From Peter Norberg's Introduction toEssays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson In the face of this new materialism, Emerson feared that America was losing its most valuable resourcethe individualas men and women increasingly defined themselves in terms of their professions and their possessions. "The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars," he lamented in "The American Scholar." "The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship". The alienation that results from conformity could be overcome only by a radical break with custom and tradition. "If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible society, vote with a great party either for the Government or against it," he wrote in "Self-Reliance," ". . . under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. . . . But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself" . For Emerson, our ability to think and act on our own terms was ultimately the strongest corrective to conformity. "In all of my lectures," he wrote in his journal in 1840, "I have preached one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man" (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol. 7, p. 342; see "For Further Reading"). By keeping this a continual refrain throughout his career, he placed the individual at the center of American culture as a critical counterforce to the mentality of mass consumerism. Today, when the pressures placed on individuals to conform to the material values of American culture are perhaps stronger than ever, readers young and old will find Emerson's essays a resource for personal, intellectual, and professional renewal. The emphasis Emerson placed on the individual was grounded in his theological beliefs. Human life, as well as nature, was a manifestation of divinity. In moments of genuine inspiration or original action, the individual did not think or act from himself but was a conduit for what Emerson variously referred to as "Supreme Mind," "Universal Being," or "the Over-soul." "We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us organs of its activity and receivers of its truth," he wrote in "Self-Reliance." "When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams". This fact is easy to overlook in an increasingly secular world, but it is essential for understanding the difference between Emersonian self-reliance and what Albert J. von Frank has termed the "predatory individualism" of the expansionist era. Equally important is some knowledge of Emerson's personal experience of the transient nature of human life. From his childhood until the middle of his life, Emerson lived through the tragic loss of those closest to him. His father died less than two weeks before Emerson's eighth birthday; his three-year-old sister, Mary Caroline, when he was ten. His first wife, Ellen Tucker, suffered from tuberculosis, and Emerson probably knew she would die young when they married. Still, when she succumbed to the disease at the age of nineteen, before their second wedding anniversary, he was devastated. Tuberculosis was widespread in New England. Emerson showed symptoms of it himself. It claimed the lives of two of his brothers, Edward at the age of twenty-nine and Charles at thirty-two. They were his closest confidants. Following Charles's funeral, Emerson is reported to have said, "When one has never had but little societyand all that society is taken awaywhat is there worth living for?" Finally, in 1842, when Emerson was thirty-eight and happily married to his second wife, Lydia Jackson, their eldest son, Waldo, died of scarlet fever. He was five. Emerson's optimistic affirmations of the indivNorberg, Peter is the author of 'Essays And Poems By Ralph Waldo Emerson', published 2005 under ISBN 9781593080761 and ISBN 159308076X.