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Ralph Waldo Emerson

transcendentalist writer

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. His father, a Unitarian minister, died in 1811, leaving his mother to raise five boys. One of those boys was mentally challenged and spent most of his life in institutions, another was mentally ill and died in 1834, and a third died of tuberculosis in 1836. Waldo (he dropped "Ralph" from his name in college) also suffered from poor health, including a lung disease and periods of temporary blindness, into his early 30's.

In 1817, after completing his basic education at the Boston Latin School, Emerson entered Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1821. He then taught school for a short time before returning to study theology at the Harvard Divinity School. Licensed to preach in 1826 and ordained Unitarian pastor of the Second Church of Boston in 1829, Emerson expected to devote his life to the ministry, but the sudden death of his 19-year-old wife in 1831 led to a crisis of faith and he resigned from his pulpit in 1832.

Emerson eased his grief by spending a year travelling in Europe, and embarked on a career as a writer and lecturer upon his return to America. He married Lydia Jackson in 1835, and the couple settled in Concord, Massachusetts. Their first child, Waldo, was born in 1836, and three more children followed -- Ellen (1838), Edith (1841), and Edward (1844). Waldo died in 1842, and one of Emerson's finest poems, "Threnody," was written in his memory.

Emerson's first book, Nature (1836), was fairly well received, especially by the young people of his day. The book expressed the main principles of a new philosophical movement called transcendtalism. Soon after its publication, a discussion group that came to be called the Transcendental Club was formed, with Emerson as its leader. The club published a magazine, The Dial, devoted to literature and philosophy, which Emerson edited from 1842 to 1844.

During the 1830's, Emerson earned a reputation as a solid, and controversial, public lecturer. In 1837 he gave an address at Harvard called "The American Scholar," in which he outlined his philosophy of humanism. According to Emerson, an independent scholar must interpret and lead his culture by means of nature, books, and action. He urged his listeners to learn directly from life, know the past through books, and express themselves through action. In this address, Emerson proclaimed America's intellectual independence from Europe.

In "Divinity School Address" (1838), Emerson dismissed "historical Christianity" in favor of a religion founded in nature and fulfilled by direct, mystical intuition of God, and opposed formal Christianity's emphasis on ritual.

Emerson's next two books, Essays (two separate volumes, 1841 and 1844), further explore and explain Emerson's philosophical beliefs. In "Compensation," "Spiritual Laws," and "The Over-Soul," he stated his faith in the moral orderliness of the universe and the Divine force governing it. In "Experience," he showed how doubts are conquered by faith. In "Art" and "The Poet," he outlined his philosophy of aesthetics, and he explained his social philosophy in "Politics" and "New England Reformers."

Emerson's other prose works include Representative Men (1850), a series of semibiographical, semicritical essays on Plato, Emanuel Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe; English Traits (1856), which recorded his two voyages to Europe and discussed English literature, character, customs, and traditions; and The Conduct of Life (1860), a series of his lectures.

Emerson published two volumes of poetry in his lifetime -- Poems (1846) and May-Day (1867). He developed his mystical religion in "Each and All," "Hamatreya," and "Brahma", and celebrated nature in "The Rhodora," "The Humble-Bee," "The Snow-Storm" and "Woodnotes." The poems "Uriel," "The Problem," and "The Sphinx" reflect Emerson's frustrations, doubts, and longings, while "Days" reveals a comic portrait of himself and of his failure to fulfill his "morning wishes."

In 1872, Emerson's Concord home was heavily damaged by a fire which also destroyed his personal library. To help ease his depression over the loss, Emerson's friends sent him abroad and, while he was gone, raised funds to rebuild his house and restore his library. The city of Concord officially went into mourning when he died of pneumonia there on April 27, 1882, and hundreds of admirers and friends attended his funeral; he was buried in Poets' Knoll in Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

Emerson's Concord home as it looks today
Emerson's Concord home

Print Source

The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1976

Internet Source

Online Literature

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The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 19th Century

This page was last updated on 09/15/2018.