Biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, American Essayist

Head and shoulders of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Portrait of Emerson, as painted by A.E. Smith.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803- April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, poet, and philosopher. Emerson is known as one of the leaders of the transcendentalist movement, which reached its height in mid-19th century New England. With its emphasis on the dignity of the individual, equality, hard work, and respect for nature, Emerson's work remains influential and pertinent to this day.

Fast Facts: Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Known For: Founder and leader of the transcendentalist movement
  • Born: May 25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Ruth Haskins and Rev. William Emerson
  • Died: April 27, 1882 in Concord, Massachusetts
  • Education: Boston Latin School, Harvard College
  • Selected Published Works: Nature (1832), "The American Scholar" (1837), "Divinity School Address" (1838), Essays: First Series, including "Self-Reliance" and "The Over-Soul" (1841), Essays: Second Series (1844)
  • Spouse(s): Ellen Louisa Tucker (m. 1829-her death in 1831), Lidian Jackson (m. 1835-his death in 1882)
  • Children: Waldo, Ellen, Edith, Edward Waldo
  • Notable Quote: "Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone: to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil."

Early Life and Education (1803-1821)

Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Ruth Haskins, daughter of a prosperous Boston distiller, and Reverend William Emerson, pastor of Boston’s First Church and the son of the “patriot minister of the Revolution” William Emerson Sr. Although the family had eight children, only five sons lived to adulthood, and Emerson was the second of these. He was named after his mother’s brother Ralph and his father’s great-grandmother Rebecca Waldo.

Ralph Waldo was just 8 years old when his father died. Emerson’s family was not wealthy; his brothers were taunted for only having one coat to share between the five of them, and the family moved several times to stay with whichever family members and friends could accommodate them. Emerson’s education was cobbled together from various schools in the area; primarily he attended Boston Latin School to learn Latin and Greek, but he also attended a local grammar school to study mathematics and writing, and learned French at a private school. Already by the age of 9 he was writing poetry in his free time. In 1814, his aunt Mary Moody Emerson returned to Boston to help with the children and managing the household, and her Calvinist outlook, early individualism—with its belief that the individual both has power and responsibility—and hardworking nature clearly inspired Emerson throughout his life.

At the age of 14, in 1817, Emerson entered Harvard College, the youngest member of the class of 1821. His tuition was paid partially through the “Penn legacy,” from the First Church of Boston of which his father had been pastor. Emerson also worked as Harvard president John Kirkland’s assistant, and earned extra money by tutoring on the side. He was an unremarkable student, although he won a few prizes for essays and was elected Class Poet. At this time he began writing his journal, which he called “The Wide World,” a habit which was to last for most of his life. He graduated in the exact middle of his class of 59.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson with his children, circa 1840s. Fotosearch / Getty Images

Teaching and Ministry (1821-1832)

Upon graduating, Emerson taught for a time at a school for young women in Boston set up by his brother William and which he eventually headed. At this time of transition, he noted in his journal that his childhood dreams “are all fading away and giving place to some very sober and very disgusting views of a quiet mediocrity of talents and condition.” He decided not long thereafter to devote himself to God, in the long tradition of his very religious family, and entered Harvard Divinity School in 1825.

His studies were interrupted by sickness, and Emerson moved south for a time to recover, working on poetry and sermons. In 1827, he returned to Boston and preached at several churches in New England. On a visit to Concord, New Hampshire, he met the 16-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker, whom he loved deeply and married in 1829, despite the fact that she suffered from tuberculosis. That same year he became a Unitarian minister of the Second Church of Boston.

Just two years after their marriage, in 1831, Ellen died at the age of 19. Emerson was deeply distraught by her death, visiting her tomb every morning and even opening her coffin once. He became disenchanted with the church, finding it blindly obedient to tradition, repetitive of the words of men long dead, and dismissive of the individual. After he found he could not under good conscience offer communion, he resigned his pastorate in September of 1832.

Transcendentalism and 'The Sage of Concord' (1832-1837)

  • Nature (1832)
  • “The American Scholar” (1837)

The following year, Emerson sailed to Europe, where he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle, with whom he struck up a lifelong friendship and whose Romantic individualism can be seen as an influence in Emerson’s later work. Back in the U.S., he met Lydia Jackson and married her in 1835, calling her “Lidian.” The couple settled in Concord, Massachusetts, and they began a practical and content marriage. Although the marriage was somewhat marked by Emerson’s frustration with Lidian’s conservatism, and her frustration with his lack of passion and his controversial—and at times almost heretical—views, it was to last for a solid and stable 47 years. The couple had four children: Waldo, Ellen (named after Ralph Waldo’s first wife, at Lidian’s suggestion), Edith, and Edward Waldo. At this time, Emerson was receiving money from Ellen’s estate, and was able to support his family as a writer and lecturer because of it.

Emerson Lecturing in Concord
Ralph Waldo Emerson addresses a large audience in a Concord, Massachusetts, chapel during a meeting of the Summer School of Philosophy.  

From Concord, Emerson preached throughout New England and joined a literary society called the Symposium, or Hedge’s Club, and which later morphed into the Transcendental Club, which discussed the philosophy of Kant, the writings of Goethe and Carlyle, and the reform of Christianity. Emerson's preaching and writing caused him to become known in local literary circles as “The Sage of Concord.” At the same time, Emerson was establishing a reputation as a challenger of traditional thought, disgusted with American politics and in particular Andrew Jackson, as well as frustrated with the refusal of the Church to innovate. He wrote in his journal that he will never “utter any speech, poem, or book that is not entirely and peculiarly my work.”

During this time he was working steadily to develop his philosophical ideas and articulate them in writing. In 1836 he published Nature, which expressed his philosophy of transcendentalism and its assertion that nature is suffused by God. Emerson maintained the forward momentum of his career; in 1837, he gave a speech to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Society, of which he had been elected an honorary member. Entitled “The American Scholar,” the speech demanded that Americans establish a writing style liberated from European conventions, and was hailed by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. as “the intellectual Declaration of Independence.” The success of Nature and “The American Scholar” set the foundation for Emerson’s literary and intellectual career.

Transcendentalism Continued: The Dial and Essays (1837-1844)

  • "Divinity School Address” (1838)
  • Essays (1841)
  • Essays: Second Series (1844)

Emerson was invited in 1838 to Harvard Divinity School to deliver the graduation address, which became known as his divisive and influential “Divinity School Address.” In this speech, Emerson asserted that while Jesus was a great figure, he was no more divine than any other individual is. He suggested, in true transcendentalist style, that the faith of the church was dying under its own traditionalism, its belief in miracles, and its obsequious praise of historical figures, losing sight of the divinity of the individual. This claim was outrageous to the general Protestant population at the time, and Emerson was not invited back to Harvard for another 30 years.

Compensations Quotation From Emerson', C1917
Quotation from Compensation, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). It appeared in the book "Essays," first published 1841. Print Collector / Getty Images 

However, this controversy did nothing to discourage Emerson and his developing point of view. He and his friend, the writer Margaret Fuller, brought out the first issue of The Dial in 1840, the magazine of the transcendentalists. Its publication gave platform to writers as notable as Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, W.E. Channing, and Emerson and Fuller themselves. Next, in March of 1841, Emerson published his book, Essays, which had a hugely popular reception, including from Emerson’s friend Thomas Carlyle in Scotland (though it was received, sadly, with ambivalence by his beloved aunt Mary Moody). Essays contains some of Emerson’s most influential and lasting works, “Self-Reliance,” as well as “The Over-Soul” and other classics.

Emerson’s son Waldo died in January of 1842, to his parents’ devastation. At the same time, Emerson had to take up editorship of the financially struggling Dial, as Margaret Fuller resigned due to her lack of pay. By 1844 Emerson closed the journal down, due to ongoing financial troubles; despite Emerson’s growing prominence, the journal was simply not being bought by the general public. Emerson, however, experienced unrelenting productivity despite these setbacks, publishing Essays: Second Series in October of 1844, including “Experience,” which draws on his sadness at his son’s death, “The Poet,” and yet another essay called “Nature.” Emerson also began exploring other philosophical traditions at this time, reading an English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita and recording notes in his journal.

Emerson had become close friends with Thoreau, whom he had met in 1837. In his eulogy, which Emerson gave after his death in 1862, he called Thoreau his best friend. Indeed, it was Emerson who bought the land at Walden Pond upon which Thoreau conducted his famous experiment.

After Transcendentalism: Poetry, Writings, and Travels (1846-1856)

  • Poems (1847)
  • Reprint of Essays: First Series (1847)
  • Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (1849)
  • Representative Men (1849)
  • Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852)
  • English Traits (1856)

By this time the unity among the transcendentalists was fading, as they began to differ in their beliefs regarding how to achieve the reform they so desired. Emerson decided to leave for Europe in 1846-1848, sailing to Britain to give a series of lectures, which were received to great acclaim. Upon his return he published Representative Men, an analysis of six great figures and their roles: Plato the philosopher, Swedenborg the mystic, Montaigne the skeptic, Shakespeare the poet, Napoleon the man of the world, and Goethe the writer. He suggested that each man was representative of his time and of the potential of all peoples.

Boston 19th Century academics
Engraving depicts a group portrait of Boston authors and intellectuals; (left - right, standing): author Oliver Wendell Holmes, diplomat James Russell Lowell, naturalist Louis Agassiz (left - right, seated): poet and essayist John Greenleaf Whittier, poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, historian John Lothrop Motley, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Museum of the City of New York / Getty Images

Emerson also co-edited a compilation of the writings of his friend Margaret Fuller, who had died in 1850. Although this work, Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852), featured Fuller’s writings, they were mostly rewritten and the book was published in a rush, as it was believed interest in her life and work would not last.

When Walt Whitman sent him a draft of his 1855 Leaves of Grass, Emerson sent back a letter praising the work, although he would withdraw his support from Whitman later on. Emerson also published English Traits (1856), in which he discussed his observations of the English during his trip there, a book that was met with mixed reception.

Abolitionism and Civil War (1860-1865)

  • The Conduct of Life (1860)

At the beginning of the 1860s, Emerson published The Conduct of Life (1860), where he begins to explore the concept of fate, a route notably different from his previous insistence on the complete freedom of the individual.

Emerson was not unaffected by the growing disagreements in national politics in this decade. The 1860s saw him strengthen an already potent and vocal support of abolitionism, an idea that clearly fit in well with his emphasis on the dignity of the individual and human equality. Even in 1845 he had already refused to give a lecture in New Bedford because the congregation refused membership to black people, and by the 1860s, with the Civil War looming, Emerson took up a strong stance. Denouncing Daniel Webster’s unionist position and fiercely opposing the Fugitive Slave Act, Emerson called for the immediate emancipation of the slaves. When John Brown led the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Emerson welcomed him at his house; when Brown was hanged for treason, Emerson helped raise money for his family.

Later Years and Death (1867-1882)

  • May-Day and Other Pieces (1867)
  • Society and Solitude (1870)
  • Parnassus (editor, 1875)
  • Letters and Social Aims (1876)

In 1867 Emerson’s health began to decline. Although he did not stop lecturing for another 12 years and would live another 15, he began to suffer from memory problems, unable to recall names or the words for even common objects. Society and Solitude (1870) was the last book that he published on his own; the rest relied on help from his children and friends, including Parnassus, an anthology of poetry from writers as varied as Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Julia Caroline Dorr, Henry David Thoreau, and Jones Very, among others. By 1879, Emerson stopped appearing publicly, too embarrassed and frustrated by his memory difficulties.

On April 21, 1882, Emerson was diagnosed with pneumonia. He died six days later in Concord on April 27, 1882 at the age of 78. He was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, close to the graves of his dear friends and many great figures of American literature.

Photograph of Emerson's gravestone
Emerson's grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, MA, early 20th century. Interim Archives / Getty Images

Legacy

Emerson is one of the greatest figures of American literature; his work has influenced to an incredible degree American culture and the American identity. Seen as radical in his own time, Emerson was often labeled an atheist or a heretic whose dangerous views attempted to remove the figure of God as "father" of the universe and to supplant him with humanity. Even still, Emerson did enjoy literary fame and great respect, and especially in the latter half of his life he was accepted and celebrated in radical and establishment circles alike. He was friends with important figures like Nathaniel Hawthorne (even though he himself was against transcendentalism), Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott (prominent educator and father of Louisa May), Henry James Sr. (father of novelist Henry and philosopher William James), Thomas Carlyle, and Margaret Fuller, among many others.

He also a marked influence on later generations of writers. As noted, the young Walt Whitman received his blessing, and Thoreau was a great friend and mentee of his. While during the 19th century Emerson was seen as canon and the radical power of his views were less appreciated, interest particularly in Emerson's peculiar writing style has revived in academic circles. Moreover, his themes of hard work, the dignity of the individual, and faith arguably form some of the underpinnings of the cultural understanding of the American Dream, and are likely still a huge influence on American culture to this day. Emerson and his vision of equality, human divinity, and justice are celebrated around the world.

Sources

  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson, Essays and Poems. New York, Library of America, 1996.
  • Porte, Joel; Morris, Saundra, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803-1882), Lecturer and Author | American National Biography. https://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1600508. Accessed 12 Oct. 2019.