Both during his lifetime and since his death, Emerson's reputation and influence have been enormous. Unlike his contemporary and friend Thoreau, Emerson was acknowledged during his own time as a major thinker and author and as the central proponent of Transcendental philosophy. Because Emerson's efforts straddled a number of disciplines — among them literature, philosophy, theology, psychology, education, and social commentary — critics and scholars have been anything but unified in assessing the nature of his most important contributions to American thought and letters. Emerson's writings are so encompassing that they have permitted a wide variety of approaches to their study and understanding. To a large degree, particular reviewers and scholars have expressed the concerns of their own major areas of interest in examining Emerson's work. But if Emerson's importance has been widely recognized, few commentators have accepted all aspects of his work as valid, and some — even those who admit his tremendous appeal — have denied that he was a great writer of prose or poetry. Nevertheless, the vast body of literature about Emerson attests to his influence.
The first monographic treatment of Emerson, George Searle Phillips' Emerson, His Life and Writings ("by January Searle") was published in London in 1855, more than twenty-five years before its subject's death. The first biography of Emerson, George Willis Cooke's Ralph Waldo Emerson, appeared in 1881. Cooke also prepared the first separate bibliography of Emerson's writings (A Bibliography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1908). Reviews of Emerson's writings, articles about him, bibliographies of his work and of secondary sources, biographies, specialized discussions of aspects of his thought, and critical articles and books number in the thousands. Moreover, Emerson is considered in every history of American literature and overall treatment of New England Transcendentalism. It is consequently difficult to discuss Emerson's reputation and influence briefly, except in the most general terms.
Throughout his life, Emerson's thought and work generated mixed reactions — sometimes entirely positive or negative, but more often a combination of the two. Many found aspects of his approach radical and unsettling, even when they were moved by his optimism about man's place in the universe. This dichotomy is found in writings by those of Emerson's contemporaries inclined to defend Transcendentalism as well as by those who had no particular sympathy with it. When Nature appeared in 1836, for example, Orestes Brownson (Unitarian preacher, editor, reviewer, and writer for The Christian Examiner and the Boston Quarterly Review) wrote about it in the September 10, 1836, issue of the Boston Reformer. He opened the piece, "This is a singular book. It is the creation of a mind that lives and moves in the Beautiful, and has the power of assimilating to itself whatever it sees, hears, or touches. We cannot analyze it; whoever would form an idea of it must read it." He proclaimed the book "the forerunner of a new class of books, the harbinger of a new literature as much superior to whatever has been, as our political institutions are superior to those of the Old World." Having defined Nature as "aesthetical rather than philosophical," Brownson went on to question the logical soundness of Emerson's denial of the existence of nature as a reality independent of spirit and the human mind: "He all but worships what his senses seem to present him, and yet is not certain that all that which his senses place out of him, is not after all the mere subjective laws of his own being, existing only to the eye, not of a necessary, but of an irresistible Faith."
The more conservative Francis Bowen, a critic of Transcendentalism, likewise admitted the power of Nature, but expressed a number of reservations. In a lengthy review ("Transcendentalism," written for the January 1837 issue of The Christian Examiner), Bowen stated, "We find beautiful writing and sound philosophy in this little work; but the effect is injured by occasional vagueness of expression, and by a vein of mysticism, that pervades the writer's whole course of thought." He continued:
The highest praise that can be accorded to it, is, that it is a suggestive book, for no one can read it without tasking his faculties to the utmost, and relapsing into fits of severe meditation. But the effect of perusal is often painful, the thoughts excited are frequently bewildering, and the results to which they lead us, uncertain and obscure. The reader feels as in a disturbed dream, in which shows of surpassing beauty are around him, and he is conversant with disembodied spirits, yet all the time he is harassed by an uneasy sort of consciousness, that the whole combination of phenomena is fantastic and unreal.
Bowen charged Emerson with offending good taste, and pointed out that there was nothing original in his ideas. He characterized Transcendentalism as "a revival of the Old Platonic school," and criticized the "self-complacency" of Romantic writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his "English adherents," who were major influences on Emerson and the Transcendentalists.
Samuel Osgood, writing for The Western Messenger (January 1837), pointed to the peculiar power of Nature to stir the philosophically unsympathetic as well as devotees of Transcendentalism:
The work is a remarkable one, and it certainly will be called remarkable by those, who consider it "mere moonshine" as well as those, who look upon it with reverence, as the effusion of a prophet-like mind. Whatever may be thought of the merits, or of the extravagances of the book, no one, we are sure, can read it, without feeling himself more wide awake to the beauty and meaning of Creation.
But the generally enthusiastic Osgood could not overlook what he perceived as Emerson's lack of conclusive logic in argument. And Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, herself in many ways the consummate Transcendentalist, in a favorable review of Nature for The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (February 1838), urged Emerson to write another book to clarify the philosophy that the reader could only understand "by glimpses" in Nature, and to expand upon certain of his religious ideas.
To a greater or lesser degree, the reviews of Nature set the tone for the contemporary critical reaction to much of Emerson's later work. Commentators responded to his rhetorical prose and to his philosophical idealism with a sense of exhilaration, which was offset by reservations about the soundness of his philosophy and of his religious views, the derivation of his ideas from German and English writers, his logic, his mysticism, his perceived vagueness, and sometimes the aesthetics of his poetry and his prose. Two of the most commonly appreciated aspects of Emerson's work were his ability to inspire others, to serve as a springboard from which others might attain heights of thought and expression, and his optimism. Respected American critic James Russell Lowell (who in his 1848 satirical poem A Fable for Critics had poked fun at Emerson as an idealistic/pragmatic "mystagogue") vigorously underscored Emerson's inspirational quality in his 1871 My Study Windows: "We look upon him as one of the few men of genius whom our age has produced, and there needs no better proof of it than his masculine faculty of fecundating other minds. Search for eloquence in his books and you will perchance miss it, but meanwhile you will find that it has kindled your thoughts." British poet and literary and social critic Matthew Arnold, who lectured on Emerson in Boston in 1883 and published his lecture in his Discourses on America (1885), denied that Emerson was a great poet, a great man of letters, or a great philosophical writer, but found him insightful, perceptive of truth, and admirable in his inspirational optimism. Arnold wrote: "the secret of his effect . . . is in his temper. It is in the hopeful, serene, beautiful temper. . . . [F]or never had man such a sense of the inexhaustibleness of nature, and such hope."
The serious attention paid to Emerson by English as well as American critics was a remarkable feature of his early critical reception. In fact, British commentators were at first more generally positive than American reviewers in their assessments. A piece by British poet and literary and political writer Richard Monckton Milnes in the London and Westminster Review (March 1840) was particularly influential. Although Milnes pointed out Emerson's debt to European philosophy and his similarity to Carlyle, he also focused on the value of his work in fostering intellectual sympathy between England and America. His reactions were mixed, but the fact that so prominent a critic had taken the time to prepare a lengthy review had an effect on the overall British response to Emerson. Emerson's subsequent work was eagerly read and reviewed in Britain.
"The Divinity School Address" (1838) was regarded by some as a pronounced threat to established religion. It drew a more polarized response than did Emerson's other offerings. Andrews Norton, a biblical scholar and professor at the Harvard Divinity School, was reactionary and vitriolic in his evaluation of it. Norton wrote a review for the Boston Daily Advertiser (August 27, 1838). In "The New School in Literature and Religion," he attacked Emerson's insult to religion, his inability to reason logically, his poor taste (evidenced by his oracular tone and lack of humility), his vagueness of expression and distortion of ideas, his relation to "German barbarians" and to Carlyle. Norton's hostile criticism set off a volley of responses (James Freeman Clarke noted in a review in The Western Messenger, "We perceive that our friends in Boston, and its vicinity, have been a good deal roused and excited by an address. . . ."), and effected Emerson's long banishment from Harvard. Theophilus Parsons (writing under the pseudonym "S.X.") took Norton to task for his harshness and incivility. Finding considerable fault with Emerson's theology, Parsons explained that he responded to Norton "not because I am unwilling to have the faults of this 'New School' exposed and dealt with, but because I would have them dealt with as to do good, not harm." George Ripley — minister, editor, and (later) founder of Brook Farm — took on Norton in print in part because of the latter's response to "The Divinity School Address." Positive commentators praised Emerson's noble vision of humanity and of human possibility. Clarke's defense in The Western Messenger evoked the image of Emerson as an upright man. Clarke wrote of Emerson as "a man of pure and noble mind, of original genius and independent thought," and referred to Emerson as the center of a coterie: "[H]e has been surrounded by a band of enthusiastic admirers, whom the genius, life, and manliness of his thoughts attracted, and his beautiful delivery as a public speaker charmed."
Clarke's reference to Emerson as a public speaker suggests one major factor that contributed to the favorable reception of Emerson's work during his lifetime. Emerson's contemporaries were able to experience firsthand the man's persuasiveness as a lecturer and his detached benevolence. He enjoyed a positive popular following, even among those who had little sustained interest in serious philosophical and religious issues, in large part because his personal presence exuded a kind of disinterested goodness and a humility that appealed to others on a basic level. Although these qualities may have had negligible effect on commentators who had no opportunity to see him in person, they influenced the opinion of those who knew him as a speaker. In his Partial Portraits (1888), novelist Henry James remarked on Emerson the lecturer:
He was in an admirable position for showing, what he constantly endeavored to show, that the prize was within. Anyone who in New England at that time could do that was sure of success, of listeners and sympathy: most of all, of course, when it was a question of doing it with such a divine persuasiveness. Moreover, the way in which Emerson did it added to the charm — by word of mouth, face to face, with a rare, irresistible voice and a beautiful mild, modest authority. If Mr. Arnold [Matthew Arnold] is struck with the limited degree in which he was a man of letters, I suppose it is because he is more struck with his having been, as it were, a man of lectures.
In New England, where Emerson became established as a kind of regional saint (particularly later in his career, when the substance of his earlier expressions no longer generated controversy), he inspired not only respect but also a feeling akin to pride of ownership.
Emerson's death in 1882 generated a flurry of printed paeans attesting to his greatness. Then, beginning with Matthew Arnold's 1883 lecture, critics began to consider the man's major contributions more objectively. As during his life, posthumous opinions varied about what kind of thinker he was and about his effectiveness as a writer.
Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass echoed Emerson, wrote about him, as did (from various points of view) Henry James, William James, John Dewey, D. H. Lawrence, George Santayana, and many others who achieved recognition and influence through their own work. A range of important twentieth-century American scholars — Perry Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, and Lewis Mumford among them — examined Emerson's work and assessed his significance. Religious thinkers and historians have analyzed his role in the development of Unitarianism. Today, a number of scholars are at work on critical, intellectual, biographical, and bibliographical studies of Emerson, as well as on authoritative editions of his writings. In 1955, the newly formed Emerson Society began publication of the Emerson Society Quarterly, which became ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance. Although the intensity of British regard for Emerson — strong in the nineteenth century — has waned, American interest in him continues to grow.
Emerson's writings have been readily available to readers since their first publication in the nineteenth century. Collected editions were published in the author's lifetime. Edward Waldo Emerson edited the long-standard Centenary Edition of his father's writings (published 1903–1904). Modern scholars have prepared editions of Emerson's early sermons, his lectures, and his journals. A new edition of his works, The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, began publication in 1971. A variety of popular twentieth-century collections (for example: the Modern Library Edition of The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Brooks Atkinson; Mark Van Doren's The Portable Emerson; William H. Gilman's Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and the Library of America volumes) have kept Emerson's thought accessible to a broad audience.
Today, Emerson is widely taught at the college level, in courses on American literature, Romanticism, and other topics as well. His writings provide a ready source of inspiration for public speakers, who frequently introduce or illuminate some point by reading an appropriate quotation from Emerson. His thought has seeped so far into popular culture that passages from his writings — and sometimes passages mistakenly attributed to him — are found in greeting cards. His home in Concord is visited by pilgrims from all over the world. Although there may not be consensus about the exact nature of Emerson's significance, his primary position is unquestioned.