Who was Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Portrait of Ralph Waldo EmersonRalph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston in 1803, the son of the most prominent Unitarian minister in the city. He was one of seven children, only five of whom reached adulthood. Sadly, his father died when he was seven years old, leaving the family in financial distress.

He entered Harvard in 1817, at the age of fourteen, not unusual at the time. He graduated in the middle of his class. Afterwards, he taught for a couple of years at a school for girls. He decided to enter the ministry and attended Harvard Divinity School in 1825. He had to drop out because of illness, but was eventually approbated to preach.

As a guest preacher in Concord, NH, he met and fell in love with young Ellen Tucker. They were married in 1829, the same year he became a minister at Boston’s Second Church. His wife died from tuberculosis two years later, and in the following year Emerson resigned from the ministry because he refused to serve the Lord’s Supper. Disillusioned with the ministry and still in grief over the death of his wife, he traveled to Europe in 1832. He was gone for eighteen months. While he was in Great Britain he met Wordsworth, Coleridge and Carlyle, three writers whom he greatly admired.

When he returned to the U.S. Emerson decided to try lecturing for a living, and offered several series of lectures in Boston. He also served for a time as interim minister in East Lexington, MA. In 1835 he married Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, MA. With money from the estate of his first wife, he bought a home for him and his new wife in Concord, Massachusetts.

The Transcendental Club

In 1836, Emerson published his first book, Nature. It was also in this year that he began to meet with a group of Unitarian ministers and intellectuals to discuss the state of the church and the “new views” of religion and society coming to America from Romantic writers in Britain and Europe. Dubbed the Transcendental Club, it met from time to time over a four year period and included about forty people in all, women as well as men. Out of these meetings came the idea for a magazine, The Dial, edited by Emerson and Margaret Fuller, which contained articles and poetry written by their Transcendentalist friends.

Emerson was invited to give the annual Pi Beta Kappa address at Harvard in 1837. The address, on “The American Scholar,” established him as one of America’s premier intellectuals. The following year he was invited to address the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School. This address, too, caused a stir, but for different reasons. He said that religion could only be received directly, at first hand, and not secondarily, through scriptures and church doctrines. His address was denounced as “the latest form of infidelity” by the more conservative Unitarians.

Undeterred, Emerson continued to write and speak. He was in constant demand on the Lyceum lecture circuit and published his first book of essays—including “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul”—in 1841. This was the heyday of the Transcendentalist movement, marred only by the death of his first-born son and namesake, Waldo, who died of scarlet fever at the age of five the following year. Two of his brothers, Edward and Charles, with whom he was exceptionally close, had also died by this time.

Life in Concord

Emerson encouraged young writers who sought him out for advice, including Henry Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. He also befriended fellow Concordians, Bronson Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne. His home was a magnet to Transcendentalist fellow travelers. It was on an Emerson woodlot at Walden Pond that Thoreau was invited to build his cabin in 1845.

Emerson made a second visit to Europe and Britain in 1847, this time as a celebrated American writer. On this lecture tour he met Charles Dickens, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Alexis de Tocqueville, among others. While he was away, Thoreau moved into the Emerson house to help with the family.

He took up the anti-slavery cause in 1844 with a speech on the anniversary of the emancipation of the slaves in the British West Indies. He became more militant following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. He helped raise money for the relief of settlers who had gone to Kansas to vote against slavery. And then in 1957 he helped raise funds in support of John Brown. After Brown’s abortive attempt to foment a slave rebellion with the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, Emerson came to his defense with a powerful speech likening Brown to Jesus Christ. The repercussions of that speech helped to elect Lincoln in the election of 1860.

His fame grew as he continued to write and lecture. His second book of essays appeared in 1844. The first collection of poetry was published in 1846, followed by Nature, Addresses and Lectures in 1849 and Representative Men in 1850. Meanwhile, his lecture tours took him farther and farther from Boston and New England.

Religious cosmopolitanism

His interest in Eastern religions, beginning as early as the 1820s, fostered a religious cosmopolitanism which led him beyond the bounds of historical Christianity. He was  especially attracted to the writings of Rumi, and Confucius, and also to Hindu Vedanta texts and the Bhavagad Gita. Following the Civil War, he was one of the first to join the Free Religious Association, committed to a more inclusive and universal understanding of religion.

Emerson was rapidly becoming America’s foremost public intellectual. He published English Traits in 1856 and Conduct of Life in 1860. In 1865 he delivered seventy-seven lectures. In 1867 he lectured eighty times. In 1869, he delivered a series of lectures on the “Natural History of the Intellect” at Harvard and published Society and Solitude. On a trip to the west coast in 1871 he lectured in San Francisco and met John Muir, who took him to view the Yosemite Valley.

His house in Concord was badly damaged by a fire in 1872. While repairs were being made, Emerson made one last trip overseas, visiting Egypt as well as France. The entire town of Concord turned out to welcome him on his return. Unfortunately, he entered a period of physical and mental decline after that. He died of pneumonia in 1882. He was survived by his wife, whom he called Lydian, and three children, Edith, Ellen and Edward.

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 the shining parts, is the soul.

— “The Over-Soul”

A Dream too Wild

It’s my belief that Emerson is first and foremost a spiritual writer and one of unusual depth and power. Those who ponder what he has to say will find that their own spiritual life has been stimulated and enriched.Emerson read widely. He studied the classics of Eastern and Western philosophy and religion He found inspiration in poetry and literature. He would have been the last to claim originality for this ideas and insights. But Emerson is not the sum of his sources.

If anything, his studies revealed to him the perennial wisdom of philosophy and religion that was confirmed by his own experience and reflection. As he said in the opening words of “The Transcendentalist,” “the first thing we have to say respecting what are called new views here in New England at the present time, is, that they are not new, but the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mould of these new times.”

— From Emerson as Spiritual Guide

Emerson as Spiritual Guide

SUGGESTED READING

Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire

Emerson, by Lawrence Buell

Cover of Emerson

Emerson: Essays and Lectures, Library of America

Emerson: Essays and Lectures