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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
(Lithograph by Leopold Grozelier, 1859)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) was an American philosopher, essayist and poet of the early Modern period. He was the leader of the Transcendentalism movement in the mid-19th Century.

He was considered one of the great orators of the time, and his enthusiasm and respect for his audience enraptured crowds. In his lifetime, he became the most widely known man of letters in America, and his "Collected Essays" is sometimes considered to be among the 100 greatest books of all time.


Emerson was born on 25 May 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts, the fourth son of Ruth (née Haskins) and the Rev. William Emerson (a Unitarian minister, descended from a well-known line of ministers). His father (who called his son "a rather dull scholar") died in 1811, before Waldo was even eight years of age. His eccentric but brilliant aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, became his confidante during this time and continued to stimulate his independent thinking for many years. He was sent to the Boston Latin School in 1812 and, in 1817 (at fourteen years old), Emerson went to Harvard College, which was able to afford by a combination of his free room (due to his appointment as Freshman's President), a scholarship, a job waiting on tables, and tutoring during the vacations.

After graduating from Harvard in 1821, he made his living for a time as a schoolmaster in his brother's school for young ladies. In 1825, he went to Harvard Divinity School, and emerged as a Unitarian minister in 1829, although he resigned his position in 1832 after a dispute with church officials. He married Ellen Louisa Tucker (an 18 year old girl he had met in Concord, New Hampshire), but she died of tuberculosis less than two years later in 1831, and her death affected him greatly.

In 1832, Emerson toured around France, Italy, the Middle East and, particularly, Britain, where he met William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 -1834), John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881). It was through these notable English writers and Romantics that Emerson’s interest in transcendental thought began to blossom. He maintained contact with Carlyle for the next 50 years, and served as his agent in the United States.

In 1835, he bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts and married his second wife, Lydia Jackson. They lived a financially conservative but comfortable lifestyle and had four children: Waldo, Ellen, Edith and Edward Waldo. It was in Concord, where he spent the next 49 years until his death, that he began his literary, political and philosophical career.

The publication of his 1836 essay "Nature", with its expression of a firm belief in the mystical unity of nature, is usually taken to be the watershed moment at which Transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. He helped found the Transcendental Club in September 1836 with other like-minded New England intellectuals, including George Ripley (1802 - 1880), Frederick Henry Hedge (1805 - 1890), Orestes Brownson (1803 - 1876), Bronson Alcott (1799 - 1888), James Freeman Clarke (1810 -1888) and Convers Francis (1795 - 1863). The group started its journal, "The Dial", in July 1840.

He made a living as a popular lecturer throughout New England and the northern half of the United States. He was considered one of the great orators of the time, and could enrapture crowds with his deep voice, his enthusiasm, and his egalitarian respect for his audience. His 1838 graduation address at Harvard Divinity School caused outrage when he discounted Biblical miracles and proclaimed that Jesus was a great man but not God (both of which were soon to become standard Unitarian doctrine). In 1843, he further risked his safety by speaking in public on his anti-slavery position. These lectures received their final form in his series of "Essays", published in two series in 1841 and in 1844, the two volumes most responsible for Emerson's reputation as a philosopher.

Emerson's first son, Waldo, died of scarlet fever in 1842, and the first collection of his poems appeared in 1847 (he always regarded himself essentially as a poet). Throughout the 1840s, he took long walks around Concord with the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 - 1864) and his friend and protegé Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond was built on Emerson's land, and he provided him with food and odd jobs during his stay there from1845 to 1847. Their close relationship later fractured and soured however. While sympathetic to the George Ripley's experimental collective at Brook Farm, Emerson declined appeals to join the group and stayed in Concord with Lydia and their growing family.

During the 1850s, he continued lecturing widely on a number of different topics. He became increasingly interested in the abolition of slavery, and he actively supported war with the South after the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861. His last years were marked by a decline in his mental powers, although his literary reputation continued to spread. Emerson died of pneumonia, aged 78, on 27 April 1882 in Concord, and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

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After the publication of Emerson's 1836 essay "Nature", and the founding of the Transcendental Club in September 1836, Transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. The club (which originally met in the home of George Ripley) was a meeting-place for young thinkers and an organizing ground for their idealistic frustration with the general state of American culture and society at the time and, in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and in the Unitarian church.

Transcendentalism was rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German Idealism in general), and the desire to ground religion in the inner, spiritual or mental essence of humanity, rather than in sensuous experience. Their beliefs were closely linked with those of the Romantics, and the later New Thought movement in America.

The two volumes of "Essays", published in 1841 and in 1844 are most responsible for Emerson's reputation as a philosopher, although the general reading public knows his work primarily through his highly-quotable aphorisms. Of these essays, "Self-Reliance" is perhaps his single most influential work, and stands as a comprehensive statement of his credo. In it he describes his abiding faith in the individual ("Trust thyself"), and opposes on principle the reliance on social structures (whether civil or religious) on the grounds that the individual must approach the divine directly, not mediated through some institution.

Emerson himself believed that Transcendentalism was an exclusively individual and idealist project, and suggested in his 1842 lecture "The Transcendentalist" that the goal of a purely transcendental outlook on life was actually impossible to attain in practice.

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