyceum lectures ran a broad gamut of subjects, literary, scientific, historical, social, and political, controversial as well as noncontroversial. Beyond the Transcendentalists, some well-known lyceum speakers included Louis Agassiz, Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony.

The lyceum movement was important to Emerson and Thoreau as writers, because some of what they first presented formally as lyceum lectures — many of Emerson's essays, for example, and Thoreau's essay "Walking" — was later revised for publication. Like the journals that these writers kept, an invitation to lecture provided an opportunity to record and develop thoughts that would later be refined.

Although the lyceum movement did not turn Everyman into a Transcendentalist, it allowed the New England Transcendentalists to connect with a far broader segment of the population than their writings alone reached. In his biography of his father, Edward Waldo Emerson related an anecdote about a woman (a working domestic) who regularly attended Emerson's lectures. When asked if she understood Emerson, the lady replied, "Not a word, but I like to go and see him stand up there and look as if he thought every one was as good as he was." Emerson clearly conveyed to his audiences a sense of the democratic impulse underlying Transcendentalism, expressed so clearly in his 1844 lecture "New England Reformers": "And as a man is equal to the Church and equal to the State, so he is equal to every other man."

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According to Emerson's "The Divinity School Address," the "sentiment of virtue" is described as what?


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