Ralph Waldo Emerson Life and Background of Emerson


Ralph Waldo Emerson — essayist, poet, lecturer, philosopher, Unitarian minister, and central figure among the American Transcendentalists — was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803. He was the fourth of eight children born to the Reverend William Emerson (1769–1811), pastor of the First Church in Boston, and Ruth Haskins Emerson (1768–1853). Emerson's roots in both Concord and in the ministry were deep. On his father's side, his ancestry extended back to early colonial Massachusetts, to the Reverend Peter Bulkeley (1583–1659), a Puritan who had come from England and, in 1635, became a founder and the first minister of Concord. Bulkeley's granddaughter had married the Reverend Joseph Emerson, son of Thomas, a settler in coastal Ipswich, Massachusetts. Joseph's grandson Joseph, also a minister, was the father of William Emerson, Ralph Waldo's grandfather. William Emerson (1743–1776), minister of the First Parish in Concord, had gone to Fort Ticonderoga in New York to serve as chaplain of the Revolutionary army, became ill, and died before he could return to Concord. Ralph Waldo Emerson's maternal grandfather was successful Boston merchant John Haskins (1729–1814), a cooper and distiller.

William Emerson and Ruth Haskins were married on October 25, 1796. Their eight children were: Phebe Ripley (1798–1800); John Clarke (1799–1807); William (1801–1868); Ralph Waldo (1803–1882); Edward Bliss (1805–1834); Robert Bulkeley (1807–1859); Charles Chauncy (1808–1836); and Mary Caroline (1811–1814). William and Ruth Emerson paid careful attention to both the religious and the intellectual development of their children, and provided a stable early home life for them. William, a liberal minister with a taste for literary activity, encouraged scholarship as well as religious devotion in his sons. He was a sociable man, well-respected in the community. His public position brought frequent visitors to the Emerson home. Ruth Haskins was a pious woman who met the various demands placed upon her as the wife of a prominent man and as a mother. The Emersons lost their first child, Phebe Ripley, in 1800. Their second child, John Clarke, died in 1807 from tuberculosis — a constant, looming threat in the nineteenth century, and one that repeatedly touched Ralph Waldo Emerson's life. From childhood, Emerson was close to his brothers William, Edward Bliss, and Charles Chauncy. Robert Bulkeley (called Bulkeley) was mentally retarded. His condition and care concerned his brothers until his death, in 1859.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's world was radically altered in 1811, when his father died, leaving Mrs. Emerson to support and raise the young family on her own. Although she managed to care for and to educate her sons, financial insecurity quickly became a fact of life. The First Church granted her a stipend for a time, as well as the use of the parish house. Mary Moody Emerson (1774–1863), William Emerson's unmarried sister, stayed with the family for several months after her brother's death, and returned again later. A woman of strong religious devotion and intellect, conservative in some ways and liberal in others, opinionated, unafraid to express herself either face-to-face or in her letters, she was a powerful influence on Emerson and his brothers. Her correspondence with him in the 1820s helped to inform his Transcendentalism.

The Emerson brothers stayed in Concord from time to time during their childhood. The Reverend Ezra Ripley, who had married Phebe Bliss Emerson, the widow of Revolutionary minister William Emerson, was their step-grandfather. When in Concord, Ralph Waldo stayed at the Old Manse, Ripley's home, and formerly the home of their grandfather William Emerson. From November 1814 until the following spring, the entire Emerson family lived at the Manse. (Their temporary relocation was prompted by fear of a possible British attack on Boston during the War of 1812, and by high prices in the city.) Ezra Ripley shared his extensive knowledge of Concord history with the Emerson boys, and gave them a sense of their ancestors' importance in the town. In Concord, they had the opportunity to experience both small-town life and the pleasures of nature. Having returned to Boston in 1815, Mrs. Emerson took in boarders to keep her household financially afloat. The family moved frequently, but Ruth Emerson, encouraged by her sister-in-law Mary Moody Emerson, steadfastly applied herself to providing her sons with an education that reflected the standards, the values, and the aspirations of her late husband.

Emerson's education began in Boston, at dame school (a school for small children, in which the basics were taught by a woman in her own home). He then attended grammar school. In 1812, he entered the Boston Public Latin School, where his studies included Latin and Greek. He simultaneously attended a separate writing school. After the family's 1814–1815 stay in Concord, Emerson read extensively on his own in the spring of 1815 and returned to Boston Latin in the fall. He was a serious, though unremarkable, student.

Ralph Waldo Emerson entered Harvard College in 1817 as president's freshman, or orderly, a position that helped pay his way through college and that required him to serve as messenger for Harvard's president, John Kirkland. He also tutored and later served as a waiter in the junior commons, and during college vacations taught in Waltham, Massachusetts, in the college preparatory school kept by the Reverend Samuel Ripley (son of Ezra Ripley) and his learned wife Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley.

Emerson's Harvard curriculum included Latin, Greek, English, rhetoric, history, mathematics, and modern languages. Emerson read English philosopher John Locke as part of his formal studies. A middling student, he read widely on his own. Shakespeare, Montaigne, Swift, and Byron were among the authors he selected independently of his class work. His Harvard teachers included George Ticknor in modern languages, Edward Everett in Greek, and Edward Tyrrel Channing in English composition. (In 1815, Ticknor and Everett had traveled to Europe and studied at the University of Göttingen, where they were exposed to the German literature and thought that would become so important to the New England Transcendentalists.) Emerson was a member of Harvard's Pythologian Club (a literary society). He won a prize for an essay on Socrates and graduated from Harvard in 1821.

The first surviving journal volume kept by Emerson dates from his college years. (His manuscript journals are located in the Houghton Library of Harvard University.) He kept a journal until 1875, when declining health and diminished intellect made it impossible for him to continue. As with Thoreau's journal, Emerson's journal entries became the basis for his lectures, essays, and books. They were sufficiently developed that Emerson sometimes extracted passages just as they were for use in lecture or publication. He indicated his awareness of the value of his journals to his thought and writing in the first entry he made in the volume for 1837, in which he described his journal as his "savings' bank," to be drawn upon in future endeavors. Although maintained over a longer period of time than Thoreau's journal, Emerson's is not nearly as extensive as Thoreau's. Emerson was less inclined than Thoreau to regard journalizing as an end in itself.

After graduating from Harvard, Emerson taught in the Boston school for girls kept by his brother William in their mother's home. He felt himself ill suited to the work and did not enjoy it, but he continued because he needed to contribute toward the education of his younger brothers, Edward and Charles. In 1823, William left to study theology at Göttingen, leaving Waldo (the name that he had decided in college that he preferred) to keep school alone. Shortly before his twenty-first birthday, Emerson decided that he would devote himself to the ministry. His decision was not an unexamined one. He had already expressed doubts about formal religion and his personal fitness to preach it. Nevertheless, he entered the Harvard Divinity School in 1825. Almost immediately, poor health interrupted his studies and, along with the need to continue teaching in order to earn money, prevented him from taking a degree. In 1826, however, he was approbated to preach, and delivered his first sermon in Waltham.

Having decided against a career in the ministry, William Emerson had returned from Göttingen in 1825. In 1826, William and Edward (who, beset by health problems, had in 1825 also gone to Europe) began to study law — William as an apprentice in a New York law office, Edward in Daniel Webster's Boston office. Waldo's health again declined. Showing symptoms of tuberculosis, he traveled south in 1826, to Charleston, South Carolina, and St. Augustine, Florida, to regain his health. He worked on sermons and developed a friendship with Achille Murat, a nephew of Napoleon and an atheist. His health improved, he returned to Boston in 1827 and served as a supply preacher to parishes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

In 1827, while in Concord, New Hampshire, Emerson fell in love with Ellen Louisa Tucker, daughter of the late Beza Tucker, a successful Boston merchant. Ellen, considered beautiful, was an intelligent, confident girl, a writer of poetry, and the love of Emerson's life. She, like Emerson, was also tubercular. In March of 1829, Emerson became pastor of the Unitarian Second Church of Boston. He had been asked to serve as the colleague of the ailing Reverend Henry Ware, whom he soon succeeded. Emerson was generally well-liked by his congregation, which appreciated the weekly sermons that he delivered with directness and simplicity. The necessity of producing sermons on a regular schedule fostered discipline in writing, and the delivery of these sermons honed Emerson's skills in public speaking. But preaching also forced Emerson uncomfortably to consider how much church doctrine he truly accepted. At the same time, he became aware that he possessed a certain emotional aloofness that made it difficult for him to deal with some of the personal interactions required of a pastor. Nevertheless, at this point his prospects for a long career in the ministry were promising. In September of 1829, when Ellen's precarious health seemed stable, the two were married.

Emerson's pastoral salary and the likelihood of prosperity through Ellen's inheritance from her father gave Emerson a new, welcome financial security. He bought books for his personal library and enjoyed the benefits of urban life, including a subscription to the Boston Athenaeum and access to the Harvard College Library and the Boston Library Society. He read Aristotle, Plato, Montaigne, and British Romantic writers Coleridge and Carlyle, among other authors. Coleridge made a particularly deep impression on him. At the same time, Emerson's life expanded in other ways. He accepted roles in public life that never interested his future friend Henry David Thoreau. In 1829, Emerson was chaplain of the Massachusetts Senate, in 1830 and 1831 a member of the Boston School Committee. Later, when he moved to Concord, he would assume an important place in community life. Moreover, in 1863, he would serve on the West Point Board of Visitors, and from 1867 to 1879 as an overseer at Harvard.

In December of 1830, Emerson's brother Edward, also tubercular, sailed to Puerto Rico in search of a more healthful climate. Emerson's wife, Ellen Tucker Emerson, died on February 8, 1831, at the age of nineteen. Emerson was desolate, but quickly returned to his duties at the Second Church. After Ellen's death, he had an increasingly difficult time pushing back the doubts that he had long felt about orthodox Christianity. In the summer of 1832, Emerson wrote a letter to his church, recommending the observation of the Lord's Supper (the communion) as a remembrance rather than a sacrament, and asking to discontinue the use of bread and wine. The church rejected his proposal. On September 9, 1832, Emerson delivered a sermon in which he explained his position and resigned from his pastorate.

Still grieving for Ellen, shaken by Edward's condition, and exhausted by the soul-searching that had led to his resignation, Emerson sailed for Europe on December 25, 1832. He arrived at Malta, traveled through Italy, visited Paris, and headed for England and Scotland. The trip opened his eyes to the world and provided opportunities to meet people who stimulated and influenced him. He met English writer Walter Savage Landor in Florence, American sculptor Horatio Greenough in Rome, Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth in England, and Thomas Carlyle — with whom he developed a lasting friendship and correspondence — in Scotland. Emerson arrived back in the United States in October of 1833.

On his return, he served as a supply minister in various Unitarian parishes — a practice that he continued for years — and took up a new career as a lecturer, an occupation that engaged him for over four decades. The rise of the lyceum in America fortuitously coincided with Emerson's need to find a new occupation. Lecturing allowed him to draw on skills that he had developed as a preacher, gave him scope to refine ideas on God, man, and nature that he had been pondering, and fostered expression of his literary aspirations. Moreover, it provided an income. He delivered his "Uses of Natural History" in Boston in November 1833, proclaiming, "The whole of Nature is a metaphor or image of the human mind." Shortly thereafter, he lectured "On the Relation of Man to the Globe." Years of reading, thinking, and journalizing were shaping a new understanding of man's place in the universe, which the lecture platform permitted him to develop more fully and to clothe in powerful, suggestive vocabulary and style. The influence of his reading — he was stimulated by the German philosophers, Goethe, Plato, the Neoplatonic writers, eastern sacred books, the English Romantics, the Swedish mystic Swedenborg, Montaigne, and others — converged and reacted with his Unitarian background and were distilled into his own particular brand of visionary idealism as he readied his thoughts for public presentation. He delivered lectures (which he read to his audiences) on a range of subjects — among them history, Italy, and great men (including Michelangelo, Martin Luther, and John Milton). He presented a lecture series titled "The Philosophy of History," "Human Culture," and "The Present Age." And he found success. Audiences were ready to hear what Emerson had to say.

Having established himself as a lecturer and looking forward to a literary career, Emerson settled in Concord, the home of his ancestors, a place that offered peace and access both to nature and to the advantages of Boston. In October of 1834, just two weeks after Edward's death in Puerto Rico, Emerson and his mother moved into the Old Manse as Ezra Ripley's boarders. While living at the Manse, Emerson worked at writing Nature, which upon publication in 1836 would unleash a period of intense expression of Transcendental thought, and reaction to it.

Emerson quickly became Concord's most prominent citizen, a man respected and beloved by his townsmen. Along with his Concord heritage, his characteristic humility and inclination to deal with others directly and kindly, no matter what their station in life, made residents of the town feel that he was truly one of them. He delivered his first public address in the town on September 12, 1835, the two hundredth anniversary of Concord's incorporation. (The manuscript of the address is now in the Concord Free Public Library.) In 1837, Emerson's poem "Concord Hymn," written at the request of the town, was sung at the dedication of a monument erected near the site of the North Bridge to commemorate the Concord Fight of April 19, 1775. Over the years, he served the town as a Sunday school teacher in the First Parish, through its lyceum, as a member of its School Committee and Library Committee, and through attendance at town meetings (a form of local democratic government that he appreciated). He also made Concord a destination for pilgrims who hoped to meet one of the most recognized men in America.

On September 14, 1835, two days after his civic debut at Concord's bicentennial celebration, Emerson married Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and brought her back to Concord to live in the home (called "Bush") that he had bought on the Cambridge Turnpike. He and Lidian (Emerson changed her name to prevent the final "a" from turning into "er" through local pronunciation) had a relatively stable, happy married life, although it lacked the intensity of Emerson's first marriage. Lidian was a spiritual and intellectual woman. Their relationship was based on mutual respect and upon shared love and concern for their children. The second Mrs. Emerson understood and accepted how deeply her husband had cared for his first wife, but at times she had difficulty coping with his emotional aloofness and with his absences from the household while on lecture tours and trips. The Emersons had four children: Waldo (1836–1842); Ellen Tucker (1839–1909; named for Emerson's first wife); Edith (1841–1929; later Mrs. William H. Forbes); and Edward Waldo (1844–1930).

The year 1836 was one of the most eventful in Emerson's life. His younger brother Charles, a lawyer, had become engaged in 1835 to Elizabeth Hoar, daughter of well-known Concord lawyer Samuel Hoar and sister of Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, George Frisbie Hoar, and Edward Sherman Hoar. Intelligent, learned, and widely respected, Elizabeth Hoar was always welcome in the Emerson home. In May of 1836, Charles Emerson died of tuberculosis — a severe blow to his fiancée and to the Emersons. Emerson was restored in October, when Lidian gave birth to their first child, Waldo. In the same year, he met Transcendental thinkers Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott. Alcott, who later became a neighbor, was a friend until Emerson's death in 1882. In 1836, Emerson also wrote the preface to an American edition of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. Moreover, Emerson's own Nature was published by James Munroe in September of the year. While hardly a popular success, Nature was taken seriously by those who, like the author himself, sought new insights to replace dogma, convention, and received wisdom. With the publication of Nature, both Emerson's reputation as a thinker and Transcendentalism as a movement gained momentum. Shortly after Nature appeared, a group gathered at George Ripley's home in Boston at the urging of Frederic Henry Hedge, "for the free discussion of theological & moral subjects." The first meeting of the informal "Transcendental Club" included Ripley, Hedge, Emerson, Alcott, Orestes Brownson, James Freeman Clarke, and Convers Francis. Later meetings included Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Thoreau, and others. The club met until 1840, providing opportunity for the exchange of ideas and leading to the establishment of The Dial.

The Dial, named by Bronson Alcott, was issued between July of 1840 and April of 1844. Margaret Fuller was its first editor; Emerson took over from Fuller in 1842. He was a major contributor of poems, essays, and reviews to the magazine throughout its four-year run. Although The Dial did not circulate widely, it was nevertheless important as a stimulus to and medium for Transcendental thought. Aside from Fuller and Emerson, contributors included Bronson Alcott, Lydia Maria Child, James Russell Lowell, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Henry David Thoreau, and Jones Very.

Nature was followed in quick succession by two other major expressions of Transcendentalism, Emerson's "American Scholar" address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard (1837) and his "Divinity School Address" before the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School (1838). "The American Scholar," referred to by Oliver Wendell Holmes as "our intellectual Declaration of Independence," called for a new American thought based on intellectual self-reliance rather than the thought of the past. Published in 1837, it was well received. In "The "Divinity School Address," Emerson deplored the lack of vigor and meaning in established religion and urged men to form a more direct, individual understanding of God. "The Divinity School Address," also published the year it was delivered, was defended by those sympathetic to Transcendental thought and denounced by more conservative members of the Unitarian clergy and by biblical scholar and Harvard Divinity School professor Andrews Norton. (Norton's Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity was published in 1839.) As a result of "The Divinity School Address," Emerson was not welcome at Harvard for decades.

Emerson tried to remain above the controversy that "The Divinity School Address" generated. He continued lecturing and began to pull together his first collected edition of essays, which was published by Munroe in Boston under the title Essays in March of 1841. It was also issued by James Fraser in London, with a preface by Thomas Carlyle, in the same year, a fact that indicates the degree of recognition that Emerson had achieved by this time. The volume met with mixed reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. It was described in the New York Review for April 1841 as "a godless book" that the reviewer was inclined to censure both for its theology and its philosophy, a book in that "the meditative and wise man may find ambrosial food, but which will prove poison to the simple and undiscerning." A reviewer for the English Literary Gazette for September 25, 1841, stated that Essays "out-Carlyles Carlyle himself, exaggerates all his peculiarities and faults, and possesses very slight glimpses of his excellences." Although the reviews were mixed, Emerson's work was acknowledged as significant. His Essays: Second Series was published by Munroe in October of 1844 and in London by John Chapman in November of that year. This volume reinforced Emerson's reputation both in America and abroad. For the remainder of his life, even after his creative spark had died, he enjoyed a position of preeminence among American thinkers and men of letters.

By the late 1830s, Emerson had befriended Henry David Thoreau, who had returned to Concord after graduating from Harvard in 1837. In 1841, the younger man joined the Emerson household as a handyman, in which capacity he took care of things that the well-known, much-demanded, and distinctly unhandy Emerson could not. In his biography of his father written for the Second Series of Memoirs of Members of the Social Circle in Concord (1888), Edward Waldo Emerson recalled Thoreau's stable presence, his usefulness about the house and garden, and his particular rapport with children. Whatever distance eventually came between Emerson and Thoreau, Thoreau's friendship was always valued by Mrs. Emerson and her children. Thoreau lived with the Emersons until 1843, and returned to look after things while Emerson made his second trip to Europe, in 1847 and 1848. In 1844, Emerson offered Thoreau the use of property he had purchased at Walden Pond, where Thoreau moved in 1845. In January of 1842, shortly after the death of Thoreau's brother John, the Emersons' first child Waldo died of scarlet fever. The Emersons were overwhelmed with grief. With time, Emerson was able to come to terms with his loss. He later wrote the poem "Threnody" in honor of Waldo.

In the 1830s, Concord was already sensitive to the issue of slavery, but Emerson's involvement in abolition grew slowly. Concord residents took an active part in the Middlesex County Anti-Slavery Society, established in 1834. The Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society of Concord was formed in 1837; Lidian Emerson belonged to it from the beginning. Other members of Emerson's family (his aunt Mary Moody Emerson and his brother Charles) also openly expressed antislavery sentiment in the 1830s. Emerson delivered his first antislavery address in Concord in 1837, in response to the murder of abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois. But his speech disappointed many. It focused not so much on the wrong of slavery as on the right of free speech. It took time for him to overcome equivocal feelings about abolition. He was committed to the ideas of the central importance and the dignity of the individual, but he had difficulty overcoming a sense that slaves had not displayed evidence of a potential for full development. Moreover, like Thoreau, Emerson believed that reform could be effected only through the individual, not through organized movements. Following the delivery of his 1837 speech, Emerson did not speak publicly on the subject again until 1844. He was moved to action only by the steady unfolding of events that, in their threat to the individual and to conscience, could no longer be ignored. Emerson supported the choice of abolitionist Wendell Phillips as speaker for the Concord Lyceum in the early 1840s, despite the objections of conservative community members. By 1844, the annexation of Texas was imminent and Emerson was disgusted with the failure of government and political leaders like Daniel Webster to stop the spread of slavery. He consequently delivered a speech on August 1, 1844, at a Concord celebration of the anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies. This was much more powerful in its opposition to slavery than had been the 1837 speech, and it placed Emerson among effective public supporters of abolition. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 further fueled his antislavery activism. Throughout the 1850s, he spoke at abolition meetings around the country. He opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and supported radical abolitionist John Brown (whom he heard speak at the Concord Town Hall in February of 1857).

Emerson's renown as a lecturer drew him farther away from Concord each year. The railroad opened up the west in the 1840s and 1850s, and as it did, it expanded the lyceum circuit. Emerson had made his first train trip in England (between Manchester and Liverpool) in 1833. His career as a successful lecturer depended upon the railroad. The Fitchburg Railroad opened in Concord in 1844, making it faster and more convenient to get to Boston and, from there, to the rest of the country. Frequent travel and the discomforts of "life on the road" wore on him as he grew older.

In 1845, Emerson delivered a series of lectures on "Representative Men." Representative Men: Seven Lectures was published in Boston by Phillips, Sampson and in London by John Chapman in 1850. In December of 1846, Poems — his first volume of poetry — was published in Boston by Munroe and in London by Chapman (the title pages dated 1847). May-Day and Other Pieces, his second and final volume of poetry, appeared in 1867. Although his abilities as a poet have been variously assessed by contemporary and later commentators, Emerson, like Thoreau, attributed powerful possibilities of expression to poetry.

Emerson made his second trip abroad in 1847. Leaving Thoreau to look after his family, he sailed for Liverpool in October. Lecturing in Manchester, Liverpool, and London, he discovered that he had developed fame and a following in England since his first European trip (1832–1833). He saw Carlyle and Wordsworth again (Coleridge had died), spent time in the company of writers Harriet Martineau, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, James Anthony Froude, Thomas Babington Macaulay, and geologist Charles Lyell, and met many people active in literary and intellectual circles, politics, and other areas. He also visited Scotland and France. While at Edinburgh, Emerson sat for artist David Scott, who painted a well-known oil portrait (now in the Concord Free Public Library). In France, he visited Alexis de Tocqueville (French author of a book on American democracy) and English poet Arthur Hugh Clough. He returned home at the end of July 1848. In 1849, he lectured on England. His English Traits was published by Phillips, Sampson at Boston in 1856, in London by G. Routledge.

In 1852, the Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli was published. The book was written and edited by Emerson, William Henry Channing, and James Freeman Clarke. Fuller had gone to Italy, worked on a history of the Roman revolution of 1848–1849, and in 1850 boarded the ship Elizabeth to return to America with her Italian husband (the Marchese d'Ossoli) and their child. The ship was wrecked in a storm off Fire Island (New York). Thoreau searched for Fuller's body, in vain.

Along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louis Agassiz, and other prominent New England writers and thinkers, Emerson was a member of the Saturday Club, a literary and intellectual group that formed in 1854 and met monthly in Boston. In the late 1850s, he went with the Adirondack Club (an offshoot of the Saturday Club) to Follensby Pond and Big Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks, under the guidance of artist William James Stillman. (Stillman's painting of members of the club — including Emerson — at the "Philosophers' Camp" is held by the Concord Free Public Library.)

Emerson's influence on the thought and literature of his time was expressed in Walt Whitman's comment that as he was writing his Leaves of Grass, "I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil." In 1855, Whitman sent Emerson a copy of his newly published book of poems. Emerson responded with a letter acknowledging Whitman's promise, and recommended Leaves of Grass to friends and correspondents.

Emerson presented lectures early in 1851 on "The Conduct of Life." His Conduct of Life — consisting of essays based on the lectures — was published in Boston by Ticknor and Fields in 1860, in London by Smith, Elder. The Civil War began in 1861, and occupied Emerson's thoughts as well as those of the rest of the nation. During the 1860s, he began to be aware of the decline of his powers, and keenly to feel the loss of many people close to him. His mother had died in 1853, his brother Bulkeley in 1859. Thoreau died in 1862, his aunt Mary Moody Emerson in 1863, Hawthorne in 1864, his brother William in 1868. On a happier note, his daughter Edith had married William H. Forbes in 1865 and made him a grandfather in 1866. He continued lecturing and writing through the 1860s and beyond, but he no longer possessed his earlier intellectual vigor.

Harvard finally forgave Emerson for his 1838 "Divinity School Address" and invited him back in 1866 to receive an honorary degree, in 1867 to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa oration, and in 1870 to present a course of lectures (the "Natural History of Intellect"). Exhausted by his intense schedule and declining strength, Emerson journeyed to California in 1871 at the invitation of John Murray Forbes, Edith's father-in-law. He traveled by train, did some lecturing, and met naturalist John Muir on the trip. During the 1870s, he published two more collections of essays — Society and Solitude in 1870, Letters and Social Aims in 1876. He also edited an anthology of poetry under the title Parnassus (1875). He required substantial assistance from his daughter Ellen and from his biographer and literary executor James Elliot Cabot in putting together Parnassus and Letters and Social Aims.

As Emerson lectured early in the decade, his audiences grew painfully aware of the failure of his memory. His health and stability were shaken in July of 1872, when his house burned. He and Lidian were forced to move temporarily into the Old Manse. Friends and neighbors joined forces to finance a final trip to Europe to restore his health. In October of 1872, with Ellen as companion, Emerson sailed for England. He visited London, Paris, Florence, Rome, and Egypt and returned again to England, where he saw Carlyle for the last time and met John Ruskin and Robert Browning; he returned home in May of 1873. Emerson was greeted by a welcoming crowd at the Concord Depot and escorted back home to "Bush," which had been restored during his absence.

In Emerson in Concord (written for publication in the Memoirs of the Social Circle in Concord and also published separately), Edward Waldo Emerson movingly described the waning of his father's powers:

His last few years were quiet and happy. Nature gently drew the veil over his eyes; he went to his study and tried to work, accomplished less and less, but did not notice it. . . . As his critical sense became dulled, his standard of intellectual performance was less exacting, and this was most fortunate, for he gladly went to any public occasion where he could hear, and nothing would be expected of him.

Despite his progressive debilitation, Emerson held the respect of Concord until the end of his life. He died of pneumonia on April 27, 1882, one month before his seventy-ninth birthday. The church bell tolled seventy-nine times in his honor. People poured into Concord for Emerson's funeral on April 30. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, on Authors' Ridge. His death was widely mourned. James Elliot Cabot, his literary executor, and his son Edward Waldo Emerson edited his writings after his death.

Emerson and Thoreau both expressed Transcendental idealism and optimism in their writings. But despite the radicalism of some of his ideas, in his life and in much of his work Emerson embraced society, civilization, and the heritage of the past far more than Thoreau was able to do. Emerson was a man of the world as well as a man of the mind and spirit. He was born to a certain social position and to certain expectations, and he sought to do his duty by them. It grieved him to reject the traditions of the religion in which he had been raised and to sever his ties with the Second Church in Boston. He followed his intellect and his conscience, but not without awareness of the tension between life and philosophy. The unity of Thoreau's life and his art was far greater than that of Emerson's. Ironically, Emerson's less perfect synthesis, his more worldly pragmatism, allowed him to achieve greater recognition and respect during his lifetime than did Thoreau and, consequently, more immediately to advance the idealism and individuality to which both of these major Transcendental thinkers were committed.