Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)


A major American poet, who worked first as an Unitarian priest. In his hometown, Concord, Emerson founded a literary circle called New England Transcendentalism, a hodgepodge of fashionable thoughts, in which participated among others Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Thoreau. During his travels in England he met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, with whom he maintained a lifelong correspondence from the 1830s and whose opinions of the importance of great historical figures influenced his own writings. Later Emerson became involved in the antislavery movement and worked for women's rights.

The sun set, but set not his hope:
Stars rose; his faith was earlier up:
Fixed on the enormous galaxy,
Deeper and older seemed his eye;
And matched his sufferance sublime
The taciturnity of time.
He spoke, and words more soft than rain
Brought the Age of Gold again:
His action won such reverance sweet
As hid all measure of the feat.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Most of his ancestors were clergymen as his father. He was educated in Boston and Harvard, like his father, and graduated in 1821. While at Harvad, he began keeping a journal, which became a source of his latwer lectures, essays, and books. In 1825 he began to study at the Harvard Divinity School and next year he was licensed to preach by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. In 1829 Emerson married the seventeen-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker, who died in 1831 from tuberculosis. Emerson's first and only settlement was at the important Second Unitarian Church of Boston, where he became sole pastor in 1830. Three years later he had a crisis of faith, finding that he "was not interested" in the rite of Communion. He once remarked, that if his teachers had been aware of his true thoughts, they would not have allowed him to become a minister. Eventually Emerson's controversial views caused his resignation. However, he never ceased to be both teacher and preacher, although without the support of any concrete idea of God.

Emerson traveled to Europe in 1832. He met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, whith whom he corresponded for half a century. Much later the English writer Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) did not share the admiration which his countrymen had for Emerson - he called Emerson "a wrinkled baboon, a man first hoisted into notoriety on the shoulders of Carlyle, and who now spits and sputters on a filthier platform of his own finding and fouling." After returning to the United States, he lectured on natural history, biology, and history. In 1835 Emerson married Lydia Jackson and settled with her at the east end of the village of Concord, Massachusetts, where he then spent the rest of his life. Emerson's first book, NATURE, a collection of essays, appeared when he was 33 and summoned up his ideas. Emerson emphasized individualism and rejected traditional authority. He invited his readers to "enjoy an original relation to the universe," and emphasized "the infinitude of the private man." All creation is one, he believed - people should try to live a simple life in harmony with nature and with others. "... the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God," he wrote in Nature. His lectures 'The American Scholar' (1837) and 'Address at Divinity College' (1838) challenged the Harvard intelligentsia and warned about a lifeless Christian tradition. He was ostracized by Harvad for many years, but his message attracted young disciples, who joined the informal Transcendental Club, organized in 1836 by the Unitarian clergyman F.H. Hedge.

"Nature's dice are always loaded."
"The corruption of man is followed by corruption of language."

In 1840 Emerson helped Margaret Fuller to launch The Dial (1840-44), an open forum for new ideas on the reformation of society. He published in 1841 a selection of his earlier lectures and writings under the title ESSAYS. It was followed by ESSAYS: SECOND SERIES (1844), a collection of lectures annexed to a reprint of NATURE (1849), and REPRESENTATIVE MEN (1850). In these writings Emerson encouraged his readers to trust instinct, use their potential talents for authentic self-discovery as the great men have done, and perceive Nature as a source of inspiration and great truths. In the 1850s he started to gain success as a lecturer and his books became a source of moderate income. His ENGLISH TRAITS, a summary of English character and history, appeared in 1856.

Other later works include CONDUCT OF LIFE (1860), SOCIETY AND SOLITUDE (1870), a selection of poems called PARNASSUS (1874), and LETTERS AND SOCIAL AIMS, edited by J.Elliot Cabot (1876). Emerson's heath started to fail after the partial burning of his house in 1872. He made his last tour abroad in 1872-1873, and then withdrew more and more from public life. Emerson died on April 27, 1882 in Concord. In the 1880s appeared posthumously MISCELLANIES (1884), a collection of political speeches, and LECTURES AND BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES (1884).

As an essayist Emerson was a master of style. "Emerson is God," declared the literary theorist Harold Bloom once, and testified with this the importance of Emerson to American literature. Many of his phrases have long since passed into common English parlance: 'a minority of one', 'the devil's attorney', 'a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds'. His essays have speech like character and a prophetic tone, a sermon like quality, often linked to his practice as an Unitarian minister. Emerson's aim was not merely to charm his readers, but encourage them to cultivate 'self-trust', to become what they ought to be, and to be open to the intuitive world of experience. In his essay 'Books' Emerson advised his readers to avoid mediocrities: "Be sure, then to read no mean books. Shun the spawn of the press of the gossip of the hour. Do not read what you shall learn, without asking, in the street and the train. Dr. Johnson said, "he always went into stately shops" and good travellers stop at the best hotels; for, though they cost more, they do not cost much more, and there is the good company and the best information. In like manner, the scholar knows that the famed books contain, first and last, the vest thoughts and facts. Now and then, by rarest luck, in some foolish Grub Street in the gem we want. But in the best circles is the best information. If you should transfer the amount of your reading day by day from the newspapers to the standard authors - But who dare speak such a thing." Emerson encouraged American scholars to break free of European influences and create a new American culture. He had formulated this idea in the mid-1830s in a Phi Beta Kappa address, which Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.) hailed as "our intellectual Declaration of Independence."

For further reading: Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Ralph L. Rusk (1949); Freedom and Fate by Stephen E. Whicher (1953); Emerson on the Soul by Jonathan Bishop (1964); Waldo Emerson: A Biography by Gay Wilson Allen (1981); Emerson's Fall by B.L. Packer (1982); Apostle of Culture by David Robinson (1982); Emerson's Fall by Barbara L. Packer (1982); Emerson's Demanding Optimism by Reif Gertrude Hughes (1984); Emerson's Romantic Style by Julie Ellison (1984); The American Newness by Irving Howe (1986); Emerson and Scepticism by John Michael (1988); Poetry and Pragmatism by Richard Poirier (1992); Nietzsche and Emerson by George J. Stack (1992); Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D.Richardson (1995); Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida by Stanley Cavell (1995); Emerson Among the Eccentries by Carlos Baker (1996) - See also: Walt Whitman