Reminiscences of Ralph Waldo Emerson

by Louisa May Alcott - 1882

Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1882, Louisa May Alcott wrote her recollections of Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, upon his death.

She wrote of the day Ralph Waldo Emerson's son, Waldo, died. She visited the Emerson home, knowing the child was ill, and Emerson only could say "Child, he is dead," and then close the door.  She called to mind, in her recollection, the poem Threnody, which Emerson wrote out of his anguish and grief.

She also remembered later years, with Emersons as her playmates, and "the illustrious papa" was also "our good playfellow." He took them to picnic at Walden, showing them wildflowers -- and then she recalls how many of Emerson's poems were about the nature that he described to the children.

She recalled how she'd borrow books from his library, and he introduced her to many "wise books," including his own. She also recalled how he threw so many books out of his house when his house was on fire, and she guarded the books, while Emerson wondered where his boots were!

"Many a thoughtful young man and woman owe to Emerson the spark that kindled their highest aspirations, and showed them how to make the conduct of life a helpful lesson, not a blind struggle."

"Friendship, Love, Self-Reliance, Heroism and Compensation among the essays have become to many readers as precious as Christian`s scroll, and certain poems live in the memory as sacred as hymns, so helpful and inspiring are they.

"No better books for earnest young people can be found. The truest words are often the simplest, and when wisdom and virtue go hand in hand, none need fear to listen, learn and love."

She talked of "the many pilgrims from all parts of the world, drawn thither by their love and reverence for him," who visited him, and how the people of town got to see so many of those "great and good men and women of our time."

And yet she also remembered how he would pay attention not just to the "distinguished guests" but also "to some humble worshipper, sitting modestly in a corner, content merely to look and listen."

She recalled his "essays more helpful than most sermons; lectures which created the lyceum; poems full of power and sweetness; and better than song or sermon" and remembered Emerson as having "lived a life so noble, true and beautiful that its wide-spreading influence is felt on both sides of the sea."

She recalled Emerson taking part in anti-slavery events, and also his standing up for Woman's Suffrage when that was highly unpopular.

She recalled him as temperate in his habits, including in religion, where "high thinking and holy living" proved the aliveness of one's faith.  

She told of how, when she traveled, many wanted her to tell about Emerson.  When a girl in the West asked for books, she asked for those of Emerson.  A prisoner released from jail said that Emerson's books had been a comfort, buying them with the money he earned while imprisoned.

She wrote of how, after his house burned, he returned from Europe to greetings by schoolchildren, his grandchildren, and neighbors, singing "Sweet Home" and cheering.

She also wrote of his "gay revels" on his property for schoolchildren, Emerson himself there smiling and welcoming, and Mrs. Emerson beautifying their lives with her flowers.  She described how, when he was dying, children inquired of his health.

"Life did not sadden his cheerful philosophy; success could not spoil his exquisite simplicity; age could not dismay him, and he met death with sweet serenity."

She quoted him, "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself." And reworded it as "Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles..."