Emerson’s Manifesto, Thoreau’s Nature
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Published in: September-October 2023 issue.


RALPH WALDO EMERSON’S 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” contains one of the most stirring coming-out challenges ever written. This is not the traditonal reading of the great American essay, to be sure, but I believe that “Self-Reliance” must be understood in the context of Emerson’s awareness of unconventional sexual desire, bolstered by his intimate friendship with Henry David Thoreau.

            Emerson was born in Boston in 1803 and died in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1882. “Waldo” was ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1829, and the response to his eloquence and personal charm promised job security. But secretly, Emerson was experiencing a crisis of faith, and his sermons minimized doctrine to focus on personal spiritual experience, arguing that each seeker’s unique encounter with a universal moral law was what really mattered. His first book, Nature, appeared in 1836, and in 1841 and 1842, he published Essays: First Series and Essays: Second Series. The First Series includes his most important essay, “Self-Reliance.”

“Love Me for What I Am”

Transcendentalism, the philosophical movement that Emerson did so much to develop and promote, captured the attention not only of theologians and thinkers but also of the general public, largely because it provided people with pragmatic guidance for “the conduct of life.” “Self-Reliance” brilliantly explores this theme: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. … Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Everyone agrees that “Self-Reliance” is an indictment of mindless conformity and a challenge to think for oneself. But it has rarely been recognized as one of history’s first manifestos for people to be honest about their sexual nonconformity. To quote a key passage at length:

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 appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. … 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. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. …

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Mitchell Santine Gould, a gay historian with a special interest in Whitman and Quakerism, lives on the coast of Oregon.


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