Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803April 27, 1882) was a famous American essayist and one of America's most influential thinkers and writers.



Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a Unitarian minister, later to become a Unitarian minister himself. He gradually drifted from the doctrines of his peers, then formulated and first expressed the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his essay Nature.

When he was three years old, Emerson's father complained that the child could not read well enough. Then in 1810, when Emerson was eight years old, his father died. In October of 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. He added to his slender means by tutoring and by teaching 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; when his brother went to Gttingen 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 Unitaritan minister in 1829. A dispute with church officials over the administration of the Communion service, and a reticence for public prayer led to his resignation in 1832. A year earlier his young wife and reputed one true love, Miss Elena Louisa Tucker, died in April of 1831.

In 1832–33, Emerson toured Europe, a trip that he would later write about in English Traits (1856). During this trip, he met Wordsworth, Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Emerson maintained a correspondence with Carlyle until Carlyle's death in 1882.

In 1835, 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 here.

In September of 1836, Emerson and other like-minded intellectuals founded the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement, but didn't publish its journal The Dial, until July of 1840. Emerson published his first essay, Nature, anonymously in September of 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 Harvard Divinity School for its graduation address. His remarks managed to outrage the establishment and shock the whole protestant community at the time. He proclaimed Jesus Christ a great man, but not God. 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 Unitarian doctrine.

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".

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.

Emerson associated closely with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau and often took walks with them in Concord.

Emerson was noted as being a very abstract and difficult writer who never the less drew large crowds for his speeches. A common joke heard from his audiences was that they had no idea what he was saying, but that it was beautiful. He was considered one of the great orators of the time, a man who could enrapture crowds with his own enthusiasm. 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 tried very hard to not join the public arena as a member of any group or movement, and always kept a strong 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.

Emerson is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord.


Emerson's prose works include:

Although he is more generally recognized as an essayist, Emerson also wrote and translated poetry. Emerson's poetry includes:


"I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul." ("The American Scholar", 1837)

"Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." ("Self-Reliance", 1841)

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood." ("Self-Reliance", 1841)

"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." ("Self-Reliance", 1841)

"Our moods do not believe in each other." ("Circles", 1841)

"There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. Was it Boscovich who found out that bodies never come in contact? Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me." ("Experience", 1844)

"It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man." ("Experience", 1844)

See also

Further reading

  • Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Richard Geldard, introduction by Robert Richardson, Anthroposophic Press (http://www.steinerbooks.org/), Lindisfarne Books (http://www.lindisfarne.org/), 2001, paperback, 196 pages, ISBN 0970109733
  • The Esoteric Emerson: The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Richard G. Geldard, Lindisfarne Books, 2000, paperback, 224 pages, ISBN 0940262592
  • Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson Jr.,University of California Press, 1995, paperback, 671 pages, ISBN 052020689
  • Emerson in His Journals, Joel Porte, editor,The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982, paperback, 588 pages, ISBN 067424862

External links

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