Emerson, Ralph Waldo (25 May 1803–27 April 1882), lecturer and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of William Emerson, a Congregational minister, and Ruth Haskins. Ralph was one of eight children. His father was a liberal, Concord-born minister of the First Church in Boston and active in the city’s intellectual and social life, being an editor of the Monthly Anthology, a member of the Anthology Society, and the author of more than a dozen published sermons and a history of his church. His death on 12 May 1811 put the family in financial straits, and, even though the parish voted them a stipend for seven years, Emerson’s mother was forced to take in boarders to help make ends meet.
Education was important to the Emersons—Ralph’s ancestors had been ministers in the Concord area since the early seventeenth century—and all the boys in the family were well schooled. Although his brother William was educated for the ministry, he eventually studied law, as did two other brothers. The sole exception was Bulkeley Emerson, who was mentally retarded and was boarded out on various farms until his death. Ralph’s aunt Mary Moody Emerson took an active interest in his education, and from her he learned of his Calvinist heritage. Young Ralph was sent to the Boston Latin School in 1812. After graduating in 1817, he entered Harvard College. He had financial assistance from the school that involved his serving as Harvard president John Kirkland’s aide. He also earned money by teaching in children’s schools during breaks from classes. His career at Harvard was undistinguished: he made less of an impression than did his brothers; his writings of the period are not marked by any promise; and he was graduated thirtieth in a class of fifty-nine. He did win second prize in the Bowdoin contest with essays titled “The Character of Socrates” and “The Present State of Ethical Philosophy,” and he was chosen class poet—but only after seven others had turned down the post.
At the same time, though, Waldo—as he had begun to call himself in about 1820—was expanding his private life. During this period he began keeping journals, which came to form what Bliss Perry has called his “savings bank,” on which he later drew for his lectures and writings. Emerson indexed his entries and would later copy them out when composing his literary works. This practice of composition, formed early in life, of journal entry to lecture to published work, stayed with him throughout his career. His first publication, “Thoughts on the Religion of the Middle Ages,” appeared in the November–December 1822 issue of the Christian Disciple and Theological Review and was signed “H.O.N.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98114).
Graduation from Harvard
Upon his graduation from Harvard in 1821, he taught in various young ladies’ schools over the next four years. In 1825–1826 he studied theology and divinity at Harvard, and on 10 October 1826 he was licensed to preach. But ill health, which had plagued him for many years, put the brakes on his career. He had earlier been afflicted with problems with his eyes and with consumption. The tuberculosis worsened, and he took a “cure” for it by voyaging south in November. He visited Charleston, South Carolina, and St. Augustine, Florida, for their warmer climates, returning home in the late spring of 1827. In Charleston he first saw in person the institution of slavery and was repelled by it.
Emerson supplied various pulpits over the next two years. He also met and fell in love with Ellen Louisa Tucker of Concord, New Hampshire. Both strands of his life came together in 1829: he was ordained junior pastor of the prestigious Second Church of Boston on 11 March, and he married Ellen on 30 September. The marriage was happy but marred by Ellen’s own tuberculosis, which worsened. She died on 8 February 1831. Ellen’s death profoundly affected Emerson and helped to form his idea of immortality, a belief that held that even though a person’s physical presence was gone, his or her essence or spirit would always remain.
Emerson returned to his ministerial duties with a heavy heart. He did not like all the social responsibilities of his position as pastor, particularly the regular visitations to parishioners, and he disagreed with his parish over the administration of the Lord’s Supper, which he felt had become too ritualized. In October 1832 he submitted his resignation, and it was accepted with genuine regret.
In December 1832 Emerson sailed for Europe, intending to visit Italy, France, and Britain. He was impressed by the scenery and by the great buildings of past civilizations, but he was less charmed by the famous people he met, including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Two events during this trip affected him greatly. In Paris he saw the Jardin des Plantes, where exhibits were organized by biological classifications, giving Emerson an insight into the concept of an order and interconnectedness behind all living things and of man’s relationship to the physical world. In Scotland he met Thomas Carlyle, beginning a lifelong friendship with him that would include his acting as Carlyle’s agent for his books published in America.
Emerson returned to the United States in October 1833. He began a period of introspection and reading, supporting himself on the income derived from stocks left him by Ellen. In October 1834 his brother Edward died from tuberculosis. Also in October, Emerson moved to Concord, his ancestral town, in part because his brother Charles was engaged to Elizabeth Hoar, daughter of a local lawyer who wanted Charles to enter his practice. (But Charles died of tuberculosis in May 1836 before either plan was realized.) Emerson took part in the life of the town, and later in 1835 he published An Historical Discourse celebrating the bicentennial of Concord’s incorporation.
The year 1835 was important for two other reasons. In September Emerson married Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, whom he called Lidian. Unlike his first marriage, which was for love, this one seemed to be based on more practical, companionable reasons than those of youthful romance. The marriage lasted for nearly forty-seven years, even though he was often put out by his wife’s growing conservatism and she was displeased by what she perceived as his heretical views and lack of passion.
Also in 1835 Emerson began his career as a lecturer. Earlier he had enjoyed the public performance aspect of his ministerial role, seeing the possibilities of using language as a means to affect the lives of his parishioners. Lecturing was a secularization of this role, a means of converting the public to his views. Over the next few years he delivered lecture series with titles such as “Biography,” “English Literature,” “The Philosophy of History,” “Human Culture,” “Human Life,” “The Present Age,” and “The Times.” His lectures were well received and for many years provided the principal source of income from his literary activities. He never really left the lecture platform, traveling throughout the Northeast and Midwest, and his last lecture was delivered in 1881, the year before his death.
The year 1836 saw the public recognition of the new movement, Transcendentalism, in which Emerson was an active participant. The Transcendentalists, mainly a group of dissident, Harvard-educated Unitarian ministers, expressed their disagreement with the current state of affairs on three fronts. In literature they championed English and Continental writers such as Carlyle and Goethe. In philosophy they followed Immanuel Kant in believing that people had an innate ability to perceive that their existence transcended mere sensory experience, as opposed to the prevailing belief of John Locke that the mind was a blank tablet at birth that later registered only those impressions received through the senses and experience. In religion they denied the existence of miracles, preferring Christianity to rest on the spirit of Christ rather than on his supposed deeds, as was the belief of the conservative Unitarians. They also opposed the traditional view of “success” as measured by vulgar monetary standards with an argument that the moral insight of the individual should replace the dollar as the standard of conduct.
Emerson’s first book, Nature (1836), was a rallying cry for the Transcendentalists, espousing organicism in art and viewing Nature as the divine teacher of man. In chapters called “Nature,” “Commodity,” “Beauty,” “Language,” “Discipline,” “Ideals,” “Spirit,” and “Prospects,” Emerson attempts to answer the question, “To what end is nature?” At its lowest, physical level, nature exists to provide sustenance. Even then, though, a higher end is desired: “A man is fed, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.” At its best, nature is “the present expositor of the divine mind,” a manifestation of divinity in the physical world. The perception of this divinity is often accomplished through an intuitive, almost mystical merging of viewer and object. As Emerson describes it, “The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” This view of nature is argued through two of Emerson’s central concepts. One, the microcosm/macrocosm theory, holds that the examination of any part of nature will yield results that can be applied to all of nature, will show “the unity in variety.” The other distinguishes between Understanding, a Lockean belief in the primacy of the physical senses, and Reason, an intuitive or transcendent force that sees behind and beyond mere phenomena into the higher meaning of all things. (Emerson also uses the terms Materialism and Idealism for these concepts.) Once nature is seen as a microcosm of divinity, and Idealism or Reason the method of discovering this by applying our intuition, then progress is possible. But, at present, Emerson argues, “the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps … because man is disunited with himself.” The publication of Nature came when many new ideas were formed abroad; it was Emerson, though, who brought most of these concepts together in one place and produced the closest thing that the Transcendentalists had to a manifesto. Although the book was published anonymously, Emerson was widely known to be its author, and he became the central figure among the Transcendentalists.
In September, when Nature was published, Emerson helped to form the Transcendental Club, which served as a forum for the Transcendentalists over the next four years, as they met some thirty times. Emerson was also instrumental in establishing the semiofficial journal of the Transcendentalists, the Dial, in July 1840 and edited it from July 1842 until its demise in April 1844. The Dial had grown out of the Transcendental Club meetings. Emerson had assisted its first editor, Margaret Fuller, and assumed the major role when Fuller resigned after her salary had not been paid. Emerson, too, worked without compensation. The Dial published the writings of nearly all the Transcendentalists; but reviewers abused the Dial, making it a scapegoat for all the unpopular aspects of Transcendentalism, and the public, unable to understand its varied articles, failed to buy it. Emerson did not regret his work on the journal. It had offered a convenient outlet for his own work as well as that of his friends whom he was trying to encourage and promote.
During this time Emerson formed friendships with many of the major figures of the Transcendentalist movement, including Amos Bronson Alcott, Fuller, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau, as well as lesser personalities, such as Ellery Channing (whose poetry he published in the Dial), Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (to whose journal Aesthetic Papers he contributed), and Jones Very (whose Essays and Poems he edited in 1839). He also befriended some opponents of the movement, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, his neighbor in Concord for a while. The relationship with Thoreau was prickly, even though the younger man’s literary work was enthusiastically supported by Emerson and he lived for periods of time in the Emerson household. Emerson ultimately viewed Thoreau’s literary career as less than successful, and in his 1862 address on Thoreau, written after the latter’s death, he complained that “instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days, but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!” Emerson’s relations with Fuller were also uneasy, as she tried to force him out of his emotional shell with little success. Although he coedited Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852) after her death in 1850, he remained ambivalent about her refusal to accept the passive role assigned women by her times. Emerson admired Parker for his honesty and intellect, even though he was bothered by the radical minister’s confrontational style. His friendship with Alcott was always on solid ground because Alcott gladly accepted all of Emerson’s personal and financial assistance. Indeed, his daughter Louisa May Alcott considered Emerson one of the most important influences in her life.
A Major Literary Figure
Also during this period Emerson published many of his most famous works. The address “The American Scholar,” delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837, was a call for American literary independence. In it Emerson urges the scholar to be “Man Thinking” rather than “the parrot of other men’s thinking,” and he declares that “we have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” To gain this freedom, the scholar must study nature, since, in doing so, he will learn about the world and himself. The scholar must also use books but use them carefully, for too often people are content to repeat the ideas of others and fail to strike out on their own, becoming mere bookworms. Also, the scholar must be an active participant in the world and not isolated in a study. The “Divinity School Address,” also delivered at Harvard, warns of the dangers facing the ever-more-conservative Unitarian church (“It is time that this ill-suppressed murmur of all thoughtful men against the famine of our churches … should be heard through the sleep of indolence, and over the din of routine”). The religion of the day, Emerson argues, has, through its reliance on the existence of miracles, changed our view of Jesus Christ from that of a prophet who showed us the divinity within ourselves to that of a remote demigod, far removed from our daily lives. Likewise, ministers preach a historical Christianity that no longer inspires us. Emerson gives as an example of this a minister who preached so poorly during a snowstorm that the white flakes outside seemed more substantial than the words spoken within. The conservative Unitarians reacted vigorously against this address. Their leader, Andrews Norton, called it “the latest form of infidelity,” and the controversy spilled over into the daily papers. Emerson was not officially invited back to Harvard for nearly thirty years. Other addresses during these years included “Literary Ethics” at Dartmouth College in 1838 and “The Method of Nature” at Waterville College in 1841.
The publication of Emerson’s first two volumes of essays firmly established him as a major literary figure. Essays (1841) include “History,” “Self-Reliance,” “Compensation,” “Spiritual Laws,” “Love,” “Friendship,” “Prudence,” “Heroism,” “The Over-Soul,” “Circles,” “Intellect,” and “Art.” Emerson puts forth many of his basic ideas in this book. Self-reliance is, in his view, the belief that since all people contain a spark of divinity within them, the nurturing of this divinity by ignoring the conformist demands of society would result not only in self-reliance but god-reliance as well. Here Emerson states, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” showing his belief that life is always changing and that our beliefs should reflect this. (“Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s most famous essay and the one most widely reprinted.) Compensation is a sort of Newtonian law of morality, that for every negative event there is also a positive one. Friendship is the art of taking the best your friends have to offer as a means of enhancing self-development. In “Circles,” Emerson proposes the circle as a metaphor for all human existence, with the individual as the first circle, who spends his or her life investigating the ever-expanding circles of knowledge, and the final circle always being beyond our grasp. All of these ideas fit Emerson’s philosophy of continuous development or progression—the belief that we must always continue to grow and learn about ourselves, rather than patterning ourselves on an external and fixed model.
Essays: Second Series (1844) expands on the ideas of the earlier volume, with “The Poet,” “Experience,” “Character,” “Manners,” “Gifts,” “Nature,” “Politics,” “Nominalist and Realist,” and “New England Reformers.” The best of these essays, “Experience,” examines the conflict between Idealism and the actualities of existence, as Emerson describes illusion, temperament, succession, surface, reality, and subjectiveness as the “lords of life” who place themselves in the way of complete personal freedom. The last essay in the volume shows Emerson’s interest in and involvement with practical affairs, as does his stinging attack on slavery, An Address … on the Anniversary of the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies (1844).
During this period his personal life flourished as well. Waldo was born in October 1836, Ellen in February 1839, Edith in November 1841, and Edward Waldo Emerson in July 1844. But the death of Waldo from scarlet fever in January 1842 devastated Emerson. He mourned the loss of his son and worked out his reaction to it in his poem “Threnody,” which, as he had concluded after Ellen Tucker Emerson’s death, argues that the loss of Waldo’s physical presence is compensated for by the memories and spiritual presence he has left behind:
… What is excellent,As God lives, is permanent;Hearts are dust, hearts’ loves remain;Heart’s love will meet thee again.
By 1844 whatever unity had existed among the Transcendentalists was gone, and they pursued separate careers, still loosely tied together by a belief in reform, yet differing widely on how much was needed and what means were necessary to achieve it. To some, such as George Ripley at the Brook Farm community, changing existing laws would result in better laws producing better people; others, such as Emerson and Thoreau, believed that the reformation of the individual would result in better people making better laws. Emerson’s own career blossomed, and he became a literary man of renown, known as “the sage of Concord.” The publication of his Poems (1847) allowed him to put into practice his idea of the poet as liberating god or truth-speaker, and his concept of a “metre-making argument” took precedence over the blind adherence to traditional rhyme schemes and poetic forms. Emerson’s poems are often verse restatements of what appears in his prose: “Each and All” shows the unity that exists in variety (as does “The Sphinx”); “Days” speaks of the need to use one’s gifts before they are gone; “Ode, Inscribed to W. H. Channing” stresses the importance of the thinker in contrast to the worldly reformer; “Brahma” (Emerson’s most parodied poem) shows the existence of God in all things; “Hamatreya” reminds humanity of its transience in the divine order of things; “Bacchus” describes the intoxication of true inspiration, as opposed to that created by artificial stimulants; and “Uriel” relives the disruptive power of the “Divinity School Address.”
The rest of the decade continued successfully for Emerson. In 1846–1848 he visited Britain and gave a series of lectures to great acclaim. A new edition of Essays appeared in 1847 as Essays: First Series. In 1849 he published Nature; Addresses, and Lectures, which revised and reprinted a number of his earlier pamphlet publications (such as “Literary Ethics,” “The Method of Nature,” and “The Young American”) and added some unpublished lectures (such as “The Transcendentalist” and “Man the Reformer”). “The Transcendentalist” is perhaps his best statement about the literary, philosophical, and religious movement of which he is the major figure. Drawing on the distinction he had previously made between Understanding (materialism) and Reason (idealism), Emerson calls Transcendentalism “Idealism” and describes its method as looking at “the reverse side of the tapestry, the other end, each being a sequel or completion of a spiritual fact.” He also published in 1849 Representative Men, in which he sets up Plato as representative of the philosopher, Swedenborg as the mystic, Montaigne as the skeptic, Shakespeare as the poet, Napoleon as the man of the world, and Goethe as the writer. These men are representative of the people of their times and of the potential of all people in various areas at all times.
The next two decades were marked by many successes. Emerson’s lecturing career flourished, and his series on his last visit to England was published in 1856 as English Traits. Here he discusses the people he had met in England, the sights he had seen, and the characteristics he had observed. The book had a mixed reception. American audiences felt he was too friendly to the English, and the English felt he was too critical of their customs and culture. Emerson championed Walt Whitman’s poetry by writing him a congratulatory letter on receiving a copy of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass (“I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he wrote). Later, however, he withdrew his support when Whitman included the sexually charged “Calamus” poems in the 1860 edition of Leaves. He joined the Saturday Club of Boston and began to enjoy—too much so for those who remembered the idealistic young Transcendentalist—his literary fame. But the major development of the 1850s was Emerson’s increased involvement in the antislavery or abolition movement. This was not a new direction for Emerson. His first major address on the subject had been in 1844, and in 1845 he had refused to lecture in New Bedford before a congregation that had excluded blacks from membership. The decade began with Emerson denouncing Daniel Webster for his support of the Fugitive Slave Law, which Emerson furiously promised not to obey. Mid-decade saw the Kansas-Nebraska Act, repealing the antislavery provisions of the Missouri Compromise, which caused Emerson to embark on a new series of abolitionist lectures. Finally, John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid and his subsequent execution brought Emerson firmly into the fold as he praised Brown’s sacrifice and helped raise money for his family.
Emerson’s Growing Conservatism
The next decade began with the publication of The Conduct of Life (1860), in which Emerson demonstrates a growing conservatism, balancing his earlier belief in complete freedom with the “Beautiful Necessity” of fate. The essays in this volume include “Fate,” “Power,” “Wealth,” “Culture,” “Behavior,” “Worship,” “Considerations by the Way,” “Beauty,” and “Illusions.” It is “Fate” (or “the laws of the world”) that interests Emerson the most, as he tries to balance his belief in the importance of individual freedom with a recognition of there being immutable natural laws that restrict humanity in its actions. After Thoreau’s death in 1862, he edited the younger man’s Excursions (1863) and Letters to Various Persons (1865). He published a second volume of poems, May-Day and Other Pieces, in 1867. He also delivered hundreds of lectures, going as far west as Iowa and Minnesota. He was now accepted by reformers and conservatives alike. He talked before the Radical Club and the Free Religious Association. Harvard bestowed an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1866 and named him an overseer of the college the next year.
Emerson’s health began to fail, however. He had long since overcome his eye and lung problems, but now his mental faculties were diminished. A type of aphasia, in which he could not remember the names of people and common objects, affected him. The publication of Society and Solitude (1870) represented the last book for which he was solely responsible. A twilight, reflective volume, its essays include “Society and Solitude,” “Civilization,” “Art,” “Eloquence,” “Domestic Life,” “Farming,” “Works and Days,” “Books,” “Clubs,” “Courage,” “Success,” and, appropriately, “Old Age.” A strenuous course of lectures at Harvard, “Natural History of Intellect,” in 1870–1871 exhausted him. To recuperate, in the spring of 1871 he visited the West Coast, where he met naturalist John Muir. A fire partially destroyed the Emerson house in 1872, further accelerating Emerson’s mental decline. He and his daughter Ellen visited Europe and Egypt while the house was being rebuilt (mainly through monies contributed by Emerson’s friends), but he was never the same after returning to Concord. A longtime friend, James Elliot Cabot, was enlisted by the family to help put Emerson’s literary manuscripts in order and prepare his lectures for delivery and his writings for publication. With the assistance of his daughter Edith, Emerson edited a poetry anthology, Parnassus (1875). Cabot and Emerson’s daughter Ellen put together a final volume of essays, Letters and Social Aims (1876), some reprinted (“The Comic,” “Quotation and Originality,” and “Persian Poetry”) and others drawn from Emerson’s manuscripts (“Poetry and Imagination,” “Social Aims,” “Eloquence,” “Resources,” “Progress of Culture,” “Inspiration,” “Greatness,” and “Immortality”). Cabot and Ellen Emerson also put together other former lectures for periodical or separate publication, such as Fortune of the Republic (1878) and “The Preacher” (1880). Emerson died quietly in Concord and was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, close to the graves of the Alcotts, Hawthornes, and Thoreaus.
During his life Emerson exerted great influence on his contemporaries, both by his financial support of them, as in the cases of Alcott and Ellery Channing, and by his intellectual companionship, as in the case of his Concord neighbor Thoreau. His discussions of organic form (everything proceeds from a natural order, followed by but not imposed upon by man), self-reliance, optimism (evil does not exist as an actual force, merely being the absence of good), compensation, universal unity (or the over-soul), and the importance of individual moral insight were all influential in forming the literature and philosophy of nineteenth-century America. In literature, too, Emerson was an important force, and his organic theory of poetry (“it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem”) and his view of poets as “liberating gods” or prophets did much to counteract the poetic conservatism of his day and helped lead the way to the experimental verse of Walt Whitman, who once hailed Emerson as his master.
The later nineteenth century embraced Emerson as an establishment figure. His publishers (Houghton, Mifflin) marketed him as a “standard” author; his biographers, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, presented him as a promoter of Boston Brahmin values; Friedrich Nietzsche appropriated Emerson’s ideas for his own concept of the “superman”; and the industrial capitalists of the Gilded Age used their interpretation of the concept of self-reliance to justify their economic version of a Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” Whereas it seemed that the once-radical Emerson had been tamed, modern criticism has once again freed him. His writings are seen as unstable texts that challenge the very process by which we read and think, and his ideas are considered to be at the very heart of questions about the development of American literature and identity. Emerson’s centrality to the history of American writing and thought is once again affirmed.
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