Ralph Waldo Emerson
American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in
1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. After studying at Harvard and teaching for a
brief time, Emerson entered the ministry. He was appointed to the Old Second
Church in his native city, but soon became an unwilling preacher. Unable in
conscience to administer the sacrament of the Lord's Supper after the death of
his nineteen-year-old wife of tuberculosis, Emerson resigned his pastorate in
The following year, he sailed for Europe, visiting Thomas Carlyle and
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Carlyle, the Scottish-born English writer, was famous for his explosive attacks on hypocrisy and materialism, his distrust of democracy, and his highly romantic belief in the power of the individual. Emerson's friendship with Carlyle was both lasting and significant; the insights of the British
thinker helped Emerson formulate his own philosophy.
On his return to New England, Emerson became known for challenging
traditional thought. In 1835, he married his second wife, Lydia Jackson, and
settled in Concord, Massachusetts. Known in the local literary circle as
"The Sage of Concord," Emerson became the chief spokesman for
Transcendentalism, the American philosophic and literary movement. Centered in
New England during the 19th century, Transcendentalism was a reaction against
Emerson's first book, Nature (1836), is
perhaps the best expression of his Transcendentalism, the belief that
everything in our worldeven a drop of dewis a microcosm of the universe.
His concept of the Over-Soula Supreme Mind that every man and woman
shareallowed Transcendentalists to disregard external authority and to rely
instead on direct experience. "Trust thyself," Emerson's motto,
became the code of Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and W. E.
Channing. From 1842 to 1844, Emerson edited the Transcendentalist journal,
Emerson wrote a poetic prose, ordering his essays by recurring themes and
images. His poetry, on the other hand, is often called harsh and didactic.
Among Emerson's most well known works are Essays, First and Second
Series (1841, 1844). The First Series includes Emerson's famous essay,
"Self-Reliance," in which the writer instructs his listener to
examine his relationship with Nature and God, and to trust his own judgment
above all others.
Emerson's other volumes include Poems (1847),
Representative Men, The Conduct of Life (1860), and English
Traits (1865). His best-known addresses are The American
Scholar (1837) and The Divinity School Address, which he
delivered before the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School, shocking
Boston's conservative clergymen with his descriptions of the divinity of man
and the humanity of Jesus.
Emerson's philosophy is characterized by its reliance on intuition as the
only way to comprehend reality, and his concepts owe much to the works of
Plotinus, Swedenborg, and Böhme. A believer in the "divine
sufficiency of the individual," Emerson was a steady optimist. His refusal
to grant the existence of evil caused Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr.,
among others, to doubt his judgment. In spite of their skepticism, Emerson's
beliefs are of central importance in the history of American culture.
Waldo Emerson died of pneumonia in 1882.
A Selected Bibliography
Essays: First Series (1841)
Essays: Second Series (1844)
Addresses, and Lectures (1849)
Representative Men (1850)
The Conduct of Life (1860)
English Traits (1865)
Society and Solitude (1870)