Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Born: May 25, 1803
Boston, Massachusetts
Died: April 27, 1882
Concord, Massachusetts
Occupation: Author, essayist, philosopher, poet
Nationality: Flag of United States United States
Literary movement: Transcendentalism
Influences: Montaigne, Vedas, William Wordsworth, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Influenced: Henry David Thoreau
Margaret Fuller
Orestes Brownson
Walt Whitman
Harold Bloom
Friedrich Nietzsche

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, poet, and leader of the Transcendentalist movement in the early nineteenth century.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Literary career
  • 3 See also
  • 4 Notes
  • 5 Published as
  • 6 Further reading
  • 7 External links


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 1836 essay, Nature.

Emerson's father, who called his son "a rather dull scholar", died in 1811, less than two weeks short of Emerson's 8th birthday. The young Emerson was subsequently sent to the Boston Latin School in 1812 at the age of nine. In October 1817, at fourteen Emerson went to Harvard College and was appointed Freshman's President, a position which gave him a room free of charge. He waited at Commons, reducing 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 vacation at his Uncle Ripley's school in Waltham, Massachusetts.

After Emerson graduated from Harvard in 1821 at the age of eighteen, 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 1832.

His first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, died of tuberculosis at 19 on February 8, 1831. Despite his having been married, there is considerable evidence pointing to Emerson being bisexual.[1] During his earlier years at Harvard he found himself 'strangely attracted' to a young freshman named Martin Gay about whom he wrote sexually charged poetry.[2] Gay would be only the first of his infatuations and interests, with Walt Whitman numbered among them.[3]

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 in 1832 and later wrote of his travels in English Traits (1856). During this trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Emerson maintained contact with Carlyle until the latter's death in 1881. He served as Carlyle's agent in the U.S.

His travels abroad brought him to England, France (in 1848), Italy, and the Middle East.

In 1835, Emerson bought a house on the Cambridge and Concord Turnpike in Concord, Massachusetts, now open to the public as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House, and quickly became one of the leading citizens in the town. He also married his second wife Lydia Jackson there. He called her Lydian 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 Lydian.

Literary career

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

In September 1835, 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 anonymously published his first essay, Nature, in September 1836.

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 the 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 30 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." 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.

Emerson associated 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 and sermons.

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.[4] 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":

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.[5]

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.[6] The Emerson Chair is expected to be occupied in the fall of 2007 or soon thereafter.

Camp Emerson, a camp based in the Berkshires, is named after Emerson himself.

Emerson's "Collected Essays: First (1841) and Second (1844) Series," including his seminal essays on "History," "Self-Reliance," "Compensation," "Spiritual Laws," "Love," "Friendship," "Prudence," "Heroism," "The Over-soul," "Circles," "Intellect," and "Art" in the first and "The Poet," "Experience," "Character," "Manners," "Gifts," "Nature," "Politics," and "Nominalist and Realist" in the second, is often considered to be one of the 100 greatest books of all time.

See also

  • Classical liberalism
  • Libertarianism
  • Contributions to liberal theory
  • Transcendentalism
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson House
  • Emerson literary society
  • Unitarianism


  1. ^ Shand-Tucci, Douglas (2003). The Crimson Letter. New York: St Martens Press, 15-16. ISBN 0-312-19896-5. 
  2. ^ Richardson, Jr., Robert D (1995). Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California Press, p.9. ISBN 0520206894. 
  3. ^ Kaplan, Justin (1980). Walt Whitman, A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, p.249. ISBN 0060535113. 
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ The Over-Soul from Essays: First Series (1841)
  6. ^ Harvard Divinity School (May 2006). Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship Established at Harvard Divinity School. Press release. Retrieved on 2007-02-22.

Published as

  • Essays and Lectures: Nature; Addresses, and Lectures; Essays; First and Second Series; Representative Men; English Traits; The Conduct of Life (Joel Porte, ed.) (Library of America, 1983) ISBN 978-0-94045015-8.
  • Collected Poems and Translations (Harold Bloom and Paul Kane, eds.) (Library of America, 1994) ISBN 978-0-94045028-8.

Further reading

  • Strunk, William; et al (2006). The Classics of Style. The American Academic Press. ISBN 0-9787282-0-3. 
  • Soressi, B. (2004). Ralph Waldo Emerson (in Italian). Armando. ISBN 88-8358-585-2. “with preface by A. Ferrara” 
  • Mariani, G.; et al (2004). in Mariani, G.; Di Loreto, S.; Martinez, C.; Scannavini, A.; Tattoni, I.;: Emerson at 200 Proceedings of the International Bicentennial Conference (Rome, 16-18 October 2003). Aracne. 
  • Cavell, S. (2003). Emerson Transcendental Etudes. Stanford UP. ISBN 0-6742672-0-6. 
  • Geldard, Richard G. (2001). Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lindisfarne Books. ISBN 0-9402625-9-2. “with introduction by Robert Richardson” 
  • Richardson, Jr., Robert D. (1995). Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California Press. ISBN 0-5202068-9-4. 
  • (1982) in Porte, Joel: Emerson in His Journals. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-6742486-1-9. 
  • Whicher, Stephen E. (1950). Freedom and Fate. An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Univ of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122704-5-2. 
  • Thurin, Erik (1981). Emerson As Priest of Pan: A Study in the Metaphysics of Sex. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006021-6-X. 
  • Emersoncentral.com
  • Poets.org
  • Lucidcafe.com
  • Biography and Poems
  • Tribute to Ralph Waldo Emerson
    "A Hypertext Guide to R.W. Emerson: Introduction, Chronology, Glossary, Bibliography, Images. The works of Emerson in English and in Italian"
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson complete Works at the University of Michigan
  • Works by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Project Gutenberg
  • Essays by Emerson at Quotidiana.org
  • Essays – First Series
  • Essays – Second Series
  • Representative Men
  • Poems – Household Edition
  • Concordances etc from the Thoreau Institute
  • Emerson at the American Transcendental Web
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Ralph Waldo Emerson" -- by Russell Goodman.
  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Ralph Waldo Emerson" -- by Vince Brewton
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: Life, Works, Philosophy. PDF file from SWIF Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Columbia Encyclopedia entry
  • The Sage of Concord
  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/lydon/2003/09/03 - a long interview with Harold Bloom in which Emerson is extensively discussed.

  • Persondata
    NAME Emerson, Ralph Waldo
    SHORT DESCRIPTION American author, essayist, philosopher, poet
    DATE OF BIRTH May 25, 1803
    PLACE OF BIRTH Boston, Massachusetts
    DATE OF DEATH April 27, 1882
    PLACE OF DEATH Concord, Massachusetts
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