Ondertexts
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Search

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson Ralph Waldo Emerson[1†]

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leading figure in the transcendentalist movement, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1803. He championed individualism and critical thinking, influencing generations of thinkers. Emerson's philosophy, expressed in essays like "Nature" and "The American Scholar," emphasized the connection between nature and the soul. His work, including "Essays: First Series" and "Essays: Second Series," profoundly impacted American literature, earning praise from figures like Nietzsche and Whitman[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts[1†][2†]. He was one of six children[1†][3†]. His father, Reverend William Emerson, was a Unitarian clergyman and a friend of the arts[1†][2†]. The family of his mother, Ruth Haskins, was strongly Anglican[1†][2†]. Emerson’s father passed away when he was just eight years old[1†][3†][4†]. His mother supported the family by renting out rooms in their house[1†][3†].

Emerson’s education began early. Before he was three, his father had complained that he did not yet read very well[1†][4†]. He entered the Boston Public Latin School at the age of 12[1†][2†], where his literary gifts were recognized and his juvenile verses were encouraged[1†][2†]. At age 14, Emerson went to Harvard College (later Harvard University), where he began his journals, which may be the most remarkable record of the “march of Mind” to appear in the United States[1†][2†]. He graduated four years later[1†][3†].

Emerson’s aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, took her duties seriously and played a significant role in his intellectual development after his father’s death[1†][2†]. She was a profound influence on him and even lived with his family during Emerson’s early childhood[1†][2†].

Emerson’s early exposure to a diverse set of religious influences, from his father’s Unitarianism to his mother’s Anglicanism, and his aunt’s intellectual rigor, played a crucial role in shaping his philosophical and religious views[1†][2†].

Career Development and Achievements

After graduating from Harvard University in 1821, Emerson took a job as a teacher[5†]. He studied at the Harvard Divinity School, continuing his journal and other writings[5†]. In 1826, he began his career as a Unitarian minister[5†]. He was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1829[5†][6†][5†]. However, his questioning of traditional doctrine led him to resign the ministry three years later[5†][6†].

Emerson formulated his philosophy in “Nature” (1836), which helped initiate New England Transcendentalism[5†][6†]. He soon became the leading exponent of this movement[5†][2†][6†]. His work, “Nature”, along with his essays “Self-Reliance”, “The Over-Soul”, “Circles”, “The Poet”, and “Experience”, made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson’s most fertile period[5†][1†]. These works represent the core of his thinking[5†][1†].

Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but developing certain ideas such as individuality, freedom, the ability for mankind to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world[5†][1†]. His “nature” was more philosophical than naturalistic[5†][1†]. He is one of several figures who "took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting views of God as separate from the world"[5†][1†].

Emerson is also well known as a mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau, a fellow transcendentalist[5†][1†]. He remains among the linchpins of the American romantic movement[5†][1†], and his work has greatly influenced the thinkers, writers, and poets that followed him[5†][1†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first major work was a slim volume titled “Nature”, published in 1836[1†]. This work laid the foundation for the philosophy of Transcendentalism, a belief system that espoused a non-traditional appreciation of nature[1†][7†].

Emerson’s first two collections of essays, “Essays: First Series” (1841) and “Essays: Second Series” (1844), represent the core of his thinking[1†][8†]. These collections include some of his most famous essays:

In 1850, Emerson published “Representative Men”, which consists of biographies of historical figures[1†][6†]. His most mature work, “The Conduct of Life” (1860), reveals a developed humanism and a full awareness of human limitations[1†][6†].

Here is a more detailed list of his main works:

Emerson’s works have greatly influenced the thinkers, writers, and poets that followed him[1†]. His philosophy of transcendentalism and his emphasis on individuality, freedom, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world have left a lasting legacy[1†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work is characterized by powerful imagery that supports the ideas expressed in his prose[10†]. His writings often reflect a distinct, undeniable love for nature and the sublime[10†][11†]. He believed that all enlightenment of human nature, all knowledge, and the relationship between God and humans, transcends through nature[10†][11†].

Emerson’s philosophy of transcendentalism, as expressed in his essays and lectures, posits that no human ever makes true contact with reality and instead only skates on the surface, seeing reality from his or her own perspective and not as it is in itself[10†][12†]. This perspective is evident in his essay “Nature”, where he philosophically considers the universe as composed of Nature and the Soul[10†].

Emerson’s reformulation of religious concepts, such as his use of terms like “Oversoul” or “Power” when referring to God, is a significant aspect of his work[10†]. His writings acknowledge the existence and force of evil, adding depth and complexity to his philosophical views[10†].

Despite producing a comparatively small amount of poetry and an even smaller number of first-rate poems, Emerson stands as a major influence on the subsequent course of American poetry[10†]. As a scholar, critic, and poet, Emerson was the first to define the distinctive qualities of American verse[10†].

Emerson’s broad and exalted concept of the poet—as prophet, oracle, visionary, and seer—was shaped by his Romantic idealism[10†]. His influence extends beyond his writings, as his thoughts and ideas have shaped American literature and philosophy[10†].

Personal Life

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s personal life was marked by both joy and tragedy. He fell in love and married Ellen Tucker in 1829[13†]. However, his happiness was short-lived as his young wife died less than two years later[13†]. This event emotionally devastated Emerson[13†].

Emerson’s personal life was also marked by the deaths of his son and brothers, which tested his persistence and seemingly unflappable energy[13†][14†]. Despite these personal tragedies, Emerson continued to advocate for "practical power"[13†][14†].

In 1835, Emerson married Lidian Jackson[13†][1†][2†]. The couple had four children together, and their marriage lasted until Emerson’s death in 1882[13†][1†][2†].

Emerson’s personal life, like his professional one, was characterized by a constant quest for knowledge and understanding. Despite the personal tragedies he faced, Emerson remained committed to his beliefs and continued to influence others through his writings and lectures[13†][1†][2†][13†][14†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s legacy is one of profound influence and enduring relevance. His ideas, expressed in original metaphors and exquisite phrases, laden with references to classical and modern philosophy and thought, sometimes baffled but often uplifted his audience[15†]. Emerson’s ideas are still relevant in our modern era[15†].

Emerson’s influence was far-reaching then, and continues to be now. Not only a writer, lecturer, and abolitionist, he helped advocate for women’s and Native American rights[15†][16†]. His profound thoughts continue to touch lives all throughout the world[15†][16†].

Emerson’s declining years were marked by a long, slow decline, but he was well taken care of due, in large measure, to his devoted, unmarried daughter, Ellen who continued to live in the family home and who helped her father publish his final works[15†][17†]. When “The Sage of Concord” died in his sleep on April 27, 1882, he was seventy-nine years old[15†][17†].

Emerson’s best words still ring with authenticity; they remind us of the hopes of our Founding Fathers for a robust nation of diverse individuals, pursuing life, liberty, equality, and happiness; they still speak to the issues and dilemmas of our personal lives and our troubled times; they still stir us to seek out what is true and beautiful in the world[15†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Ralph Waldo Emerson [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Ralph Waldo Emerson: American author [website] - link
  3. Britannica Kids - Ralph Waldo Emerson [website] - link
  4. Britannica Kids - Ralph Waldo Emerson [website] - link
  5. Encyclopedia of World Biography - Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography [website] - link
  6. Britannica - Ralph Waldo Emerson summary [website] - link
  7. TheTopTens - Just a moment... [website] - link
  8. Harvard University Press - Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume II: Essays: First Series [website] - link
  9. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - - The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson [website] - link
  10. eNotes - Ralph Waldo Emerson Analysis [website] - link
  11. Gradesfixer - Analysis of Emerson’s "Nature" [website] - link
  12. LitCharts - Ralph Waldo Emerson Character Analysis in Experience [website] - link
  13. ThoughtCo - Ralph Waldo Emerson: American Transcendentalist Writer and Speaker [website] - link
  14. Georgetown University - Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) [website] - link
  15. The Home of Ralph Waldo Emerson - A Strong Legacy [website] - link
  16. Ralph Waldo Emerson - Legacy [website] - link
  17. Harvard Square Library - Emerson’s Declining Years & Legacy [website] - link
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 4.0; additional terms may apply.
Ondertexts® is a registered trademark of Ondertexts Foundation, a non-profit organization.