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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the most thought-provoking American cultural leader of the mid-19th century. In his unorthodox ideas and actions he represented a minority of Americans, but by the end of his life he was considered a sage.

Though Ralph Waldo Emerson's origins were promising, his path to eminence was by no means easy. He was born in Boston on May 25, 1803, of a fairly well-known New England family. His father was a prominent Boston minister. However, young Emerson was only 8 when his father died and left the family to face hard times. The genteel poverty which the Emerson family endured did not prevent it from sending the promising boy to the Boston Latin School, where he received the best basic education of his day. At 14 he enrolled in Harvard College. As a scholarship boy, he studied more and relaxed less than some of his classmates. He won several minor prizes for his writing. When he was 17, he started keeping a journal and continued it for over half a century.

Unitarian Minister

Emerson was slow in finding himself. After graduation from Harvard he taught at the school of his brother William. Gradually he moved toward the ministry. He undertook studies at the Harvard Divinity School, meanwhile continuing his journal and other writing. In 1826 he began his career as a Unitarian minister. Appropriately, Unitarianism was the creed of the questioner; in particular it questioned the divine nature of the Trinity. Emerson received several offers before an unusually attractive one presented itself: the junior pastorship at Boston's noted Second Church, with the promise that it would quickly become the senior pastorship. His reputation spread swiftly. Soon he was chosen chaplain of the Massachusetts Senate, and he was elected to the Boston School Committee.

Emerson's personal life flowered even more than his professional one, for he fell in love, deeply in love, for the only time in his life. He wooed and won a charming New Hampshire girl named Ellen Tucker. Their wedding, in September 1829, marked the start of an idyllic marriage. But it was all too short, for she died a year and a half later, leaving Emerson desolate. Though he tried to find consolation in his religion, he was unsuccessful. As a result, his religious doubts developed. Even the permissive creed of Unitarianism seemed to him to be a shackle. In September 1832 he resigned his pastorate; according to his farewell sermon he could no longer believe in celebrating Holy Communion.

Emerson's decision to leave the ministry was the more difficult because it left him with no other work to do. After months of floundering and even sickness, he scraped together enough money to take a 10-month tour of Europe. He hoped that his travels would give him the perspective he needed. They did, but only to the extent of confirming what he did not want rather than what he wanted.

Professional Lecturer

However, the times were on Emerson's side, for he found on his return to America that a new institution was emerging that held unique promise for him. This was the lyceum, a system of lecturing which started in the late 1820s, established itself in the 1830s, and rose to great popularity during the next 2 decades. The local lecture clubs that sprang up discovered that they had to pay for the best lecturers, Emerson among them. Emerson turned the lyceum into his unofficial pulpit and in the process earned at least a modest stipend. He spoke to his audiences with great, if unorthodox, effectiveness. They saw before them a tall, thin Yankee with slightly aquiline features whose words sometimes baffled but often uplifted them. After a few seasons he organized his own lecture courses as a supplement to his lyceum lectures. For example, during the winter of 1837-1838 he offered the Boston public a group of 10 lectures on "human culture" and earned more than $500. Equally to the point, his lectures grew into essays and books, and these he published from the early 1840s on.

Emerson's Creed

As a transcendentalist, Emerson spoke out against materialism, formal religion, and slavery. He could not have found targets better designed to offend the mass of Americans, most of whom considered making money a major purpose in life and church and churchgoing a mainstay and, until they faced the hard fact of the Civil War, either supported slavery or were willing to let it alone. But Emerson spoke of slavery in the context of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), saying, in one of his rare bursts of profanity, "I will not obey it, by God."

Emerson, however, was not merely against certain things; he both preached and exemplified a positive doctrine. He became America's leading transcendentalist; that is, he believed in a reality and a knowledge that transcended the everyday reality Americans were accustomed to. He believed in the integrity of the individual: "Trust thyself," he urged in one of his famous phrases. He believed in a spiritual universe governed by a mystic Over-soul with which each individual soul should try to harmonize. Touchingly enough, he believed in America. Though he ranked as his country's most searching critic, he helped as much as anyone to establish the "American identity." He not only called out for a genuinely American literature but also helped inaugurate it through his own writings. In addition, he espoused the cause of American music and American art; as a matter of fact, his grand purpose was to assist in the creation of an indigenous American national culture.

Publishing His Ideas

His first two books were brilliant. He had published a pamphlet, Nature, in 1836, which excited his fellow transcendentalists; but now he issued two volumes of essays for a broader public, Essays, First Series, in 1841 and Essays, Second Series, in 1844. Their overarching subjects were man, nature, and God. In such pieces as "Self-reliance," "Spiritual Laws," "Nature," "The Poet," and "The Over-soul," Emerson expounded on the innate nobility of man, the joys of nature and their spiritual significance, and the sort of deity omnipresent in the universe. The tone of the essays was optimistic, but Emerson did not neglect the gritty realities of life. In such essays as "Compensation" and "Experience," he tried to suggest how to deal with human losses and failings.

Whether he wrote prose or verse, Emerson was a poet with a poet's gift of metaphor. Both his lectures and his published works were filled from the first with telling phrases, with wisdom startlingly expressed. His next book, after the second series of essays, was a volume of his poems. They proved to be irregular in form and movingly individual in expression. After that came more than one remarkable volume of prose. In Representative Men: Seven Lectures (1850) Emerson pondered the uses of great men, devoting individual essays to half a dozen figures, including Plato, Shakespeare, and Goethe. English Traits (1856) resulted from an extended visit to Great Britain. In this volume Emerson anatomized the English people and their culture. His approach was impressionistic, but the result was the best book by an American on the subject up to that time.

Meanwhile, Emerson had been immersed—sometimes willingly, sometimes not—in things other than literature. He had found a second wife, pale and serene, in Lydia Jackson of Plymouth. He had married her in 1835 and got from her the comfort of love, if not its passion. They had four children, one of whom, Waldo, died when he was a little boy; the others outlived their eminent father. As Emerson's family life expanded, so did his friendships. After leaving his pastorate in Boston, he had moved to nearby Concord, where he stayed the rest of his life. In Concord he met a prickly young Harvard graduate who became his disciple, friend, and occasional adversary: Henry David Thoreau. Emerson added others to his circle, becoming as he did so the nexus of the transcendentalist movement. Among his close friends were Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker.

Emerson's public life also expanded. During the 1850s he was drawn deeply into the struggle against slavery. Though he found some of the abolitionists almost as distasteful as the slaveholders, he knew where his place had to be. The apolitical Emerson became a Republican, voting for Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863), Emerson counted it a momentous day for the United States; when Lincoln was killed, Emerson considered him a martyr.

Last Years

After the Civil War, Emerson continued to lecture and write. Though he had nothing really new to say anymore, audiences continued to throng his lectures and many readers bought his books. The best of the final books were Society and Solitude (1870) and Letters and Social Aims (1876). However, he was losing his memory and needed more and more help from others, especially his daughter Ellen. He was nearly 79 when he died on April 27, 1882.

America mourned Emerson's passing, as did much of the rest of the Western world. In the general judgment, he had been both a great writer and a great man. Certainly he had been America's leading essayist for half a century. And he had been not only one of the most wise but one of the most sincere of men. He had shown his countrymen the possibilities of the human spirit, and he had done so without a trace of sanctimony or pomposity. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, exclaimed, "How rare he was; how original in thought; how true in character!" Some of the eulogizing was extravagant, but in general the verdict at the time of Emerson's death has been upheld.

Further Reading

Emerson's Journals were reedited with care by William Gilman and others (7 vols., 1960-1969). Also valuable are The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ralph L. Rusk (6 vols., 1939). The best biography is still Rusk's The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1949). The best critical study of Emerson's writing is Sherman Paul, Emerson's Angle of Vision: Man and Nature in American Experience (1952), which concentrates on Emerson's principle of "correspondence." Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate (1953), is also valuable; it is called an "inner life" of Emerson and concentrates on the 1830s. The only treatment of Emerson's mind and art as they relate to the transcendentalist movement is Francis O. Matthiessen's superb American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941). □

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Born: May 25, 1803
Boston, Massachusetts
Died: April 27, 1882
Concord, Massachusetts

American author, minister, and philosopher

Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the most thought-provoking American cultural leaders of the mid-nineteenth century. He represented a minority of Americans with his unconventional ideas and actions, but by the end of his life many considered him to be a wise person.

Early life

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803, to a fairly well-known New England family. His father was an important Boston minister. Young Emerson was only eight, however, when his father died and left the family to face hard times. His mother ran a boarding-house to support the family, which consisted of six children. The poverty in which the Emerson family lived did not prevent his mother from sending the promising boy to the Boston Latin School, where he received the best education of his time. In 1817, at age fourteen, he entered Harvard College. As a student, he studied more and relaxed less than some of his classmates. He won several minor prizes for his writing. When he was seventeen, he started keeping a journal and continued it for over half a century.

Unitarian minister

Emerson was slow in finding himself. After graduation from Harvard in 1821, he took a job as a teacher. Gradually he moved toward the ministry. He studied at the Harvard Divinity School, meanwhile continuing his journal and other writings. In 1826 he began his career as a Unitarian minister. Emerson received several offers before an unusually attractive one presented itself: a position as the junior pastor at Boston's noted Second Church, with the promise that he would quickly become the senior pastor. His reputation spread swiftly. Soon he was chosen chaplain (a clergyman who carries out religious services for institutions) of the Massachusetts Senate, and he was elected to the Boston School Committee.

Emerson's personal life flowered even more than his professional one, as he fell deeply in love, for the only time in his life, with a charming New Hampshire girl named Ellen Tucker. Their wedding, in September 1829, marked the start of a wonderful marriage. But it was all too short, for she died a year and a half later, leaving Emerson alone. Though he tried to find comfort in his religion, he was unsuccessful. As a result he developed religious doubts. In September 1832 he resigned his pastorate. According to his farewell sermon, he could no longer believe in celebrating Holy Communion.

Emerson's decision to leave the ministry was more difficult than he thought, because it left him with no other work to do. After months of struggling and even sickness, he scraped together enough money to take a ten-month tour of Europe.

Professional lecturer

The times were on Emerson's side, for he found on his return to America that a new tradition was emerging that held a unique promise for him. This was the lyceum, a system of lecturing that started in the late 1820s, established itself in the 1830s, and rose to great popularity during the next two decades. The local lecture clubs that sprang up discovered that they had to pay for the best lecturers, and from this he earned a modest salary. After a few seasons Emerson organized his own lecture courses in addition to his lyceum lectures. His lectures developed into essays and books, and he began publishing these in the early 1840s.

Emerson's creed

Emerson spoke out against materialism (the belief that material or physical thingsnot spiritualare the most important), formal religion, and slavery. Emerson spoke of slavery in the context of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), saying, in one of his rare bursts of obscenity (foul language), "I will not obey it, by God."

Emerson, however, was not merely against certain things; he both preached and modeled a positive attitude. He became America's leading transcendentalist (a person who believes that reality is discovered through thought and not experience). That is, he believed in a reality and a knowledge that rose above the everyday reality to which Americans were accustomed. He believed in the honesty of the person. He believed in a spiritual universe ruled by a spiritual Oversoul (the basis of all spiritual existence), with which each individual soul should try to connect. Touchingly enough, he believed in America. Though he ranked as his country's most searching critic, he helped as much as anyone to establish the "American identity." He not only called out for a genuinely American literature, but he also helped begin it through his own writings. In addition, he supported the cause of American music and American art. His grand purpose, as a matter of fact, was to assist in the creation of a native American national culture.

Publishing his ideas

Emerson's first two books were brilliant. He had published a pamphlet, Nature, in 1836. He later issued two volumes of essays for a broader public, however, Essays, First Series, in 1841 and Essays, Second Series, in 1844. Their subjects were man, nature, and God. In such pieces as "Self-reliance," "Spiritual Laws," "Nature," "The Poet," and "The Over-soul," Emerson explained the inborn goodness of man, the joys of nature and their spiritual significance, and a universal god (a god that exists everywhere and belongs to all). The tone of the essays was positive, but Emerson did not neglect the realities of life. In such essays as "Compensation" and "Experience," he tried to suggest how to deal with human losses and failings.

Emerson's next book, after the second series of essays, was a volume of his poems. After that came more than one remarkable volume of text. In Representative Men: Seven Lectures (1850) Emerson considered the similarities of great men, devoting individual essays to such figures as Plato (c. 427c. 347 b.c.e.), William Shakespeare (15641616), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832). English Traits (1856) resulted from an extended visit to Great Britain.

Emerson married his second wife, Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, in 1835. They had four children, one of whom, Waldo, died when he was a little boy; the others outlived their famous father. After leaving his pastorate in Boston, Massachusetts, he moved to nearby Concord, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Emerson's public life also expanded. During the 1850s he was drawn deeply into the struggle against slavery. Though he found some of the abolitionists (people who worked to end slavery) almost as distasteful as the slaveholders, he knew where his place had to be. Emerson became a Republican, voting for Abraham Lincoln (18091965).

Last years

After the Civil War (186165; a war between the proslavery Southern states and the antislavery Northern states), Emerson continued to lecture and write. Though he had nothing really new to say anymore, audiences continued to crowd his lectures and many readers bought his books. The best of the final books were Society and Solitude (1870) and Letters and Social Aims (1876). He was losing his memory, however, and needed more and more help from others, especially his daughter Ellen. He was nearly seventy-nine when he died on April 27, 1882.

America mourned Emerson's passing, as did much of the rest of the Western world (the United States and European countries). In the general judgment, he had been both a great writer and a great man. Certainly he had been America's leading essayist for half a century. And he had been not only one of the most wise but one of the most sincere of men. He had shown his countrymen the possibilities of the human spirit, and he had done so without a trace of arrogance.

For More Information

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Joel Myerson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Geldard, Richard G. The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2001.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Rusk, Ralph L. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1949.

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo

Ralph Waldo Emerson (ĕm´ərsən), 1803–82, American poet and essayist, b. Boston. Through his essays, poems, and lectures, the "Sage of Concord" established himself as a leading spokesman of transcendentalism and as a major figure in American literature.

Life

The writer's father, William Emerson, a descendant of New England clergymen, was minister of the First Unitarian Church in Boston. Emerson's early years were filled with books and a daily routine of studious and frugal homelife. After his father's death in 1811, his eccentric but brilliant aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, became his confidante and stimulated his independent thinking. At Harvard (1817–21) he began recording his thoughts in the famous Journal. Poor health hindered his studies at the Harvard divinity school in 1825, and in 1826, after being licensed to preach, he was forced to go south because of incipient tuberculosis. In 1829 he became pastor of the Old North Church in Boston (Second Unitarian). In the same year he married Ellen Tucker, whose death from tuberculosis in 1831 caused him great sorrow.

Emerson's personal religious scruples and, in particular, his conviction that the Lord's Supper was not intended by Jesus to be a permanent sacrament led him into conflict with his congregation. In 1832 he retired from his only pastorate. On a trip to Europe at this time he met Carlyle (who became a close friend), Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Through these notable English writers, Emerson's interest in transcendental thought began to blossom. Other strong influences on his philosophy, besides his own Unitarian background, were Plato and the Neoplatonists, the sacred books of the East, the mystical writings of Swedenborg, and the philosophy of Kant. He returned home in 1834, settled in Concord, Mass. and married (1835) his second wife, Lydia Jackson.

Work

During the early 1830s Emerson began an active career as writer and lecturer. In 1836 he published anonymously his essay Nature, based on his early lectures. It is in that piece that he first set forth the main principles of transcendentalism, expressing a firm belief in the mystical unity of nature. He attracted wide attention with "The American Scholar," his Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard in 1837, in which he called for independence from European cultural leadership. In his lecture at the Harvard divinity school in 1838, his admonition that one could find redemption only in one's own soul was taken to mean that he repudiated Christianity. This caused such indignation that he was not invited to Harvard again until 1866, when the college granted him an honorary degree.

In 1840 Emerson joined with others in publishing The Dial, a magazine intended to promulgate transcendental thought. One of the younger contributors to The Dial was Henry David Thoreau, who lived in the Emerson household from 1841 to 1843 and became Emerson's most famous disciple. The first collection of Emerson's poems appeared in 1847. In spite of his difficulty in writing structurally correct verse, he always regarded himself essentially as a poet. Among his best-known poems are "Threnody," "Brahma," "The Problem," "The Rhodora," and "The Concord Hymn."

It was his winter lecture tours, however, which dominated the American lecture circuit in the 1830s and first made Emerson famous among his contemporaries. These lectures received their final form in his series of Essays (1841; second series, 1844). The most notable among them are "The Over-Soul," "Compensation," and "Self-Reliance." From 1845–47 he delivered a series of lectures published as Representative Men (1850). After a second trip to England, in 1847, he gave another series of lectures later published as English Traits (1856). During the 1850s he became strongly interested in abolitionism, and he actively supported war with the South after the attack on Fort Sumter. His late lecture tours are contained in The Conduct of Life (1860) and Society and Solitude (1870). Though his last years were marked by a decline in his mental powers, his literary reputation continued to spread. Probably no writer has so profoundly influenced American thought as Emerson.

Edward Waldo Emerson

Emerson's son, Edward Waldo Emerson, 1844–1930, was a graduate of Harvard medical school. After his father's death he devoted himself to editing and to writing about the literary men of his father's generation. He was the editor of the Centenary edition (12 vol., 1903–4) of Emerson's works, and, with W. E. Forbes, of the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (10 vol., 1909–14).

Bibliography

See Emerson's letters (10 vol.; vol. I–VI ed. by R. L. Rusk, 1939; vol. VII–X ed. by E. M. Tilton, 1990–95); L. Rosenwald, ed., Selected Journals, 1820–1842 and Selected Journals, 1841–1877 (both: 2010); biographies by O. W. Holmes (1885), V. W. Brooks (1932), E. Wagenknecht (1974), G. W. Allen (1981), R. D. Richardson, Jr. (1995), and L. Buell (2003); studies by J. Bishop (1964), J. Porte (1966, repr. 1979), K. W. Cameron, ed. (1967), S. E. Whicher (2d ed. 1971), C. Baker (1995), K. S. Sacks (2003), R. D. Richardson (2009), and B Tharaud, ed. (2010).

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"Emerson, Ralph Waldo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo

Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803–82). Author and essayist, a leading figure among the New England Transcendentalists (the Transcendental Club met at his house from 1836 to give expression to revolutionary and visionary ideals). He was born in Boston in a Unitarian family, and after study at Harvard, he became pastor of the Unitarian Second Church of Boston. However, his questioning of the tenets of faith, and a dispute over the administration of the Lord's Supper, led to his resignation. The break confirmed him in his conviction that the quest for truth can never be compromised. He gave up preaching in 1838, and regarded himself as ‘God's child, a disciple of Christ’, without ecclesiastical affiliation.

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"Emerson, Ralph Waldo." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo

Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803–82) US essayist and poet. He was an exponent of transcendentalism, the principles of which are expressed in his book Nature (1836). His belief in the soul, the unity of God with man and nature, self-reliance and hope is articulated in his Essays (1841, 1844), Poems (1847), The Conduct of Life (1860), Society and Solitude (1870), and many other influential works.

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