Douglass and Emerson What is Self-Reliance?

Published: 2021-06-25 08:10:05
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How does Ralph Waldo Emerson use self-reliance? How does it relate to Frederick Douglass’ Narrative? These are some interesting questions and they will be carefully reviewed. Emerson’s use of self-reliance may have many different interpretations for others that read it, but his possible intentions of its use will be the primary focus. Douglass’ Narrative might be seen as a fulfillment of Emerson’s Self-Reliance.
These two epics are interesting and engaging of their own volition so looking at the two of them together will hopefully help answer some of the lingering questions that may have been left unanswered in the past and at the same time raise some new questions. First, let us look at what Emerson meant by self-reliance. It could be that he meant our reliance on ourselves as individuals, but after careful reading of the text he probably meant that we should not conform to the ways of the world and instead look for our own way. How do we go about doing that?
Well one way might be to first examine the world around us and see what works and what does not work. It could help us determine how to go about making good decisions for ourselves. One view that Emerson possibly holds according to a comment by George Kateb, in an article by T. Gregory Garvey, is “Emerson, ‘inclines to the view that a contemplative mind can be more truly self-reliant than a person striving for self-reliance in the world. With an independent mind, one can see and know, observe and trace the intricacy and complexity of the world.
This mental process more nearly reaches self-reliance than being and acting individualistically do’ ” (Garvey 7). This is one possible interpretation of what Emerson may have meant and what he might have meant could be seen as similar to the previous statement that indicated we should look at the world around us to see what works and what does not work. By critically reviewing the world around us it can bring some sense and new revelations to what Emerson is trying to tell us.
A different and at the same time interesting view according to Mimosa Stephenson and Will Stephenson is that Emerson may have seen self-reliance as “an instinct for self-trust” and looks at it from a scientific point of view and compares it to the way a scientist may view a star as fascinating, but still unexplainable as to the origin of where it came from and how it came to be (M. Stephenson and W. Stephenson 1). This is an interesting way to look at self-reliance especially with regards to not really having a way to verify the origin of where the idea came from.
This poses new questions with no real answers. It is one of the interesting mysteries of life that can be debated by critics and scholars alike. Each critic and scholar will have a different point of view that he or she will see as valuable. A similar view according to David Jacobson in his critical essay on Emerson’s Self-Reliance states that “self-reliance leads to an emancipation of the will, allowing for a clearer understanding of the universe” (Jacobson 1). The key words here are allowing for a clearer understanding of the universe.
Again, it seems that there is an implied understanding that one has to critically review what is going on in the world and the people that live in it and how we allow them to affect our daily lives. This might be close to what Emerson was trying to convey in his text. Some critics or scholars might disagree with this information, but each new article that has been reviewed seems to be leading in the same direction. This view could just as likely be an answer to some unanswered questions as any other information that has been reviewed or studied. It may also raise some more new questions.
But that is the interesting twist in any text or story it is based on someone’s opinion or idea about a particular subject and in most cases it has been carefully researched to provide validation of one’s argument. There is not really a wrong or right answer just a variety of opinions. We should consider how it is relevant to the reading of Douglass’ Narrative. After careful review of this text it would seem that Douglass’ primary focus is to show the relevance of his life and how it was lived as a slave. He does a lot of self-reflection and how the world around him affected his life and the lives of those around him.
This could be relevant to Emerson’s Self-reliance because it shows how someone carefully reviewed his own circumstances and the relevance of his worldly surroundings and what effects it had on not only his life, but the lives of those around him. This would seem to take away from the “self-reliance” idea of Emerson, but in reality it can help highlight and show how effective it is to examine not only one’s own life, but the how the lives of others are affected by not only what they choose to do, but also what others choose to do as well. What should be examined first is what Douglass meant with regard to his work the Narrative.
This will give some insight into how to best link his text with Emerson’s Self-Reliance. According to a critical review by Ed. Russell Whitaker author Frederick Douglass gave “a detailed, firsthand account of slave life and the process of self-discovery by which Douglass recognized the evils of slavery as an institution” (Douglass 3). The key word here is self-discovery which could be linked to self-reliance. It is important to note that this is the primary focus so while the information being provided may seem irrelevant it also cannot be disregarded.
Douglass does acknowledge in his text Narrative that he was a slave and how this affected his life not only as a person, but also as a writer. So this could be key information in helping to make a connection between the Douglass and Emerson texts. Now to examine another possible view according to William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips as an author Frederick Douglass “remains true to the facts of his experience” and “in the words of one commentator, ‘the first native American autobiography to create a black identity in style and form adequate to the pressures of historic black experience’ ”(Leverneir 2).
This critical review could be viewed as an example of one way that Douglass’ Narrative and Emerson’s Self-Reliance are intricately woven together. The key word would be identity because what is being carefully examined is how Self-Reliance is relevant to Narrative. Now that each of the Douglass and Emerson texts has been reviewed for the possible connection of each of the texts we should carefully review Douglass’ Narrative by itself just to show what he was trying to share with his readers.
We have reviewed Emerson’s Self-Reliance as a separate piece and should give the same respect to Douglass’ Narrative. According to a critical essay by Kelly Rothenberg it is stated, “His help and strength must come from within himself first, and he refuses to accept the idea that he must wait until the afterlife for his suffering to end. In a very humanistic way of thinking, Douglass realizes that he should not have to suffer in this life” (Rothenberg 4-5).
One could view this quote almost as an answer to the question, “How does Douglass’ Narrative relate to Emerson’s Self-Reliance? ” It could be argued that Douglass reviewed and critiqued his own life. After careful review he may have come to the conclusion that he is a human and deserves to be treated as such. This could be seen as a convincing stand that Douglass might take. To further discuss Douglass taking a possible stand and claim his self-identity and self-reliance we will take a look at a review by John Sekora.
This review does acknowledge that Douglass suffered greatly for many decades and it would be fair to say that, “He was without a doubt the major black figure during the last generation of slavery, during the Civil War, and during the whole of Reconstruction” (Sekora 2). Douglass spent his entire life trying to be self-reliant and claim a self-identity. One could argue against this and say that this was not the case that he wasted too much quality time trying to prove his point. On the other hand someone else could argue and say that he was a great success. It just depends on the opinion of the viewer.
It would be a fair statement to say that he certainly worked hard to prove that he was a great success. In conclusion, it was interesting to look at the varying degrees of critical review with regards to each of the texts by Emerson and Douglass. It seemed at first that it would be difficult to find a reasonable connection between them, but as the writing progressed so did the obvious connection. While Emerson emphasized self-reliance and Douglass focused on a Narrative, it seemed that each of them were trying to bring some semblance of order to an otherwise unorganized world.
Bringing the two epics together was difficult, but not impossible. Along the way some questions were answered while new questions were possibly raised. Each writer is dynamic and unique in his own way, but a fair comparison would be similar to a jig-saw puzzle that seems as if it will not ever come together, but eventually it does. It is a puzzle that many people will continue to work on piecing together and then even sometimes taking it back apart just to see if it comes back together the same way or ends up something different.

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