Ralph Waldo Emerson Gifts Essay Summary

In one of the few historical studies, Natalie Zemon Davis looked at the transition to a market economy in sixteenth-century France, arguing that gift exchange persisted as a cultural system alongside the emerging system of commodity transaction.I would suggest that the social/cultural system of gift giving does not simply parallel the commercial economy, but that the two are intertwined.

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Her research and teaching areas include topics in American cultural history, research methods, public history, and digital humanities.I have found that anxiety about gift giving and debates over what constitutes the perfect gift have a long history, which began with Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-nineteenth century.This essay will trace how we got from Emerson’s idealism—he defined the gift as “a portion of thyself” rather than something that could be purchased—to the crass pragmatism of the gift registry.He turns gift-giving into a test, which I don’t think is fair at all.” Sedaris related that he, in contrast, kept a running list of gift ideas for himself, and was always happy to share it with people wanting to give him a gift.He simply didn’t understand why Hugh wasn’t similarly forthcoming (Sedaris).Many Americans, myself included, have a love-hate relationship with the registry, which is of American origins but has begun to seep into Europe.The gift registry enables a couple getting married (or, today, someone anticipating just about any life occasion) to publish a detailed wish list of gift items, along with information about how prospective givers can buy and send them.The scholarly literature has been dominated by anthropologists and sociologists, who have tended to posit a binary opposition between gift exchange as an economic system and as a social system.Anthropologists have largely followed the lead of pioneering gift scholar Marcel Mauss by concentrating on non-market societies and their gift exchange economies.The creation of a middle-class culture defined in terms of family, domesticity, and sentiment gave the gift new meaning.The domestic ideal led to the expansion of family rituals and celebrations—what Elizabeth Pleck has called “sentimental occasions”—which both created and reinforced family memories and bonds.


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