Waldo EmersonRalph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 -April 27, 1882) was
an American author, poet, and philosopher.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston to the Rev. William Emerson,
a Unitarian minister in a famous line of ministers. He gradually drifted
from the doctrines of his peers, then formulated and first expressed
the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his essay Nature (1837).
In 1805, Emerson's
father called his two-year-old son "a rather dull scholar",
and sent him to Boston Latin School. In 1811, less than two weeks short
of Emerson's eighth birthday, his father died. In October 1817, at the
age of 14, Emerson went to Harvard University and was appointed President's
Freshman, a position which gave him a room free of charge. He waited
at Commons, which reduced the cost of his board to one quarter, and
he received a scholarship. To complement his meager salary, he tutored
and taught during the winter vacations at his Uncle Ripley's school
in Waltham, Massachusetts.
After Emerson graduated
from Harvard in 1821, he assisted his brother in a school for young
ladies established in their mother's house, after he had established
his own school in Chelmsford; when his brother went to Göttingen
to study divinity, Emerson took charge of the school. Over the next
several years, Emerson made his living as a schoolmaster, then went
to Harvard Divinity School, and emerged as a Unitarian minister in 1829.
A dispute with church officials over the administration of the Communion
service, and misgivings about public prayer led to his resignation in
His first wife,
Ellen Louisa Tucker, died at the age of 19 of tuberculosis in April
1831. A month later, he met with Phillip Arenas.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
is distantly related to Charles Wesley Emerson, founder and namesake
of Emerson College. Both were Unitarian ministers; Charles was a family
name in Ralph Waldo Emerson's family. Their great ancestor, Thomas Emerson,
immigrant, settled as early as 1640 in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and was
the progenitor of a family of ministers and learned men.
Emerson toured Europe, a trip that he would later write about in English
Traits (1856). During this trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Emerson maintained
a correspondence with Carlyle until the latter's death in 1881. He served
as Carlyle's agent in the U.S.
His travels abroad
brought him not only to England as he also visited France (in 1848),
Italy, and the Middle East.
In 1849, Emerson
bought a house on the Cambridge Turnpike, in Concord, Massachusetts.
He quickly became one of the leading citizens in the town. He also married
his second wife Lydia Jackson there. He called her Lidian and she called
him Mr Emerson. Their children were Waldo, Ellen, Edith and Edward Waldo
Emerson. Ellen was named for his first wife, at the suggestion of Lidian.
In September 1836, Emerson and other like-minded intellectuals founded
the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement,
but did not publish its journal The Dial, until July 1840. Emerson published
his first essay, Nature, anonymously in September 1836. While it became
the foundation for Transcendentalism, many people at the time assumed
it to be a work of Swedenborgianism.
In 1838 he was invited
back to Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School, for the school's graduation
address, which came to be known as his Divinity School Address. His
remarks managed to outrage the establishment and shock the whole Protestant
community at the time, as he proclaimed that while Jesus was a great
man, he was not God (at this time such statements were rather unheard
of). For this, he was denounced as an atheist, and a poisoner of young
men's minds. Despite the roar of his critics, he made no reply, leaving
it to others for his defense. He was not invited back to speak at Harvard
for another 40 years, but by the mid-1880s his position had become standard
Early in 1842, Emerson
lost his first son, Waldo, to scarlet fever. Emerson wrote about his
grief in two major works: the poem "Threnody", and the essay
"Experience." In the same year, William James was born, and
Emerson agreed to be his godfather.
Emerson made a living
as a popular lecturer in New England and the rest of the country outside
of the South. During several scheduled appearances that he was not able
to make, Frederick Douglass took his place. Emerson spoke on a wide
variety of subjects. Many of his essays grew out of his lectures.
closely with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau and often took
walks with them in Concord. Emerson encouraged Thoreau's talent and
early career. The land on which Thoreau built his cabin on Walden Pond
belonged to Emerson. While Thoreau was living at Walden, Emerson provided
food and hired Thoreau to perform odd jobs. When Thoreau left Walden
after two years' time, it was to live at the Emerson house while Emerson
was away on a lecture tour. Their close relationship fractured after
Emerson gave Thoreau the poor advice to publish his first book, A Week
on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, without extensive drafts, and directed
Thoreau to his own agent who made Thoreau split the price/risk of publishing.
The book found few readers, and put Thoreau heavily into debt. Eventually
the two would reconcile some of their differences, although Thoreau
privately accused Emerson of having drifted from his original philosophy,
and Emerson began to view Thoreau as a misanthrope. Emerson's eulogy
to Thoreau is largely credited with the latter's negative reputation
during the 19th century.
Emerson was noted
as being a very abstract and difficult writer who nevertheless drew
large crowds for his speeches. The heart of Emerson's writing were his
direct observations in his journals, which he started keeping as a teenager
at Harvard. The journals were elaborately indexed by Emerson. Emerson
went back to his journals, his bank of experiences and ideas, and took
out relevant passages, which were joined together in his dense, concentrated
lectures. He later revised and polished his lectures for his essays
He was considered
one of the great orators of the time, a man who could enrapture crowds
with his deep voice, his enthusiasm, and his egalitarian respect for
his audience. His outspoken, uncompromising support for abolitionism
later in life caused protest and jeers from crowds when he spoke on
the subject. He continued to speak on abolition without concern for
his popularity and with increasing radicalism. He attempted, with difficulty,
not to join the public arena as a member of any group or movement, and
always retained a stringent independence that reflected his individualism.
He always insisted that he wanted no followers, but sought to give man
back to himself, as a self-reliant individual. Asked to sum up his work
late in life, he said it was his doctrine of "the infinitude of
the private man" that remained central.
In 1845, Emerson's
Journal records that he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and Henry Thomas
Colebrooke's Essays on the Vedas. Emerson was strongly influenced
by the Vedas, and much of his writing has strong shades of nondualism.
One of the clearest examples of this can be found in his essay, "The
We live in succession,
in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul
of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every
part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep
power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us,
is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of
seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and
the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the
moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining
parts, is the soul.
Emerson was strongly
influenced by his early reading of the French essayist Montaigne. From
those compositions he took the conversational, subjective style and
the loss of belief in a personal God. He never read Kant's works, but,
instead, relied on Coleridge's interpretation of the German Transcendental
Idealist. This led to Emerson's non-traditional ideas of soul and God.
Emerson is buried
in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.
In May 2006, 168
years after Emerson delivered his "Divinity School Address,"
Harvard Divinity School announced the establishment of the Emerson Unitarian
Universalist Association Professorship. The Emerson Chair is expected
to be occupied in the fall of 2007 or soon thereafter.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Waldo Emerson is
truly the center of the American transcendental movement, setting out
most of its ideas and values in a little book, Nature, published in
1836, that represented at least ten years of intense study in philosophy,
religion, and literature, and in his First Series of essays.
Born in 1803 to
a conservative Unitarian minister, from a long line of ministers, and
a quietly devout mother, Waldo--who dropped the "Ralph" in
college--was a middle son of whom relatively little was expected. His
father died when he was eight, the first of many premature deaths which
would shape his life--all three brothers, his first wife at 20, and
his older son at 5. Perhaps the most powerful personal influence on
him for years was his intellectual, eccentric, and death-obsessed Puritanical
aunt, Mary Moody Emerson. Yet Emerson often confessed to an innate optimism,
even occasional "silliness."
career at Harvard was not illustrious, and his studies at the Harvard
Divinity School were truncated by vision problems, but he was ordained
a minister of the Second Church in Boston, shortly before marrying Ellen
Tucker in 1829. He resigned in 1832 after her death from tuberculosis,
troubled by theological doctrines such as the Lord's Supper, and traveled
extensively in Europe, returning to begin a career of lecturing. In
1835 he married Lydia Jackson; they lived in Concord and had four children
while he settled into his life of conversations, reading and writing,
and lecturing, which furnished a comfortable income.
The Emerson house
was a busy one, with friends like Elizabeth Hoar, Margaret Fuller, and
Henry Thoreau, staying for months to help out and talk. He, Bronson
Alcott, and George Ripley decided to begin a magazine, The Dial, with
Margaret Fuller editing, in 1840; Emerson would edited the final two
years, ending in 1844. His Essays (first series) were published in 1841.
struck with the sudden death of Waldo in 1842, soon after the death
of John Thoreau from lockjaw, and a darker, tougher strain appears in
Emerson's writing, beginning with his memorializing poem, "Threnody."
But Emerson pulled himself together to give a series of lectures in
New York and in 1844 he had a new volume of essays prepared. He began
planning a series of lectures on great men and publication of his poems
in 1846, while speaking out against the annexation of Texas and reading
deeply in texts of Persian and Indic wisdom.
In 1845 he began
extensive lecturing on "the uses of great men," a series that
culminated with the 1850 publication of Representative Men; by that
year he was giving as many as 80 lectures a year. Through a career of
40 years, he gave about 1500 public lectures, traveling as far as California
and Canada but generally staying in Massachusetts. His audiences were
captivated by his speaking style, even if they didn't always follow
the subtleties of his arguments.
In 1847 Emerson
travelled to England, noticing in particular the industrialization and
the chasm between upper and lower classes. When he returned to Concord
nine months later, he had a new approach to English culture, which he
expressed in his lectures on the "Natural History of Intellect"
and his 1856 book, English Traits.
In 1851 he began
a series of lecture which would become The Conduct of Life, published
in 1860. He was vigorous in middle age, traveling frequently, but was
increasingly aware of his limits and failing energy. He had become quite
famous, a major figure in the American literary landscape, a celebrity
which brought both adultation and satire. He had been a profound inspiration
for many writers, especially Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman. He continued
his speeches against slavery, but never with the fire of Theodore Parker.
In 1857 he wrote an essay on "Memory" but ironically, in his
later years, his own memory would falter, especially after his beloved
house burned in 1872. He died quietly of pneumonia in 1882.