Ralph Waldo Emerson Additional Biography


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...

(The entire section is 437 words.)


(Survey of World Philosophers)

ph_0111201209-Emerson.jpg Ralph Waldo Emerson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 2945 words.)

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....

(The entire section is 1397 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 1402 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 763 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 650 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 1154 words.)


(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.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226227-Emerson.jpg Ralph 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...

(The entire section is 1003 words.)


(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.

(The entire section is 101 words.)


(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.)