Though Ralph Waldo Emerson’s origins were promising, his path to eminence was by no means easy. He was born in Boston on May 25, 1803, of a fairly well-known New England family. His father was a prominent Boston minister. However, young Emerson was only 8 when his father died and left the family to face hard times.
The genteel poverty which the Emerson family endured did not prevent it from sending the promising boy to the Boston Latin School, where he received the best basic education of his day. At 14 he enrolled in Harvard College. As a scholarship boy, he studied more and relaxed less than some of his classmates. He won several minor prizes for his writing. When he was 17, he started keeping a journal and continued it for over half a century.
Emerson was slow in finding himself. After graduation from Harvard he taught at the school of his brother William. Gradually he moved toward the ministry. He undertook studies at the Harvard Divinity School, meanwhile continuing his journal and other writing. In 1826 he began his career as a Unitarian minister. Appropriately, Unitarianism was the creed of the questioner; in particular it questioned the divine nature of the Trinity. Emerson received several offers before an unusually attractive one presented itself: the junior pastorship at Boston’s noted Second Church, with the promise that it would quickly become the senior pastorship. His reputation spread swiftly. Soon he was chosen chaplain of the Massachusetts Senate, and he was elected to the Boston School Committee.
Emerson’s personal life flowered even more than his professional one, for he fell in love, deeply in love, for the only time in his life. He wooed and won a charming New Hampshire girl named Ellen Tucker. Their wedding, in September 1829, marked the start of an idyllic marriage. But it was all too short, for she died a year and a half later, leaving Emerson desolate. Though he tried to find consolation in his religion, he was unsuccessful. As a result, his religious doubts developed. Even the permissive creed of Unitarianism seemed to him to be a shackle. In September 1832 he resigned his pastorate; according to his farewell sermon he could no longer believe in celebrating Holy Communion.
Emerson’s decision to leave the ministry was the more difficult because it left him with no other work to do. After months of floundering and even sickness, he scraped together enough money to take a 10-month tour of Europe. He hoped that his travels would give him the perspective he needed. They did, but only to the extent of confirming what he did not want rather than what he wanted.
However, the times were on Emerson’s side, for he found on his return to America that a new institution was emerging that held unique promise for him. This was the lyceum, a system of lecturing which started in the late 1820s, established itself in the 1830s, and rose to great popularity during the next 2 decades. The local lecture clubs that sprang up discovered that they had to pay for the best lecturers, Emerson among them. Emerson turned the lyceum into his unofficial pulpit and in the process earned at least a modest stipend. He spoke to his audiences with great, if unorthodox, effectiveness.
They saw before them a tall, thin Yankee with slightly aquiline features whose words sometimes baffled but often uplifted them. After a few seasons he organized his own lecture courses as a supplement to his lyceum lectures. For example, during the winter of 1837-1838 he offered the Boston public a group of 10 lectures on “human culture” and earned more than $500. Equally to the point, his lectures grew into essays and books, and these he published from the early 1840s on.
As a transcendentalist, Emerson spoke out against materialism, formal religion, and slavery. He could not have found targets better designed to offend the mass of Americans, most of whom considered making money a major purpose in life and church and churchgoing a mainstay and, until they faced the hard fact of the Civil War, either supported slavery or were willing to let it alone. But Emerson spoke of slavery in the context of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), saying, in one of his rare bursts of profanity, “I will not obey it, by God.”
Emerson, however, was not merely against certain things; he both preached and exemplified a positive doctrine. He became America’s leading transcendentalist; that is, he believed in a reality and a knowledge that transcended the everyday reality Americans were accustomed to. He believed in the integrity of the individual: “Trust thyself,” he urged in one of his famous phrases. He believed in a spiritual universe governed by a mystic Over-soul with which each individual soul should try to harmonize. Touchingly enough, he believed in America. Though he ranked as his country’s most searching critic, he helped as much as anyone to establish the “American identity.” He not only called out for a genuinely American literature but also helped inaugurate it through his own writings. In addition, he espoused the cause of American music and American art; as a matter of fact, his grand purpose was to assist in the creation of an indigenous American national culture.
His first two books were brilliant. He had published a pamphlet, Nature, in 1836, which excited his fellow transcendentalists; but now he issued two volumes of essays for a broader public, Essays, First Series, in 1841 and Essays, Second Series, in 1844. Their overarching subjects were man, nature, and God. In such pieces as “Self-reliance,” “Spiritual Laws,” “Nature,” “The Poet,” and “The Over-soul,” Emerson expounded on the innate nobility of man, the joys of nature and their spiritual significance, and the sort of deity omnipresent in the universe. The tone of the essays was optimistic, but Emerson did not neglect the gritty realities of life. In such essays as “Compensation” and “Experience,” he tried to suggest how to deal with human losses and failings.
Whether he wrote prose or verse, Emerson was a poet with a poet’s gift of metaphor. Both his lectures and his published works were filled from the first with telling phrases, with wisdom startlingly expressed. His next book, after the second series of essays, was a volume of his poems. They proved to be irregular in form and movingly individual in expression. After that came more than one remarkable volume of prose. In Representative Men: Seven Lectures (1850) Emerson pondered the uses of great men, devoting individual essays to half a dozen figures, including Plato, Shakespeare, and Goethe. English Traits (1856) resulted from an extended visit to Great Britain. In this volume Emerson anatomized the English people and their culture. His approach was impressionistic, but the result was the best book by an American on the subject up to that time.
Meanwhile, Emerson had been immersed—sometimes willingly, sometimes not—in things other than literature. He had found a second wife, pale and serene, in Lydia Jackson of Plymouth. He had married her in 1835 and got from her the comfort of love, if not its passion. They had four children, one of whom, Waldo, died when he was a little boy; the others outlived their eminent father. As Emerson’s family life expanded, so did his friendships. After leaving his pastorate in Boston, he had moved to nearby Concord, where he stayed the rest of his life. In Concord he met a prickly young Harvard graduate who became his disciple, friend, and occasional adversary: Henry David Thoreau. Emerson added others to his circle, becoming as he did so the nexus of the transcendentalist movement. Among his close friends were Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, and Theodore Parker.
Emerson’s public life also expanded. During the 1850s he was drawn deeply into the struggle against slavery. Though he found some of the abolitionists almost as distasteful as the slaveholders, he knew where his place had to be. The apolitical Emerson became a Republican, voting for Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863), Emerson counted it a momentous day for the United States; when Lincoln was killed, Emerson considered him a martyr.
After the Civil War, Emerson continued to lecture and write. Though he had nothing really new to say anymore, audiences continued to throng his lectures and many readers bought his books. The best of the final books were Society and Solitude (1870) and Letters and Social Aims (1876). However, he was losing his memory and needed more and more help from others, especially his daughter Ellen. He was nearly 79 when he died on April 27, 1882.
America mourned Emerson’s passing, as did much of the rest of the Western world. In the general judgment, he had been both a great writer and a great man. Certainly he had been America’s leading essayist for half a century. And he had been not only one of the most wise but one of the most sincere of men. He had shown his countrymen the possibilities of the human spirit, and he had done so without a trace of sanctimony or pomposity. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, exclaimed, “How rare he was; how original in thought; how true in character!” Some of the eulogizing was extravagant, but in general the verdict at the time of Emerson’s death has been upheld.