A Close Reading:On The Dialogic Synthesis and Contrast of Thoreau and Emerson

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The excerpts upon which this analysis is given is not provided.

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are not only significant movers of the Transcendentalist era of American Literature but integral facets that collectively define the very movement. A thorough analysis of their writings shed light on the dominate discourse of their period, which in turn reveals alternate discourses that unraveled the expanding stitching of an industrialized culture, that was systematically shifting from the intimate qualities of the human condition. Thoreau’s Walden and Emerson’s Self-Reliance offer commentary on the period from distinctly philosophic lenses that coalesce while still reserving significant differences.

The dialogic synthesis of Emerson and Thoreau is not in any way an accident considering they are very much related, having been friends; so the similarities between their philosophical perspectives on the human condition is likely. The excerpts primarily question the reader’s values causing them to become intellectually critical of their convictions; and more importantly, to determine the worth of those convictions. There are specific lines in each of the excerpts that comprehensively illustrate how they compliment one another.

In Thoreau’s Walden he writes, “In proportion as he [man] simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” Thoreau is basically saying that if man retrogrades back to a more simplistic life style, outside the industrialization of a civilized world, life would seem as daunting, because the current ideas are changing the human condition for the worse. Emerson says in Self-Reliance, “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.” Emerson is speaking of the advancements of the industrial revolutions cons, because like Thoreau’s argument, there is this alteration of the human condition that neither find positive. Thoreau and Emerson’s excerpts are in dialogue with the other in this sense because they are both adamant about the benefits of simplicity.

The constant dialogue between the Emerson and Thoreau texts is dynamic as they has complimenting moments as discussed prior, however, there are distinct differences. The differences are in terms of abstraction. Thoreau is speaking on a much more fluidic philosophy, while Emerson is much more structured in his approach. More specifically, Thoreau uses illustrates his argument with concepts, and Emerson uses descriptive examples. Thoreau writes, If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.” Emerson writes, “He [man] has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun.” Both Transcendentalist form their arguments well, they simply operate differently as far as language.

Perhaps the most significant contrast of the Thoreau and Emerson excerpts is what the arguments are asking the reader to think. Clearly both of the excerpts are appealing to a return to the more nature oriented self-reliant human condition, but the difference lies in the type of thinking each call’s for. Thoreau is teaching that man should alleviate the mind of too much structure. He writes about “laws,” and letting them change and the person adapt to a more simplified life that will in turn liberate suffering. Emerson is asking his reader to do away with modern luxuries and garner a more practical knowledge rather than strictly the knowledge gained from books and such.

The discourses of a culture and time period that Emerson and Thoreau lived in are heavily influence by the Industrial Revolution. It is the period where the world started to become much more connected and convenience for most things people needed became a reality. Emerson and Thoreau would both probably agree that they are speaking to a culture and time that are particularly different from previous cultures because of the radical change of thinking due to technological advancements.

Emerson speaks philosophically to his culture and time because it is needed to keep man from progressing to the point he can no longer be called man. Emerson is specifically saying, in his excerpt, that man must not think that all of the conveniences of the modern world which at face value are beneficial are absolute in their benefit. He is reminding his reader that along with technology or knowledge there is a duality of positive and negative aspects. Emerson writes, “and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber,” basically stating that technology is going to take something away when it provides some convenience.

Thoreau in contrast to Emerson speaks to his culture and time for a specific elimination of variable caused by the changing of man as opposed to being aware of the dangers of technology. Thoreau focuses on freeing the mind by process of seeking simplicity, which he realized through his seclusion from society in nature. He is telling his culture that they should aspire to relieve themselves of the excess of convenience because life would be much simpler and less malign.

Thoreau and Emerson are Transcendentalists who transcend their time and culture but are interesting examples of alternative discourses during the period in American Literature. It is interesting how so much can be learned from only small segments of their larger workings Walden and Self-Reliance. Both of the excerpts are perfect examples of how documents do not stand alone and are constantly in discourse with one another, which is an explanation for the richness of the texts beyond the genius of the authors.

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Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina

Very well written and thought provoking hub. The most fascinating thing I find about the writings of these two men are their high relevence to our current culture and world. Thanks for sharing your interesting article.

Voted up, useful and interesting.


Jawanza profile image

Jawanza 5 years ago from Bronx, NY Author

Thanks very much. I wanted to post the excerpts that I am writing about, however, I am being lazy because I am in a library fighting sleep. I appreciate your feedback. :D

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