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The Great American Writer

What makes a "Great American Writer?" Is there a certain "American style" or "American argument" that bestows greatness on a writer? Or is it something different? Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson, two extremely influential American writers, are both considered today to be great American writers. Though on the surface they may seem to be similar, a close examination reveals great distinctions in their writings.

Some students of Edwards and Emerson may be quick to lump them together in a simple file of "Great American Writers." Though both writers are "great" and "American," there is not very much else about them that is the same. It is true that they were both preachers and both wrote in an oratory style, yet even in these similarities many distinctions are drawn.

Edwards, as shown in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, page 473, paragraph three, uses many colorful, symbolic metaphors such as when he calls life "the wilderness of the world" and calls Christianity to be having "[Christ] for my head, and to be a member of his body." Emerson uses metaphors also (he compares the mind classifying things to a group of flowers sprouting out from one stem [page 1136, paragraph four] ) though his essays are not as dependent on them as Edwards'. Emerson tends to give implied meanings to his metaphors through the context in which they are used, while Edwards tends to just state the metaphors and let the reader imply meanings through them. In fact today, many Christian churches still refer to themselves as the "body of Christ" and to difficult times as "the wilderness of the world."

Also, Edwards writing has many interjections of biblical scripture. In fact, much of his writing centers around stating some scripture and then interpreting and applying it to the lives of his readers. In the above mentioned paragraph, Edwards quotes scripture three times: Matthew 18, Psalms 115:1, and Luke 10:21. In fact, out of 283 words in this paragraph, seventy-eight of them are quoted from biblical scripture. That is nearly 30% of the paragraph. Emerson, on the other hand, uses other ideas to try to explain God and this world (such as transcendentalism).

As is typical of some preachers, Edwards tends to uses very long, complicated statements such as, "I love to think of coming to Christ, to receive salvation of him, poor in spirit, and quite empty of self; humbly exalting him alone; cut entirely off from my own root, and to grow into, and out of Christ: to have God in Christ to be all in all; and to live by faith in the Son of God, a life of humble, unfeigned confidence in him." In this paragraph, Edwards writes seven sentences. Only one of these sentences has fewer than thirty words (sentence three with twenty-two). There are two sentences with over fifty words (sentences six with fifty-three and four with sixty-nine). The remaining four sentences all have between thirty-one to thirty-nine words. In contrast, Emerson tends to use many short statements that, when on their own, do not make much sense, and sometimes do not even complete the thought. For instance, Emerson writes, "Every day, the sun; and after sunset, night and her stars," and, "Classification begins." Unlike Edwards, who usually fully develops a complete thought (sometimes two or three) in one sentence, Emerson's work must be read in its entirety to be understood.

One of the biggest differences between Edwards and Emerson is the overall argument they make. Edwards seems to find the sole meaning of his life to be his Christian beliefs. He says that "it has often appeared sweet to [him] to be united to Christ . . . to have Christ for my teacher and prophet." He says he wants to be "cut entirely off from my own root, and to grow into, and out of Christ." He believes that man's purpose in life is to discover as much as one can from the revealed scriptures, and not to just take it at face value, but to apply it to one's life, allowing the scripture to make him or her a better person. He believes that God is to be found in the center of the scripture, and for Christ to be that God. In contrast, Emerson says that "[t]he first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature." Unlike Edwards, he believes that the path towards discovering God and becoming a complete person is not through the scriptures, but through nature. He says about nature that "[t]here is never a beginning, there is never an end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God . . . ." He then goes on to say nature "resembles [God's] own spirit." He believes that a person should get as close to nature as possible, and that through nature, God's revelations for his or her own life would be revealed to the person.

In conclusion, there is no formula for becoming the next great American writer. In studying Edwards and Emerson, one will see conflicting styles, structures, and ideas. It becomes apparent that there is no "American style" or "American argument" that become keys to a writer's door to greatness. It is evident that good writing is simply good writing.