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.
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 his English Traits (1856), a work that was hailed by contemporaries as an accurate evaluation of contemporary English society. For the next two decades, Emerson continued to write and lecture and was often referred to as the “Sage of Concord.” He died in Concord in 1882.
Emerson wrote essays and poetry over several decades, but most of his thoughts regarding Transcendentalism were laid out in his earliest works, including Nature and his lectures “The American Scholar” and “The Divinity School Address.” The doctrines he formulated in these early works were later expanded and elaborated upon in Essays (1838) and Essays: Second Series (1844). From these collections, the essays “Self-Reliance,” “The Over-Soul,” and “The Poet” are among the best known. The philosophical and religious outlook of Emerson's works are traced to many sources, including the Unitarian religion, German Philosophical Idealism, the work of Swedish scientist and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the Hindu scriptures, all of which emphasize the unity of nature, humanity, and God. Much of Emerson's Transcendental philosophy is encapsulated in Nature, a work in which he argued that nature is a symbolic language that can reveal the mind of God, and that through the experience of oneness with nature, a communion with God is possible. In addition to his essays, Emerson was a prolific contributor of poetry to the Dial and later issued many of his poems in Poems (1847) and May-Day, and Other Pieces (1867). Well-known poems in these collections include “The Rhodora,” “The Sphinx,” “Brahma,” “The Humble Bee,” and one of his earliest works, the “Concord Hymn.” Scholars have charted a steady decline in Emerson's idealism in his poetry and prose works following his contributions to the Dial and the publication of his Essays: Second Series. The most noted example of his humanistic acquiescence to the reality of circumstances surrounding mortal limitations is The Conduct of Life (1860). Other important works include Representative Men (1850), a series of essays on the men who most closely fit Emerson's ideal, and another collection titled Society and Solitude (1870). Emerson spent the last years of his life in Concord, writing little, but enjoying national recognition throughout America as a central figure of the American Renaissance.
Emerson left a large literary legacy and is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential writers of the nineteenth century. However, critics have found it difficult to agree on which facet of Emerson's work deserves the most attention and where his influence has been most profoundly felt. Filled with maxims, his writings offer encouragement and consoling wisdom, which has gained him an enduring place in American popular culture. On the other hand, he has also been openly acknowledged by scholars as one of the most important influences in the fields of poetry and philosophy. Although he published a large number of poems in his lifetime, Emerson's poetry has often been regarded as secondary to his prose writing. In fact, it wasn't until the 1990s that a collected edition of his poems was issued and it is only in the last few years that any significant critical analyses of his poetry have become available. According to Saundra Morris, a balanced overview of Emerson's work is impossible without a significant emphasis on his verse. Morris states that Emerson identified himself primarily as a poet and that as a poet-essayist he has exerted an enormous influence on other poets. While Emerson's writing was well received by most nineteenth-century scholars, he fell out of favor with critics during the 1920s and 1930s, many of whom charged that his works lacked unity and logical structure. More recent criticism, however, has repudiated this charge, noting a dialectical structure in Emerson's philosophy that unifies his otherwise disparate statements. Regardless of his critical reception, his poetry and theories regarding writing have been often cited as vitally influential to the work of authors such as Thoreau and Walt Whitman. In fact, Emerson the poet is now lauded as a theorist and goal-setter, and is revered for the creation of a distinctly American tradition in poetry. In recent years, Emerson and his writings have enjoyed renewed critical attention, including a re-evaluation of the artistic and philosophic merits of his work. In fact, during the 1980s and 1990s, Emerson's writing was acknowledged as a complex mixture of deeply resonant rhetoric that goes far beyond the traditional representations of his work. Now seen as one of the founding figures in the American philosophical tradition, Emerson's prose and poetry reflect the many contradictory mantles he assumed in his work, including those of Transcendentalist, philosopher, prose stylist, theorist, and social commentator.