Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, philosopher, and poet, best
remembered for leading the Transcendentalist movement of the mid 19th century.
As a lecturer and
orator, Emerson—nicknamed the Concord Sage—became the leading voice of intellectual
culture in the United States. 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
Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts 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—died
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 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 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, Florida, 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.
1878 After Harvard, Emerson assisted his brother William in a school for
young women established in their mother's house, after he had established
his own school in Chelmsford, Massachusetts; when his brother William] 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. Emerson's brother Edward, two years younger than
he, entered the office of lawyer Daniel Webster, after graduating Harvard
first in his class. Edward's physical health began to deteriorate and he soon
suffered a mental collapse as well; he was taken to McLean Asylum in June
of 1828 at 23. Although he recovered his mental equilibrium he died in 1834
at 29 from apparently longstanding tuberculosis.
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 Hampshire 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 Malta. 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, Massachusetts until November 1834, when he moved to
Concord, Massachusetts to live with his step-grandfather Dr. Ezra Ripley at
what was later named The Old Manse. In 1835, he 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 married his second wife Lydia Jackson in
her home town of Plymouth, Massachusetts 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.
Another of Emerson's bright and promising younger brothers, Charles, born
in 1808, died in 1836, also of consumption, making him the third young person
in Emerson's innermost circle to die in a period of a few years.
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
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
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 90-acre (360,000 m2) farm in Harvard, Massachusetts
in May 1843 for what would become Fruitlands, 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 "Hillside".
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
Emerson made a living as a popular lecturer in New England 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 Pond 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":
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.
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. 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 House; 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
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
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 yearsEmerson'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, Illinois 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 Hill, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Staten Island
is named for his eldest brother, Judge William Emerson, who resided there
from 1837 to 1864