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.
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.
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.
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.
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.