Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(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 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Nature (essay) 1836

An Oration, Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge (essay) 1837; also published as The American Scholar 1901

Essays (essays) 1838; also published as Essays: First Series 1854

Essays: Second Series (essays) 1844

Poems (poetry) 1847

Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (essays) 1849

Representative Men: Seven Lectures (essays) 1850

English Traits (essays) 1856

The Conduct of Life (essays) 1860

May-Day and Other Pieces (poetry) 1867

Society and Solitude (essays) 1870

Letters and Social Aims (essays) 1876

Fortune of the Republic. Lecture Delivered at the Old South Church (essay) 1878

Lectures and Biographical Sketches (essays and biographies) 1884

Natural History of the Intellect, and Other Papers (essays) 1893

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. (essays and poetry) 1903-21

The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 6 vols. (letters) 1939

Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. 16 vols. (journals and notebooks) 1960-82

The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson 4 vols. (sermons) 1989-92

The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 3 vols. (notebooks) 1990-94

Emerson's Antislavery Writings (essays) 1995

The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson 2 vols. (essays) 2000

Mary Kupiec Cayton (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Making of an American Prophet: Emerson, His Audiences, and the Rise of the Culture Industry in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Lawrence Buell, Prentice Hall, 1993, pp. 77-100.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1987, Cayton offers an assessment of Emerson's cultural impact in the context of contemporary media.]

… The case of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most celebrated of American intellectuals, can shed light on the ways in which meanings are made in intellectual discourse and what those meanings have to do with those people not filling the role of intellectual within...

(The entire section is 12260 words.)

Russell B. Goodman (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 34-57.

[In the following essay, Goodman provides an overview of Emerson's philosophical beliefs as expressed in his writings.]

Emerson is a direct link between American philosophy and European Romanticism. Soon after leaving his ministry in the Unitarian church (in part because he no longer believed in the “divine authority and supernatural efficacy”1 of the communion he administered), Emerson traveled to Europe where he met his heroes Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. There is little doubt of their influence on his thought or of...

(The entire section is 13244 words.)

David Jacobson (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Vision's Imperative: ‘Self-Reliance’ and the Command to See Things As They Are,” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 555-70.

[In the following essay, Jacobson explores Emerson's early theories on self-reliance, explaining that for Emerson, self-reliance leads to an emancipation of the will, allowing for a clearer understanding of the universe.]

Emerson sets down the practical imperative of his early thought in the opening paragraph of “Self-Reliance” when he writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction...

(The entire section is 7274 words.)

Eduardo Cadava (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Nature of War in Emerson's ‘Boston Hymn,’” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3, Autumn, 1993, pp. 21-58.

[In the following essay, Cadava traces the link between nature and politics, in addition to examining Emerson's views on war in the context of his poem “The Boston Hymn.”]

Less than five years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Emerson announces a crisis in the structures of political and linguistic representation. “Language has lost its meaning in the universal cant,” he writes, “Representative Government is misrepresentative; Union is a conspiracy against the Northern States which the Northern States are to have the...

(The entire section is 15806 words.)

David M. Robinson (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Toward a Grammar of Moral Life,” in Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatic and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 181-201.

[In the following excerpt, Robinson provides an assessment of Emerson's later career, noting that the author's personal struggles with authorship should prompt caution in too closely analyzing these texts as true examples of Emerson's ideas and writing.]


“I am of the oldest religion”

(W, 12:16).

The assessment of Emerson's later career is complicated by the gradual decline in creative order that he was...

(The entire section is 9950 words.)

Ronald Bosco (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘What poems are many private lives’: Emerson Writing the American Plutarch,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 103-29.

[In the following essay, Bosco examines Emerson's views on the link between biography and history in the context of his two biographical works, Representative Men and Lectures and Biographical Sketches.]

The world looks poor & mean so long as I think only of its great men; most of them of spotted reputation. But when I remember how many obscure persons I myself have seen possessing gifts that excited wonder, speculation, & delight in me … when I consider the...

(The entire section is 13164 words.)

Barbara Ryan (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Emerson's ‘Domestic and Social Experiments’: Service, Slavery, and the Unhired Man,” in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 3, September, 1994, pp. 485-508.

[In the following essay, Ryan outlines Emerson's ideas on abolition, examining the development of these views in the context of the writer's own domestic arrangements.]

I hope New England will come to boast itself in being a nation of servants, & leave to the planters the misery of being a nation of served.

—R. W. Emerson, Journal C (1837)

Len Gougeon has shown that Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled a long way between...

(The entire section is 9913 words.)

Eric Murphy Selinger (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Too Pathetic, Too Pitiable’: Emerson's Lessons in Love's Philosophy,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance Vol. 40, No. 2, 2nd Quarter, 1994, pp. 139-82.

[In the following essay, Selinger examines Emerson's view on marriage and love, and the friction between earthly love and a more divine love.]

I take my title from “Illusions,” the final essay in The Conduct of Life. Emerson has just named women as “the element and kingdom of illusion,” and defied anyone to “pluck away the … effects and ceremonies, by which they live.” In a moment he will announce with chilling calm that “[w]e are not very much to blame for...

(The entire section is 16367 words.)

James M. Albrecht (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Living Property’: Emerson's Ethics,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 41, No. 3, 1995, pp. 177-247.

[In the following essay, Albrecht examines Emerson's ethical philosophy in the context of such essays as “Self-Reliance” and “Experience.”]

[T]hat which a man is, does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property.

—Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

What a man does, that he has. What has he to do with hope or fear? In himself is his might. Let him regard no good as solid but that which is in his nature, and...

(The entire section is 14638 words.)

Michael Lopez (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Anti-Emerson Tradition,” in Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century, Northern Illinois University Press, 1996, pp. 19-52.

[In the following essay, Lopez traces the critical reception of Emerson's philosophical writings through the decades in an attempt to define his place in American critical thinking.]

Melville and Whitman persuasively strive to give us the substance promised by their titles: grass and a whale, earth and the sea are delivered. … But Emerson? Is there not something cloudy at the center of his reputation, something fatally faded about the works he has left us? When, I ask myself, did I last...

(The entire section is 18732 words.)

Anthony P. Petruzzi (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Emerson, Disclosure, and the Experiencing Self,” in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1996, pp. 51-64.

[In the following essay, Petruzzi contends that the disclosive theory of truth allows for a more complete description of Emerson's rhetorical theory than either Enlightenment rhetoric or Romantic rhetoric.]


Emerson was educated at Harvard at a time when composition and rhetorical theory were dominated by Hugh Blair's “commonsense” rhetoric. The nature of Emerson's rhetorical theory has most often been positioned somewhere between the two poles of Scottish “commonsense” and Romantic rhetorics. I will...

(The entire section is 5598 words.)

Herwig Friedl (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fate, Power, and History in Emerson and Nietzsche,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 43, No. 1-4, 1997, pp. 267-93.

[In the following essay, Friedl offers a comparison between the philosophical vision and the terminology expounded by Emerson and Nietzsche in some of their best-known essays.]


Radical changes or innovations in the history of thinking—changes that characterize a whole new epoch—usually are not sufficiently accounted for when we limit our attention solely to changing concepts, tenets, propositions, or systems of belief. In his analysis of seventeenth-century rationalism and scientism, Alfred...

(The entire section is 9421 words.)

Jonathan Bishop (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Emerson and Christianity,” in Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature, Vol. 50, No. 3-4, Spring, 1998, pp. 221-237.

[In the following essay, Bishop examines Emerson's “Divinity School Address” to locate the “Emersonian alternative” to traditional or “historical Christianity.”]

Emerson and Christianity could seem almost too vague and ideological a topic to some at least among the current cohort of Americanists. A recent review of research by Lawrence Buell for the Emerson Society Quarterly observes that much recent work has concentrated either upon the youthful or the aging Emerson. To rediscover the comparative orthodoxy of the first...

(The entire section is 8071 words.)

Len Gougeon (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Emerson and the Woman Question: The Evolution of His Thought,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 4, December, 1998, pp. 570-92.

[In the following essay, Gougeon summarizes Emerson's views on the women's liberation movement.]

In a newspaper article celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of Emerson's birth, Thomas Wentworth Higginson complained that those who knew Mr. Emerson in the light of a reformer, as he surely did, would find precious little information “given in that direction by his biographers.”1 Noting the generally conservative character of the two most influential and popular biographies of Emerson, those by Oliver Wendell...

(The entire section is 9157 words.)

Saundra Morris (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Metre-Making’ Arguments: Emerson's Poems,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Joel Porte and Saundra Morris, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 218-42.

[In the following essay, Morris presents an overview of Emerson's poetical works.]

“I am not the man you take me for.”

Consideration of Emerson's writings without significant emphasis on his verse would in some ways produce Hamlet without the prince, for Emerson seems to have identified himself primarily as a poet. During his New York lecture tour of March 1842, he wrote to his wife Lidian of feeling...

(The entire section is 10659 words.)

Robert D. Richardson, Jr. (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Emerson and Nature,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Joel Porte and Saundra Morris, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 97-105.

[In the following essay, Richardson defines Emerson's perception of nature and the role it played in his philosophical thinking and writing.]

Explicit or implicit in nearly everything Emerson wrote is the conviction that nature bats last, that nature is the law, the final word, the supreme court. Others have believed—still believe—that the determining force in our lives is grace, or that it is the state—the polis, the community—or that it is the past. More recently it has been argued that the...

(The entire section is 4112 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Tuttleton, James W. “The Drop Too Much: Emerson's Eccentric Circle.” In The New Criterion 14, No. 9 (1996): 19-27.

A biographical overview of Emerson's social circle, which included Henry David Thoreau, Edward Thompson Taylor, and several other contemporary intellectuals.


Bickman, Martin. “From Emerson to Dewey: The Fate of Freedom in American Education.” In American Literary History 6, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 385-408.

A review of Emerson's contributions as an educational thinker, citing examples of his educational principles in his essays.


(The entire section is 572 words.)