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Emerson and America

A philosophy of self-invention was Emerson's gift, and curse, to American thought. But what good is originality, if the new self is a monster?

By Robin Banerji   June 2003

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson has arrived but there has been no let-up in the controversy surrounding one of America’s most influential public intellectuals. “Where shall wisdom be found?” asks Harold Bloom in his recent book, “Genius”, and he answers “in Shakespeare, Goethe, Emerson, Nietzsche.” For Cornel West, however, Emerson was a racist, an imperialist and a “petit bourgeois libertarian with at times anarchist tendencies…”

Emerson was born in Boston in 1803, the son of a minister of the Unitarian church, the most broadminded of New England’s Protestant sects. After studying at Harvard, he too…

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