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Quest for True Americana,
Part I

Part II
Part III

Natalia J. Garland

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In honor of the first anniversary of September 11th, I decided to try to define what it was that so many Americans died for on that historic day. Over this past year, I have reflected upon the principles of American culture through an exploration of past American thinkers. My quest led to three men whose time-tested works seem to represent a type of Americana that could help us to restore a healthy post-9/11 nation: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Rogers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They all emphasized political freedom, authenticity of self, harmony in relationships, and the courage to search out and question anything referred to as truth.

When I was in high school, the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson were required reading. Emerson lived 1803-1882, born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard. He was a teacher, lecturer and writer. His essays are filled with literary beauty and intellectual stimulus. A few readings may be needed to grasp the depth of content. The essays on "History" and "Self-Reliance" seem to speak as eloquently to September 11th survivors as to successive generations of high school youth.

"History no longer shall be a dull book. It shall walk incarnate in every just and wise man. You shall not tell me by languages and titles a catalogue of the volumes you have read. You shall make me feel what periods you have lived."

We have lived, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, through this terrorized phase of American history. It is our responsibility to process our individual experiences and perceptions, to learn, and to rebuild so that future generations can enjoy the opportunities of an open and safe nation. It is our heirs who will someday judge us and write about us.

Emerson believed that history was to be learned from, identified with and connected with, while we live life fully in the here-and-now (a term used by Emerson in the 19th century). Emerson also spoke of history as a matter of biography. "We sympathize in the great moments of history, in the great discoveries, the great resistances, the great prosperities of men; --- because there law was enacted, the sea was searched, the land was found, or the blow was struck for us, as we ourselves in that place would have done or applauded." Emerson could have been talking about the everyday heroes who transcended (another Emersonian term) the terrorists' intentions at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Yes," ....history goes daily forward." We all must go forward, because the aging process marches us forward, though we look back to the past for guidance. Each generation will add their own contributions to knowledge, write their own books, take their own place within the events of the time. "A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world."

The essay on "Self-Reliance" is a little more difficult to understand and interpret. Emerson seems to write with some grandiosity regarding self-importance, and with some detachment regarding social ills (even though he was a strong abolitionist). But the concept of self-reliance takes on a liberating meaning when read as a reaction to political oppression and societal hypocrisy. This essay could also be read as a message of empowerment for the people-pleasers, the co-dependents, and the victims of abuse in our world today.

"Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after the appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth's. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,---but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier."

Emerson objects to conformity as a denial of individual personality, and contrasts conformity to self-trust. He believes we conform to empty customs or traditions out of a fear of disappointing others. He encourages people to live an authentic life even at the risk of being misunderstood. As examples, Emerson offers Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton as having been both great and misunderstood.

Those who shrink away from self-reliance may find that someone else had enough courage and conviction to act on their very same ideas. "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

If Emerson's concept of self-reliance seems too inflated, try reading the essay on "Uses of Great Men" as an antidote. Emerson seems not always to have been consistent. In fact, he viewed consistency as much a trap as conformity if it obstructed the road to truth. Emerson felt that people have a right to change their minds. Perhaps the best way to read his works is to read them all and embrace the whole of his thoughts.

Ralph Waldo Emerson had a command of a variety of topics: history, society, culture, architecture, antiques, nature, time, literature, prayer, travel. His essays provide bountiful reading. If he were alive today, he would certainly have insightful comments to make about September 11th. Perhaps he would talk to us again about great men and women.

"The heroes of the hour are relatively great: of a faster growth; or they are such, in whom, at the moment of success, a quality is ripe which is then in request. Other days will demand other qualities. Some rays escape the common observer, and want a finely adapted eye. Ask the great man if there be none greater. His companions are; and not the less great, but the more, that society cannot see them. Nature never sends a great man onto the planet, without confiding the secret to another soul."

I think Emerson would encourage each one of us to keep doing what we do well, whether a seemingly small task at home or a publicly acknowledged service, and that we do so with dignity of purpose. (Written 09/02/02: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2002 Natalia J. Garland