Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111201209-Emerson.jpgRalph Waldo Emerson Published by Salem Press, Inc.
Ralph Waldo EmersonRalph Waldo EmersonImage via writersmug.com

Article abstract: Emerson was a spokesman for a peculiarly American culture. His writings contributed to that culture and encouraged others to add still further to it.

Early Life

The fourth child of Unitarian minister William Emerson and Ruth Haskins Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803. His father’s death in 1811 left the family poor, and his mother had to maintain a boardinghouse to support the family of six young children.

Despite this poverty, Emerson’s education was not neglected. He attended the prestigious Boston Latin School (1812-1817) and in 1821 was graduated from Harvard. Even when he was an undergraduate, his interest in philosophy and writing was evident. In 1820, he won second prize in the Bowdoin competition for his essay “The Character of Socrates,” and the following year, he won the prize again with “The Present State of Ethical Philosophy.” In these pieces he demonstrated his preference for the present over the past, praising the modern Scottish Common Sense philosophers more highly than Aristotle and Socrates.

This preference derived largely from his belief that the modern philosophers offered more guidance in how to live. Despite the mysticism that informs much of Emerson’s writing, he remained concerned with daily life. Thus, his purpose in Representative Men (1850) was to draw from the lives of great men some lessons for everyday behavior, and in the 1850’s he gave a series of lectures collected under the title The Conduct of Life (1860).

After graduation from Harvard, Emerson taught school for his brother William before entering Harvard Divinity School in 1825. In 1826, he delivered his first sermon in Waltham, Massachusetts; typically, it dealt with the conduct of life. Emerson warned that because prayers are always answered, people must be careful to pray for the right things. One sees here another strain that runs through Emerson’s writings, the optimistic view that one gets what one seeks.

Three years later, in 1829, Emerson was ordained as minister of Boston’s Second Church, once the Puritan bastion of Increase and Cotton Mather. In the course of his maiden sermon there, he spoke of the spiritual value of the commonplace. He reminded his audience that parables explain divine truths through homey allusions and noted that if Jesus were to address a nineteenth century congregation, he “would appeal to those arts and objects by which we are surrounded; to the printing-press and the loom, to the phenomena of steam and of gas.” Again one finds this love of the commonplace as a persistent theme throughout his work. As he states in Nature (1836), “The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat” all embody universal truths.

In the same year that Emerson became minister of the Second Church, he married Ellen Louisa Tucker. Her death from tuberculosis in 1831 triggered an emotional and psychological crisis in Emerson, already troubled by elements of Unitarianism. In October, 1832, he resigned his ministry, claiming that he could not accept the church’s view of communion, and in December he embarked for a year in Europe. Here he met a number of his literary heroes, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle. He was less impressed with these men—Carlyle excepted—than he was with the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. At the French botanical garden he felt “moved by strange sympathies. I say I will listen to this invitation. I will be a naturalist.”

Returning to Boston in 1833, Emerson soon began the first of numerous lecture series that would take him across the country many times during his life. From the lectern he would peer at his audience with his intense blue eyes. Tall and thin, habitually wearing an enigmatic smile, he possessed an angelic quality that contributed to his popularity as a speaker. The subject of his first lectures was science, a topic to which he often returned. His literary debut came, however, not from a scientific but from a philosophical examination of the physical world.

Life’s Work

In 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson (rechristened Lidian by Emerson), and the couple moved to Concord, where Emerson lived the rest of his life. The next year Waldo, the first of their four children, was born. In 1836, too, Emerson published a small pamphlet called Nature. Condemning the age for looking to the past instead of the present, he reminded his readers that “the sun shines to-day also.” To create a contemporary poetry and philosophy, all that was necessary was to place oneself in harmony with nature. Then “swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies” will yield to “beautiful faces, warm hearts, wise discourse, and heroic acts . . . until evil is no more seen. . . . Build therefore your own world.”

The volume was not popular: It sold only fifteen hundred copies in America in the eight years following its publication, and a second edition was not published until 1849. It served, though, as the rallying cry for the Transcendentalist movement. In literature this group looked to Carlyle and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; indeed, Emerson arranged for the publication of Carlyle’s first book, Sartor Resartus (1836), in the United States some years before it found a publisher in England. In philosophy the Transcendentalists followed Immanuel Kant in believing that man can transcend sensory experience (hence the movement’s name); they thus rejected the view of John Locke, who maintained that all knowledge comes from and is rooted in the senses. In religion it rejected miracles and emphasized instead the Bible’s ethical teachings.

Addressing the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard on August 31, 1837, Emerson returned to his theme in “The American Scholar.” He warned against the tyranny of received opinion, particularly as it appeared in books: “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given,” but “Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” The American scholar should, therefore, read the book of nature. He should do so confidently, believing that in him “is the law of all nature, . . . the whole of Reason.”

Thus guided by his own insight and revelation rather than by outdated cultures, the scholar would lead others to a union with the spiritual source of life. This enlightened individual was to be American as well as scholarly, for the nature he was to take as his mentor was that of the New World rather than the Old.

In 1838, Emerson presented the controversial “Divinity School Address.” To his audience of intellectual, rational Unitarians he preached the doctrine of constant revelation and called each of his listeners “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost.” Once more he was urging the rejection of the past—in this case historical Christianity—in favor of the present and trust in personal feelings rather than doctrine and dogma. His criticism of what he saw as the cold lifelessness of Unitarianism so shocked his listeners that he was barred from Harvard for almost three decades.

Such a reaction, though, was what Emerson was seeking; he wanted to shock what he saw as a complacent nation into regeneration through an appreciation of the present. “What is man for but to be a Reformer,” he wrote. First a person was to reform, that is remake, himself; hence, Emerson took little interest in political parties or the many Utopian experiments—some started by members of the Transcendental Club—of the 1840’s. When enough individuals reformed themselves, society would necessarily be improved.

Among those who shared Emerson’s vision were a number of neighbors: Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Jones Very, and Henry David Thoreau. From 1840 to 1844, this group published The Dial, a quarterly magazine rich in literature that expressed the Emersonian vision. Emerson frequently contributed to the journal, and for the magazine’s last two years he was its editor also.

His new philosophy spread well beyond Concord. In his journal in 1839, Emerson recorded that “a number of young and adult persons are at this moment the subject of a revolution [and] have silently given in their several adherence to a new hope.”

In 1841, he published Essays, which includes what is probably Emerson’s most famous piece, “Self-Reliance.” The themes of the essays were by now familiar, but the expression was forcefully aphoristic. Attacking contemporary religion, education, politics, art, and literature for their adherence to tradition, he declared, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” In 1844 appeared Essays: Second Series, with its call for an American poet who would sing of “our logrolling, our stumps, . . . our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, . . . the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas.” The American poet would not care for “meters, but metermaking argument.”

Emerson attempted to fill this role himself. His aunt Mary Moody had encouraged his youthful efforts in this area, and at the age of ten he had begun a poetic romance, “The History of Fortus.” His early efforts had earned for him the role of class poet when he was graduated from Harvard in 1821. Poems (1847) suggests, however, that he lacked the ability or inclination to follow his own advice. The poems often remain tied to meter and rhyme rather than the rhythms of natural speech. In “Days,” one of his more successful pieces, he described himself as sitting in his “pleached garden” and forgetting his “morning wishes.” In “The Poet” he lamented, “I miss the grand design.” Shortly before his second marriage, he had written to Lidian that though he saw himself as a poet, he knew he was one “of a low class, whose singing . . . is very husky.” Some poems, though, like “The Snow Storm,” reveal the power and beauty of nature through language that is fresh and immediate. Others, such as “Brahma” and “The Sphinx” (Emerson’s favorite), use symbols well to convey spiritual messages and suggest the correspondence among man, nature, and the spiritual world that is one of the tenets of Transcendentalism.

In the next decade, Emerson published three important works based on his lectures: Representative Men (1850), English Traits (1856), and The Conduct of Life (1860). His lectures were not always well attended, even though he was in great demand. One course of lectures in Chicago brought only thirty-seven dollars; another audience in Illinois quickly left when it found a lecture lacking in humor.

The books that emerged from these lectures are more sober than his earlier writings. His youthful idealism is tempered by a darker sense of reality. In “Fate,” the first chapter of The Conduct of Life, he recognizes the tyrannies of life and notes that man is subject to limitations. In the concluding essay of the book, he reaffirms liberty and urges again, “Speak as you think, be what you are,” but he concedes, too, the power of illusion to deceive and mislead.

After the Civil War, Emerson published two more collections of his essays, Society and Solitude (1870) and Letters and Social Aims (1876), this second with the help of James Elliot Cabot. Much of the contents of these books is drawn from lectures and journal entries written decades earlier.

Although he was reusing old ideas, his popularity continued to grow. In 1867, he was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa address again at Harvard; the previous year the school had indicated its forgiveness for the “Divinity School Address” by awarding Emerson an honorary doctorate. When he returned from a trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1873, the church bells of Concord rang to welcome him back, and the townspeople turned out in force to greet him.

Emerson recognized, however, that his powers were declining. As he wrote in “Terminus,” “It is time to be old/ To take in sail/ . . . Fancy departs.” John Muir saw him in California in 1871 and was amazed at the physical transformation, one mirrored by his fading mental abilities as his aphasia worsened. After John Burroughs attended a lecture by Emerson in 1872, he described the address as “pitiful.” When Emerson attended the funeral of his neighbor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in March, 1882, he could not remember the famous poet’s name. A few weeks later, on April 27, 1882, Emerson died of pneumonia and was buried near his leading disciple, Thoreau.

Summary

Emerson said that Goethe was the cow from which the rest drew their milk. The same may be said of Emerson himself. Walt Whitman derived his poetic inspiration from “The Poet,” as Whitman acknowledged by sending a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) to Concord. Emerson was among the few contemporary readers of the book to recognize its genius. Thoreau, though an independent thinker, also took much from Emerson. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson had written, “In the pleasing contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thoughts without prospect or retrospect. . . . My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects.” Here is a summary of Walden (1854). Emerson’s emphasis on the miraculous within the quotidian may even have influenced William Dean Howells and other American realists later in the century.

As an advocate of literary nationalism, of a truly American culture, he urged his countrymen to look about them and celebrate their own surroundings. His was not the only voice calling for an intellectual and cultural independence to mirror the country’s political autonomy, but it was an important and influential one. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., referred to “The American Scholar” as “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.”

In calling for a Renaissance rooted in the present of the New World rather than the past of the Old, Emerson was paradoxically joining the mainstream of the American spirit. Like John Winthrop in his sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630, he was advocating a new spirit for a new land.

Like his Puritan forerunners, too, Emerson stressed spiritual rather than material salvation. Having grown up poor, he harbored no illusions about poverty. He knew that “to be rich is to have a ticket of admission to the masterworks and chief men of every race.” Because of such statements, H. L. Mencken said that Emerson would have made a fine Rotarian. This misreading of Emerson ignores the view that he expressed near the end of his life: “Our real estate is that amount of thought which we have.” For Benjamin Franklin, the American Dream meant the opportunity to earn money. For Emerson, as for the Puritans, it meant the opportunity to live in harmony with oneself, to save not one’s pennies but one’s soul. Emerson’s lectures and essays forcefully articulate a vision of America that has continued to inform American thought and writing.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981. The definitive biography of Emerson, at once scholarly and readable. Allen is concerned with the personal as well as the public side of his subject. He also shows the evolution of Emerson’s ideas by citing the stages of their development in journal entries, letters, lectures, essays, and poems.

Bode, Carl, ed. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969. How did Emerson’s contemporaries view him? How has that view changed since his death? Bode offers a selection of biographical sketches by friends and scholars. Some of the earlier pieces are not readily available elsewhere.

Leary, Lewis Gaston. Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Interpretive Essay. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980. Offers an intellectual biography with a thematic arrangement. The focus is on understanding Emerson’s ideas and their relationship to his life.

McAleer, John J. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1984. Each of the eighty short chapters treats a stage in Emerson’s growth as a person, thinker, or writer. Much of the book deals with actual encounters between Emerson and his contemporaries to illustrate their mutual influence.

Matthiessen, Francis Otto. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London: Oxford University Press, 1941. Investigates the intellectual climate that produced so much significant American literature between 1850 and 1855. Focus is on literary criticism of the works themselves. Appropriately, Matthiessen begins with Emerson and explores all of his major works, not simply his publications in the early 1850’s.

Miller, Perry. “From Edwards to Emerson.” In Errand into the Wilderness, 184-203. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956. An insightful essay exploring Emerson’s intellectual debt to the Puritans at the same time that it shows the radical newness of Emerson’s ideas.

Rusk, Ralph Leslie. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949. Rusk’s was a pioneering study, the most detailed biography of Emerson up to that time and still useful for its meticulous detail. Rusk carefully examined unpublished material to present an authoritative picture of Emerson’s life. Concentrates more on the man than on his ideas.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Transcendentalism: Literary Touchstone Classic)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of the Transcendentalist Movement, was a philosopher, activist, and author, as well as a guide and patron of other writers, especially his friend Henry David Thoreau. Emerson's Transcendentalism embraced some principles of Christianity, Eastern religions, and the English Romantics, but was not a subcategory of any of them; instead, it was a new, truly American philosophy, with the idea of self-reliance at its core.

Emerson was born in Boston. His father and grandfather were both Unitarian ministers, and the call to preach is clearly evident in Emerson's writing. However, he advocated a break with some of the formal teachings of the Unitarian Church. For instance, he caused an uproar while giving the graduation address at Harvard Divinity School when he disavowed the divinity of Jesus. Although Jesus was a good, insightful man who saw the truth clearly, said Emerson, Jesus was not God, and focusing on Jesus' divinity had done harm to the Church. Instead of blindly worshipping, each person should attempt to perceive the truth as clearly as Jesus had.

Emerson helped edit the magazine, The Dial, which published many Transcendentalist writings in the 1880s, and his first book of essays, Nature, (1836) was one of the most important publications of the Transcendentalists. In it, Emerson espouses the belief that human beings are connected to everything in the natural world by a common soul and states that all human beings have access to this soul through their own intuition; there is no need, he says, to get truth from books or higher authorities. He would elaborate upon this idea in Self-Reliance, his book of essays,.

Although he claimed that travel is seldom worthwhile (because any knowledge can be gained at home), Emerson did travel to several continents, and he crossed America as a lecturer. While in England, he met several important poets of the Romantic Movement, including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Their writing, like Emerson's, stressed the importance of individual intuition and the importance of finding solace in the natural world.

Emerson was married twice; his first wife, however, died of tuberculosis at the age of nineteen. With his second wife, Lidia (he called her Lidian), he had five children. The oldest, Waldo, died of scarlet fever at the age of five, and both parents suffered great emotional stress because of it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson died from pneumonia on April 27, 1882. The bells in Concord rang 79 times—one for each year of his life.

  • abysses – deep holes
  • cretaceous – a prehistoric time
  • saurians – marine dinosaurs
  • Jurassic – an ancient time period
  • Oolitic – a type of rock
  • saline – salty
  • Triassic – a prehistoric time period

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Emerson’s invocation to humanity to live in harmony with nature became the impetus for the American Transcendentalist movement, which held that human beings could transcend sensory experience and rejected the Lockean notion that all knowledge comes from and is rooted in the senses.

Early Life

The fourth child of Unitarian minister William Emerson and Ruth Haskins Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803. His father’s death in 1811 left the family poor, and his mother had to maintain a boardinghouse to support the family of six young children.

Despite this poverty, Emerson’s education was not neglected. He attended the prestigious Boston Latin School (1812-1817) and in 1821 was graduated from Harvard. Even when he was an undergraduate, his interest in philosophy and writing was evident. In 1820, he won second prize in the Bowdoin competition for his essay “The Character of Socrates,” and the following year he won the prize again with “The Present State of Ethical Philosophy.” In these pieces, he demonstrated his preference for the present over the past, praising the modern Scottish Common Sense philosophers more highly than Aristotle and Socrates.

This preference derived largely from his belief that the modern philosophers offered more guidance in how to live. Despite the mysticism that informs much of Emerson’s writing, he remained concerned with daily life. Thus, his purpose in Representative Men was to draw from the lives of great men some lessons for everyday behavior, and in the 1850’s, he gave a series of lectures collected under the title The Conduct of Life.

After graduation from Harvard, Emerson taught school for his brother William before entering Harvard Divinity School in 1825. In 1826, he delivered his first sermon in Waltham, Massachusetts; typically, it dealt with the conduct of life. Emerson warned that because prayers are always answered, people must be careful to pray for the right things. One sees here another strain that runs through Emerson’s writings, the optimistic view that one gets what one seeks.

Three years later, in 1829, Emerson was ordained as minister of Boston’s Second Church, once the Puritan bastion of Increase and Cotton Mather. In the course of his maiden sermon there, he spoke of the spiritual value of the commonplace. He reminded his audience that parables explain divine truths through homey allusions and noted that if Jesus were to address a nineteenth century congregation, he “would appeal to those arts and objects by which we are surrounded; to the printing-press and the loom, to the phenomena of steam and of gas.” Again one finds this love of the commonplace as a persistent theme throughout his work. As he states in Nature, “The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat” all embody universal truths.

In the same year that Emerson became minister of the Second Church, he married Ellen Louisa Tucker. Her death from tuberculosis in 1831 triggered an emotional and psychological crisis in Emerson, already troubled by elements of Unitarianism. In October, 1832, he resigned his ministry, claiming that he could not accept the church’s view of communion, and in December embarked for a year in Europe. There he met a number of his literary heroes, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle. He was less impressed with these men (Carlyle excepted) than he was with the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. At the French botanical garden, he felt “moved by strange sympathies. I say I will listen to this invitation. I will be a naturalist.”

Returning to Boston in 1833, Emerson soon began the first of numerous lecture series that would take him across the country many times during his life. From the lectern, he would peer at his audience with his intense blue eyes. Tall and thin, habitually wearing an enigmatic smile, he possessed an angelic quality that contributed to his popularity as a speaker. The subject of his first lectures was science, a topic to which he often returned. His literary debut came, however, not from a scientific but from a philosophical examination of the physical world.

In 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson (rechristened Lidian by Emerson), and the couple moved to Concord, where Emerson lived the rest of his life. The next year Waldo, the first of their four children, was born.

Life’s Work

In 1836, Emerson published a small pamphlet called Nature. Condemning the age for looking to the past instead of the present, he reminded his readers that “the sun shines to-day also.” To create a contemporary poetry and philosophy, all that was necessary was to place oneself in harmony with nature. Then

swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies” would yield to “beautiful faces, warm hearts, wise discourse, and heroic acts … until evil is no more seen. … Build therefore your own world.

The volume was not popular: It sold only fifteen hundred copies in the United States in the eight years following its publication, and a second edition was not published until 1849. It served, though, as the rallying cry for the Transcendentalist movement. In literature, this group looked to Carlyle and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; indeed, Emerson arranged for the publication of Carlyle’s book, Sartor Resartus (1836), in the United States some years before it found a publisher in England. In philosophy, the Transcendentalists followed Immanuel Kant in believing that humanity can transcend sensory experience (hence the movement’s name); they thus rejected the view of John Locke, who maintained that all knowledge comes from and is rooted in the senses. In religion, this group rejected miracles and emphasized instead the Bible’s ethical teachings.

Addressing the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard on August 31, 1837, Emerson returned to his theme in “The American Scholar.” He warned against the tyranny of received opinion, particularly as it appeared in books: “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given,” but “Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” The American scholar should, therefore, read the book of nature and should do so confidently, believing that “the law of all nature, … the whole of Reason” resides in the self.

Thus guided by his own insight and revelation rather than by outdated cultures, the scholar would lead others to a union with the spiritual source of life. This enlightened individual was to be American as well as scholarly, for the nature he (today we would add “or she”) was to take as his mentor was that of the New World rather than the Old.

In 1838, Emerson presented the controversial “Divinity School Address.” To his audience of intellectual, rational Unitarians he preached the doctrine of constant revelation and called each of his listeners “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost.” Once more, he was urging the rejection of the past—in this case, historical Christianity—in favor of the present and trust in personal feelings rather than doctrine and dogma. His criticism of what he saw as the cold lifelessness of Unitarianism so shocked his listeners that he was barred from Harvard for almost three decades.

Such a reaction, though, was what Emerson was seeking; he wanted to shock what he saw as a complacent nation into regeneration through an appreciation of the present. “What is man for but to be a Reformer,” he wrote. First a person was to reform, that is remake, himself; hence, Emerson took little interest in political parties or the many Utopian experiments—some started by members of the Transcendental Club—of the 1840’s. When enough individuals reformed themselves, society would necessarily be improved.

Among those who shared Emerson’s vision were a number of neighbors: Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Jones Very, and Henry David Thoreau. From 1840 to 1844, this group published The Dial, a quarterly magazine rich in literature that expressed the Emersonian vision. Emerson frequently contributed to the journal, and for the magazine’s last two years, he was its editor also. Emerson’s new philosophy spread well beyond Concord. In his journal in 1839, Emerson recorded that “a number of young and adult persons are at this moment the subject of a revolution [and] have silently given in their several adherence to a new hope.”

In 1841, Emerson published the first series of his Essays, which includes what is probably Emerson’s most famous piece, “Self-Reliance.” The themes of the essays were by now familiar, but the expression was forcefully aphoristic. Attacking contemporary religion, education, politics, art, and literature for their adherence to tradition, he declared, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” In 1844 appeared Essays: Second Series, with its call for an American poet who would sing of “our logrolling, our stumps, … our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, … the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas.” The American poet would not care for “meters, but metermaking argument.”

Emerson attempted to fill this role himself. His aunt Mary Moody had encouraged his youthful efforts in this area, and at the age of ten, he had begun a poetic romance, “The History of Fortus.” His early efforts had earned for him the role of class poet when he was graduated from Harvard in 1821. Poems (1847) suggests, however, that he lacked the ability or inclination to follow his own advice. The poems often remain tied to meter and rhyme rather than the rhythms of natural speech. In “Days,” one of his more successful pieces, he described himself as sitting in his “pleached garden” and forgetting his “morning wishes.” In “The Poet” he lamented, “I miss the grand design.” Shortly before his second marriage, he had written to Lidian that though he saw himself as a poet, he knew he was one “of a low class, whose singing … is very husky.” Some poems, though, such as “The Snow Storm,” reveal the power and beauty of nature through language that is fresh and immediate. Others, such as “Brahma” and “The Sphinx” (Emerson’s favorite), use symbols well to convey spiritual messages and suggest the correspondence among man, nature, and the spiritual world that is one of the tenets of Transcendentalism.

In the next decade, Emerson published three important works based on his lectures: Representative Men, English Traits, and The Conduct of Life. His lectures were not always well attended, even though he was in great demand. One course of lectures in Chicago brought only thirty-seven dollars; another audience in Illinois quickly left when it found a lecture lacking in humor. The books that emerged from these lectures are more sober than his earlier writings. His youthful idealism is tempered by a darker sense of reality. In “Fate,” the first chapter of The Conduct of Life, he recognizes the tyrannies of life and notes that man is subject to limitations. In the concluding essay of the book, he reaffirms liberty and urges again, “Speak as you think, be what you are,” but he concedes, too, the power of illusion to deceive and mislead.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Emerson published two more collections of his essays, Society and Solitude and Letters and Social Aims, the second with the help of James Elliot Cabot. Much of the content of these books is drawn from lectures and journal entries written decades earlier. Although he was reusing old ideas, his popularity continued to grow. In 1867, he was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa address again at Harvard; the previous year, the school had indicated its forgiveness for the “Divinity School Address” by awarding Emerson an honorary doctorate. When he returned from a trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1873, the church bells of Concord rang to welcome him back, and the townspeople turned out in force to greet him.

Emerson recognized, however, that his powers were declining. In “Terminus” he wrote, “It is time to be old/ To take in sail/ … Fancy departs.” The great naturalist and conservationist John Muir saw him in California in 1871 and was amazed at the physical transformation, one mirrored by his fading mental abilities as his aphasia worsened. After John Burroughs attended a lecture by Emerson in 1872, he described the address as “pitiful.” When Emerson attended the funeral of his neighbor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in March, 1882, he could not remember the famous poet’s name. A few weeks later, on April 27, 1882, Emerson died of pneumonia and was buried near his leading disciple, Thoreau.

Influence

Emerson said that Goethe was the cow from which the rest drew their milk. The same may be said of Emerson himself. Walt Whitman derived his poetic inspiration from “The Poet,” as Whitman acknowledged by sending a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) to Concord. Emerson was among the few contemporary readers of the book to recognize its genius. Thoreau, though an independent thinker, also took much from Emerson. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson had written, “In the pleasing contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thoughts without prospect or retrospect. … My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects.” That is a summary of Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854). Emerson’s emphasis on the miraculous within the quotidian may even have influenced William Dean Howells and other American realists later in the century.

As an advocate of literary nationalism, of a truly American culture, he urged his countrymen to look about them and celebrate their own surroundings. His was not the only voice calling for an intellectual and cultural independence to mirror the country’s political autonomy, but his was an important and influential one. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., referred to “The American Scholar” as “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.” In calling for a Renaissance rooted in the present of the New World rather than the past of the Old, Emerson was paradoxically joining the mainstream of the American spirit. Like John Winthrop in his sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630, he was advocating a new spirit for a new land.

Like his Puritan forerunners, too, Emerson stressed spiritual rather than material salvation. Having grown up poor, he harbored no illusions about poverty. He knew that “to be rich is to have a ticket of admission to the masterworks and chief men of every race.” Because of such statements, journalist H. L. Mencken said that Emerson would have made a fine Rotarian. This misreading of Emerson ignores the view that he expressed near the end of his life: “Our real estate is that amount of thought which we have.” For Benjamin Franklin, the American Dream meant the opportunity to earn money. For Emerson, as for the Puritans, it meant the opportunity to live in harmony with oneself, to save not one’s pennies but one’s soul. Emerson’s lectures and essays forcefully articulate a vision of the United States that has continued to inform American thought and writing.

Additional Reading

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981. An excellent biography, at once scholarly and readable. Deals with the personal as well as public side of Emerson and shows the evolution of his ideas by citing the stages of their development in journal entries, letters, essays, and poems.

Baker, Carlos. Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait. New York: Viking, 1996.

Barish, Evelyn. Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Bode, Carl, ed. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969. Biographical sketches by Emerson’s friends and scholars that relate how his contemporaries viewed him and as well as how perspectives on him have changed since his death.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Belknap, 2003. A thorough and admiring biography that presents Emerson as an international figure.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Includes a chapter on Emerson’s philosophical perspective on the romantic idea of the “marriage of the self and the world.”

Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1993. A discussion of Emerson’s insistence that a practical application of learning and philosophy leads to empowerment. Includes an index.

Leary, Lewis Gaston. Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Interpretive Essay. Boston: Twayne, 1980. An intellectual biography with a thematic arrangement. Focuses on Emerson’s ideas and their relationship to his life.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Focuses on Emerson’s emphasis on power and force in the development of his American philosophy. Includes an index.

McAleer, John J. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. Contains eighty short chapters that treat stages of Emerson’s growth as a person, thinker, or writer. Much of the book deals with actual encounters between Emerson and his contemporaries to illustrate their mutual influence.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Focuses on Emerson’s writings as they relate to pragmatic rather than merely transcendental purposes. Includes an introduction that reviews various perspectives on Emerson. Contains an index.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. A first-rate biography on Emerson that includes a life chronology, genealogy, and index.

Whicher, Stephen E. Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1953. Still a solid introduction to Emerson’s life and thought. Includes a life chronology, bibliography, and index.

Yannella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A good introduction to Emerson’s life and thought. Includes a life chronology, select bibliography, and index.

Bibliography updated by Richard M. Leeson

Ralph Waldo Emerson Representative Authors (Literary Movements for Students)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)
Writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson was born May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts....

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Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Poets and Poetry in America)

Born in Boston on May 25, 1803, Ralph Waldo Emerson was the second of five sons in the family of William Emerson and Ruth Emerson. His father was a noted Unitarian minister of old New England stock whose sudden death in 1811 left the family to struggle in genteel poverty. Although left without means, Emerson’s mother and his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, were energetic and resourceful women who managed to survive by taking in boarders, accepting the charity of relatives, and teaching their boys the New England values of thrift, hard work, and mutual assistance within the family. Frail as a child, Emerson attended Boston Latin School and Harvard, where he graduated without distinction in 1821. Since their mother was determined that her children would receive a decent education, each of her sons taught after graduation to help the others through school. Thus Emerson taught for several years at his brother’s private school for women before he decided to enter divinity school. His family’s high thinking and plain living taught young Emerson self-reliance and a deep respect for books and learning.

With his father and step-grandfather, the Reverend Ezra Ripley of Concord, as models, Emerson returned to Harvard to prepare for the ministry. After two years of intermittent study at the Divinity School, Emerson was licensed to preach in the Unitarian Church. He was forced to postpone further studies, however, and to travel south during the winter of 1826 because of poor health. The next two years saw him preaching occasionally and serving as a substitute pastor. One such call brought him to Concord, New Hampshire, where he met his future wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker. After his ordination in March, 1829, Emerson married Tucker and accepted a call as minister of the Second Church, Boston, where his father had also served. The position and salary were good, and Emerson was prepared to settle into a respectable career as a Boston Unitarian clergyman. Unfortunately his wife was frail, and within a year and a half, she died of tuberculosis. Grief-stricken, Emerson found it difficult to continue with his duties as pastor and resigned from the pulpit six months after his wife’s death. Private doubts had assailed him, and he found he could no longer administer the Lord’s Supper in good conscience. His congregation would not allow him to dispense with the rite, so his resignation was reluctantly accepted.

With a small settlement from his wife’s legacy, he sailed for Europe in December, 1832, to regain his health and try to find a new vocation. During his winter in Italy, he admired the art treasures in Florence and Rome. There he met the American sculptor Horatio Greenough and the English writer Walter Savage Landor. The following spring, Emerson continued his tour through Switzerland and into France. Paris charmed him with its splendid museums and gardens, and he admired the natural history exhibits at the Jardin des Plantes. Crossing to England by August, he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in London, then traveled north to visit Thomas Carlyle in Craigenputtock and William Wordsworth at Rydal Mount. His meeting with Carlyle resulted in a lifelong friendship.

After returning to Boston in 1833, Emerson gradually settled into a new routine of study, lecturing, and writing, filling an occasional pulpit on Sundays, and assembling ideas in his journals for his essay on “Nature.” Lydia Jackson, a young woman from Plymouth, New Hampshire, heard Emerson preach in Boston and became infatuated with him. The young widower returned her admiration, although he frankly confessed that he felt none of the deep affection he had cherished for his first wife. During their engagement he renamed her “Lidian” in their correspondence because he disliked the name Lydia. She accepted the change without demur. Within a year, they were married and settled in a house on the Boston Post Road near the Old Manse of Grandfather Ripley. Emerson was now thirty-two and about to begin his life’s work.

The next decade marked Emerson’s intellectual maturity. Nature was completed and published as a small volume in 1836. In its elaborate series of correspondences between humans and nature, Emerson established the foundations of his idealistic philosophy. “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” he asked. Humans could seek revelations firsthand from nature, rather than having them handed down through tradition. A year later, Emerson gave an address before the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Society, an event that Oliver Wendell Holmes later called “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.” In his address, which is best known as The American Scholar, Emerson called for a distinctively American style of letters, free from European influences. Invited in 1838 to speak before the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School, Emerson affirmed in his address that the true measure of religion resided within the individual, not in institutional or historical Christianity. If everyone had equal access to the Divine Spirit, then inner experience was all that was needed to validate religious truth. For this daring pronouncement, he was attacked by Harvard President Andrews Norton and others for espousing “the latest form of infidelity.” In a sense, each of these important essays was an extension of Emerson’s basic doctrine of self-reliance, applied to philosophy, culture, and religion.

His self-reliance served him equally well in personal life, even as family losses haunted him, almost as if to test his hard-won equanimity and sense of purpose. Besides losing his first wife, Ellen, Emerson saw two of his brothers die and a third become so feeble-minded that he had to be institutionalized. Worst of all, his first-born and beloved son Waldo died in 1841 of scarlet fever at the age of six. Emerson’s melioristic philosophy saw him through these losses, although in his journals he later chided himself for not feeling his son’s death more deeply. Despite the hurt he felt, his New England reserve would not allow him to yield easily to grief or despair. Nor would he dwell in darkness while there was still light to be found.

During these years, Emerson found Concord a congenial home. He established a warm and stimulating circle of friends there and enjoyed the intellectual company of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. As his fame as a lecturer and writer grew, he attracted a wider set of admirers, including Margaret Fuller, who often visited to share enthusiasms and transcendental conversations. Emerson even edited The Dial for a short time in 1842, but for the most part he remained aloof from, although sympathetic to, the transcendentalist movement that he had so largely inspired. His manner at times was even offhand. When asked for a definition of transcendentalism, he simply replied, “Idealism in 1842.” When George Ripley invited him to join the Brook Farm Community in 1840, Emerson politely declined. Reform, he believed, had to begin with the individual. Thoreau later rebuked him for not taking a firmer stand on the fugitive slave issue, but Emerson was by nature apolitical and skeptical of partisan causes. His serenity was too hard-won to be sacrificed, no matter how worthy the cause.

So instead he continued to lecture and write, and his essays touched an entire generation of American writers. Thoreau, Whitman, and Emily Dickinson responded enthusiastically to the appeal of Emerson’s thought, while even Hawthorne and Herman Melville, although rejecting it, still felt compelled to acknowledge his intellectual presence. Lecture tours took him repeatedly to the Midwest and to England and Scotland for a second time in 1847-1848. Harvard awarded him an honorary degree in 1866 and elected him overseer the following year. His alma mater also invited him to deliver a series of lectures on his philosophy in 1869-1870. When Emerson’s home in Concord burned in 1877, friends sent him on a third visit to Europe and Egypt, accompanied by his daughter Ellen, while the house and study were rebuilt with funds from admirers. He spent his last few years in Concord quietly and died in the spring of 1882. Of his life, it can be said that perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, he embodied the qualities of the American spirit—its frankness, idealism, optimism, and self-confidence. For the American writer of his age, all things were possible. If, finally, he was as much prophet as poet, that may be because of the power of his vision as well as its lyrical intensity, a power that suffused his prose and was concentrated in his poems.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

The catalyst for most of Emerson’s finest writings was his search for a liberating personal philosophy.

Ordained a minister, Emerson resigned his pastorate at a Boston Unitarian church because he believed that conventional religions told their parishioners what to think and how to act rather than instructing them how to use their own divinely inspired “moral sentiments.” He believed that only through this innate moral sense could one adequately meet one’s most important ethical responsibility: self-reliance.

Failure to follow one’s conscience was to live in a mind-numbing conformity that was, at bottom, spiritually suicidal. In a controversial address, he urged a graduating class of Harvard divinity students to “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at firsthand with Deity.” He attributed Americans’ overreliance on material things to a lack of self-reliance: Citizens “measure their esteem of each other, by what each has and not by what each is.” His solution was for each person to find in the expansive American natural setting an “original relationship to the universe.”

Emerson believed that nature itself embodied ethical principles; thus, it could be used as a kind of holy sanctuary in which the individual, without the aid of irrelevant intermediaries such as dogmas, rituals, and ministers, could “transcend” material considerations and achieve a spiritual union with the deity. Despite the affirmative tone of his essays, Emerson, like Henry David Thoreau, sometimes despaired of finding a vocation. In a materialistic society, Transcendentalists were neither allotted a place of respect nor afforded the kind of meaningful work they were eager to perform. Not considered “good citizens,” they believed that most of the ordinary work of humanity, even that devoted to the best causes, required conformity rather than originality and therefore precluded the original use of one’s own spirit.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981. An excellent biography, at once scholarly and readable. Deals with the personal as well as public side of Emerson and shows the evolution of his ideas by citing the stages of their development in journal entries, letters, essays, and poems.

Baker, Carlos. Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait. New York: Viking, 1996. For a review, see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Barish, Evelyn. Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. For a review of this study of Emerson’s early life, see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Belknap, 2003. A thorough and admiring biography that presents Emerson as an international figure.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Includes a chapter on Emerson’s philosophical perspective on the romantic idea of the “marriage of the self and the world.”

Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. A discussion of Emerson’s insistence that a practical application of learning and philosophy leads to empowerment. Includes an index.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Focuses on Emerson’s emphasis on power and force in the development of his American philosophy. Includes an index.

Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A collection of essays that provide an extended biographical study of Emerson. Later chapters study his concept of individualism, nature and natural science, religion, antislavery, and women’s rights.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Provides a critical introduction to Emerson’s work through interpretations of his writing and analysis of his influence and cultural significance. Includes a comprehensive chronology and bibliography.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A first-rate biography on Emerson that includes a life chronology, genealogy, and index.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Focuses on Emerson’s writings as they relate to pragmatic rather than merely transcendental purposes. Includes an introduction that reviews various perspectives on Emerson. Contains an index.

Yanella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982. In this brief but penetrating work, Yanella offers an introduction to the works of Emerson for the nonspecialist in the field of nineteenth century literature. Concentrates on Emerson’s poetry and essays. Considers Emerson’s philosophical and religious views, traces his influences, and assesses his impact on the development of nineteenth century American literature. Includes a chronology of works.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

The son of a Unitarian minister, Emerson embarked on a clerical career of his own until a crisis of faith drove him to a different vocation. After he graduated from Harvard College in 1821, he was ordained a Unitarian minister at a Boston church in 1829, but he resigned from the ministry in 1832. In his subsequent career as a poet, essayist, and lecturer, he became the most influential spokesman of New England Transcendentalism—a school of philosophy kindred in content to Continental Romanticism.

Perhaps the best-known of Emerson’s writings is his essay “Self Reliance,” which celebrates individuals who remain undaunted by attempts of societies, institutions, and the masses to muzzle them. “Society everywhere,” Emerson wrote, “is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Nonconformity, he believed, was the unchanging price of manhood; dissent, its natural garb; and self-confidence, its true habitat. “It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner. Is not a man better than a town?”

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981. An excellent biography, at once scholarly and readable. Deals with the personal as well as public side of Emerson and shows the evolution of his ideas by citing the stages of their development in journal entries, letters, essays, and poems.

Baker, Carlos. Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait. New York: Viking, 1996. For a review, see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Barish, Evelyn. Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. For a review of this study of Emerson’s early life, see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Belknap, 2003. A thorough and admiring biography that presents Emerson as an international figure.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Includes a chapter on Emerson’s philosophical perspective on the romantic idea of the “marriage of the self and the world.”

Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. A discussion of Emerson’s insistence that a practical application of learning and philosophy leads to empowerment. Includes an index.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Focuses on Emerson’s emphasis on power and force in the development of his American philosophy. Includes an index.

Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A collection of essays that provide an extended biographical study of Emerson. Later chapters study his concept of individualism, nature and natural science, religion, antislavery, and women’s rights.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Provides a critical introduction to Emerson’s work through interpretations of his writing and analysis of his influence and cultural significance. Includes a comprehensive chronology and bibliography.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A first-rate biography on Emerson that includes a life chronology, genealogy, and index.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Focuses on Emerson’s writings as they relate to pragmatic rather than merely transcendental purposes. Includes an introduction that reviews various perspectives on Emerson. Contains an index.

Yanella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982. In this brief but penetrating work, Yanella offers an introduction to the works of Emerson for the nonspecialist in the field of nineteenth century literature. Concentrates on Emerson’s poetry and essays. Considers Emerson’s philosophical and religious views, traces his influences, and assesses his impact on the development of nineteenth century American literature. Includes a chronology of works.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803, and died in nearby Concord on April 27, 1882. Essayist, poet, and lecturer, Emerson was tremendously influential on American thought and literature. He influenced creative minds as various as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. He was the leader of Transcendentalism, an intuitional, religious, aesthetic, philosophical, and ethical movement. A tributary of European Romanticism, it proclaimed a theoretical and practical way of life and a new humanism based upon ancient classical and oriental supernaturalism. He maintained the “infinitude” or spiritual expansiveness of the individual person when divinely awakened. His early influences among philosophers were Plato, Plotinus, Bishop George Berkeley, and the Scottish philosophers; later, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Carlyle, Johann Gottfried Herder, Emanuel Swedenborg, the Methodists, Quakers, and certain Anglican divines; and still later, the writers of China, Persia, and India.

Emerson graduated from Harvard University in 1821, taught school for a while, and then studied theology in Cambridge. Licensed as a Unitarian clergyman in 1826, he was pastor (1829-1832) of the Second Church, Boston, preaching memorable sermons that foreshadowed his future career as essayist. He resigned his pastorate in 1832, partly because of his desire to reach a larger audience and partly in protest against certain rites which seemed to him anachronistic in progressive “liberal Christianity.” (His arguments against the Lord’s Supper were largely drawn from a Quaker source.) Without prospects, in 1832 and 1833 he visited Europe to see Walter Landor, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle; upon his return he began a long career as public lecturer and moral philosopher in the recently launched lyceum movement.

By 1834 Emerson was settled in Concord, Massachusetts. There he launched the first of three memorable challenges in Nature, published in 1836—a repudiation of both lukewarm Christianity and American materialism. It is a well-organized statement of his earliest idealism, showing the natural world to be a present messiah or viceregent of God, capable of developing the human soul and a mute teacher on the various levels of commodity, aesthetics, language, discipline, and spiritual illumination or mysticism. The final chapter contains a prophecy of humankind’s future or potential greatness on an earth transformed into a new Eden, sung by the “Orphic Poet.” (Coleridge’s distinction between the Reason and the Understanding and Swedenborg’s doctrine of the divine Influx were basic categories during this period.) The second challenge, his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address known as The American Scholar, urged the abandonment of imitative pedantry and declared the United States’ literary and intellectual independence from England. The training of the man of letters should be primarily Nature (the mediator between God and man), he stated, and secondarily an active participation in life. Books, the preservers of tradition, he relegated to the scholar’s “idle times.” In the third challenge, his Divinity School Address in 1838, he proclaimed a God that is, in distinction to a God that has been, a God that speaks rather than one who has spoken in ancient times, openly renouncing traditional Christianity and its deification of Jesus. Herein he summarized his Transcendental or spiritual philosophy, already outlined in Nature, stressed the “impersoneity” of deity, and elevated the categorical imperative of Kantian morality. This decade of his life (1833-1843) was characterized by a militant subjectivity and by a lofty optimism regarding the possibilities of the individual, but the middle years brought doubts and conflicts which necessitated a tempering of his idealism and a shift from the inner world of Self to the objective world—to an increasing awareness of humankind’s animal inheritance and limitations.

Though still only a leitmotif, these viewpoints make their appearance in Essays: First Series and Essays: Second Series, which are condensations and revisions of earlier platform addresses—still, probably, his most popular works. Of these essays, “History” celebrates no chronology but rather an existential awareness in the individual soul of the ever-present Deity. “Self-Reliance” proclaims the God-in-man or Coleridgian Reason as the true Self in opposition to the brutish or animal Understanding that most people commonly exercise. (This doctrine of the true Self became the basis of Emerson’s lofty individualism and theory of democracy.) “Compensation” reveals an instantaneous spiritual judgment upon thoughts, acts, and conditions, illustrating the corresponding alterations or retributions taking place within the inner person. “The Over-Soul” and “Spiritual Laws” develop the doctrine of transcendent ultimate reality. In them Emerson explores the subtle manifestations or laws of spiritual phenomena. “Friendship” owes much to the Swedenborgian doctrines of Influx and the “hells” and to the doctrine of Quantum sumus, scimus (“Like only can know like”), proclaimed by Coleridge, who echoed the Neoplatonists of all ages. “The Poet” predicts Walt Whitman, who either read it in print or heard it as a lecture before the appearance of Leaves of Grass. (He addressed Emerson as “dear Master.”) In “The Poet,” Emerson wrote, “It is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem.” For Platonic Emerson, the poet is the only “complete man,” whereas most people are only half-men. The poet receives a greater flow of divine energy or power than other people; the poet alone is articulate enough to express in words his or her intuitions of eternal beauty. Expression, indeed, is the principal evidence of completeness. “Politics,” a practical application to the state of his doctrine of the individual, shows a keen awareness of American affairs in the midst of which the immortal soul or Self must be developed. Emerson wrote, “To educate the wise man the State exists, and with the appearance of the wise man the State expires.”

Emerson’s late works show an increasing acquiescence to the general state of things, less reliance on the Self, and greater trust in the Over-Soul, conceived of as existing outside and beyond the Self. His Poems appeared in 1847, supplemented by May-Day, and Other Pieces twenty years later. Representative Men: Seven Lectures, showing a philosophical indebtedness to Victor Cousin, may be interestingly contrasted with Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). Emerson’s visits to England in 1834 and 1847 provided rich observations for English Traits, published in 1856. The Conduct of Life, ending in the sublime prose of “Illusions,” reveals a developed humanism and a modest view of humanity’s melioration under the limitations imposed by freedom and fate. Society and Solitude marks a falling off. After Society and Solitude Emerson’s memory rapidly failed him, and his mental contact with the world became tenuous. He had the assistance of an editor or literary executor for Letters and Social Aims. James Elliot Cabot also supervised the posthumous Lectures and Biographical Sketches, Miscellanies, and Natural History of Intellect. In his late years, Emerson issued Parnassus (1874), an anthology of favorite English and American poems. His remarkable journals give insight into Emerson the human being. Many scholars feel that they provide the best portrayal of the American mind and genius during the nineteenth century.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist, poet, and philosopher, was born May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the son of William Emerson, a...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226227-Emerson.jpgRalph Waldo Emerson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803, the third son of the Reverend William Emerson and Ruth Haskins Emerson. Stern and disciplined, his parents normally refrained from displaying intense affection in the family, as so many Bostonians did at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Partly because of this upbringing, coldness, as Emerson himself noted throughout his life, became a distinct feature of his character, later, perhaps unconsciously, making him search in his writing for a spiritual life rich in sentiment.

Characteristic of his time, Emerson was enrolled in a dame school at age two and in the Boston Public Latin school at nine. While in the Latin school, he displayed unusual talent in declamation, a gift that eventually paved his way to becoming a great speaker. His aunt Mary Moody Emerson, who lived intermittently with his family for a considerable length of time during his childhood, greatly influenced Emerson in encouraging him to set high goals and do things which he might otherwise be afraid to do. The early death of his father in 1811 left the family in poverty, to the extent that he had to share an overcoat with his younger brother. This impoverishment, however, disciplined him all the more.

In 1817 Emerson, then fourteen, entered Harvard College. In his third year at Harvard, he began keeping a journal, an endeavor which would last for more than fifty years, often serving as the source of ideas for his literary writing. In his last year, he distinguished himself by being chosen as class poet and winning second prize in the Boylston competition for delivering a dissertation on ethical philosophy. After graduating in 1821, Emerson taught at his elder brother’s school for young ladies for three years, earning enough money for him to return to Harvard in 1825 to pursue studies in theology.

His reading of Michel de Montaigne, a French Renaissance writer, at the beginning of 1825 made him believe that good essays can be written in plain language. In 1826, Emerson preached with approbation his first sermon from his uncle’s pulpit, an episode that marked the beginning of his long career as a speaker. Shortly after this sermon, bad health forced him to travel to the South for better climate and a quick recovery. Not until 1829, when Emerson became somewhat sure of his health, was he ordained as a junior pastor to the Unitarian ministry and began to preach regularly.

In 1827, he met Ellen Tucker and, after a short courtship, married her in 1829 regardless of her rapidly deteriorating health caused by tuberculosis (a disease that plagued their era). As expected, this marriage soon ended with Ellen’s death in 1831. The bereaved Emerson was thus able, as the beneficiary of his wife’s will, to receive a sufficient amount of money for him to live without having to hold a regular job—an event that enabled him to concentrate on his literary creativity.

The following year witnessed a turning point in Emerson’s thought. Unsatisfied with the conventional Christian form of worship and now somewhat assured of his future livelihood, he resigned his pastorate at the Second Church in Boston, stating that he could no longer administer Communion as a ritual. Apart from the emotional turmoil Emerson experienced from the loss of his beloved wife and the resignation of his pastorate, his own health was failing him in 1832; he eventually embarked upon a journey of recovery to Europe at the end of this year. While in Europe, he visited some of the important literary figures of his time, such as the renowned English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, with whom Emerson was to correspond for the rest of his life.

Shortly after returning from Europe, Emerson began his career as a lecturer and settled at Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived until his death. In 1835, after specifying his conditions—to remain a poet and to live in the countryside—he married Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, who had to compete with the memory of his first wife for Emerson’s respect and affection.

The following years, between 1836 and 1842, witnessed one of the most creative periods in Emerson’s life. The publication of his first book, Nature, in 1836, though it was short, established him as a prose writer. The series of lectures he gave in the following two years, such as “The Philosophy of History,” “The American Scholar,” “Divinity School Address,” and “Literary Ethics,” helped him to gain recognition. Because of his unorthodox stance toward Christianity, expressed in the “Divinity School Address” delivered at Harvard in 1838, Emerson received ruthless criticisms from some conservative believers and was barred from giving any lectures at his alma mater until almost thirty years later.

The publication of his Essays: First Series in 1841 further established him as a major figure in American literature. As a result of his growing fame, Emerson gradually became the literary leader of his time, though he preferred to lead people to themselves rather than to himself. Compared with his prose, his poetry gained recognition much more slowly. Not until the end of 1847, when his first collection of poems was published, did his poetry receive some serious attention. Although Emerson regarded himself mainly as a poet, his poetry never gained as much prestige as did his essays.

From October, 1847, to July, 1848, Emerson, already internationally known, made his second trip to Europe, visiting friends and giving lectures while in England. Many of his impressions on this trip eventually found expression in his English Traits(1856). Later works, often of inferior quality, continued to appear during his remaining years. A few years after the end of the Civil War, a war characterized by unprecedented casualties in American history which certainly disturbed him, the aging Emerson began to lose his memory. The burning of his house in Concord in 1872 accentuated the decline of his health. His last decade brought about the continuous growth of Emerson’s reputation, along with the failure of his faculties. He died in 1882 at the age of seventy-eight.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Emerson’s thought is characterized by optimism and tremendous hope for humankind. Although some critics, represented by George Santayana, believe that Emerson failed to reckon with the force of evil, his advocacy of looking within and acting sincerely as the ultimate mode of behavior still appeals to the modern age.

Especially in a society dominated by technology, Emerson’s poetic vision of the transcendent mind offers an intriguing alternate way of life emphasizing the spirit. Furthermore, the dynamic style primarily based on powerful short sentences, insightful aphorisms, and natural transitions makes Emerson unequivocally one of the greatest essayists of all time.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography (Poetry for Students)

Emerson was born in Boston in 1803. He was the son of Ruth Haskins Emerson and William Emerson, a Unitarian minister who died when his son...

(The entire section is 375 words.)