Freedom is more than a concept, it is an ideal with varied and complex subjective interpretations. Ideas concerning the liberty of body and soul are heavily connected to the formation of individual and cultural identity in American literary history. Certain nineteenth century American writers stand out for their real-life dedication to freedom and non-conformity for seeking to free themselves from whatever shackles limited them from reaching their potentials, both literally and figuratively. Henry David Thoreau, Fredrick Douglass, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are exemplary writers of the nineteenth century who strove to articulate not only the ideas of freedom and justice, but also the means by which these ideals, which they themselves acted upon, might be realized. Thoreau's "Walden" and "Resistance to Civil Government," Douglass's "Narrative," and Emerson's "The American Scholar" are reflective, observational and hopeful works which inspire their audiences to interpret and incorporate the ideas found within to their own philosophies concerning personal and national identity.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the oldest of the three was often referred to as "the sage of Concord." A talented poet and essayist, he put into words the need for intellectual severance from Europe. Ever the ardent non-conformist, he believed that American intellectual culture too closely relied on and echoed those of other lands, writing that, in the worst case, the American scholar was "the parrot of other men's thinking" (Emerson). He expertly and eloquently mapped out a clear, if verbose, mold into which the new, elite and singularly American intellect should fill. His essays put forth a hope which he does not believe would come to fruition in his lifetime. Emerson, more so but not excluding Thoreau and Douglass wrote vigorously ambitious, high reaching
The works of Emerson and Thoreau are typically studied together, a fact owing at least in part to their association with the circle of writers known as the transcendentalists and their status as the two best-known members thereof. However, it can be argued that the work of Thoreau and Douglass might be more in synch and offer a better pairing for comparative reading or analysis than does the more well-worn tandem of Emerson and Thoreau. In contrast to Emerson, the writings of Thoreau and Douglass are both significantly more didactic. Their writing is pithy, entertaining, and educational, where Emerson is more prescriptive. In an article which compares Thoreau and Douglass's respective arguments in support of the use of violence for justified protest, Jason Matzke points out that, though the writing of each makes the barest of reference to the other, their lives shared many commonalities, including:
They were roughly the same age, with Thoreau born in 1817 and Douglass born probably in 1818. They had a number of mutual friends and acquaintances, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, Horace Greeley, Theodore...