Ralph Waldo Emerson

November 6, 2012 2:20 pm
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American essayist and poet, who asserted in his writings the belief that each person has the power to transcend the material world and to see and grasp the infinite. The philosophical movement of which he was a leader has been given the name transcendentalism. Influenced by such schools of thought as English romanticism, Neoplatonism, and Hindu philosophy (see Hinduism), Emerson is noted for his skill in presenting his ideas eloquently and in poetic language.

Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803. Seven of his ancestors were ministers, and his father, William Emerson, was minister of the First Church (Unitarian) of Boston. Emerson graduated from Harvard University at the age of 18 and for the next three years taught school in Boston. In 1825 he entered Harvard Divinity School, and the next year he was sanctioned to preach by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. Despite ill health, Emerson delivered occasional sermons in churches in the Boston area. In 1829 he became minister of the Second Church (Unitarian) of Boston. That same year he married Ellen Tucker, who died 17 months later. In 1832 Emerson resigned from his pastoral appointment because of personal doubts about administering the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. On Christmas Day, 1832, he left the United States for a tour of Europe. He stayed for some time in England, where he made the acquaintance of such British literary notables as Walter Savage Landor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and William Wordsworth. His meeting with Carlyle marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
After nearly a year in Europe Emerson returned to the United States. In 1834 he moved to 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(published posthumously, 1909-1914), a collection of observations and notes that he had begun while a student at Harvard. His most detailed statement of belief was reserved for his first published book, Nature (1836), which appeared anonymously but was soon correctly attributed to him. The volume received little notice, but it has come to be regarded as Emerson’s most original and significant work, offering the essence of his philosophy of transcendentalism. This idealist doctrine opposed the popular materialist and Calvinist (see Calvinism) views of life and at the same time voiced a plea for freedom of the individual from artificial restraints.
Emerson applied these ideas to cultural and intellectual problems in his 1837 lecture “The American Scholar,” which he delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard. In it he called for American intellectual independence. A second address, commonly referred to as the “Address at Divinity College,” delivered in 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.
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 American critic Margaret Fuller 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 (dated, however, 1847).
Emerson again went abroad from 1847 to 1848 and lectured in England, where he was welcomed by Carlyle. Several of Emerson’s lectures were later collected in the volume Representative Men (1850), which contains essays on such figures as Greek philosopher Plato, Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, and French writer Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. 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 active in the abolitionist cause, delivering many antislavery speeches. 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).
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