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Literature: Edgar Allan Poe

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This is a common phrase used by many people through out the world, but is it
true? Early in the history of America was the debate over self-reliance started,
however the topic was not given this name until Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about
it in the nineteenth century. Self-reliance, according to Webster's dictionary,
is the reliance on one's own efforts and abilities. Emerson and other
transcendentalists, along with Quakers and Deists believed that man should be
self-reliant, since God is within each of us. This belief, however, was not held
by the Puritans or by Edgar Allan Poe. Support for the for both sides of the
argument can been clearly seen in the writings of the Deists, Quakers, Emerson,
Poe, and the Puritans. The first group of people to settle America were the
Puritans. These Puritans had strict religious beliefs. One of these beliefs was
that ever since Adam ate the apple from the forbidden tree, man is full of sin
and any inner feelings are sinful (337). Instead of being pure and perfect, man
was seen more as being "at the best a creature frail and vain,…this
sinful creature Flinn 2 [man], frail and vain, This lump of wretchedness, of sin
and sorrow," (197; 204-205). Since the Puritans believe that man is evil
inside, it is obvious that they think anything which originates from the inner
being is also tainted with evil. Thus, man should not be self-reliant since this
would lead them to be evil. Puritans believed that instead of listening to
themselv2es they should strictly follow the bible, since it dealt with the
actions of God. Edgar Allan Poe, also did not believe in the idea of
self-reliance. Poe's short stories are generally read to give people a taste of
the first murder mystery genre. However, if one carefully studies his works it
is easy to see how Poe uses his stories as a way to voice his disagreement with
the idea of self-reliance. In Poe's stories, "The Tell-Tale Heart" and
"The Fall of the House of Usher," the main characters are loners who
do not have a lot of contact with the outside world. The actions they perform
are usually the result of them trusting themselves. Transcendentalist such as
Emerson and Thoreau believe that with the use of self-reliance man could become
closer to nature and to God himself, since God was inside each man. However, Poe
uses these characters to show the consequence of what could happen if someone
listen to just their inner feelings. Poe's characters all listen to their inner
voices and commit acts of pure evil. However, there are a few groups of people
who believe that self-reliance will have positive consequences, and not the
negative ones believed by Poe and the Puritans. A group of people who believe
that man should be Flinn 3 self-reliant are the Deists. Deists believe that
since God made everything in nature, including man, everything must be perfect.
In Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography he wrote, "from the attributes of God,
his infinite Wisdom, Goodness, and Power [one could] conclude that nothing could
possibly be wrong in the [w]orld" (797). Since the Deists believed that man
was made perfect they believed that every man was "born a tabula rasa
(blank slate)," and was not evil y nature (Handout 1). Man was not created
evil, but it was his upbringing and his surroundings that could corrupt him and
make him evil. Another belief that Deists have, which encouraged self-reliance,
was that nothing to them was right or wrong. The only actions which could be
considered bad and avoided were those actions which harmed the natural harmony
of the earth. Instead of universal right and wrongs the Deists believed that
each individual has their own "moral sense of right and wrong,
which,…makes [every man] a part of nature" (929). Franklin believed that
with the use of self-reliance man could improve himself in both spiritually and
financially. If a man could motivate himself to learn and work then he could
achieve a higher level of prosperity. The Quakers were another group of people
who believed that since God made man, man must be pure. One of the biggest
fundamentals of the Quaker faith is the belief in the inner light and
"speaking". Quakers believed that within each person was an inner
light, which was pure and holy. The inner light was believed to be "a piece
of God's spirit and energy". With the help of Flinn 4 this energy it was
believed that "individuals can form a personal, mystical relationship with
God and can use that relationship to support their actions in daily life"
(George Fox). Also, during Quaker religious ceremonies, called meetings, people
would sit in silence until someone felt God within them. This would cause the
person to speak. It was believed that the words spoken were inspired by God and
the inner light. Since God was in each individual each act committed by that
individual was considered right, thus it was alright for them to be
self-reliant. By far the largest supporter of self-reliance were the
transcendentalist and particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau even set out to prove that man could survive by themselves. He moved out
to a private farm, Walden, where he lived for a little over two years. While he
was at Walden he wrote about the experiences he dealt with and provided proof
that man could be self-reliant. Thoreau believed that every man is pure since he
was made by God and that whatever man wanted to do he should. He believed that
man should not be held to a standard. "If a man does not keep pace with his
companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to
the music which he hears, however measured or far away" (2137). Among
transcendentalist the most outspoken was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson even
entitled a book "Self-Reliance," in which he discusses the topic.
Emerson believes that man is holy and that the "relations of the soul to
the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to Flinn 5
interpose" (1629). These belief of purity lead to his belief that man
should "trust thyself," for "the only right is what is after my
constitution, the only wrong what is against it" (1623, 1624). Emerson
believes that man should listen to his inner self and it will not lead him wrong
since whatever he wants to do is what he should do, "no law can be sacred
to me but that of my nature" (1624). As a result of this belief, Emerson
believes that all a man "must do, is all that concerns [him], not what the
people think" (1625). Emerson believes that listening to one's inner self
is the best thing to do since it will not lead one astray. Transcendentalist
believed that by relying on oneself, you would become closer to nature and God.
Thus, you would be leading a better life than you would if you listened to
others. The issue of self-reliance is one that has been discussed and argued for
against from the beginning of American Literature. With people like the Puritans
and Edgar Allan Poe arguing that self-reliance would caused the evil within
people to come out causing them to commit evil acts. And with people such as the
Deists, Quakers, and Transcendentalist leading the argument for self-reliance
believing the God is in each man and that by listening to yourself would cause
you to achieve a higher status. This argument has been going on has been going
on for a while, and it does not look like an end is anywhere in sight.
Fox, George. The Society of Friends.
April 30, 1999 Jones, Paul. "Introduction to Deism" Lauter, Paul. ed.
The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin
Company. Boston; 1998
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