Professor explores meaning of Emerson's 'Self-Reliance'

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MANCHESTER — An Amherst College professor will consider the intent behind Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay "Self-Reliance" in a talk at First Congregational Church on Wednesday.

"What Does Emerson's Essay on Self-Reliance Mean?," which will be given by English professor Barry O'Connell, is part of the Vermont Humanities Council's First Wednesdays lecture series.

Emerson's "Self-Reliance" draws many more readers than the 19th century writer's other works. The very idea of self-reliance is central to how many Americans define both themselves and their culture. But, as O'Connell will explain, Emerson plays with the meaning of the term until he finally dismisses it altogether.

What, then, are we to make of the essay?

O'Connell is the James E. Ostendarp Professor of English at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. He began his teaching career in college by creating alternative primary and secondary school programs in the basements of public housing projects in Cambridge and Boston.

He has sought to widen the understanding of American history and literature by offering college courses that include the working-class experiences and writings of African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans and Latinos. O'Connell founded the first Head Start in the greater Boston area, as well as the first Upward Bound program for middle and high school dropouts. After earning a doctorate degree in the history of American Civilization, he returned to his commitment to public education, concentrating on subject-based teacher development shaped jointly with teachers.

The First Wednesdays talks in Manchester, free and open to the public, are hosted by the Manchester Community Library. For more information, contact the library at 802-362-2607 or the Vermont Humanities Council at 802-262-2626 or info@vermonthumanities.org.

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