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Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an Americanmarker essayist, philosopher, and poet, best remembered for leading the Transcendentalist movement of the mid 19th century. His teachings directly influenced the growing New Thought movement of the mid 1800s. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society.

Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay, Nature. As a result of this ground breaking work he gave a speech entitled The American Scholar in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. considered to be America's "Intellectual Declaration of Independence". Considered one of the great orators of the time, Emerson's enthusiasm and respect for his audience enraptured crowds. His support for abolitionism late in life created controversy, and at times he was subject to abuse from crowds while speaking on the topic. When asked to sum up his work, he said his central doctrine was "the infinitude of the private man."


Early life, family, and education

Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusettsmarker on May 25, 1803, son of Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian minister who descended from a well-known line of ministers. He was named after his mother's brother Ralph and the father's great-grandmother Rebecca Waldo. Ralph Waldo was the second of five sons who survived into adulthood; the others were William, Edward, Robert Bulkeley, and Charles. Three other children—Phebe, John Clarke, and Mary Caroline—all died in childhood.

The young Ralph Waldo Emerson's father died from stomach cancer on May 12, 1811, less than two weeks before Emerson's eighth birthday. Emerson was raised by his mother as well as other intellectual and spiritual women in his family, including his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, who had a profound impact on the young Emerson. She lived with the family off and on and maintained a constant correspondence with Emerson until her death in 1863.

Emerson's formal schooling began at the Boston Latin Schoolmarker in 1812 when he was nine. In October 1817, at 14, Emerson went to Harvard Collegemarker and was appointed freshman messenger for the president, requiring Emerson to fetch delinquent students and send messages to faculty. Midway through his junior year, Emerson began keeping a list of books he had read and started a journal in a series of notebooks that would be called "Wide World". He took outside jobs to cover his school expenses, including as a waiter for the Junior Commons and as an occasional teacher working with his uncle Samuel in Waltham, Massachusettsmarker. By his senior year, Emerson decided to go by his middle name, Waldo. Emerson served as Class Poet and, as was custom, presented an original poem on Harvard's Class Day, a month before his official graduation on August 29, 1821, when he was 18. He did not stand out as a student and graduated in the exact middle of his class of 59 people.

Around 1826, during a winter trip to St. Augustine, Floridamarker, Emerson made the acquaintance of Prince Achille Murat. Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was only two years his senior and the two became extremely good friends and enjoyed one another's company. The two engaged in enlightening discussions on religion, society, philosophy, and government.

Early career

After Harvard, Emerson assisted his brother in a school for young ladies established in their mother's house, after he had established his own school in Chelmsford, Massachusettsmarker; when his brother went to Göttingenmarker 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 Schoolmarker. In May 1828, Emerson's younger brother William, who had been working with lawyer Daniel Webster, had to be sent to McLean Asylum.

Boston's Second Church invited Emerson to serve as its junior pastor and he was ordained on March 11, 1829. Emerson met his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, in Concord, New Hampshiremarker and married her when she was 18. The couple moved to Boston, with Emerson's mother Ruth moving with them to help take care of Ellen, who was already sick with tuberculosis. Less than two years later, Ellen died at the age of 20 on February 8, 1831, after uttering her last words: "I have not forgot the peace and joy". Emerson was heavily affected by her death and often visited her grave. In a journal entry dated March 29, 1831, Emerson wrote, "I visited Ellen's tomb and opened the coffin". After his wife's death, he began to disagree with the church's methods, writing in his journal in June 1832: "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers". His disagreements with church officials over the administration of the Communion service and misgivings about public prayer eventually led to his resignation in 1832. As he wrote, "This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it".

Emerson toured Europe in 1832 and later wrote of his travels in English Traits (1857). He left aboard the brig Jasper on Christmas Day, sailing first to Maltamarker. During his European trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle in particular was a strong influence on Emerson; Emerson would later serve as an unofficial literary agent in the United States for Carlyle. The two would maintain correspondence until Carlyle's death in 1881.

Emerson returned to the United States on October 9, 1833, and lived with his mother in Newton, Massachusettsmarker until November 1834, when he moved to Concord, Massachusettsmarker to live with his step-grandfather Dr. Ezra Ripley at what was later named The Old Mansemarker. In 1835, he bought a house on the Cambridge and Concord Turnpike in Concord, Massachusettsmarker, now open to the public as the Ralph Waldo Emerson Housemarker, and quickly became one of the leading citizens in the town. He married his second wife Lydia Jackson in her home town of Plymouth, Massachusettsmarker on September 14, 1835. 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 Lidian's suggestion.

Emerson lived a financially conservative lifestyle. He had inherited some wealth after his wife's death, though he brought a lawsuit against the Tucker family in 1836 to get it. He received $11,674.79 in July 1837.

Literary career and Transcendentalism

Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1859
Emerson and other like-minded intellectuals founded the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement. Its first official meeting was held on September 19, 1836. Emerson anonymously published his first essay, Nature, in September 1836. A year later, on August 31, 1837, Emerson delivered his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa address, "The American Scholar", then known as "An Oration, Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge"; it was renamed for a collection of essays in 1849. In the speech, Emerson declared literary independence in the United States and urged Americans to create a writing style all their own and free from Europe. James Russell Lowell, who was a student at Harvard at the time, called it "an event without former parallel on our literary annals". Another member of the audience, Reverend John Pierce, called it "an apparently incoherent and unintelligible address".

In 1837, Emerson befriended Henry David Thoreau. Though they had likely met as early as 1835, in the fall of 1837, Emerson asked Thoreau, "Do you keep a journal?" The question went on to have a lifelong inspiration for Thoreau.

On July 15, 1838, Emerson was invited to Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School for the school's graduation address, which came to be known as his "Divinity School Address". Emerson discounted Biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God: historical Christianity, he said, had turned Jesus into a "demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo". His comments outraged the establishment and the general Protestant community. For this, he was denounced as an atheist, and a poisoner of young men's minds. Despite the roar of critics, he made no reply, leaving others to put forward a defense. He was not invited back to speak at Harvard for another thirty years.

The Transcendental group began to publish its flagship journal, The Dial, in July 1840. They planned the journal as early as October 1839, but work did not begin until the first week of 1840. George Ripley was its managing editor and Margaret Fuller was its first editor, having been hand-chosen by Emerson after several others had declined the role. Fuller stayed on for about two years and Emerson took over, utilizing the journal to promote talented young writers including William Ellery Channing and Thoreau.

In January 1842, Emerson's first son Waldo died from scarlet fever. Emerson wrote of his grief in the poem "Threnody" ("For this losing is true dying"), and the essay "Experience". In the same year, William James was born, and Emerson agreed to be his godfather.

It was in 1842 that Emerson published Essays, his second book, which included the famous essay, "Self-Reliance." His aunt called it a "strange medley of atheism and false independence," but it gained favorable reviews in London and Paris. This book, and its popular reception, more than any of Emerson's contributions to date laid the groundwork for his international fame.

Bronson Alcott announced his plans in November 1842 to find "a farm of a hundred acres in excellent condition with good buildings, a good orchard and grounds". Charles Lane purchased a farm in Harvard, Massachusettsmarker in May 1843 for what would become Fruitlandsmarker, a community based on Utopian ideals inspired in part by Transcendentalism. The farm would run based on a communal effort, using no animals for labor, and its participants would eat no meat and use no wool or leather. Emerson said he felt "sad at heart" for not engaging in the experiment himself. Even so, he did not feel Fruitlands would be a success. "Their whole doctrine is spiritual", he wrote, "but they always end with saying, Give us much land and money". Even Alcott admitted he was not prepared for the difficulty in operating Fruitlands. "None of us were prepared to actualize practically the ideal life of which we dreamed. So we fell apart", he wrote. After its failure, Emerson helped buy a farm for Alcott's family in Concord which Alcott named "Hillsidemarker".

The Dial ceased publication in April 1844; Horace Greeley reported it as an end to the "most original and thoughtful periodical ever published in this country".

Emerson made a living as a popular lecturer in New Englandmarker and much of the rest of the country. From 1847 to 1848, he toured England, Scotland, and Ireland. He also visited Paris between the February Revolution and the bloody June Days. When he arrived, he saw the stumps where trees had been cut down to form barricades in the February riots. On May 21 he stood on the Champ de Mars in the midst of mass celebrations for concord, peace and labor. He wrote in his journal: "At the end of the year we shall take account, & see if the Revolution was worth the trees." He had begun lecturing in 1833; by the 1850s he was giving as many as 80 per year. Emerson spoke on a wide variety of subjects and many of his essays grew out of his lectures. He charged between $10 and $50 for each appearance, bringing him about $800 to $1,000 per year. His earnings allowed him to expand his property, buying eleven acres of land by Walden Pondmarker and a few more acres in a neighboring pine grove. He wrote that he was "landlord and waterlord of 14 acres, more or less".

In 1845, Emerson's journals show 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 Over-soul":

Emerson was introduced to Indian philosophy when reading the works of French philosopher Victor Cousin.

In February 1852, Emerson and James Freeman Clarke and William Henry Channing edited an edition of the works and letters of Margaret Fuller, who had died in 1850. Within a week of her death, her New York editor Horace Greeley suggested to Emerson that a biography of Fuller, to be called Margaret and Her Friends, be prepared quickly "before the interest excited by her sad decease has passed away". Published with the title The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Fuller's words were heavily censored or rewritten. The three editors were not concerned about accuracy; they believed public interest in Fuller was temporary and that she would not survive as a historical figure. Even so, for a time, it was the best-selling biography of the decade and went through thirteen editions before the end of the century.

Walt Whitman published the innovative poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855 and sent a copy to Emerson for his opinion. Emerson responded positively, sending a flattering five-page letter as a response. Emerson's approval helped the first edition of Leaves of Grass stir up significant interest and convinced Whitman to issue a second edition shortly thereafter. This edition quoted a phrase from Emerson's letter, printed in gold leaf on the cover: "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career". Emerson took offense that this letter was made public and later became more critical of the work.

Civil War years

Though Emerson was anti-slavery, he did not immediately become active in the abolitionist movement. He voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, but Emerson was disappointed that Lincoln was more concerned about preserving the Union than eliminating slavery outright. Once the American Civil War broke out, Emerson made it clear that he believed in immediate emancipation of the slaves. Emerson gave a public lecture in Washington, D.C.marker on January 31, 1862, and declared: "The South calls slavery an institution... I call it destitution... Emancipation is the demand of civilization". The next day, February 1, his friend Charles Sumner took him to meet Lincoln at the White Housemarker; his misgivings about Lincoln began to soften after this meeting.

On May 6, 1862, Emerson's protege Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis at the age of 44 and Emerson delivered his eulogy. Emerson would continuously refer to Thoreau as his best friend, despite a falling out that began in 1849 after Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Another friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died two years after Thoreau in 1864. Emerson served as one of the pallbearers as Hawthorne was buried in Concord, as Emerson wrote, "in a pomp of sunshine and verdure".

Final years and death

Emerson's grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, Emerson was losing his memory and suffered from aphasia. By the end of the decade, he forgot his own name at times and, when anyone asked how he felt, he responded, "Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well".

Emerson's Concord home caught fire on July 24, 1872; Emerson called for help from neighbors and, giving up on putting out the flames, all attempted to save as many objects as possible. The fire was put out by Ephraim Bull, Jr., the one-armed son of Ephraim Wales Bull. Donations were collected by friends to help the Emersons rebuild, including $5,000 gathered by Francis Cabot Lowell, another $10,000 collected by LeBaron Russell Briggs, and a personal donation of $1,000 from George Bancroft. Support for shelter was offered as well; though the Emersons ended up staying with family at the Old Manse, invitations came from Anne Lynch Botta, James Elliot Cabot, James Thomas Fields and Annie Adams Fields. The fire marked an end to Emerson's serious lecturing career; from then on, he would lecture only on special occasions and only in front of familiar audiences.

While the house was being rebuilt, Emerson took a trip to England, the main European continent, and Egypt. He left on October 23, 1872, along with his daughter Ellen while his wife Lidian spent time at the Old Manse and with friends. Emerson and his daughter Ellen returned to the United States on the ship Olympus along with friend Charles Eliot Norton on April 15, 1873. Emerson's return to Concord was celebrated by the town and school was canceled that day.

In late 1874, Emerson published an anthology of poetry called Parnassus, which included poems by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Julia Caroline Dorr, Jean Ingelow, Lucy Larcom, Jones Very, as well as Thoreau and several others. The anthology was originally prepared as early as the fall of 1871 but was delayed when the publishers asked for revisions.

The problems with his memory had become embarrassing to Emerson and he ceased his public appearances by 1879. As Holmes wrote, "Emerson is afraid to trust himself in society much, on account of the failure of his memory and the great difficulty he finds in getting the words he wants. It is painful to witness his embarrassment at times".

On April 19, 1882, Emerson went walking despite having an apparent cold and was caught in a sudden rain shower. Two days later, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He died on April 27, 1882. Emerson is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. He was placed in his coffin wearing a white robe given by American sculptor Daniel Chester French.

Lifestyle and beliefs

Ralph Waldo Emerson in later years
Emerson's religious views were often considered radical at the time. He believed that all things are connected to God and, therefore, all things are divine. Critics believed that Emerson was removing the central God figure; as Henry Ware, Jr. said, Emerson was in danger of taking away "the Father of the Universe" and leaving "but a company of children in an orphan asylum". Emerson was partly influenced by German philosophy and Biblical criticism. His views, the basis of Transcendentalism, suggested that God does not have to reveal the truth but that the truth could be intuitively experienced directly from nature.

Emerson did not become an ardent abolitionist until later in his life, though his journals show he was concerned with slavery beginning in his youth. When he was young, he even dreamed about helping to free slaves, though he was not a strong public abolitionist voice at the time. In June 1856, shortly after Charles Sumner, a United States Senator, was beaten for his staunch abolitionist views, Emerson lamented that he himself was not as committed to the cause. He wrote, "There are men who as soon as they are born take a bee-line to the axe of the inquisitor... Wonderful the way in which we are saved by this unfailing supply of the moral element". After Sumner's attack, Emerson began to speak out about slavery. "I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom", he said at a meeting at Concord that summer. Emerson used slavery as an example of a human injustice, especially in his role as a minister. In early 1838, provoked by the murder of an abolitionist publisher from Alton, Illinoismarker named Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Emerson gave his first public antislavery address. As he said, "It is but the other day that the brave Lovejoy gave his breast to the bullets of a mob, for the rights of free speech and opinion, and died when it was better not to live". John Quincy Adams said the mob-murder of Lovejoy "sent a shock as of any earthquake throughout this continent". However, Emerson maintained that reform would be achieved through moral agreement rather than by militant action. By August 1, 1844, at a lecture in Concord, he stated more clearly his support for the abolitionist movement. He stated, "We are indebted mainly to this movement, and to the continuers of it, for the popular discussion of every point of practical ethics".

There is evidence suggesting that Emerson may have been bisexual. During his early years at Harvard, he found himself "strangely attracted" to a young freshman named Martin Gay about whom he wrote sexually charged poetry. Gay would be only the first of his infatuations and interests, with Nathaniel Hawthorne numbered among them.


As a lecturer and orator, Emerson—nicknamed the Concord Sage—became the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. Herman Melville, who had met Emerson in 1849, originally thought he had "a defect in the region of the heart" and a "self-conceit so intensely intellectual that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name", though he later admitted Emerson was "a great man". Theodore Parker, a minister and Transcendentalist, noted Emerson's ability to influence and inspire others: "the brilliant genius of Emerson rose in the winter nights, and hung over Boston, drawing the eyes of ingenuous young people to look up to that great new start, a beauty and a mystery, which charmed for the moment, while it gave also perennial inspiration, as it led them forward along new paths, and towards new hopes".

In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom repeatedly refers to Emerson as "The prophet of the American Religion," which in the context of the book refers to indigenously American and gnostic-tinged religions such as Mormonism and Christian Science that arose largely in Emerson's lifetime. In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom compares Emerson to Michel de Montaigne: "The only equivalent reading experience that I know is to reread endlessly in the notebooks and journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American version of Montaigne."

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. Harvard has also named a building, Emerson Hall (1900), after him.

Emerson Hillmarker, a neighborhood in the New York Citymarker borough of Staten Islandmarker is named for his eldest brother, Judge William Emerson, who resided there from 1837 to 1864.

Selected works

Representative Men (1850)



See also


  1. New Thought at MSN Encarta. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2007.
  2. Cheever, 80
  3. Ward, p. 389.
  4. Sullivan, 3.
  5. Cheever, 76.
  6. McAleer, 12.
  7. Baker, 3
  8. McAleer, 40
  9. Richardson, 22–23
  10. Baker, 35
  11. McAleer, 44
  12. McAleer, 52
  13. Richardson, 11
  14. McAleer, 53
  15. Richardson, 6
  16. McAleer, 61
  17. Buell, 13
  18. Field, Peter S., Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Making of a Democratic Intellectual, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, ISBN 0847688437, 9780847688432
  19. McAleer, 66
  20. Baker, 5
  21. Packer, 36–37
  22. Cheever, 78
  23. McAleer, 105
  24. Richardson, 108
  25. Cheever, 79
  26. Baker, 11
  27. Sullivan, 6
  28. Packer, 39
  29. McAleer, 132
  30. Baker, 23
  31. Packer, 40.
  32. Sullivan, 8
  33. Wilson, Susan. Literary Trail of Greater Boston. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000: 127. ISBN 0-618-05013-2
  34. Lydia (Jackson) Emerson was a descendant of Abraham Jackson, one of the original proprietors of Plymouth, who married the daughter of Nathaniel Morton, longtime Secretary of the Plymouth Colony.
  35. Sullivan, 9
  36. Richardson, 192
  37. Baker, 86
  38. Cheever, 86
  39. Cheever, 82
  40. McAleer, 108
  41. Baker, 53
  42. Sullivan, 13
  43. Buell, 45
  44. Watson, Peter. Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005: 688. ISBN 978-0-06-093564-1
  45. Mowat, R. B. The Victorian Age. London: Senate, 1995: 83. ISBN 1-85958-161-8
  46. Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001: 18. ISBN 0-374-19963-9
  47. Buell, 121
  48. Packer, 73
  49. Buell, 161
  50. Sullivan, 14
  51. Gura, 129
  52. Von Mehren, 120
  53. Slater, Abby. In Search of Margaret Fuller. New York: Delacorte Press, 1978: 61–62. ISBN 0-440-03944-4
  54. Gura, 128–129
  55. Cheever, 93
  56. McAleer, 313
  57. The Bedside Baccalaureate, David Rubel, ed. (Sterling 2008), p. 153.
  58. Baker, 218
  59. Packer, 148
  60. Richardson, 381
  61. Baker, 219
  62. Packer, 150
  63. Baker, 221
  64. Gura, 130
  65. Buell, 31
  66. Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson. New York: Penguin Books, 1982: 512–514.
  67. Richardson, 418
  68. Sullivan, 16
  69. Sachin N. Pradhan, India in the United States: Contribution of India and Indians in the United States of America, Bethesda, MD: SP Press International, Inc., 1996, p 12.
  70. Richardson, 114
  71. Baker, 321
  72. Von Mehren, 340
  73. Von Mehren, 343
  74. Blanchard, Paula. Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1987: 339. ISBN 0-201-10458-X
  75. Von Mehren, 342
  76. Kaplan, 203
  77. Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992: 232. ISBN 0929587952
  78. Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1962: 27.
  79. Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995: 352. ISBN 0679767096.
  80. Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992: 236. ISBN 0929587952.
  81. Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995: 343. ISBN 0679767096.
  82. McAleer, 569–570
  83. Richardson, 547
  84. Baker, 433
  85. McAleer, 570
  86. Richardson, 548
  87. Packer, 193
  88. Baker, 448
  89. Baker, 502
  90. Richardson, 569
  91. McAleer, 629
  92. Richardson, 566
  93. Baker, 504
  94. Baker, 506
  95. McAleer, 613
  96. Richardson, 567
  97. Richardson, 568
  98. Baker, 507
  99. McAleer, 618
  100. Richardson, 570
  101. Baker, 497
  102. Richardson, 572
  103. Sullivan, 25
  104. McAleer, 662
  105. Richardson, 538
  106. Buell, 165
  107. Packer, 23
  108. Hankins, Barry. The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004: 136. ISBN 0-313-31848-4
  109. McAleer, 531
  110. Packer, 232
  111. Richardson, 269
  112. Kaplan, 248
  113. Richardson, 9
  114. Kaplan, 249
  115. Buell, 34
  116. Sullivan, 123
  117. Baker, 201
  118. Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. London: Papermac. 147–148.
  119. Department of Philosophy of Harvard University
  120. Staten Island on the Web: Famous Staten Islanders


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