Critical Reading, Critical Thinking

“One must be an inventor to read well.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Mankind’s Vocation:  A Nation of Scholars

By:  Angel Karnezis, Courtney Rosboro and Sofia Milunovich

Each time we open a book, delve into its pages and begin to explore its words, we become innovators, discoverers and creators.  Inspiration draws us beyond the words on the page to recognize their complexities.  Our minds grasp for new thoughts, unparalleled imaginings; to read this one text in a way that no other has understood it before.

We are critical thinkers.  We are critical readers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson called for an American nation of such scholars.  He begged the question, “Is not, indeed, every man a student, and do not all things exist for the student’s behoof? (Emerson 1139).  He wanted his 19th Century America to grasp life, delve into its mysteries and explore it with a critical eye.  While he presented his famous speech, “The American Scholar” to a room full of Harvard graduates, he was in fact speaking to a much larger audience.  He wanted all men, from the elitist to the commoner, to create a nation of thinkers.

Critical reading, in particular, was emphasized in Emerson’s speech.  He writes, “There is then creative reading, as well as creative writing.  When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.  Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world” (Emerson 1142).  To read complacently, Emerson believes, is foolhardy.  We must look beyond the print, beyond our established dogmas and our tired philosophies, and see the world anew.  What inspires us?  What do we truly believe?  This is a particularly helpful piece of advice for a 19th Century America in search of a newfound literary and cultural identity.

The American Renaissance

America was very interested in establishing an identity distinct from Great Britain.  A literary Renaissance ensued with published works by such authors as Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Melville and Hawthorne.  They were all concerned with creating inspired texts that drifted away from traditional forms and thoughts. They believed that a sign of a great nation and a mature intellectual culture was a collection of great national literature.

Educational Equality

However, without a large audience to read such literature, its significance was miniscule.  Based on the Democratic principle of equality, education in the 19th century began to be offered to all members of society, from the upper class individual to the farmer.  Schools were developed and institutionalized and literacy increased.  Education was encouraged for the development of the American culture, society and economy (Graff 17).  In 1867, the Federal Department of Education was established, which highlighted the importance of education at this time in American history (“National”).

In response to the desire for a more educated nation, the Lyceum movement was created.  The Lyceum movement began in 1826 by a man named Holbrook.  Lyceums were a form of early adult education that utilized lectures and debates to engage and educate regional audiences.  The first lyceum society was established in Millbury, Mass.  Within a year, more than a dozen lyceums had sprung up in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  By 1831, they existed in all the New England states, as well as in New York.  Later on, both state and national lyceums were organized.  The Lyceum movement “invoked Thomas Jefferson’s pre-industrial utopia of educated yeoman farmers” (Mallalieu 178).  They stressed the importance of a self-educated nation that included all men, from the politician to the farmer.  All men were included in this utopian society of scholars.  Because of this, educational opportunity was beginning to be equalized, or at least offered to all members of society.

A Rise in the Reading Public

Now that the nation had an increase of available readers, they needed an efficient way to supply the public with reading material.  Technological advancements and a growth in territorial reach allowed publishers to distribute works in greater numbers and for more profit.  With the advent of railroads, canals and other major forms of transportation, books were delivered to a larger group of Americans for less money (Baym 936).

Also, there was a dramatic growth of newspaper and magazine publishing from the early 19th century to the 1860’s.  Between 1800 and 1825, “approximately four hundred newspapers were founded, and that number went into the thousands by 1860.  Before 1825 there were approximately a hundred magazines published in the United States; by 1850 there were about six hundred” (Baym 937).  Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fanny Fern and Herman Melville were all published in periodicals within the 19th century.

In Response to Social Ills

With so much rich material to take from, critical reading and thinking was essential for the 19th century American audience.  This was especially true because of such societal movements as Transcendentalism, Abolitionism and the Women’s Rights movement that deeply challenged the way people thought about the world around them.  Citizens were urged to break away from societal norms, become better educated about their own prejudices and to think critically about their nation’s ills.  In the 1930’s and 40’s much writing, “grappled with questions about the value of history, the ability of the individual to apprehend the godhead directly, the capacity of language to achieve and convey knowledge, and the difficulties of making sense of a universe in which meaning derives from individual creative insights rather than received authority” (Baym 939).  With authors like Hawthorne and Melville, readers needed to read critically and examine symbols such as the letter A or Moby Dick’s whale.  Individual interpretation of these texts was essential.  However, critical thinking was also highly stressed.  Authors like Emerson and Melville urged Americans to reconsider hackneyed ideologies and to recreate their own nation.  Issues like slavery and women’s rights were very important at this time.  Here we can see where critical reading and thinking were needed not only for Americans to read more intelligently in a changing literary world, but to examine the social problems that surrounded them.


Emerson once wrote, ““He must be a university of knowledges…The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all” (Emerson 1150).  Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in the power of the human mind and spirit.  He did not create class distinctions or social hierarchies, but sought a nation full of equals.  Emerson wanted 19th century Americans to think for themselves, soak up life’s teachings, and create a country full of unique and intelligent individuals.  The strength of the individual, he believed, would make the collective a potent force.  To create such a force, the entire nation was encouraged to educate themselves and begin to examine their social realities.  Americans were urged to read and think critically and to be self-made inventors.

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, Robert S. Levine and Arnold Krupat, eds.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature:  Volume B: 1820-1865.  7th ed.  New York:  W.W.  Norton and Company, 2007.  Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “The American Scholar”.  Baym.  1138-1151.  Print.

Graff, Harvey J.  “The Legacies of Literature.”  Journal of Communication 32.1 (1982):  12-26.  Wiley Online Library.  Web.

Mallalieu, W.C.  “Lyceum Movement.”  Dictionary of American History 5.3 (2003):  178.  Gale Virtual Reference Library.  Web.

National Center for Educational Statistics.  “National Assessment of Adult Literacy.”  Institute of Education Sciences, n.d.  Web.

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