19th century writers used a lot of words. It would be another hundred years before a different style of writing would catch on. Emerson is wordy. There’s no way around it. It’s an incontrovertible truth. When I taught “Self-Reliance” I did it by making a worksheet that had one question per paragraph. The idea was if the student could answer the question, he/she had the jist of the paragraph.
My students hated it, or, anyway, I thought they hated it. When I wrote my thesis advisor, who had edited the Emerson’s Essays we were using, and told him I was teaching it, he said, “Find out who likes it. Get their names and I’ll send them autographed copies.”
The next time I went to class I asked, “Do any of you like ‘Self-Reliance’?” 3/4 of the class raised their hands. I said, “It doesn’t affect your grade. I just haven’t tried this before.” No one put their hands down. Dr. Robert D. Richardson had to send 25 autographed copies of the book.
The message of “Self-Reliance” is that through self-knowledge, a person can learn to act and live in harmony with his/her true nature. The essay is full of beautiful passages buried in the labyrinth of Emerson’s prose. One of the loveliest, densest and (to me) truthful passages of “Self-Reliance” is very dense, but the message contained within it strikes home for me. It concerns “Whim.”
I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation… “Self-Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Whim” in this case is essentially following your heart. You don’t know where it’s going to lead, but the thread to which it attaches might be the heart’s goal. It might not, but, as Emerson says, “…we cannot spend the day in explanation.”