I found Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous words, “there is properly no history, only biography,” in his “Essay I” being quoted in the article titled “Keeping the dream alive: A biography,” appearing in June 21, 2012 Time magazine. The article deals with the collapse of American Dream, and “there is properly no history ...” comes in the following sentence:

“There is the crisis of our time. The American Dream may be slipping away. We have overcome such challenges before. To recover the Dream requires knowing where it came from, how it lasted so long and why it matters so much.

Emerson once remarked that there is properly no history, only biography. This is the biography of an idea, one that made America great. Whether that idea has much of a future is the question facing Americans now.”

The author, Jon Meacham seems to relate the word, “the biography of an idea” to American Dream, but I don’t get a clear idea about the phrase, “there is properly no history, only biography” meant by Emerson.

What does it mean in specific connection with “American Dream”?

By the way, what is the function of “properly” used as an adverb here? Does it mean “in proper (exact) sense, there is no (abstract string of) history, but for (individual) biography (of heroes or historic characters)?

  • Emerson introduces his ideas through words and phrases, and if you don't know what these mean, there's little chance that they will make sense of the text: higher-order thinking in reading depends heavily on knowledge of grammar and word meanings. Hence I suggest you to see a dictionary.
    – user19148
    Oct 5, 2012 at 6:41
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    @Carlo_R. I’ve been learning English language for more than a half century, precisely 66 years since junior high. I don’t think the composition of the sentence “There is properly no history, only biography.” requires special and high level of knowledge about grammar and the meanings of “history” and “biology” simply available from dictionaries. I don’t think any of Oxford, Cambridge, and American Heritage Dictionary would give a workable answer to my question, which has nothing to do with a trove of dry definitions of word, “history” and “biology,” nor grammatical composition of it. Oct 5, 2012 at 9:18
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    Continued: It’s an insightful interpretation and effective explanation of the meaning and thought behind “There is properly no history, only biography” that I expect to obtain from my colleagues, not from commonplace dictionaries and grammar books. Oct 5, 2012 at 9:19

2 Answers 2


Emerson was echoing the Great Man Theory of history espoused by his contemporary, Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, who said:

“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

The American Dream is the national ethos of the United States. To quote Wikipedia:

The idea of the American Dream is rooted in the United States Declaration of Independence which proclaims that "all men are created equal" and that they are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights" including "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Meacham is arguing that the American Dream isn't simply an abstract ideal, but is a grand idea that has had a life of its own; and its biography is the history of the United States.


I would interpret this as saying that, as you suggest, "properly" is used to mean in the strict sense of the word. He is alluding to the fact that true history is a complete and unbiased account of the actual events that took place during some period in the past, but it is impossible for anyone to accomplish this because anyone attempting it will knowingly or unknowingly, by omission, inclusion, or interpretation, introduce their own biases and thus their account will be more a biographical account than an historical one.

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    That's one way of looking at it, but I suspect Emerson meant something a bit more subtle and "poetic" than just a rephrasing of history is written by the winners (who are inevitably biased). I think it's more that history is a meaningless sequence of "historical accidents", and that only the [biographical] details of real people's lives actually have any "meaning" in the grand scheme of things. He was a champion of individualism, after all, not a historian worried about accuracy of reporting. Oct 5, 2012 at 4:45
  • You make a good point.
    – Jim
    Oct 5, 2012 at 4:56
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    Not for the first time, I suspect Yoichi is trying to lure us into philosophical/literary discussion (with the figleaf of asking whether “properly” is used as an adverb! :) But, Hey! They're always interesting questions, even if they skirt the margins of ELU topicality. Oct 5, 2012 at 5:06
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    @Yoichi Oishi: I always find your questions interesting, even though I sometimes vote to close them as Off Topic or whatever! Anyway, knowing how much store you Japanese set by lucky numbers, I'll do my best to help you get to that target. I didn't actually upvote this question because a.) the history/biography issue is "discussion", and b.) you seem to already understand the meaning of Emerson's "properly". But I'm going to upvote it now because properly here is an unusual, almost "poetic" usage, which could easily merit further investigation. Oct 5, 2012 at 22:25
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    Jim. Look at the rep number on may page. It's 11111! Oct 6, 2012 at 1:22

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