Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Corrected Proofs for “The American Scholar”

On 26 January 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal: “Today I send the Oration to press again.” The oration that Emerson refers to was the published text of a speech that he had given at Harvard. On 31 August 1837, Emerson gave one of the most important public talks in the history of American letters. His Phi Beta Kappa Oration, now more commonly referred to as “The American Scholar,” was called by his friend and contemporary, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., as “our intellectual declaration of independence,” and the essay is now commonly assigned in courses on American literature, history, and civic culture.

The oration proved both provocative and popular, and a draft of the speech was quickly sent to press. On 23 September 1838, Emerson’s publisher, James Munroe and Company, wrote to inform him that 500 copies had been published, and on 24 October 1837, Emerson commented in his journal that the edition had sold out within a month. The prospect of having a popular and profitable pamphlet was probably encouragement enough to make plans for a second edition; however, there is compelling evidence that Emerson was displeased with the first printed edition of the speech and used the second edition as an opportunity to make subtle changes and correct errors.

The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is home to the page proofs of the second edition, which Emerson marked up for correction and are the only known extant proof sheets of a work by him. Emerson was displeased with the first edition of the oration printed by Munroe, in part because the 1837 edition shows evidence that his work was edited by a type compositor. He was also dissatisfied with the layout and general appearance of the text and submitted a marked-up copy to a different printer, Folsom, Wells, and Thurston of Cambridge, Massachusetts. 515 copies of the second edition were printed and published on 23 February 1838 and announced in the Boston Evening Mercantile Journal, 24 February 1838. They were priced at 20¢ per copy, with a 5¢ publisher’s commission, and 190 copies were still in stock on 17 January 1844, signalling a slowdown of sales after the initial fervor.

The manuscript annotations of the proofs contain over one hundred changes and corrections detailing spacing errors, misaligned text, and the restoration of dropped punctuation and words among other issues. A collation of the proofs against both the 1837 and 1838 editions of the oration reveal over two hundred differences in punctuation and fifteen differences in wording, much of which is evident in the surviving proofs. As a result, we can see that the 1838 text restored Emerson’s preferred rhetorical, grammatical, and orthographic style and is the more authoritative of the two editions; however, in compiling the Collected Works for Harvard University Press, the modern editors rejected most of Emerson’s changes and remained predominantly faithful to the earlier edition. It is only recently, with the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Major Prose, edited by Joel Myerson, that the public has access to Emerson’s preferred version of “The American Scholar.” Now, scholars and students can work with and learn from the material itself.  

The corrected page proofs are the gift of Dr. Joel Myerson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina, and supplement a previous gift of Emerson related manuscripts that Dr. Myerson gave to the University. Many of these manuscripts have been digitized by the University Libraries’ Digital Collections and can be found at: http://library.sc.edu/digital/collections/Myerson.html 

Michael C. Weisenburg 
Reference & Instruction Librarian
Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections

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