Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography


Life and Background

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, to the Reverend William and Ruth Haskins Emerson. His father, pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Boston, chaplain of the Massachusetts Senate, and an editor of Monthly Anthology, a literary review, once described two-year-old son Waldo as "a rather dull scholar." (Emerson was called Waldo throughout his lifetime and even signed his checks as Waldo.) Following William's death from stomach cancer in 1811, the family was left in a state of near-poverty, and Emerson was raised by his mother and Mary Moody Emerson, an aunt whose acute, critical intelligence would have a lifelong influence on him. Through the persistence of these two women, he completed studies at the Boston Public Latin School.

Emerson entered Harvard College on a scholarship in 1817, and during collegiate holidays he taught school. An unremarkable student, he made no particular impression on his contemporaries. In 1821, he graduated thirteenth in his class of 1959, and he was elected class poet only after six other students declined the honor. It was at Harvard that he began keeping his celebrated journals.

After graduating from college, Emerson moved to Boston to teach at his brother William's School for Young Ladies and began to experiment with fiction and verse. In 1825, after quitting the ladies school, he entered Harvard Divinity School; one year later, he received his master's degree, which qualified him to preach. He began to suffer from symptoms of tuberculosis, and in the fall of 1827 he went to Georgia and Florida in hopes of improving his health. He returned in late December to Boston, where he preached occasionally. In Concord, New Hampshire, he met Ellen Tucker, a seventeen-year-old poet who also suffered from tuberculosis. The two were married in September 1829, just after Emerson had been ordained pastor of the Second Unitarian Church of Boston. They were very happy in the marriage, but, unfortunately, both were also quite ill with tuberculosis; in 1831, after less than two years of marriage, Ellen died.

By the end of the following year, Emerson had resigned his pastorate at Second Unitarian Church. Among his reasons for resigning were his refusal to administer the sacrament of the Last Supper, which he believed to be an unnecessary theological rite, and his belief that the ministry was an "antiquated profession." On Christmas Day, 1832, he left for Europe even though he was so ill that many of his friends thought he would not survive the rigors of the winter voyage. While in Europe, he met many of the leading thinkers of his time, including the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose Aids to Reflection Emerson admired; the poet William Wordsworth; and Thomas Carlyle, the historian and social critic, with whom Emerson established a lifelong friendship.

After his return from Europe in the fall of 1833, Emerson began a career as a public lecturer with an address in Boston. One of his first lectures, "The Uses of Natural History," attempted to humanize science by explaining that "the whole of Nature is a metaphor or image of the human mind," an observation that he would often repeat. Other lectures followed — on diverse subjects such as Italy, biography, English literature, the philosophy of history, and human culture.

In September 1834, Emerson moved to Concord, Massachusetts, as a boarder in the home of his step-grandfather, Ezra Ripley. On September 14, 1835, he married Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and they moved into a house of their own in Concord, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Emerson's first book, Nature, was published anonymously in 1836. Although only a slim volume, it contains in brief the whole substance of his thought. It sold very poorly — after twelve years, its first edition of 500 copies had not yet sold out. However, "The American Scholar," the Phi Beta Kappa address that Emerson presented at Harvard in 1837, was very popular and, when printed, sold well. A year after he made this speech, he was invited back to Harvard to speak to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School. His address, which advocated intuitive, personal revelation, created such an uproar that he was not invited back to his alma mater for thirty years. Perhaps Amos Bronson Alcott best summarizes this phase of Emerson's life when he wrote: "Emerson's church consists of one member — himself."

In 1836, Emerson joined the Transcendental Club, and in the ensuing years the group, which included Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Alcott, met often at his home. In 1840, he helped launch The Dial, a journal of literature, philosophy, and religion that focused on transcendentalist views. After the first two years, he succeeded Fuller as its editor. The Dial was recognized as the official voice of transcendentalism, and Emerson became intimately associated with the movement. Two years later, however, the journal ceased publication.

In 1841, Emerson published the first volume of his Essays, a carefully constructed collection of some of his best-remembered writings, including "Self-Reliance" and "The Over-Soul." A second series of Essays in 1844 would firmly establish his reputation as an authentic American voice.

Tragedy struck the Emerson family in January 1842 when Emerson's son, Waldo, died of scarlet fever. Emerson would later write "Threnody," an elegy expressing his grief for Waldo; the poem was included in his collection Poems (1846). Ellen, Edith, and Edward Waldo, his other children, survived to adulthood.

In 1847, Emerson again traveled abroad, lecturing in England with success. He renewed his friendship with Carlyle, met other notable English authors, and collected materials for English Traits, which was eventually published in 1856. A collection called Addresses and Lectures appeared in 1849, and Representative Men was published in 1850.

Emerson's later works were never so highly esteemed as his writings previous to 1850. However, he continued to lead an active intellectual and social life. He made many lecture appearances in all parts of the country, and he continued writing and publishing. During the 1850s, he vigorously supported the antislavery movement. When the American Civil War broke out, he supported the Northern cause, but the war troubled him: He was deeply appalled by the amount of violence, bloodshed, and destruction it engendered,

In 1866, Emerson was reconciled with Harvard, and a year later the college invited him to give the Phi Beta Kappa address. May-Day and Other Pieces, published in 1867, was a second gathering of his poems, and his later essays were collected in Society and Solitude (1870).

As he grew older, Emerson's health and mental acuity began to decline rapidly. In 1872, after his Concord home was badly damaged by fire, his friend Russell Lowell and others raised $17,000 to repair the house and send him on vacation. However, the trauma added to his intellectual decline.

In 1879, Emerson joined Amos Bronson Alcott and others in establishing the Concord School of Philosophy. He often lamented that he had "no new ideas" in his later years. He also had to quit the lecture circuit as his memory began to lapse.

Emerson died of pneumonia on April 27, 1882, and, announcing his death, Concord's church bells rang 79 times.

Chronology of Emerson's Life

1803 Born May 25 in Boston, Massachusetts, to the Reverend William and Ruth Haskins Emerson.

1811 Father dies May 12 of stomach cancer.

1812 Enters Boston Public Latin School; begins writing poetry.

1817 Enters Harvard College.

1821 Graduates from Harvard College in August; begins teaching at his brother William's School for Young Ladies.

1824 Dedicates himself to religious study.

1825 Leaves the School for Young Ladies and enters Harvard Divinity School.

1826 Becomes licensed to preach; fearing tuberculosis, he travels to Charleston, South Carolina, and later to St. Augustine, Florida.

1829 Is ordained pastor of the Second Unitarian Church of Boston; marries Ellen Tucker in September,

1831 Nineteen-year-old Ellen dies February 8 of tuberculosis.

1832-33 Resigns from Second Church and travels in Europe; visits Carlyle, Mill, Coleridge, and Wordsworth.

1833-34 Lectures on "The Uses of Natural History."

1835 Lectures on biography; meets Alcott and Fuller; marries Lydia Jackson.

1835-36 Lectures on "English Literature."

1836 Anonymously publishes Nature; first meeting of Transcendental Club; birth of first child, Waldo, on October 30.

1836-37 Lectures on "Philosophy of History."

1837 Delivers "The American Scholar" address before Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society.

1837-38 Lectures on "Human Culture."

1838 Delivers a controversial address before the senior class of Harvard Divinity School.

1838-39 Lectures on "Human Life."

1839 First daughter, Ellen, is born February 24.

1839-40 Lectures on "The Present Age."

1840 The transcendentalist journal The Dial first published.

1841 Publishes Essays: First Series; daughter Edith is born November 22.

1841-42 Lectures on "The Times."

1842 Son, Waldo, dies of scarlet fever; Emerson succeeds Margaret Fuller as editor of The Dial.

1844 Son, Edward Waldo, is born July 10; publishes Essays: Second Series.

1845-46 Lectures on "Representative Men."

1846 Publishes Poems in December.

1847-48 Second trip to Europe; visits Carlyle and other important literary figures.

1849 Publishes Nature; Addresses, and Lectures in September.

1850 Publishes Representative Men in January.

1853 Eighty-four-year-old mother dies.

1856 Publishes English Traits in August.

1862 Lectures on "American Civilization" in Washington, D.C.; meets President Lincoln.

1866 Receives honorary doctorate from Harvard.

1867 Publishes May-Day and Other Pieces in April.

1870 Publishes Society and Solitude in March; lectures on "Natural History of Intellect."

1872 Emerson's home burns.

1872-73 Third trip abroad.

1875 Publishes Letters and Social Aims in December.

1876 Publishes Selected Poems.

1882 Dies of pneumonia on April 27 and is buried in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.