"He had his poor": Emerson's Self-Reliance and the Question of Charity
Emerson's Communitarian Critique of Institutional Benevolence
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s often anthologized essay “Self-Reliance” has been presented as a clear example of Emerson’s endorsement of the wider nineteenth-century’s laissez faire ideology. This is, however, an ultimately inaccurate characterization and a consequence of various kinds of misreading. This paper examines these misreadings and attempts to place “Self-Reliance” in its intellectual, chronological, and textual context. It is one essay in a carefully ordered presentation that is published as an embedded and local work. The essay’s tangential critique of “miscellaneous charities” is a communitarian and local critique of the burgeoning institutionalization and especial-ly internationalization of American benevolence. When read in context, “Self-Reliance” demon-strates that Emerson’s poor are immediate, proximate, and fraternal, those to whom the whim of the moment can mandate a local response.
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