"The American Scholar" by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an essay on what it meant to be a scholar in the America of his day. It was originally delivered as a speech to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University on August 31, 1837. It comprises four sections covering the influence of nature, the influence of history and literature, the influence of action and the responsibilities of a scholar and his own perspective on America.
In the first section of his speech, Emerson urged his listeners to have faith in their own creative and critical abilities. Controversially, he rejected the blind deference of some scholars to existing texts, such as the Bible. He argued that such deference detaches the thinking man from the natural world and personal experience, declaring that American scholars should make "life their dictionary."
Emerson did not discount the value of books altogether, however. He went on describe them as the "best type of the influence of the past," but suggested they were best reserved for a scholar's free time.
The essence of his speech was praise for the scholarly advances that had been made in America during his time, as well as a call for American scholars to continue thinking independently.