Emerson, Ralph Waldo
Born May 25, 1803, in Boston, MA; died April 27, 1882, in Concord, MA; son of William (a minister) and Ruth (Haskins) Emerson; married Ellen Tucker, September 30, 1829 (died 1831); married Lydia Jackson, September 14, 1835; children: Waldo, Ellen, Edith, Edward. Education: Harvard College, A.B., 1821; attended Harvard Divinity School at Cambridge, 1825 and 1827.
Poet, writer, lecturer. Teacher in Boston, MA, c. 1821-26; preacher in New England, 1827-29; Second Church (Unitarian), Boston, assistant minister, 1829, head pastor, 1830-32; itinerant preacher in England, Scotland, and the United States, beginning 1832; lyceum speaker in Massachusetts, Missouri, and Iowa, beginning 1833; founder of Dial (transcendentalist magazine), 1840, editor, 1842-44.
LL.D., Harvard University, 1866.
Nature, James Munroe (Boston, MA), 1836.
An Oration, Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, August 13, 1837, James Munroe (Boston, MA), 1837.
An Address Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge . . . 15 July, 1838, James Munroe (Boston, MA), 1841.
Essays, James Munroe (Boston, MA), 1841, expanded edition, 1847.
Nature; An Essay, and Lectures on the Times, Clarke (London, England), 1844.
Orations, Lectures, and Addresses, Clarke (London, England), 1844.
Essays: Second Series, James Munroe (Boston, MA), 1844.
Poems, James Munroe (Boston, MA), 1847, revised edition published as Selected Poems, Osgood (Boston, MA), 1876, revised edition published as Poems, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1884, revised edition, 1904.
Nature; Addresses, and Lectures, James Munroe (Boston, MA), 1849, published as Miscellanies; Embracing Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, Phillips, Sampson (Boston, MA), 1856, published as Miscellanies, Macmillan (London, England), 1884.
Representative Men: Seven Lectures, Phillips, Sampson (Boston, MA), 1850.
English Traits, Phillips, Sampson (Boston, MA), 1856.
The Conduct of Life, Ticknor & Fields (Boston, MA), 1860.
May-Day and Other Pieces, Ticknor & Fields (Boston, MA), 1867.
Society and Solitude, Twelve Chapters, Fields, Osgood (Boston, MA), 1870.
Letters and Social Aims, Osgood (Boston, MA), 1876.
The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 3 volumes, Bell (London, England), 1883.
Miscellanies, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1884.
Lectures and Biographical Sketches, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1884.
Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1893.
Two Unpublished Essays: The Character of Socrates; ThePresent State of Ethical Philosophy, Lamson, Wolffe (Boston, MA), 1896.
The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 volumes, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1909-14.
Uncollected Writings: Essays, Addresses, Poems, Reviews and Letters, Lamb (New York, NY), 1912.
Young Emerson Speaks: Unpublished Discourses onMany Subjects, edited by Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr., Houghton (Boston, MA), 1938.
The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), Volume 1, edited by Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller, 1959, Volume 2, edited by Whicher, Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams, 1964, Volume 3, edited by Spiller and Williams, 1972.
The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of RalphWaldo Emerson, 16 volumes, edited by William H. Gilman and others, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1960-83.
Emerson's Complete Works, 12 volumes, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1883-93.
Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 12 volumes, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1903-04.
The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 3 volumes to date, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1971—.
(Editor and author of preface) Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, James, Munroe (Boston, MA), 1836.
(Editor with William Henry Cahnning and James Freeman Clarke) Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, 2 volumes, Phillips Sampson (Boston, MA), 1852.
(Editor) Parnassus, James R. Osgood (Boston, MA), 1875.
A Correspondence between John Sterling and RalphWaldo Emerson, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1897.
Letters from Ralph Waldo Emerson to a Friend, 1838-1853 (letters to Samuel Gray Ward), edited by Charles Eliot Norton, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1899.
Correspondence between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Grimm, edited by Frederick William Holls, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1903.
Records of a Lifelong Friendship, 1807-1882: RalphWaldo Emerson and William Henry Furness, edited by Horace Howard Furness, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1910.
Emerson-Clough Letters, edited by Howard F. Lowry and Ralph Leslie Rusk, Rowfant Club (Cleveland, OH), 1934.
One First Love: The Letters of Ellen Louisa Tucker toRalph Waldo Emerson, edited by Edith W. Gregg, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1962.
The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, edited by Joseph Slater, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1964.
Contributor to periodicals, including Dial, Massachusetts Quarterly Review, and Atlantic Monthly. The Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association collection at the Houghton Library at Harvard University houses the majority of Emerson's papers.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was "the prophet of his generation," according to critic Mark van Doren in an introduction to The Portable Emerson. Poet, essayist, and lecturer, Emerson was "perhaps the single most influential figure in American literary history," as a contributor to the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Colonization to the American Renaissance, 1640-1865 noted. "More than any other author of his day, he was responsible for shaping the literary style of the American Romantic period." These words are echoed by Joel Porte writing in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson: "It was Emerson who, in literary terms, really put America on the map; who created for himself the practically nonexistent role of man of letters, and for about half a century . . . criticized, cajoled, sometimes confused, but mainly inspired audiences in America and abroad." Emerson's sayings, phrases, epigrams, and excerpts from poems—such as "Hitch your wagon to a star," "To be great is to be misunderstood," "Every hero becomes a bore at last," "Trust thyself," "The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one," and "The shot heard round the world"—have all entered the daily lexicon of Americans. So familiar are such phrases that few wonder about their attribution, or of their real meanings. The Emerson creed of self-reliance has also entered the American psyche, as has his emphasis on individualism and the primacy of instinct over rational thought.
In works such as Nature, Essays, Essays: Second Series, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, and Poems, Emerson established a distinctly American philosophy that blended an optimistic faith in the potential of humanity with a belief in individuality and a touch of mysticism into a philosophy that became known as the Transcendental movement. A former minister who turned writer, Emerson stressed a religion that backed away from the importance of the miracles of Jesus and rather focused on the miraculous in each human. Emerson's thought contained the Eastern concept of the universality of all life; for him nature was the source of revelation and inspiration. His work, all of which grew out of such ideas, inspired an entire generation of writers and poets, from Henry David Thoreau to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The "Sage of Concord," as he became known, Emerson worked most of his adult life in the small Massachusetts village that became a Mecca for American thinkers and writers. Still, in his days and in ours, he "has been called everything from a fraud and a lunatic to 'the key figure in American literary history,' and 'the Buddha of the West,'" according to one of his biographers, John McAleer. "[Emerson] continues to elude easy labeling," McAleer further noted.
"For the first thirty years of his life, Emerson did nothing to distinguish himself from respectable mediocrity," the contributor for Concise Dictionary of
American Literary Biography noted. Born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts, he was groomed from an early age for the ministry. His father, William Emerson, was a minister, and there were numerous others in the family before Emerson's time who were also in the ministry. His mother, Ruth Haskins Emerson, was also a devout woman, bordering on the austere. One of seven children, Emerson was a serious child more inclined to be at his books than outside playing. Still, compared to his over-achiever brothers, Ralph was not considered very brainy or ambitious by the family. The pleasant, easy life they lived in Boston changed drastically in 1811 with the death of his father; Emerson's mother was now widowed with six of her children under the age of ten.
With the intercession of Emerson's aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, the boys were given a good education, despite their relatively straitened material circumstances. He was sent to Boston's Latin School in 1813, and in 1817 attended Harvard College on a scholarship, lodging in the president's house and earning a wage for being a messenger. He also waited on tables at the college restaurant and tutored in his spare time. Thus, Emerson was not a coddled upper-class youth; he had to work for what he achieved in life. Though he did not excel in any one subject during his years at Harvard, Emerson did exhibit an early penchant for literature by joining the college literary society, the Pythologian Club. During his third year at Harvard he began keeping a journal. He continued writing his journals for over fifty years and referred to them later in his life as his "bank account," for he took inspiration from topics raised there for his lectures which he in turn transformed into published essays.
Graduating from Harvard in 1821, Emerson went into teaching for the next several years, first working for his own brother, and then taking over the school himself. He never had much faith in himself as a teacher, and in 1825 finally gave it up after saving enough money to put him through Divinity School at Harvard. Emerson had finally decided to follow in the steps of his ancestors and become a minister. However, ill health ended his first attempt at divinity studies after only a few weeks. Recovering, he visited more lectures and was taken on by the Middlesex Association of Ministers, delivering his first sermon in October of 1826. Once again, however, Emerson's poor health interceded and he was forced to go to a warmer climate in Florida and Georgia for the winter. Back in Boston in the spring, he continued attending Divinity School classes and also preaching in churches throughout New England. It was on one such trip to Concord, New Hampshire, in December 1827, that he met the seventeen-year-old girl who became the great passion of his life. Ellen Louisa Tucker was a renowned beauty, and Emerson courted her energetically. By the following year the couple was engaged. They married on September 30, 1829.
Emerson became minister at Boston's Second Church that same year. To outsiders it would appear that Emerson had everything going for him. However, Emerson was dissatisfied with his new career. Not only was he a shy man and somewhat uncomfortable at the pulpit, but he also had doubts about the whole idea of institutionalized religion and about specific aspects of church doctrine. As the contributor for Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography noted, such doubts focused on the "insistence on the supernatural basis of religion, on the necessity of accepting the miracles of Jesus as the decisive proof of the authenticity of his mission." For Emerson, religion should not be based solely on blind adherence to tradition and ritual, but instead rely on the spiritual inspiration in each believer. His beliefs were influenced by a wide range of readings during the 1820s, including the works of Plato and the Neo-Platonic school, the writings of the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist, philosopher, and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and by the works of European Romantics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his stress on intuition over rational thought. Emerson's doubts about organized religion were magnified when, seventeen months after his marriage, Emerson's young bride died of consumption. He went into a period of profound mourning. Out of it, however, also emerged an insight, one that unlocked a new meaning of life for Emerson. He finally understood that God is not outside of humans, but rather resident in each individual human soul. In a way, each individual person is identical with God; it was necessary, however, to awaken the individual to this latent possibility. Partly influenced by Eastern religions, Emerson discovered that each person needed to break free from the illusion or maya of the everyday world in order to see the godliness in the inner self. From this insight Emerson quickly developed his theory of "self-reliance," the core of a new philosophy that would fuel much of the work of the remaining fifty years of his life.
The Making of a Writer
The first thing Emerson did with his insight was leave organized religion. The specific grounds for his resignation came in 1832 when he refused to administer the Lord's Supper if bread and wine still had to be part of the sacrament. Following this, he set off on a ten-month journey to Europe, where he met many of the philosophical heroes who had influenced his own thought. In England and Scotland
he met Coleridge, the poet William Wordsworth, and the writer Thomas Carlyle, with whom he would maintain a correspondence for the next forty years. Also while in Europe, during a visit to the Jardin des Plants in Paris, Emerson had a revelation about the interconnectedness, or "correspondence" as he put it, between humankind and other forms of nature. This mystical relationship between all parts of nature, a harmony of union and oneness, formed another cornerstone of Emerson's belief system thereafter.
Returning to America filled with new ideas and inspiration, Emerson first needed to sort out a career. He found his path in the foundling lyceum movement, a community-based program that promoted visiting lecturers and performers. This movement sprang up in New England in the 1820s, and by the 1830s had begun to spread westward as well. For this former minister, public speaking proved a way to not only spread his theories, but also to refine his ideas and get them into publishable form. Thus in 1833 and 1834 Emerson started his lyceum career with a series of four lectures on natural history. Soon he developed a pattern of speaking engagements that he maintained throughout much of his career: giving from six to twelve lectures in Boston each year and then traveling around the country for other speaking engagements. Topics for such lectures ranged from English literature to the philosophy of history, subjects that he had touched on in his journals and then developed as lecture notes. Such lecturing was Emerson's main source of income for the rest of his life.
In 1834 Emerson moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where many of his ancestors had lived. Setting up house at first with his mother, he soon bought a new house on the edge of the village where he and his second wife, Lydia Jackson, established their home. For Emerson, this second marriage was less a love match than it was an intellectual and domestic partnership. The couple had four children together, and for Emerson this steady domestic life was important. His children would often sit in the study with him as he worked, and he was known to devote much attention to them. Emerson also made a new group of friends in Concord, including Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others who would soon help to form a distinct national literature that became known as the American Renaissance. Stimulated by these men and women, Emerson helped to form, in 1836, the Transcendental Club, which met together off and on until 1840. The Transcendental philosophy that resulted from this group was not one unified program; rather it was a patchwork of beliefs and theories that saw a fundamental unity in all creation, that viewed humanity as essentially good, and that trusted insight over logic to provide the deepest revelations about life. There were also social reform aspects to the movement, including a staunch anti-slavery or abolitionist stand. However, not all members agreed on all points, and neither did all members take part in all aspects of the movement. For example, Emerson stayed clear of the utopian living experiments promoted by some of the members, such as Brook Farm.
In 1836 Emerson also published his first work, Nature, both a lyrical declaration of a spiritual philosophy and a quasi-scientific treatise. According to the contributor for the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, "this slim volume is the most memorable American statement of the Romantic idea of nature as a substitute for Revelation." As with all of Emerson's later essays, this one achieves part of its strength from its very organization, developed in an ascending order of importance of arguments, very much like the order of nature itself. He lists four uses of nature, including as a material resource, as a standard by which to measure beauty, as a reservoir of visible symbols out of which we construct language, and as a way in which we can come to comprehend the difference between "Understanding" and "Reason." Emerson uses these phrases in the manner of Coleridge. Understanding, in this meaning, implies logic and rational process, while Reason is a higher intuitive power. This odd use of Reason has confused readers ever since. In Nature, Emerson expanded on his theory of the correspondence between man and nature, an example of the unity of all creation and a source of real spiritual inspiration and revelation.
Published anonymously, Nature managed to attract a good deal of critical attention at the time and also sell out its first printing in only a month. Writing in the Boston Reformer of 1836, Orestes Augustus Brownson found Nature a "singular book." Brownson further commented, "It is the creation of a mind that lives and moves in the Beautiful, and has the power of assimilating to itself whatever it sees, hears or touches. We cannot analyze it; whoever would form an idea of it must read it." Van Doren, writing in the introduction to The Portable Emerson, called it Emerson's "most systematic" book. According to van Doren, "Its symmetry he never captured again, though its ideas are distributed through all of his other works—in maturer language, for this manifesto still has something in it of the callow and incomprehensible." Van Doren went on to note that though the beginning of the essay is hopeful, "in the ensuing chapters Emerson is less successful when he attempts an ordered statement of the functions Nature has in man's life." Van Doren concluded that this first book presents Emerson "hoping to be a philosopher, which he never was."
The Miraculous Years
Between 1836 and 1844 Emerson was at the peak of his powers and produced some of his most lasting and influential work. In addition to Nature, he gave addresses, published Essays and Essays: Second Series, and helped found and edit the Transcendental journal, The Dial. Emerson followed up the success of Nature with two public speeches, later published in book form, that further expounded his beliefs. The American Scholar of 1837 was the product of a speech given to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society. In it, he laid out the need for a distinctly American literature, independent of Europe and England. This was, as the American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes later said, America's "intellectual Declaration of Independence." The following year Emerson spoke to the graduating class of Harvard's Divinity School in the "most controversial, subversive, and electrifying speech of his career," according to the critic for Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography. Here he expanded on his ideas for a religion not determined by ritual and church doctrine. He called for reform in organized religion, and for these young ministers to go out and seek revelation not in the miracles of Jesus, but in individual experience. This event marked Emerson's final break with organized religion and caused a storm of controversy. Emerson would remain persona non grata at Harvard for over three decades.
Together with Margaret Fuller, Emerson helped found The Dial in 1840. Dedicated to publishing the literary works of Transcendentalist writers, the magazine played an important part in helping to develop a unique American voice in literature. From 1842 to 1844 Emerson took over the editorship himself. But the magazine ceased publication in 1844. Meanwhile, Emerson continued his career as a lecturer, and his fame as a public speaker continued to grow each year, despite the fact that his topics were challenging and often difficult to follow. His Essays appeared in 1841, and the twelve pieces on religious, moral, and intellectual topics each grew out of lyceum lectures. One of his best-known essays, "Self-Reliance," appears here. In it, Emerson attacks the idea of conformity. We must all depend on our own individual intuition or sense of who we are, according to Emerson. He also provides an explanation of his theory of the godliness in each individual in "The Over-Soul." This Over-Soul, in Emerson's system, is the supernatural essence or spirit of which we are all a part.
Essays: Second Series appeared in 1844. However, in 1842 Emerson's first son and favorite child, Waldo, died at the age of five from scarlet fever. As with the death of his first wife, this passing deeply touched Emerson and shook his beliefs. He partly dealt with this death by writing the poem "Threnody," but it would seem also that this tragedy began to change the underlying structures of his thoughts. With Essays: Second Series, his beliefs became more conservative and less optimistic about the possibilities of individual transformation, as can be seen in one of the most famous essays of the collection, "The Poet." Some have also attributed this conservative shift in Emerson simply to the fact of his success. By this time his name was becoming a household word in the United States. Perhaps Emerson began believing his critics and started seeing himself as the grand old man of American letters.
Poetry and Prose
Emerson brought out his first book of verses, Poems, in 1847. A second volume followed twenty years later, May Day and Other Pieces. While most critics agree that Emerson was not as strong a poet as he was an essayist, they also confirm that his lyrical style and experiments in poetry influenced later American poets, including Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Included in this first collection is "Concord Hymn," a celebration of the American Revolution and its opening battle, from which the famous line, "the shot heard round the world" comes. Other well-known poems from Emerson include "The Sphinx," "The Rhodora," "Brahma," "Each and All," and "Threnody." While some of Emerson's poetry details local events, much of it further explains and gives resonance to his philosophy.
In 1847 and 1848 Emerson again traveled in Europe, this time presenting a highly popular lecture series in Great Britain, where his fame had spread thanks in part to Carlyle and his promotional efforts. Back in the United States, Emerson next published Representative Men in 1850. Here he presents portraits of six great men, the Greek philosopher Plato, Swedenborg, the French essayist Montaigne, the English bard William Shakespeare, the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and the German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The very choice of such a man of action as Napoleon shows a further hardening of Emerson's conservative thought. Though the book was praised partly because it was more accessible than his earlier work, modern critics have found that with this publication Emerson had passed his peak as an original thinker. Other successful titles followed: English Traits in 1856, another very accessible and readable title, and two more volumes of essays, Conduct of Life in 1860 and Society and Solitude in 1870. From Conduct of Life comes two further original essays, "Fate" and "Illusions." With "Fate," Emerson seems to have come full circle from his original thoughts about nature. In the 1836 Nature, it was seen as a possibility, as inspiration for revelation, but in "Fate," nature is a destructive force, a limitation.
Emerson also became more active in public life during these years. Not usually one to become involved publicly in social and political issues, Emerson was moved to speak out against slavery, and in particular the Fugitive Slave Law, which required whites to return runaway slaves to their captivity. Emerson said that was one law he would gladly disobey. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he became an ardent proponent of the Union cause. Socially he became more outgoing, as well, joining a new group, the Saturday Club, which met for dinners in Boston. Here he met with fellow writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Henry Dana, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He continued to keep the same schedule he had for years: writing in the morning, walking in the countryside in the afternoon, and socializing with friends and family in the evening. However, by the mid-1860s Emerson's memory began to fail and it soon was no longer possible for him to lecture. When his house in Concord burned down in 1872, he was stunned. The tragedy caused Emerson's health to further deteriorate.
Friends of Emerson started a fund and raised money to rebuild his house while Emerson traveled with his daughter Ellen to Europe and Egypt. He was greeted by the entire village of Concord upon his return in 1873, and took up residence in his new home. Emerson's last years were peaceful, but he could no longer work much. With the assistance of his secretary, he prepared several volumes of essays, most of them derived from earlier lectures. In April of 1882 he caught pneumonia and died, honored as one of the country's literary giants.
If you enjoy the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you enjoy the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, you may also want to check out the following:
The writings of Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, who were influenced by Emerson.
Since his death, Emerson's reputation has gone through several phases. Revered as one of the most influential figures in American literature until about World War I, he began to attract more negative criticism between the wars. This prophet of individualism was blamed for some of the worst excesses in American life, such as out-of-control capitalism and consumerism. Critics also began to describe his theories as naive and obscure. Since World War II, however, Emerson has undergone another critical re-evaluation to become the ultimate Romantic. Whatever the critical judgment, Emerson had a profound influence on the world of letters in the United States. He almost single-handedly created an atmosphere receptive to a national literature, one that did not simply copy English precedent, but that struck out on its own with a blend of Yankee pragmatism and optimism about the human condition and man's potential for growth and self-realization. Emerson is, as Frederick Turner noted in the Smithsonian magazine, "a renaissance voice." An American original, Emerson "never gave up hoping that Americans were as superior as he suspected they were," van Doren concluded in his introduction to The Portable Emerson.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Allen, Gay Wilson, Waldo Emerson, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.
Anderson, John Q., The Liberating Gods: Emerson onPoets and Poetry, University of Miami Press (Miami, FL), 1971.
Berry, Edmund G., Emerson's Plutarch, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1961.
Bishop, Jonathan, Emerson on the Soul, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1964.
Brooks, Van Wyck, The Life of Emerson, Dutton (New York, NY), 1932.
Bryer, Jackson R., and Robert A. Rees, A Checklist ofEmerson Criticism, 1951-1961, Transcendental Books (Hartford, CT), 1964.
Buell, Lawrence, Literary Transcendentalism: Style andVision in the American Renaissance, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1973.
Burkholder, Robert E., and Joel Myerson, Critical Essays on Ralph Waldo Emerson, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1983.
Burkholder, Robert E., and Joel Myerson, Emerson:An Annotated Secondary Bibliography, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1985.
Cabot, James Elliot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2 volumes, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1889.
Cameron, Kenneth Walter, editor, Emerson amongHis Contemporaries, Transcendental Books (Hartford, CT), 1967.
Carpenter, Frederic Ives, Emerson Handbook, Hendricks House (New York, NY), 1953.
Charvat, William, Emerson's American Lecture Engagements, New York Public Library (New York, NY), 1961.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography:Colonization to the American Renaissance, 1640-1865, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Conway, Moncure Daniel, Emerson at Home andAbroad, James R. Osgood (Boston, MA), 1882.
Cooke, George Willis, A Bibliography of Ralph WaldoEmerson, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1908.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1: The American Renaissance in New England, 1978, Volume 59: American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1800-1850, 1987, Volume 73: American Magazine Journalists, 1741-1850, 1988, Volume 183: American Travel Writers, 1776-1864, 1997, Volume 223: The American Renaissance in New England, Second Series, 2000, Volume 270: American Philosophers before 1950, 2002.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, The Portable Emerson, edited and with an introduction by Mark van Doren, Viking (New York, NY), 1968.
Feidelson, Charles, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1961.
Firkins, Oscar W., Ralph Waldo Emerson, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1915.
Geldard, Richard G., God in Concord: Ralph WaldoEmerson's Awakening to the Infinite, Larson Publications, 1998.
Geldard, Richard G., The Spiritual Teachings of RalphWaldo Emerson, Lindisfarne Books (Great Barrington, MA), 2001.
Harding, Walter, Emerson's Library, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1967.
Hopkins, Vivian, Spires of Form: A Study of Emerson'sAesthetic Theory, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1951.
Makinson, Robert, Ralp Waldo Emerson BicentennialHandbook, Makinson Publishing, 2000.
Matthiessen, F. O., American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1941.
McAleer, John, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1984.
Miller, Perry, editor, The Transcendentalists: An Anthology, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1950.
Myerson, Joel, A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Paul, Sherman, Emerson's Angle of Vision, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1952.
Pommer, Henry F., Emerson's First Marriage, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1967.
Porte, Joel, Emerson and Thoreau: Transcendentalists inConflict, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1966.
Porte, Joel, Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Times, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1979.
Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, editors, The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1999.
Putz, Manfred, Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Bibliography of Twentieth-Century Criticism, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1986.
Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Rusk, Ralph R., The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Scribners, (New York, NY), 1949.
Scudder, Townsend, The Lonely Wayfaring Man: Emerson and Some Englishmen, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1936.
Snider, Denton J., A Biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Harvey Miner (St. Louis, MO), 1921. Wagenknecht, Edward, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Portrait of a Balanced Soul, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1974.
Waggoner, Hyatt, Emerson as Poet, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1975.
Whicher, Stephen E., Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1953.
Woodress, James, editor, Eight American Authors, revised edition, Norton (New York, NY), 1971.
Boston Reformer, September 10, 1836, Orestes Augustus Brownson, review of Nature, p. 2.
Essays in Literature, fall, 1996, Richard R. O'Keefe, "Emerson's 'Montaigne; or, the Skeptic:' Biography as Autobiography," pp. 206-207.
Explicator, winter, 1997, Verner D. Mitchell, "Emerson's Self-Reliance," pp. 79-80.
Modern Age, winter, 2003, Milton Birnbaum, "II. The Kaleidoscopic Emerson," pp. 27-36.
Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, fall, 1999, Martin Kevorkian, "A Pulpit of Envy: Girardian Elements in Emerson's Last 'Supper,'" p. 89.
Smithsonian, May, 2003, Frederick Turner, "Still ahead of His Time," p. 107.
Academy of American Poets,http://www.poets.org/ (July 12, 2001).
Ralph Waldo Emerson Homepage,http://www.transcendentalists.com/1emerson.html/ (June 9, 2004).*
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
EMERSON, RALPH WALDO
EMERSON, RALPH WALDO (1803–1882), American essayist, poet, and lecturer, was a leading figure among the New England Transcendentalists. Born in Boston, Emerson was descended from a long line of Christian ministers. The son of a distinguished Unitarian minister and a deeply religious mother, he was heir to the dual legacy of Boston Unitarianism: liberalism in matters of theology and Puritan piety in matters of personal devotion, morals, and manners.
Emerson himself became a Unitarian minister, and by 1829 he had secured a desirable position as pastor of the Second Church of Boston. This followed an undistinguished four years at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1817, and a period of study at Harvard Divinity School, during which he also worked, with little satisfaction, as a schoolmaster. With the pastorate of the Second Church, Emerson for the first time felt secure both professionally and financially. During this period he married Ellen Louisa Tucker, a younger woman of a sensitive nature and delicate health. Her death from tuberculosis, less than two years after their marriage, seems to have wrought important changes in Emerson's attitudes and thought. A rebellious strain in his character was perhaps strengthened; incipient attitudes were more strongly voiced. In his solitariness he found his faith in the primacy of the individual's relation to God strengthened, so too an impatience with the theological inheritance of received religion. He wrote in his journal in June 1831:
I suppose it is not wise, not being natural, to belong to any religious party. In the bible you are not directed to be a Unitarian or a Calvinist or an Episcopalian.… I am God's child, a disciple of Christ.… As fast as any man becomes great, that is, thinks, he becomes a new party.
Emerson eventually gave up the pastorate of the Second Church, taking issue with the congregation's customary administration of the Lord's Supper; by 1838 he stopped preaching altogether.
Though Emerson would certainly always have considered himself a "disciple of Christ," his mature thought, as expressed in his essays and poetry, was not beholden to historical Christianity. He passionately sought for the essential spirit of religion a local habitation—temporally, geographically, and in the life of the individual. In the introduction to Nature (1833), which came to be his most widely read essay, he wrote: "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should we not have … a religion of revelation to us and not the history of theirs?"
Emerson was not a systematic thinker, and his ideas resist any ready summation. The essays are homiletic and aphoristic and have a cumulative power not dependent on force of logic. Certain strains can be identified, however, that undermine basic Christian conceptions. Emerson's worldview is essentially nonteleological. In his radical assertion that each individual soul must remake anew an original relation to the world, he puts the perceiving self at the center of that world. To borrow the terms of German idealist philosophy, to which he was deeply indebted, Emerson took the transcendental ego, posited as a merely formal, logical entity by Kant and subsumed under the collective will by Hegel, and made it an object of experience. In this he anticipated figures as distant as the philosophers Husserl and Sartre and the poet Wallace Stevens. That the experience of this transcendental ego is akin to mysticism as it had been known even within Christianity is apparent from this famous passage from Nature :
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhiliration. I am glad to the brink of fear.… Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.
Though there is an aspect of passivity in this experience that is reminiscent of an experience of divine grace, the experience proceeds upward and outward, clearly centered in the perceiver. This spatialization is telling. Often called a pantheist, Emerson repeatedly asserted the unity of all individual souls with one another and with God. With God deposed from the pinnacle of this relationship, the world becomes not hierarchical but a plurality of parts in any of which the whole might be read: "A subtle chain of countless rings / The next unto the farthest brings."
The distance between his mature views and his Christian background seems not to have troubled Emerson, perhaps because he did not see the two as incompatible. As prophet to an age "destitute of faith, but terrified of skepticism," as his friend Thomas Carlyle characterized it, Emerson advanced his unorthodox views forthrightly and unapologetically, secure in his advocacy of "truer" religion. (We need only turn to Nietzsche, who admired the "cheerfulness" of Emerson, to be reminded of how free of anxiety the latter's writings are.) There is a consistent strain of optimism in his work that helped win him a wide audience and also has brought him some criticism, namely that he avoided any note of tragedy in his writings, even while his journal reveals that he was well acquainted with tragedy in life. Indeed his doctrine of "compensation" for evil and suffering is so philosophically ungrounded as to seem merely sentimental. But in the confidence with which Emerson forwarded his original and radical message, and in the audience he found, may be seen not merely evidence of an uncommonly balanced spirit and not merely the popular appeal of optimism; one sees the flowering of that America observed by Hegel, where "the most unbounded license of imagination in religious matters prevails."
The primary resources for the study of Emerson are The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 12 vols., edited by Edward W. Emerson, and The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 14 vols. (Cambridge, Mass, 1960–1978). The best recent biography is Gay Wilson Allen's Waldo Emerson (New York, 1981). Stephen E. Whicher's Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1971), is a watershed study, a point of departure for much later criticism. Jonathan Bishop's Emerson on the Soul (Cambridge, Mass., 1964) is another good account of Emerson's intellectual and religious development, as is Joel Porte's Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time (New York, 1979). Two useful collections of criticism are The Recognition of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Criticism since 1837, edited by Milton R. Konvitz (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1972), and Critical Essays on Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Robert E. Burkholder and Joel Myerson (Boston, 1983).
David Sassian (1987)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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). □
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
Born: May 25, 1803
Died: April 27, 1882
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.
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.
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.
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 spoke out against materialism (the belief that material or physical things—not spiritual—are 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. 427–c. 347 b.c.e.), William Shakespeare (1564–1616), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). 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 (1809–1965).
After the Civil War (1861–65; 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
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.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
In his essays and speeches, Ralph Waldo Emerson established a distinctly American philosophy centered on his belief that each individual possesses an inner spiritual truth that transcends, or exceeds, the knowledge that comes from rational thought and logic. His philosophy was the basis of Transcendentalism and inspired an entire generation of American writers and poets.
Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts . His father, a minister, died in 1811, leaving Emerson's mother with seven young children to raise on a limited income. In 1817, Emerson entered Harvard College on a scholarship and worked his way through college.
During his third year at Harvard, Emerson began keeping a journal. He continued writing his journals for over fifty years and later took inspiration from the topics raised there for his essays.
After graduating in 1821, Emerson became a teacher. In 1825, having saved enough money to put himself through Harvard Divinity School (a school that trains people to become religious leaders), he quit teaching. In 1827, he met the seventeen-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker. They married in 1829. That same year, he became minister at Boston's Second Church.
A period of doubt
Emerson soon became dissatisfied with being a minister. He found it difficult to accept the church's insistence on miracles. He believed religion should be based on the spiritual inspiration within each believer, not blind acceptance of tradition. Emerson's beliefs were influenced by a wide range of readings, including the works of Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428 bce–c. 348 bce), the writings of eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1722), and the works of European Romantics such as English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), who stressed intuition over rational thought.
Only a year and a half after his marriage, Emerson's young bride died. In his grief, he came to believe that God is not an entity that exists outside of humans, but rather that God lives within each individual human soul. Emerson came to believe that each person needed to break free from the everyday world in order to see the godliness in his or her inner self.
The making of a writer
Emerson left his position in the Boston church in 1832 and set off on a ten-month journey to Europe. In England, he met Coleridge, poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850), and other major thinkers and writers of the Romantic movement, which placed great value on the individual imagination and viewed nature as inspirational. In Paris, Emerson came to a profound understanding about the interconnectedness between humankind and other forms of nature. This harmonious relationship between all parts of nature formed another cornerstone of Emerson's belief system.
Returning to the United States filled with new ideas and inspiration, in 1833 Emerson joined the lyceum movement. This community-based program, which had arisen in New England in the 1820s, sponsored lectures and performances by visiting scholars and artists. Topics for Emerson's lectures soon ranged from English literature to the philosophy of history. Lecturing was Emerson's main source of income for the rest of his life.
In 1834, Emerson moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where he remarried and began family life. He formed a new group of friends in Concord, including feminist writer Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). The Concord group became the basis of a distinct national literature known as the American Renaissance.
Stimulated by these friendships, Emerson helped to form the Transcendental Club in 1836. The Transcendentalist philosophy that resulted from this group was not one unified program, but rather a patchwork of beliefs and theories. Transcendentalists saw a fundamental unity in all creation, viewed humanity as essentially good, and trusted insight over logic to provide the deepest understanding of life. Many transcendentalists were activists in social reform, including the abolition movement (putting an end to slavery ).
Essays, journals, and speeches
Between 1836 and 1844, Emerson produced some of his most lasting and influential work. Nature (1836) was a declaration of his spiritual philosophy. It stressed his concept of inner understanding and his views on the oneness of all nature. The book attracted a good deal of critical attention and sold well. The American Scholar (1837) laid out the need for a distinctly American literature, independent of Europe and England.
Together with Margaret Fuller, Emerson helped found the transcendentalist journal the Dial in 1840, which played an important part in developing a unique American voice in literature. Meanwhile, Emerson's fame as a public speaker grew each year. His Essays appeared in 1841. Each of the twelve essays on religious, moral, and intellectual topics had grown out of his lyceum lectures. One of these was his best-known essay, “Self-Reliance,” in which he attacked the idea of conforming to other people's expectations.
In 1842, Emerson's first son and favorite child, Waldo, died at the age of five from scarlet fever. His grief began to change the underlying structures of his thoughts. With Essays: Second Series (1844), he became less optimistic about the possibilities of human spiritual fulfillment.
Emerson published his first book of verse in 1847. A second volume followed twenty years later. Although most critics agree that Emerson was not as strong a poet as he was an essayist, his experiments in poetry influenced later American poets.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861–65), Emerson became an ardent Union supporter. But by that time, his memory had begun to fail, and over the next decade his health deteriorated. His last years were peaceful but not productive. In 1882, he became ill with pneumonia and died.
Since his death, Emerson's reputation has gone through several phases of acclaim and criticism. Whatever the critics’ judgment, he had a profound influence on the world of letters in the United States. He was instrumental in creating a national literature with its own blend of Yankee common sense and optimism about the human potential for growth and self-realization.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo
EMERSON, RALPH WALDO
Clergyman, essayist, poet, and philosopher; b. Boston, Mass., May 25, 1803; d. Concord, Mass., April 27, 1882. He came of a long line of clergymen; his father had left Calvinism for Unitarianism and was minister at Boston's famous First Church. Emerson entered Harvard College (1817) and upon graduation taught school for a time. He entered Harvard Divinity School (1825), and was appointed pastor of the Second Church (Unitarian) in Boston in 1829. He married in 1829, but his wife died in 1831. He very quickly found himself at odds with Unitarian doctrine and in 1832 resigned his pastorate. The same year he sailed for Europe. After a year of deeply stimulating experiences (he met, among others, coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle, he returned home. He made two more trips abroad, in 1847 and 1872.
In 1836 he published Nature, which, like so many of his writings, has a strong manifesto-like quality. It is a challenging declaration of truths toward which many of his contemporaries were groping, and reveals Emerson probing into human reality and the world of nature in order to liberate men from a mechanistic view of the world. Soon there gathered around him a loosely knit group known as Transcendentalists. (see transcendentalism, literary.) In 1841 he published Essays, First Series and in 1844 Essays, Second Series. Then followed Poems (1847), Representative Men (1850), English Traits (1856), Conduct of Life (1860), May Day (1867), Society and Solitude (1870), and Letters and Social Aims (1875).
Emerson was to a marked degree universal-minded. Thus he felt drawn to both the Orient and the Occident, as well as to the most advanced movements of thought in his own time. He was always at home in the great literatures, and entered with ease worlds that seemed far removed from his own. It was characteristic of him that he could be carried away by Dante's Vita Nuova, which he said "reads like the Book of Genesis." Under great difficulties, this son of the Puritans undertook its translation.
It is significant that Emerson's universality should have blossomed out of a mind so strikingly American. In essays like "The American Scholar" and "Self-Reliance," Emerson speaks for the frontier and not merely for romanticism; the pioneer spirit was as vital in him as his feeling for his Puritan ancestry and his ties with Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. Emerson was moved by this frontier spirit to follow in the footsteps of the Puritan thinker Jonathan edwards. Emerson became passionately attached to the world revealed by the senses, and viewed its perception as integral to spiritual vision itself. Moreover, as with other Americans, the enterprise of carving a new world out of the wilderness left its mark on him, reinforcing to a maximum degree that feeling of the all-embracing unity of life and interconnectedness of things that springs up so spontaneously in man. Again, as were other Americans, he was alert to the dynamism that drives man onward and fills him with a sense of new and strange possibilities that lie ahead.
Man is no alien presence in the world. This is Emerson's resounding message. He therefore applied himself to the business of penetrating to "the aboriginal Self," so that he might lay bare and resuscitate a primal state of consciousness in which one rises to an awareness of higher dimensions within reality as well as of one's own immersion in nature and process.
Given such an outlook, the self-reliance of which Emerson makes so much has little in common with the self-sufficiency of one who remains insensitive to the bond linking him with things and who feels no surge within himself of a world that presses on to new and unforeseeable goals. To Emerson the call to self-reliance was a call to an original confrontation with the universe out of the depths of one's own uniqueness; for, as he saw it, the doorway to life and universality is to be found in selfhood. He was not antisocial. For him it was simply a matter of affirming the truth that society is most healthy when it respects the infinite potentiality of each person, while welcoming diversity and uniqueness.
In his deeper reading of human experience, Emerson could show that personality in its spiritual depths is organically connected with the rocks and the plants and all living creatures, as well as with the divinity that stands behind things. In building his picture of the world, he made use of a doctrine already taught by Jonathan Edwards, which can be traced back to medieval times and beyond, namely that the world is a descending manifestation of spirit. Within such a context Emerson was able to
develop his doctrine of the indispensability of organic language, the language of symbolism, to the normal functioning of mind and spirit. In his view, it is through organic language that the world around us evokes answering echoes in the psyche, hinting at realities that escape the grasp of nonpoetic language. Ever close to experience, Emerson believed that symbolic consciousness plays a dominant role in the process by which man seeks to transcend himself toward larger wholeness of life and meaning.
See Also: emanationism; neoplatonism.
Bibliography: Complete Works, ed. e. w. emerson, 12 v. (Boston 1903–04); Journals, ed. e. w. emerson and w. e. forbes, 10 v. (Boston 1909–14); Letters, ed. r. l. rusk, 6 v. (New York 1939). dante aligheri, La Vita Nuova, tr. r. w. emerson, ed. j.c. mathews (Chapel Hill 1960). r. l. rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York 1949). f. i. carpenter, Emerson Handbook (New York 1953). v. c. hopkins, Spires of Form: A Study of Emerson's Aesthetic Theory (Cambridge, Mass. 1951). s. paul, Emerson's Angle of Vision: Man and Nature in American Experience (Cambridge, Mass. 1952). s. e. whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia 1953).
[r. c. pollock]