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Ralph Waldo Emerson

1803 - 1882

The great forerunner to the New Thought Movement, or the man who did more than any other thinker of our time to prepare the popular mind to accept the new practical idealism and gospel of optimism, was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was the pioneer New World diffuser of metaphysical and transcendental thought and Oriental philosophy; and this great movement, along certain lines, is largely a concrete and practical application of his metaphysical generalizations and unfailing optimism. Indeed, it would be impossible to overestimate the broadening and illuminating influence on American thought exerted by Emerson. By nature a poet and spiritual philosopher, this one-time Unitarian clergyman had made an exhaustive study of Christian theological thought. He was ever broad-visioned and open-minded, ever looking for the good in the literature of aspiration. In this respect he strikingly resembled the great Mohammedan, Akbar, who welcomed to his court scholars of all faiths, encouraging them to present their religious concepts; and when the Mohammedan zealots remonstrated with him, he refused to yield to the narrow-minded sectarians, saying in substance what Tennyson thus beautifully clothes in verse:

"There is light in all,
And light with more or less of shade,
In all man's modes of worship."

The German transcendental philosophy held special charm for Emerson, and from it he turned to Plato, the greatest of all metaphysical philosophers of olden times. Plato became his Bible for a time and was ever one of his chief sources of inspiration. But another rich mine of speculative philosophy awaited him. When the "Bhagavad Gita" fell into his hands he experienced far greater pleasure than is known to the gold seeker, who suddenly after long and weary searching, comes upon a rich lode. The "Bhagavad Gita" appealed to Emerson with compelling power. In Emerson's writings the metaphysical thought of India, Greece, and modern transcendentalism were fused.

* * * * * * *

A short biographical sketch of Ralph Waldo Emerson

by Joel Porte


This passage and these images of Emerson, are from
Joel Porte's Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time. (Oxford University Press: 1979.)

1803 -1836

Born in Boston on Election Day, the 25th of May, 1803, Ralph Waldo Emerson was the fourth child of William and Ruth Haskins Emerson. His mother was the daughter of a successful distiller; his father was a liberally inclined minister, pastor of Boston's Oldest church (the First). Ralph's paternal grand-father, also named William, built the Old Manse at Concord and was himself a minister and graduate of Harvard College (1761); known for his ardent patriotism, he died, aged thirtythree, at Ticonderoga, where he had gone to serve as chaplain to the army. The Emerson line could claim descent in America from the Reverend Peter Bulkeley, who left Bedfordshire, England, in 1634 and settled in Musketaquid (the original name of Concord).

Ralph, who lost his father when he was eight, seemed destined to continue the ministerial line, and passed in due course through Boston Latin School, Harvard College (1821), and a year of divinity studies at Harvard (which were interrupted by eye trouble). Approbated to preach in the fall of 1826, he became pastor of Boston's Second Church two and a half years later, but left that post in the fall of 1832 because he could no longer serve the Lord's Supper (communion) in good conscience.

This disturbance in Emerson's professional life was preceded by personal tragedy, the death from consumption in February, 1831, of his nineteen-year-old bride Ellen (Tucker). Critically in need of recuperation (he, too, had a "mouse" in his chest), Emerson sailed for Europe on December 25, 1832. He landed in Malta in early February and enthusiastically worked his way north through Italy, Switzerland, France, England, and Scotland. Eager to meet great men, he sought out Walter Savage Landor in Florence, saw Lafayette in Paris, and visited John Stuart Mill in London, Coleridge in Highgate, and Wordsworth at Rydal Mount. But the one lasting friendship he established was with Thomas Carlyle.

Returning to America in the fall of 1833, Emerson immediately initiated his new career as a lecturer with a series on science. He also continued to preach sporadically while he wrote more lectures and planned his first book, Nature (published in September, 1836). Emerson settled in Concord in the fall of 1834, married Lydia (whom he renamed Lidian) Jackson the following year, and became a householder. Their first son, Waldo, was born shortly after Nature made its appearance. Emerson had a new vocation, a family, and the expectation of about $1200 in annual income from the settlement of his First wife's estate.

1836-1839

Emerson had lost his brother Edward to tuberculosis in the fall of 1834, and his especially beloved youngest brother, Charles Chauncy, followed the same grim path in May, 1836, leading Emerson to feel that a "gloomy epoch" was beginning in his own life (indeed, a year later, his lungs too brought the threat of severe ill-health). But there were in fact many compensations.

Apart from the publication of Nature and the birth of Waldo, 1836 brought Margaret Fuller, and probably Henry Thoreau, into Emerson's orbit. He was succeeding as a lecturer ("The Philosophy of History" series in the wirnter of 1836-37 was followed the next year by "Human Culture" and in 1838-39 by "Human Life"). Though the country fell into deep economic trouble in 1837, Emerson had the good fortune to receive the second installment of the Tucker estate in July of that year, bringing his invested capital to around $22,000. On August 31 he delivered "The American Scholar" address at Harvard (which Holmes called "our intellectual Declaration of Independence") and afterward had the pleasure of hearing himself toasted as "The Spirit of Concord" who "makes us all of One Mind."

By the following summer, the genial agreement disappeared when Emerson read the Divinity School Address, his controversial thrust at the Unitarian establishment, on July 15. Reviled as a heretic, Emerson was probably relieved to get out of town about a week later, when he traveled to Dartmouth to deliver an oration later entitled "Literary Ethics." His own spirits were deeply affected by the storm he caused, and there followed a period of intense self-examination and reflection.

But the die was cast. Emerson was no longer to be a sometime minister and amateur literatus but a professional lecturer and writer committed to the free expression and dissemination of new ideas. He reviewed his eventful revolutionary year in his lecture "The Protest" on January 16, 1839, and four days later preached his last sermon at Concord. Emerson's first daughter was born at this time. Named Ellen Tucker, after his first wife, she never married and served as Emerson's guide and support in old age.

1839-1847

Emerson continued to lecture in the winter of 1839-40 ("The Present Age") and drew a good audience and financial return, notwithstanding the continuing hard times. He supported the Whigs against the incumbent Van Buren in the election of 1840, despite their weak candidate and foolish slogan ("Tippecanoe and Tyler too"), probably because he thought his investments would be more secure with the Democrats out of office.

In July, 1840, Emerson and Margaret Fuller brought out the first number of The Dial, fervently hoping that it would "be one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics." Fuller would bear the main editorial responsibility until 1842; Emerson would then continue until the demise of the journal two years later. His First book of Essays appeared early in 184I and extended his reputation as a free-thinker (his Aunt Mary considered it a "strange medly of atheism and false independence").

In the summer, Emerson journeyed to Waterville College in Maine to deliver one of his most intense and orphic orations, "The Method of Nature," proclaiming ecstasy and metamorphosis as the ruling principles of the universe. Emerson's second daughter, Edith, was born in November, and one month later, on December 23, he expounded his "new views" to a Boston audience in "The Transcendentalist." Concord mourned the death of Henry Thoreau's brother John on January 12, 1842, but just over two weeks later, Emerson had a more severe and private grief to bear when his little Waldo was carried off by scarlet fever.

It was a devastating blow from which he never quite recovered, comprehending "nothing of this fact but its bitterness." On his death bed forty years later, he would exclaim, "Oh that beautiful boy." A Second son, Edward, was born in July, 1844, but Emerson's vision seemed permanently darkened by Waldo's death. In the second series of Essays, published in October, 1844, Emerson exposed his benumbed state in "Experience" and expatiated on the "Fall of Man." In the winter of 1845-6 he lectured on "Representative Men" and identified closely with the disillusioned and skeptical Montaigne. "Threnody," a moving elegy to the lost boy, appeared in Poems, published at the end of 1846.

1847-1882

Restless and badly in need of stimulation, Emerson set sail for Europe a second time in October, 1847, leaving his family in the able hands of Henry Thoreau. A substantial amount of fame (indeed, notoriety) prececed him, and his lectures in England and Scotland were well-attended and generally well-received. Both Emerson and Carlyle tried hard to transform their warn epistolary friendship into a new reality, but sharp differences of temperament and opinion stood ineluctably between them. Emerson met many notables and crossed the Channel to spend an eventful month in revolutionary Paris. He returned home, by way of Liverpool, on July 27, 1848.

In English Traits (1856) he would praise that great preserve of Anglo-Saxondom ambiguously, suggesting that the strength of the race might well be shifting to "the Alleghany ranges." Publication of Representative Men at the beginning of 1850 was overshadowed by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Outraged, Emerson called it a "filthy enactment" and vowed not to "obey it, by God." In the summer of 1850, he dispatched Thoreau to Fire Island to search for effects of the drowned Margaret Fuller. Emerson lectured widely in the 1850's, traveling as far as St. Louis.

The Conduct of Life was published in 1860. Emerson was much agitated by the coming of the Civil War, and eventually looked forward to it as a cleansing fire. Initially put off by Lincoln's apparent lack of refinement, Emerson mourned him after his death as the "father of his country." In 1866 Harvard honored the former heretic with the Doctor of Laws degree, and he was elected overseer of the college the following year. In 1871 he traveled to San Francisco with his daughter Edith and her husband William Forbes, and visited an opium den, where he looked upon the "stupefied Mongolians" with "serene eye" (as Forbes's father reported).

On the 24th of July, 1872, Emerson's house burned, and the event precipitated a sharp downturn in his health. In the fall, he went abroad with his daughter Ellen, traveling to Europe and Egypt, and returned just after his seventieth birthday to a cheering crowd and a restored home. But his gentle decline into aphasia had begun. He died on April 27, 1882. Standing by his grave nine days later, Whitman, noted: "A just man, poised on himself, all-loving, all-inclosing, and sane and clear as the sun."

The following writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson may be read online:

Essays: First Series (1841)
Essays: Second Series (1844)
Man the Reformer
Nature
Representative Men
The Method of Nature
The Conduct of Life
English Traits
The American Scholar
Divinity School Address

The following books by Ralph Waldo Emerson is available to purchase in eBook form for immediate download. It may then be read on your computer and printed out. The eBooks are in Adobe Acrobat Reader (.pdf) format.

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Essays: First Series (1841)

Essays: Second Series (1844)


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The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Portable Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson : Essays and Lectures (Library of America)
The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843-1871
Ralph Waldo Emerson : Collected Poems and Translations (Library of America)
Self-Reliance : The Wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson As Inspiration for Daily Living
Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1849-1855
Essays and Poems: Everyman's Library
Nature : Walking (The Concord Library)
Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Representative Men


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