Emerson seated

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), circa 1872. Photo by Elliott & Fry studio, London. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 - April 27, 1882) was the preeminent essayist, poet , and lecturer in antebellum America.



Emerson was born at Boston, Massachusetts, where his father was a Unitarian minister. His father died in 1811, leaving a widow with 6 children, of whom Ralph, then aged 8, was the second. Mrs. Emerson was, however, a woman of energy, and by means of taking boarders managed to give all her sons a good education. Emersson entered Harvard in 1817 and, after passing through the usual course there, studied for the ministry, to which he was ordained in 1827, and settled over a congregation in his native city. There he remained until 1832, when he resigned. About the same time he lost his young wife, and his health, which had never been robust, showed signs of failing. In search of recovery he visited Europe, where he met many eminent men and formed a life-long friendship with Carlyle. On his return in 1834 he settled at Concord, and took up lecturing. In 1836 he published Nature, a somewhat transcendental little book which, though containing much fine thought, did not appeal to a wide circle. The American Scholar followed in 1837. 2 years previously he had entered into a 2nd marriage. His influence as a thinker rapidly extended, he was regarded as the leader of the transcendentalists, and was one of the chief contributors to their organ, The Dial. The remainder of his life, though happy, busy, and influential, was singularly uneventful. In 1847 he paid a second visit to England, when he spent a week with Carlyle, and delivered a course of lectures in England and Scotland on "Representative Men," which he subsequently pub. English Traits appeared in 1856. In 1857 The Atlantic Monthly was started, and to it he became a frequent contributor. In 1874 he was nominated for the Lord Rectorship of the University of Glasgow, but was defeated by Disraeli. He, however, regarded his nomination as the greatest honour of his life. After 1867 he wrote little. He died on April 27, 1882. His works were collected in 11 volumes.The intellect of E. was subtle rather than robust, and suggestive rather than systematic. He wrote down the intuitions and suggestions of the moment, and was entirely careless as to whether these harmonised with previous statements. He was an original and stimulating thinker and writer, and wielded a style of much beauty and fascination. His religious views approached more nearly to Pantheism than to any other known system of belief. He was a man of singular elevation and purity of character.[1]

The values articulated in Emerson's most famous lectures – self-reliance, nonconformity, and reverence for nature – would all become the guiding principles of American identity. Emerson's essays earned him the appellation the "American Socrates."

For Emerson, individualism was fundamentally grounded in the American experience. The Puritans who established the Massachusetts colony abhorred the centralized authority, religious hierarchies, and persecutions of the Roman Church and the Church of England. The colonial experience had instructed generations of Americans on the virtues of self-reliance, independent, representative government, and the ubiquitous presence of God in nature. Emerson drew on these precedents and lessons to advance a compelling American identity based on personal autonomy, resourcefulness, and distrust of authority.

As the leading voice of New England Transcendentalism, Emerson was central to an important literary and philosophical movement. Transcendentalism influenced virtually all of the writers of what literary critic F O. Matthiessen famously termed "the American Renaissance," including Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Emerson would directly influence the next generation of American writers as well, most notably William James and Henry James.

Just as a distinctly American poetry begins with Walt Whitman, so does the sound and vigor of American prose assume its contours in Emerson. He is memorable not only for articulating and justifying American experience, but also for his spare, aphoristic, almost sermon-like style that has become characteristic of American prose. Emerson's style continues to influence writers today, just as his thought continues to stand at the epicenter of American culture.

Youth, family, education Edit

Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 25, 1803,[2] son of Ruth (Haskins) and Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian minister. He was named after his mother's brother Ralph and the father's great-grandmother Rebecca Waldo.[3] Ralph Waldo was the second of five sons who survived into adulthood; the others were William, Edward, Robert Bulkeley, and Charles.[4] Three other children—Phebe, John Clarke, and Mary Caroline–died in childhood.[4]

The young Ralph Waldo Emerson's father died from stomach cancer on May 12, 1811, less than two weeks before Emerson's eighth birthday.[5] 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 Emerson.[6] She lived with the family off and on, and maintained a constant correspondence with Emerson until her death in 1863.[7]

Emerson's formal schooling began at the Boston Latin School in 1812 when he was nine.[8] 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.[9] 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".[10] 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.[11] By his senior year, Emerson decided to go by his middle name, Waldo.[12] 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.[13] He did not stand out as a student and graduated in the exact middle of his class of 59 people.[14]

In 1826, faced with poor health, Emerson went to seek out warmer climates. He first went to Charleston, South Carolina, but found the weather still too cold.[15] 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. Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was only two years his senior; they became extremely good friends and enjoyed one another's company. The two engaged in enlightening discussions on religion, society, philosophy, and government, and Emerson considered Murat an important figure in his intellectual education.[16]

While in St. Augustine, Emerson had his first experience of slavery. At one point, he attended a meeting of the Bible Society while there was a slave auction 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'!"[17]

Early career Edit

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After Harvard, Emerson assisted his brother William[18] in a school for young women[19] established in their mother's house, after he had established his own school in Chelmsford, Massachusetts; when his brother William [20] 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,[21] 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 1828 at age 23. Although he recovered his mental equilibrium, he died in 1834 from apparently longstanding tuberculosis.[22] Another of Emerson's bright and promising younger brothers, Charles, born in 1808, died in 1836, also of tuberculosis,[23] making him the third young person in Emerson's innermost circle to die in a period of a few years.

Emerson met his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, in Concord, New Hampshire on Christmas Day, 1827, and married her when she was 18.[24] 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.[25] 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."[26] Emerson was heavily affected by her death and visited her grave in Roxbury daily.[27] In a journal entry dated March 29, 1832, Emerson wrote, "I visited Ellen's tomb & opened the coffin."[28]

Boston's Second Church invited Emerson to serve as its junior pastor and he was ordained on January 11, 1829.[29] His initial salary was $1,200 a year, increasing to $1,400 in July,[30] but with his church role he took on other responsibilities: he was chaplain to the Massachusetts legislature, and a member of the Boston school committee. His church activities kept him busy, though during this period, facing the imminent death of his wife, he began to doubt his own beliefs.

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."[31] 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."[32] As one Emerson scholar has pointed out, "Doffing the decent black of the pastor, he was free to choose the gown of the lecturer and teacher, of the thinker not confined within the limits of an institution or a tradition." [33]

Emerson toured Europe in 1833 and later wrote of his travels in English Traits (1856).[34] He left aboard the brig Jasper on Christmas Day, 1832, sailing first to Malta.[35] During his European trip, he spent several months in Italy, visiting Rome, Florence and Venice, among other cities. When in Rome, he met with John Stuart Mill, who gave him a letter of recommendation to meet Thomas Carlyle. He went to Switzerland, and had to be dragged by fellow passengers to visit Voltaire's home in Ferney, "protesting all the way upon the unworthiness of his memory." [36] He then went on to Paris, a "loud modern New York of a place,",[37] where he visited the Jardin des Plantes. He was greatly moved by the organization of plants according to Jussieu's system of classification, and the way all such objects were related and connected. As Richardson says, "Emerson's moment of insight into the interconnectedness of things in the Jardin des Plantes was a moment of almost visionary intensity that pointed him away from theology and toward science."[38]

Moving north to England, Emerson met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 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, and in March 1835, he tried to convince Carlyle to come to America to lecture.[39] The two would maintain correspondence until Carlyle's death in 1881.[40]

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Emerson returned to the United States on October 9, 1833, and lived with his mother in Newton, Massachusetts, until October, 1834, when he moved to Concord, Massachusetts, to live with his step-grandfather Dr. Ezra Ripley at what was later named The Old Manse.[41] Seeing the budding Lyceum movement, which provided lectures on all sorts of topics, Emerson saw a possible career as a lecturer. On November 5, 1833, he made the first of what would eventually be some 1,500 lectures, discussing The Uses of Natural History in Boston. This was an expanded account of his experience in Paris.[42] In this lecture, he set out some of his important beliefs and the ideas he would later develop in his first published essay Nature:

Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.[43]

On January 24, 1835, Emerson wrote a letter to Lydia Jackson proposing marriage.[44] Her acceptance reached him by mail on the 28th. In July 1835, he bought a house on the Cambridge and Concord Turnpike in Concord, Massachusetts which he named "Bush"; it is now open to the public as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House.[45] Emerson quickly became one of the leading citizens in the town. He gave a lecture to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the town of Concord on September 12, 1835.[46] Two days later, he married Lydia Jackson in her home town of Plymouth, Massachusetts,[47] and moved to the new home in Concord together with Emerson's mother on September 15.[48]

Emerson quickly changed his wife's name to Lidian, and would call her Queenie,[49] and sometimes Asia,[50] and she called him Mr. Emerson.[51] Their children were Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward Waldo Emerson. Ellen was named for his first wife, at Lidian's suggestion.[52]

Emerson was poor when he was at Harvard,[53] and later supported his family for much of his life.[54][55] He inherited a fair amount of money after his first wife's death, though he had to file a lawsuit against the Tucker family in 1836 to get it.[55] He received $11,600 in May 1834,[56] and a further $11,674.49 in July 1837.[57] In 1834, he considered that he had an income of $1,200 a year from the initial payment of the estate,[54] equivalent to what he had earned as a pastor.

Literary career and Transcendentalism Edit

Emerson by Johnson 1846

Emerson by Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), 1846. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

On September 8, 1836, the day before the publication of Nature, Emerson met with Frederic Henry Hedge, George Putnam and George Ripley to plan periodic gatherings of other like-minded intellectuals.[58] This was the beginning of the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement. Its first official meeting was held on September 19, 1836.[59] On September 1, 1837, women attended a meeting of the Transcendental Club for the first time. Emerson invited Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Hoar and Sarah Ripley for dinner at his home before the meeting to ensure that they would be present for the evening get-together.[60] Fuller would prove to be an important figure in Transcendentalism.

Emerson anonymously published his first essay, Nature, on September 9, 1836. A year later, on August 31, 1837, Emerson delivered his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa address, "The American Scholar",[61] then known as "An Oration, Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge"; it was renamed for a collection of essays (which included the first general publication of "Nature") in 1849.[62] Friends urged him to publish the talk, and he did so at his own expense, in an edition of 500 copies, which sold out in a month.[63] 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.[64] James Russell Lowell, who was a student at Harvard at the time, called it "an event without former parallel on our literary annals".[65] Another member of the audience, Reverend John Pierce, called it "an apparently incoherent and unintelligible address".[66]

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 Thoreau.[67] Emerson's own journal comes to 16 large volumes, in the definitive Harvard University Press edition published between 1960 and 1982. Some scholars consider the journal to be Emerson's key literary work.[68]

In March 1837, Emerson gave a series of lectures on The Philosophy of History at Boston's Masonic Temple. This was the first time he managed a lecture series on his own, and was the beginning of his serious career as a lecturer.[69] The profits from this series of lectures were much larger than when he was paid by an organization to talk, and Emerson continued to manage his own lectures often throughout his lifetime. He would eventually give as many as 80 lectures a year, traveling across the northern part of the United States. He traveled as far as St. Louis, Des Moines, Minneapolis, and California.[70]

On July 15, 1838,[71] 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".[72] His comments outraged the establishment and the general Protestant community. For this, he was denounced as an atheist,[72] 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 30 years.[73]

The Transcendental group began to publish its flagship journal, The Dial, in July 1840.[74] They planned the journal as early as October 1839, but work did not begin until the first week of 1840.[75] George Ripley was its managing editor[76] and Margaret Fuller was its first editor, having been hand-chosen by Emerson after several others had declined the role.[77] Fuller stayed on for about two years and Emerson took over, utilizing the journal to promote talented young writers including Ellery Channing and Thoreau.[67]

It was in 1841 that Emerson published Essays, his second book, which included the famous essay, "Self-Reliance".[78] 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.[79]

In January 1842 Emerson's first son Waldo died from scarlet fever.[80] Emerson wrote of his grief in the poem "Threnody" ("For this losing is true dying"),[81] and the essay "Experience". That same month, William James was born, and Emerson agreed to be his godfather.

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".[82] 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.[83] The farm would run based on a communal effort, using no animals for labor; its participants would eat no meat and use no wool or leather.[84] Emerson said he felt "sad at heart" for not engaging in the experiment himself.[85] 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".[86] 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.[87] After its failure, Emerson helped buy a farm for Alcott's family in Concord[86] which Alcott named "Hillside".[87]

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 country".[88] (An unrelated magazine of the same name would be published in several periods through 1929.)

In 1844, Emerson published his second collection of essays, entitled "Essays: Second Series." This collection included "The Poet," "Experience," "Gifts," and an essay entitled "Nature," a different work from the 1836 essay of the same name.

Emerson made a living as a popular lecturer in New England and much of the rest of the country. He had begun lecturing in 1833; by the 1850s he was giving as many as 80 per year.[89] He addressed the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the Gloucester Lyceum, among others. 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 as much as $2,000 in a typical winter "season". This was more than his earnings from other sources. In some years, he earned as much as $900 for a series of six lectures, and in another, for a winter series of talks in Boston, he netted $1,600.[90] He eventually gave some 1,500 lectures in his lifetime. His earnings allowed him to expand his property, buying 11 acres (45,000 m2) 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".[86]

Emerson was introduced to Indian philosophy when reading the works of French philosopher Victor Cousin.[91] In 1845, Emerson's journals show he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and Henry Thomas Colebrooke's Essays on the Vedas.[92] 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.[93]

From 1847 to 1848, he toured England, Scotland, and Ireland.[94] 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."[95] The trip left an important imprint on Emerson's later work. His 1856 book English Traits is based largely on observations recorded in his travel journals and notebooks. Emerson later came to see the American Civil War as a 'revolution' that shared common ground with the European revolutions of 1848.[96]

In February 1852 Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing edited an edition of the works and letters of Margaret Fuller, who had died in 1850.[97] 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".[98] Published with the title The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli,[99] Fuller's words were heavily censored or rewritten.[100] The 3 editors were not concerned about accuracy; they believed public interest in Fuller was temporary and that she would not survive as a historical figure.[101] 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.[99]

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.[102] Emerson's approval helped the first edition of Leaves of Grass stir up significant interest[103] and convinced Whitman to issue a second edition shortly thereafter.[104] 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".[105] Emerson took offense that this letter was made public[106] and later became more critical of the work.[107]

Lifestyle and beliefs Edit


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.[108] 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".[109] Emerson was partly influenced by German philosophy and Biblical criticism.[110] 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.[111]

Emerson did not become an ardent abolitionist until 1844, though his journals show he was concerned with slavery beginning in his youth, even dreaming about helping to free slaves. 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".[112] 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.[113] 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".[112] John Quincy Adams said the mob-murder of Lovejoy "sent a shock as of any earthquake throughout this continent".[114] 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".[115]

Emerson may have had erotic thoughts about at least one man.[116] During his early years at Harvard, he found himself attracted to a young freshman named Martin Gay about whom he wrote sexually charged poetry.[53][117] He also had a number of crushes on various women throughout his life,[53] such as Anna Barker[118] and Caroline Sturgis.[119]

Civil War years Edit

Emerson was staunchly anti-slavery, but he did not appreciate being in the public limelight and was hesitant about lecturing on the subject. He did, however, give a number of lectures during the pre-Civil War years, beginning as early as November, 1837.[120] A number of his friends and family members were more active abolitionists than he, at first, but from 1844 on, he took a more active role in opposing slavery. He gave a number of speeches and lectures, and notably welcomed John Brown to his home during Brown's visits to Concord.[121] He voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, but Emerson was disappointed that Lincoln was more concerned about preserving the Union than eliminating slavery outright.[122] Once the American Civil War broke out, Emerson made it clear that he believed in immediate emancipation of the slaves.[123]

Around this time, in 1860, Emerson published The Conduct of Life, his seventh collection of essays. In this book, Emerson "grappled with some of the thorniest issues of the moment," and "his experience in the abolition ranks is a telling influence in his conclusions." [124] These essays also find Emerson strongly embracing the idea of war as a means of national rebirth: "Civil war, national bankruptcy, or revolution, [are] more rich in the central tones than languid years of prosperity,"[125] Emerson writes.

Emerson visited Washington, D.C, at the end of January, 1862. He gave a public lecture at the Smithsonian on January 31, 1862, and declared: "The South calls slavery an institution... I call it destitution... Emancipation is the demand of civilization".[126] The next day, February 1, his friend Charles Sumner took him to meet Lincoln at the White House. Lincoln was familiar with Emerson's work, having previously seen him lecture.[127] Emerson's misgivings about Lincoln began to soften after this meeting.[128] In 1865, he spoke at a memorial service held for Lincoln in Concord: "Old as history is, and manifold as are its tragedies, I doubt if any death has caused so much pain as this has caused, or will have caused, on its announcement."[127] Emerson also met a number of high-ranking government officials, including Salmon P. Chase, the secretary of the treasury, Edward Bates, the attorney general, Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war, Gideon Welles, the secretary of the navy, and William Seward, the secretary of state.[129]

On May 6, 1862, Emerson's protégé 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,[130] despite a falling out that began in 1849 after Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[131] Another friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died 2 years after Thoreau in 1864. Emerson served as a pallbearer when Hawthorne was buried in Concord (as Emerson wrote, "in a pomp of sunshine and verdure").[132]

Final years and death Edit

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Starting in 1867, Emerson's health began to decline; he wrote much less in his journals.[133] Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, he began having memory problems[134] and suffered from aphasia.[135] 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".[136]

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.[137] The fire was put out by Ephraim Bull, Jr., the 1-armed son of Ephraim Wales Bull.[138] Donations were collected by friends to help the Emersons rebuild, including $5,000 gathered by judge Francis Cabot Lowell, another $10,000 collected by LeBaron Russell Briggs, and a personal donation of $1,000 from George Bancroft.[139] 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.[140] 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.[141]

While the house was being rebuilt, Emerson took a trip to England, continental Europe, and Egypt. He left on October 23, 1872, along with his daughter Ellen[142] while his wife Lidian spent time at the Old Manse and with friends.[143] Emerson and his daughter Ellen returned to the United States on the ship Olympus along with friend Charles Eliot Norton on April 15, 1873.[144] Emerson's return to Concord was celebrated by the town and school was canceled that day.[135]

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.[145] The anthology was originally prepared as early as the fall of 1871 but was delayed when the publishers asked for revisions.[146]

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".[136]

On April 21, 1882, Emerson was diagnosed with pneumonia.[147] He died on April 27, 1882.

Emerson is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.[148] He was placed in his coffin wearing a white robe given by American sculptor Daniel Chester French.[149]


Poetry and PoeticsEdit

In the 19th century Emerson was a well-known poet, the author of popular poems like "Concord Hymn" (1837) and "The Snow-Storm" (1841).[150] He is sometimes considered a member of the Fireside Poets, the immensely popular New England poets whose works comprised America's first poetic canon.[151]

He is more known today for his poetics, in particular for his 1844 essay "The Poet". His call in that essay for an American poetry that was visionary rather than literary, that use organic rather than predetermined forms, and to exploit hitherto unsung native subjects, had a profound effect on Walt Whitman and other 19th-century American poets.[150]


Nature is a short book Emerson published anonymously in 1836. It was his first major essay, in which the foundation of what would come to be called American Transcendentalism is set forth. Emerson outlines a sort of democratic pantheism—that is, he defines nature as not just the clockwork universe going about its business according to mathematical laws of physics, but describes nature as an all-encompassing divine entity inherently known to us in our unfettered innocence. Everything in the universe, according to the young Emerson, is infused with a sort of Holy Spirit, which requires that we need only open our minds in order to perceive.

Emerson's argument, that to know nature is to literally know God, is truly radical for his time. He argues that to assume a Creator exists only through passed-on teachings or "second-hand" knowledge is to be ignorant of Him altogether, and that the only way to come into contact with any sort of divinity is through the raw, unfiltered experience of the natural world. The importance of this uniquely American emphasis on personal experience over common knowledge cannot be stated enough. It is one of the founding principles of Transcendentalism as a movement, and would come to later be more rigorously (and less polemically) investigated in Emerson's more mature essays, most notably "Self-Reliance.”

It is important to note, however, that the ideas Emerson puts forward in Nature do not come entirely out of nowhere. Emerson's emphasis on inner epiphany and an experience of the divine through the experience of wild nature is remarkably close to those put forward, some half-century earlier, in the sermons of the Great Awakening American preacher Jonathan Edwards and Edwards' theory of "the true and inner light."


In this essay, Emerson conveys and more fully articulates his belief in what he calls self-reliance, hinted at in Nature but never quite put forward there. The term might seem self-explanatory but misinterpretations of Emerson are numerous. By self-reliance Emerson most certainly does not mean isolationism, xenophobia, or otherwise relying on the self merely because one has an innate distrust of others, although this particular essay has been exploited by pundits who have used for their own political ends. Nor, importantly, is Emerson advocating the philosophy of solipsism—that is, the belief in the existence and importance of one's self to the exclusion of all other beings. (Such a problematic train of thought belongs much more closely to Carlyle than to Emerson.)

By "Self-Reliance" Emerson means that one trusts the Self above everything else (the capitalization is Emerson's.) What Emerson means by this is that one must trust ones present thoughts and impressions however confused they may seem, rather than those of other people or of one's past self. This philosophy is exemplified by one of his famous quotes from the book;

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Emerson means that in order to continue thinking, one must always rely on what manifests as the Self rather than on the unreliable and potentially fallacious ideas of others that has not been worked out for the Self. If the Self dictates a course of zig-zags, then one must follow that course or be confused forever. If the Self commands, as it does so beautifully in Whitman's Song of Myself, that one must contradict oneself, then "Very well then, I contradict myself."

The ideas of Self-Reliance, abstracted as they are from the pantheism and vague nature-worship of Emerson's earlier essays, have much more in common with the German Transcendental Idealists, and particularly the ideas of Immanuel Kant than any of his other more obviously "transcendental" work. In this essay Emerson is almost certainly drawing from Coleridge (who, unlike Emerson, had read Kant) and his theory of Imagination, which essentially has the same function as Emerson's Self, the same faculty which, in Kant's Critique of Judgment, goes by the name of the "Reflective Judgment." The idea common to all three is that there is a sensus communis (Kant's term) that is distinct from our common senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and so on) as well as from our common understanding (that is, the communal body of knowledge generally referred to as "common sense"). In other words, there is a "sixth sense" which Emerson calls the sense of the Self, that inner inkling that somehow seems to know what's best for us, even when we don't think we know. The thought, presented in Emerson perhaps more clearly than in either of his European contemporaries, is revolutionary and is central to the character of almost all the imaginative creativity that would burst out of the American Transcendentalist movement.


Emerson was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1864.[152]

4 of his poems ("Give All to Love," "Uriel," "Bacchus," and "Brahma") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[153]




Collected editionsEdit

  • Complete Works, centenary edition (edited by Edward Waldo Emerson). (12 volumes), Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903-1904.
  • Essays: First and second series. London: J.M. Dent / New York: E.P. Dutton (Everyman's Library), 1906.[156]
  • Uncollected Writings (edited by Charles C. Bigelow). New York: Lamb, 1912.
  • Early Lectures (edited by Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams). (3 volumes), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959-1972.
  • Selected Prose and Poetry (edited by Reginald Lansing Cook}. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.[154]
  • Complete Sermons (edited by Albert J. von Frank and others). (4 volumes), Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989-1992.
  • Collected Works (edited by Alfred R. Ferguson and others). (5 volumes to date), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971- .
  • Emerson's Antislavery Writings (edited by Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson). (5 volumes to date), New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Later Lectures (edited by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson). (2 volumes), Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
  • Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems (edited by Robert D. Richardson). New York: Classic Books International, 2010.[154]
  • Selected Writings (edited by Robert D. Habich). Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2018.[154]


Letters and journalsEdit

  • The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872 (edited by Charles Eliot Norton). (2 volumes), 1883. Volume I, Volume II.[158]
  • Journals (edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes). (10 volumes), Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1909-1914.
  • Letters (edited by Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M. Tilton). (10 volumes), New York: Columbia University Press, 1939-1995.
  • Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks (edited by William H. Gilman and others). (16 volumes), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982.
  • The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle (edited by Joseph Slater). New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.
  • Topical Notebooks (edited by Ralph H. Orth and others). (3 volumes), Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990-1994.
  • Selected Journals, 1841-1877 (edited by Lawrence Allen Rosenwald). New York: Library of American, 2010.[154]

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[159]

See alsoEdit

Thine Eyes Still Shined poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson Short Poetry Collection 14 Free Audio Poem

Thine Eyes Still Shined poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson Short Poetry Collection 14 Free Audio Poem

Ralph Waldo Emerson -- Five Short Poems

Ralph Waldo Emerson -- Five Short Poems


  • Baker, Carlos, 1996. Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A group portrait. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-86675-X.
  • Geldard, Richard. 2000. The Esoteric Emerson: Spiritual teachings. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.
  • Porte, Joel, ed. 1982. Emerson in His Journals. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 067424862
  • Richardson, Robert D., Jr. 1995. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 052020689


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