Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882

American essayist and poet.

Universally regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the founders of the Transcendental movement, a group of New England literary figures who believed deeply in the presence of the divine in human beings. The Transcendentalists asserted that each individual must determine what is morally correct regardless of religious dogma, and Emerson's essays are regarded as some of the most important and commanding literary expressions of this philosophy. In addition, Emerson is also widely regarded as one of the most effective architects of a distinctly American philosophy embracing optimism, individuality, and mysticism, and he is noted for his influence on such authors as Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson.

Biographical Information

Emerson was born in Boston to a long line of Unitarian ministers and it was there that he spent a sheltered childhood. He graduated from Harvard University in 1821, taught school in Boston for four years, and began attending Harvard Divinity School in 1825. The following year, he became a minister and was ordained pastor of Boston's Second Church in 1829. At this time he also married his first wife, Ellen Tucker, whose death in 1831 left Emerson with an inheritance that secured his financial future. Despite his traditional academic career, Emerson was familiar with numerous modern religious influences, including ideas regarding Romantic subjectivity, a philosophy that was just then beginning to reach America from Europe. Additionally, his years at Harvard had exposed him to the publications of the German Higher Critics, as well as translations of Hindu and Buddhist poetry. Thus, even while he assumed the pastorate of his church, Emerson brought with him many doubts concerning traditional Christian belief. Unable to stem these growing misgivings, in 1832 Emerson resigned his position as pastor after expressing objections to the traditional meaning and function of the Communion ritual. Following his resignation, Emerson spent the next year traveling in Europe, where he met such writers as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. During these years he also visited the botanical gardens at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, an experience he claimed inspired his interest in the mystical significance of nature. He returned to America in 1833 and settled in Concord, Massachusetts, where he began his career as a lecturer. He soon established his reputation as one of the most successful speakers on the country's new lyceum circuit. During the late 1830s and early 1840s Emerson published several works that presented his thought at its most idealistic and optimistic. His first published work, an essay entitled Nature (1836), repudiated traditional religion, declaring nature to be the divine example of inspiration, as well as the source of boundless possibilities of human fulfillment. This work in particular is believed to have helped found what would later become known as the Transcendental Club, a group of intellectuals that included Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Emerson frequently contributed poetry to the group's journal, the Dial, and later served as its editor. It was also during this time that Emerson wrote and delivered two of his most important lectures: “The American Scholar” (1837), an address delivered to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society, widely regarded as a call for a distinct school of American intellectualism that was independent of European influence; and “The Divinity School Address ” in which he caused tremendous controversy by challenging the tenets of traditional Christianity and defined Transcendental philosophy in terms of the “impersoneity” of God. Emerson undertook a second journey to Europe in 1847, which included a lecture tour in England. This trip also resulted in the publication of...

(The entire section is 180,462 words.)