Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.
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”. Following this 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”.
Emerson wrote most of his important essays as lectures first and then revised them for print. His first two collections of essays, Essays: First Series (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844), represent the core of his thinking. They include the well-known essays “Self-Reliance”, “The Over-Soul”, “Circles”, “The Poet” and “Experience”. Together with “Nature”, these essays made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson’s most fertile period.
Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but developing certain ideas such as individuality, freedom, the ability for humankind to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. Emerson’s “nature” was more philosophical than naturalistic: “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul”. Emerson is one of several figures who “took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting views of God as separate from the world.”
He remains among the linchpins of the American romantic movement,and his work has greatly influenced the thinkers, writers and poets that followed him. When asked to sum up his work, he said his central doctrine was “the infinitude of the private man.”Emerson is also well known as a mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau, a fellow transcendentalist.
Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803,a son of Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian minister. He was named after his mother’s brother Ralph and his 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—died in childhood. Emerson was entirely of English ancestry, and his family had been in New England since the early colonial period.
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, with the help of the other women in the family; his aunt Mary Moody Emerson in particular had a profound effect on him.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 School in 1812, when he was nine. In October 1817, at 14, Emerson went to Harvard College 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, Massachusetts. By his senior year, Emerson decided to go by his middle name, Waldo.Emerson served as Class Poet; as was custom, he 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.
In 1826, faced with poor health, Emerson went to seek a warmer climate. He first went to Charleston, South Carolina, but found the weather was still too cold. He then went further south, to St. Augustine, Florida, where he took long walks on the beach and began writing poetry. While in St. Augustine he made the acquaintance of Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Murat was two years his senior; they became good friends and enjoyed one another’s company. The two engaged in enlightening discussions of religion, society, philosophy, and government. Emerson considered Murat an important figure in his intellectual education.
While in St. Augustine, Emerson had his first experience of slavery. At one point, he attended a meeting of the Bible Society while a slave auction was taking place in the yard outside. He wrote, “One ear therefore heard the glad tidings of great joy, whilst the other was regaled with ‘Going, gentlemen, going!'”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. When asked his religious belief, Emerson stated, “I am more of a Quaker than anything else. I believe in the ‘still, small voice,’ and that voice is Christ within us.”
Final Year and Death : Starting in 1867, Emerson’s health began declining; he wrote much less in his journals.Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, he started experiencing memory problems 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”.In the spring of 1871, Emerson took a trip on the transcontinental railroad, barely two years after its completion. Along the way and in California he met a number of dignitaries, including Brigham Young during a stopover in Salt Lake City. Part of his California visit included a trip to Yosemite, and while there he met a young and unknown John Muir, a signature event in Muir’s career.
Emerson’s Concord home caught fire on July 24, 1872. He 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.
Belief : As a lecturer and orator, Emerson—nicknamed the Sage of Concord—became the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States.James Russell Lowell, editor of the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review, commented in his book My Study Windows (1871), that Emerson was not only the “most steadily attractive lecturer in America,” but also “one of the pioneers of the lecturing system.”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 star, 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”.