Ralph Waldo Emerson biography New England 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
And in concluding a sermon delivered to the congregation on 9 September, 1832, at the time of his resignation Emerson said:-
I am about to resign into your hands that office which you have confided in me. It has many duties for which I am feebly qualified. It has
some which it will always be my delight to discharge according to my ability, wherever I exist. And whilst the recollection of its claims
oppresses me with a sense of my unworthiness, I am consoled by the hope that no time and no change can deprive me of the satisfaction of
pursuing and exercising its highest functions.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Here are some brief passages from the Divinity School
...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
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
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
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
Emerson passed away in April 1882 and his grave lies at
Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow cemetery in his adopted home town