“Atom by Atom, All the World into a New Form”: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Theory of Reform


The idea of dissent has often been discussed in association with the works of the Transcendentalists, who greatly influenced the literary and philosophical landscape of the United States in the 19th century. This article aims to shed light on an often-ignored side of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, often described as an aloof thinker, was an adamant dissenter and, more specifically, a conscientious reformer. By focusing on his theory of reform as expressed in a selection of essays devoted to this theme, this paper argues that Emerson’s concept of reform, though primarily directed towards the individual, was also intended to have repercussions in society at large. This dichotomy of individualism and communal effort is analyzed in texts which cover a twenty-year span in Emerson’s life, to demonstrate it is an opposition that must be reevaluated and possibly resolved.  


Transcendentalism; Reform; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Individualism; Dissent; American literature

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Published : 2023-12-29

OrlandiD. (2023). “Atom by Atom, All the World into a New Form”: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Theory of Reform. Review of International American Studies, 16(2), 177-193. https://doi.org/10.31261/rias.15027

Daphne Orlandi  daphne.orlandi@uniroma1.it
Sapienza-Università di Roma, Technische Universität Dortmund  Italy

Daphne Orlandi recently completed her PhD at Sapienza—University of Rome in cotutelle with Technische Universität Dortmund and is currently a lecturer in English at Sapienza. In her doctoral thesis she has argued for a radical rethinking of Emerson as a literary globalist and pointed out how the transnational and universal value that Emerson ascribed to literature, coupled with the realization that new modes of production and circulation were altering the inner workings of literature, made him sketch a “permanent” canon of texts that embodied global ideals and could resonate with everyone at all points in history. In 2019 she was awarded AISNA’s Gullì Prize for her MA thesis, and in 2022 she was the recipient of the Emerson Society Graduate Student Paper Award. Since 2021, she has served as managing editor for JAmIt! (Journal of American Studies in Italy). Her main fields of interest include 19th century American literature and comparative literature. She is especially interested in Transatlantic Studies, Transcendentalism as a social force, in the works of Margaret Fuller and in Walt Whitman’s poetry.

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