As one of the most important authors in American history, Ralph Waldo Emerson is well known as the prominent as the leader of the transcendentalism movement. Also a distinguished American essayist and poet, Emerson was the first distinctively American author to influence European thought.
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 in 1826 was “approbated to preach” by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. Despite ill health, he delivered occasional sermons in churches of the Boston area. In 1829 he became minister of the Second Church (Unitarian) of Boston. In that same year he married Ellen Tucker, who died 17 months later. In 1832 Emerson resigned from his pastoral appointment after declaring that he had ceased to regard the Lord's Supper as a permanent sacrament and could not continue to administer it. On Christmas Day, 1832, he left the U.S. for a tour of Europe and stayed for some time in England, where he made the acquaintance of such literary notables as Walter Savage Landor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
, Thomas Carlyle
, and William Wordsworth. His meeting with Carlyle was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
On his return in 1833, Emerson settled in Concord, Massachusetts, and became active as a lecturer in Boston. His addresses, on such subjects as “The Philosophy of History,” “Human Culture
,” “Human Life,” and “The Present Age,” were based on material in his Journals (published posthumously, 1909-14), 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 views of life and at the same time voiced a plea for freedom of the individual from artificial restraints.
The next year Emerson applied these ideas to cultural and intellectual problems in his lecture “The American Scholar,” delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard; 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) included some of the most popular of all his works. It contained “History,” “Self-Reliance,” “Compensation,” “Spiritual Laws,” “Love,” “Friendship,” “Prudence,” “Heroism,” “The Over-Soul,” “Circles,” “Intellect,” and “Art.” The second series of Essays (1844) included “The Poet,” “Manners,” and “Character.” 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 the critic Margaret Fuller as editor. Emerson succeeded her as editor in 1842 and remained in that capacity until the paper failed in 1844. In 1846 his first volume of Poems was published (dated, however, 1847).
Emerson again went abroad in 1847 and lectured in England, where he was welcomed by Carlyle. Several of Emerson's lectures were later collected in the volume Representative Men (1850), a work reminiscent, on the whole, of Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840). Emerson's visit abroad produced a brilliant travel book, English Traits (1856). His Journals give evidence of his growing interest in national issues; 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. Although he did little writing after this time, and his mental powers declined, Emerson's reputation as a writer spread. Society and Solitude (1870) contained material he had been using on western lecture tours, and Parnassus (1874) was merely a collection of his favorite poems. His works also include Letters and Social Aims (1876) and Natural History of Intellect (1893). Emerson died in Concord on April 27, 1882.