Self Reliance in American Literature

Critical analysis of Hansen’s ‘Reading Sonic Culture In Emerson’s Self Reliance’ in context to Emerson’s essay ‘Self-Reliance’. “These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world”l The essential message of Andrew Hansen’s essay, Reading Sonic Culture in Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’ is that our own voices are the most powerful tool we possess, and though the discovery of our self-reliance we speak out our ideas in a non-conformist way. This idea of non-conformism is the key message that Emerson expresses in ‘Self-Reliance’, which is often expressed through speech.

Through my eading and understanding of both Emerson and Hansen’s essays, I aim to argue that the voice is a crucial element in the discovery of self-reliance; however, it is not necessarily the most important, as Emerson makes references to various ways of gaining independent thought and expression. At a glance, Hansen’s essay explores the expression of our voices as being a key element to gaining self-reliance. This idea is noticeable in Emerson’s essay, however, he continuously argues against conformity and expresses his transcendentalist beliefs, considering the fate of individuals but also how we work in connection to others.

This is not only done through the power of speech, but also through actions, therefore supporting the argument that self-reliance is gained through various mediums. Hansen describes Emerson as someone who “encourages people to follow their own beliefs” 2 expressing the idea that people can help others to do so through the power of their voice. To an extent, Hansen’s idea is correct in discussing Emerson’s desire for people to express self-reliance through the use of their voice; however this is not the only thing he refers to as a method of self-reliance within his essay.

He also takes a ranscendentalist approach to the essay, believing people should act against rationalism and conformity, not only through the action of speaking, but also through physical actions. Such physical actions can be spotted in the process of removing oneself from society, where man goes “into solitude” and “retires from his chamber as from society’3. This idea is taken from Emerson’s former essay, ‘Nature’, where he emphasised that to become self-reliant, one needed to go into solitude with nature to do so. Emerson seems to come to the conclusion that “self-reliance was not an option but a necessity’4.

Hansen’s idea of a ‘sonic culture’ derives from the thought that Emerson believed our own voices were essential in producing self-reliance, supported by Richard Rath who expressed, “how one’s voice sounded was a good indicator of where he or she was located in early America”5. This idea ultimately meant that your place within society was purely decided on your ability to speak out or not, and how you chose to do so, an idea expressed by both Hansen and Emerson. Hansen’s essay highlights independent thought through people’s voices, but he also emphasises the importance of this aspect by movement.

Emerson states, “every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more”6 which alludes to this idea ot movement ‘swaying’ people. This quote also links to Hansen’s discussion ot Emerson living in a period that was “highly susceptible to American oratory’7, growing up during the ‘Golden Oratory Age’. Ultimately this would have had a great impact upon his thoughts and ideas, and perhaps his influence and discussions based around self-reliance enhanced this ‘Golden Age’ of oratory, essentially creating a ‘Sonic Culture’ due to people become more outspoken.

This ‘oratory moment in Hansen’s essay certainly supports the argument that the voice is crucial to the discovery of self-reliance. Hansen refers to Emerson as ‘soundscaping and implying a ‘rhetorical theory to orally persuade people to come more self-reliant. Through the use of spoken word, it seems that he believed Emerson used a “rhetorical theory of sound”8. It is this rhetorical theory of sound that acts as a persuasion, and links to the ideas expressed by Emerson in following our own instincts and not conforming to the usual habits of society.

Continuing on this idea of our voice being a powerful source of self-reliance, it could be said that this Voice’ is ctually one within us (the voice inside our heads). It seems that Emerson wanted people to trust and listen to this inner voice, which is perhaps why Hansen expresses the fact that he “alludes to sound and the voice almost 80 times”9, whilst emphasising the “voice of the mind”10 in his essay ‘Self-Reliance’. This idea certainly contrasts to the previous statement that the ‘Golden Oratory moment is a crucial factor in self-reliance.

The idea of our ‘inner-voice’ supports the notion that it’s possibly our actions that have more impact upon us, coming from the voice within ur heads, rather than the voices of those around us. Another fact put forward by Hansen is that Emerson uses ‘sonic metaphors’ throughout his essay. These metaphors refer to sound, for example, “let the words be gazetted… let us hear a whistle from the Spartan fife”1 1, allowing the reader to visualize a ‘sonic frame’. This could however be explored and critiqued as being hypocritical.

Emerson didn’t want people to conform to society by listening to other opinions; however he essentially wants people to hear what he has to say by spreading the word in public. The essage conveyed in Hansen’s essay is that ultimately our voice, alongside the theory of sound, are what create a sense of self-reliance. To an extent this is true; however other ideas occur within Emerson’s essay, for example, his views of transcendentalism. Emerson was at the forefront of this movement, protesting against the way in which society conformed to expectations.

Hansen does refer to transcendentalism suggesting that “seeing is key to unlocking the meaning of Emerson’s transcendentalism”12. This is a crucial moment in Hansen’s essay as he actually changes from this previous encapsulation centred on the idea of our Voice’, o the idea of ‘seeing, thus supporting the argument that sound isn’t the only crucial element to becoming self-reliant. Emerson’s essay ‘Self-Reliance’ continually argues against conformity with the world, believing one should disregard the opinions of society.