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Ralph Waldo Emerson

An outline biography
Emerson and Transcendentalism


  Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in May 1803 as the fourth child in a family of eight and brought up in a family atmosphere supportive of hard work, moral discipline, and wholesome self-sacrifice. Seven of his ancestors were ministers, and his father, William Emerson, was minister of the First Church (Unitarian) of Boston.

  In 1821 Emerson graduated, at the age of 18, from Harvard where he had proved to be a popular, rather than a brilliant, student. Over the next three years he taught school in Boston in association with his brother William. This mode of life was, however, unsatisfactory to him and, feeling a spiritual calling, he entered Harvard Divinity School in 1825 with the view of becoming a minister. In October of the next year he was "approbated to preach" by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. Despite ill health which necessitated a period of recuperation in South Carolina and Florida Emerson became established as an occasional preacher of sermons in churches in the Boston area. In March 1829 he became associate minister of the Second Church (Unitarian) of Boston. That same year (September) he married a delicate eighteen year old beauty named Ellen Louisa Tucker. This marriage seems to have been very much a love-match but Ellen Louisa unfortunately died of Tuberculosis in February 1831.

  In 1832 Emerson resigned from his pastoral appointment because of personal doubts about administering the sacrament of the Lord's Supper as a permanent sacrament.

The Essential Emerson?

Emerson, descendant of a long-continued multi-generational family tradition of service as Christian ministry did not take this step of resignation lightly.

An examination of the immediate background to this potentially dramatically life-altering change may well throw much light on the Essence of Emerson as an individual Human Being.

In his private journals over a few short weeks in the summer of 1832 Emerson inscribed such passages as these:-

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. Were not a Socratic paganism better than an effete superannuated Christianity?

June 2, 1832

Here among the mountains the pinions of thought should be strong and one should see the errors of men from a calmer height of love & wisdom. What is the message that is given me to communicate next Sunday? Religion in the mind is not credulity & in the practice is not form. It is a life. It is the order & soundness of a man. It is not something else to be got, to be added, but is new life of those faculties you have. It is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.

July 6, 1832

I would think – I would feel. I would be the vehicle of that divine principle that lurks within & of which life has afforded only glimpses enough to assure me of its being. …

July 14, 1832

… But the hours pass on – creep or fly - & bear me and my fellows to the decision of questions of duty; to the crises of our fate; and to the solution of this mortal problem. …
The hour of decision. It seems not worth while for them who charge others with exalting forms above the moon to fear forms themselves with extravagant dislike. … Let me not bury my talent in the earth in my indignation at this windmill. … The Communicant celebrates on a foundation either of authority or of tradition an ordinance which has been the occasion of thousands – I hope to thousands of thousands – of contrition, of gratitude, of prayer, of faith, of love, & of holy living. Far be it from any of my friends - God forbid it to be in my heart – to interrupt any occasion thus blessed of God’s influence upon the human mind. I will not, because we may not all think alike of the means, fight so strenuously against the means, as to miss the end which we all value alike. I think Jesus did not mean to institute a perpetual celebration, but that a commemoration of him would be useful. Others think that Jesus did establish this one. …
I know very well that it is a bad sign for a man to be too conscientious, & stick at gnats. The most desperate of scoundrels have been the over refiners. Without accommodation society is impracticable. But this ordinance is esteemed the most sacred of religious institutions & I cannot go habitually to an institution which they deem holiest with indifference & dislike.

July 14, 1832

  Emerson had meanwhile become seriously interested in the Poetry, Philosophy and Essays of such persons as Plato, Plotinus, Swedenborg, Victor Cousin, Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. (Cousin, Carlyle, Coleridge and Wordsworth had themselves been greatly influenced by the "Transcendentalism" of Immanuel Kant!!!).

  On Christmas Day, 1832, Emerson left the United States for a tour of Europe. His first port of call being Valetta, Malta, from whence he continued to Italy, France and England. He stayed for some time in England and Scotland, where he made the acquaintance of such British literary notables as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth and John Stuart Mill.

  Emerson arrived back in New York in October 1833 and a year later settled with his mother in Concord, Massachusetts and became active as a lecturer in Boston. His addresses including "The Philosophy of History," "Human Culture," "Human Life," and "The Present Age" were based on material in his Journals, a collection of observations and notes that he had begun while a student at Harvard.

  In the autumn of 1835 Emerson married Lydia Jackson and the couple moved into a spacious house in Concord that Emerson had purchased. Lydia Jackson was something of an heiress owning a house in her home town of Plymouth.

  Emerson had been introduced as a growing child by a famously intellectually inclined maiden aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, to taking a great interest in the Neo-Platonists and also translations of the Sacred Books of the East. He subsequently formed the habit of reading from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita every morning. Some scholars deem that Emerson's ideas were significantly based on the views of Mary Moody Emerson. Emerson himself admitted that he owed much to her influence.

  In 1836 Emerson helped to start a group of ideas that became known as the Transcendental Club and published, anonymously and at his own expense, "Nature", a slender work which has been depicted as "the first document of that remarkable outburst of Romanticism on Puritan ground" and which many see as being not so much as being about Nature as about self-justifying Emerson's decision to resign his appointment as a Christian minister and to embark on a "New Calling."

  The opening paragraph reads :-

  "Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship."

  This essay received little initial notice but effectively articulates the philosophical underpinnings of the subsequently widely influential New England Transcendentalism movement. (Only five hundred copies were printed and these took some six years to be distributed).

  Transcendentalism began as a radical religious movement, opposed to the rationalist, conservative, institution that Unitarianism had become. Many of the movement's early proponents were or had been Unitarian ministers who had found Unitarianism wanting both spiritually and emotionally, and, beginning in the late 1820s, had expressed the need for and conviction of a more personal and intuitive experience of the divine, one available to every person.

  The Transcendentalists assumed a universe divided into two essential parts, the soul and nature. Emerson defined the soul by defining nature: "all that is separated from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE."

  Emerson in his August 1837 lecture "The American Scholar," which he delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard called for independence, sincerity and realism in American intellectual life. A second address, commonly referred to as the "Address at Divinity College," delivered in July 1838 to the graduating class of Cambridge Divinity College, aroused considerable controversy because it attacked formal religion and argued for self-reliance and intuitive spiritual experience.

  Here is are some brief passages from the Divinity School Address:-

  ... the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. ...

  ... In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God? ...

  ... dare to love God without mediator or veil ... cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity ...


  The first volume of Emerson's Essays (1841) includes some of his most popular works. It contains "History," "Self-Reliance," "Compensation," "Spiritual Laws," "Love," "Friendship," "Prudence," "Heroism," "The Over-Soul," "Circles," "Intellect," and "Art." The second series of Essays (1844) includes "The Poet," "Manners," and "Character." In it Emerson tempered the optimism of the first volume of essays, placing less emphasis on the self and acknowledging the limitations of real life.

  In the interval between the publication of these two volumes, Emerson wrote for The Dial, the journal of New England Transcendentalism, which was founded in 1840 with Margaret Fuller (later famous as a critic and feminist) as editor. Emerson succeeded her as editor in 1842 and remained in that capacity until the journal ceased publication in 1844. In 1846 his first volume of Poems was published.

  Emerson again went abroad from 1847 to 1848 and was welcomed by Carlyle. He also met Martineau, Macaulay, Thackeray, Disraeli, Lord Palmerston, and Tennyson and was elected a member of the Athenæum Club. In May he made a brief trip to Paris then in the aftermath of the "Revolution of 1848" before returning to give a course of lectures in England.

  Several of Emerson's lectures were later collected in the volume Representative Men (1850), which contains semibiographical, semicritical essays on such figures as the Greek philosopher Plato, the Swedish philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and the French writer Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. While visiting abroad Emerson also gathered impressions that were later published in English Traits (1856) a study of English society.

  His Journals give evidence of his growing interest in national issues and, on his return to America, he became more active in the abolitionist cause delivering many antislavery speeches. As early as 1844 Emerson had delivered an address in the Concord courthouse in celebration of the anniversary of the liberation of the British West India Island slaves. All of the Concord churches refused to open their doors to the convention, so Thoreau secured the court-house. In 1850 Emerson was prominent in opposition to the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law.

  When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, he referred to it as "this filthy enactment" and wrote in his journal, "I will not obey it, by God!" Speaking before the citizens of Concord, he said, "This is a law which every one of you will break on the earliest occasion; a law which no man can obey or abet without loss of his self-respect and forfeiture of the name of gentleman."

  The Conduct of Life (1860) was the first of his books to enjoy immediate popularity. Included in this volume of essays are "Power," "Wealth," "Fate," and "Culture." This was followed by a collection of poems entitled May Day and Other Pieces (1867), which had previously been published in The Dial and The Atlantic Monthly. After this time Emerson did little writing and his mental powers declined, although his reputation as a writer spread. His later works include Society and Solitude (1870), which contained material he had been using on lecture tours; Parnassus (1874), a collection of poems; Letters and Social Aims (1876); and Natural History of Intellect (1893), Journals (1909-1914).

  Emerson became something of a celebrity - "The Sage of Concord." He was awarded a Doctoral degree by Harvard in 1866. When his house caught fire in July 1872 neighbors rushed to his aid and succeeded in saving the books, manuscripts, and furniture. The Emerson house was rebuilt, with improvements, through the popular subscription of the then considerable sum of $12,000. During the course of reconstruction Emerson and his daughter were prevailed upon to go abroad and visited England, France, Italy and Egypt. In May 1873 the Emersons were awarded a triumphal welcome back to Concord, and their rebuilt home, by the townspeople.

  Emerson passed away in April 1882 and his grave lies at Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow cemetery in his adopted home town of Concord.

 


New England
Transcendentalism
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Ralph Waldo Emerson
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Some Emerson quotations
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Henry David Thoreau
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Margaret Fuller
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Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
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The Brook Farm
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Emerson biography
Transcendentalism