Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Transcendentalist poet and essayist who struggled with religious doctrine, tuberculosis, and poverty, but eventually triumphed with the help of family, friends, and his own belief in individualism.
Every mind must make its choice between truth and repose. It cannot have both.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Rev. William Emerson and Ruth Haskins Emerson. He had seven siblings, four of whom survived into adulthood. His father and many other male family members were clergymen; everyone assumed Ralph would continue the tradition.
Young Emerson suffered from skin problems, perhaps eczema, which he referred to as "salt rheum." A doctor recommended curative baths, which Emerson's father took to an extreme, forcing him to swim in salt water even though he was afraid of the depths. Before long, Emerson developed an extreme fear of water and resentment toward his father.
In 1811, when Emerson was seven, his father died of stomach cancer. The family was left with little money. From that point on Emerson was raised by his mother and other women in the family. He once said, "Men are what their mothers made them."
He spent much of his time isolated from other children. He once offered to aid a woodsman on the family's property by doing the grunting for him. His aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, encouraged him to develop his imagination and independent thought.
Emerson began his formal schooling at the Boston Latin School when he was nine, then at age fourteen he enrolled at Harvard College. He worked as a waiter and a teacher to cover his expenses. He began keeping a journal and a list of books he had read; he served as Class Poet in his senior year. Around this time he decided to be known by his middle name, Waldo. He graduated in 1821, in the middle of his class.
After graduation, Emerson assumed the role of director at his brother's School for Young Ladies. In 1826, he was licensed as a minister, then he traveled to South Carolina and Florida to write poetry and seek relief from the troublesome symptoms of tuberculosis. In 1829, he was ordained to Boston's Second Church.
In that same year he married eighteen-year-old Ellen Tucker, who also wrote poetry and suffered from tuberculosis. Emerson's mother helped to care for his young bride, but Ellen died at the age of twenty. Emerson once said, "The first wealth is health." Sadly, tuberculosis robbed many of Emerson's contemporaries of that first wealth.
Emerson was forced to file a lawsuit against his wife's family in order to inherit her estate.
During his wife's illness, Emerson began having doubts about his faith and the antiquated practices of his church. He resigned from the clergy in 1832 and later wrote, "The faith that stands on authority is not faith."
Transcendentalism and The Lecture Circuit
During a trip to Europe in the early 1830s, Emerson met Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth; while there he embraced Transcendentalism.
The Transcendentalists believed that the individual could transcend the physical world into spirituality by simple intuition, rather than through formal religious instruction. They believed in the unity of man and nature, the basic goodness of people, and an internal understanding of God.
In 1833, Emerson returned to the United States and began to lecture on matters of spirituality and ethics. He refined many of these lectures into essays for publication.
Emerson moved to Concord, Massachusetts in 1834, where he joined with other Transcendentalists, including Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Amos Bronson Alcott. Soon the Transcendental Club was formed. The group, which also included Frederic Henry Hedge, George Putnam, and George Ripley, often met at Emerson's home.
Emerson once wrote, "I have thought a sufficient measure of civilization is the influence of good women." Before long, the Transcendental Club expanded to include them. Early attendees were Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Hoar, and Sarah Ripley.
Emerson married a young woman named Lydia Jackson in 1835, then asked her to change her name to Lidian. Emerson felt that "Lydia" was too common, and that "Lidian" connoted classical roots and musicality. He also sometimes called his second wife "Queenie" or "Asia." She, in turn, called her husband "Mr. Emerson." The couple had four children, including a daughter named Ellen, in memory of Emerson's deceased first wife.
Emerson published his first major essay, "Nature," in 1836 - anonymously. The essay outlined the basic philosophy of Transcendentalism, departing from traditional religious and social beliefs of the day. Emerson put forth the theory that truth and divinity could be discovered by observing nature. He wrote, "Nature is the incarnation of thought. The world is the mind precipitated." In the same essay, he asked, "What is a farm but a mute gospel?" The small book did not sell well, even though it is now considered to be the first important work about the Transcendentalist movement.
Another book penned by Emerson, "The American Scholar," published in 1937, sold much better. It was based on a speech in which Emerson encouraged Americans to develop their own style, distinct from their European contemporaries. He said, "We have listened too long to the courtly Muses of Europe."
Around this time, Emerson met Henry David Thoreau and inspired him to start keeping a journal. Thoreau looked upon Emerson as a mentor and father figure, even looking after Emerson's family when he was away on the lecture circuit. Emerson eventually financed Thoreau's journey of self-discovery at Walden Pond, on land he purchased with money earned from speaking.
Emerson was invited to speak at his alma mater, Harvard's Divinity School, in 1838. His lecture, which encouraged the discovery of faith by intuition, caused outrage among Protestants. He said, "As we are, so we associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell." Labeled an atheist by some, as a result of this speech, Emerson was not invited to speak again at Harvard for thirty years.
Emerson and Margaret Fuller founded "The Dial" in 1840. This journal, which featured Transcendentalist literature, was published regularly until 1844. Emerson and Fuller also published translations of Buddhist and Hindu texts. Asian thought confirmed Emerson's belief in the unity of all things.
In 1841, Emerson published his most famous work, "Self-Reliance," as part of a collection of essays. He wrote, "Whosoever would be a man, must be a nonconformist" and "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
Many of Emerson's friends were abolitionists, and he spoke out against slavery as he grew older. He said, "I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom." Emerson believed that slavery should and would be abolished by democratic means. He also believed that a civil war could be a means to a national rebirth. Emerson supported Abraham Lincoln's campaign for the presidency, but wished he would focus more on the abolition of slavery, less on the preservation of the Union.
Emerson also spoke for the rights of Native Americans and for educational reform.
Emerson came to be known as the "Sage of Concord" after a lifetime of lecturing and publishing his essays. By the 1870s, however, he was suffering from memory lapses and aphasia.
In "Society and Solitude," published in 1870, Emerson wrote, "A man builds a fine house; and now he has a master, and a task for life: he is to furnish, watch, show it, and keep it in repair, the rest of his days." Sadly, Emerson's home was destroyed by fire in 1872. His wife went to live with family members. Emerson's friends sent him abroad with his daughter, Ellen, after the fire; then, without his knowledge, they rebuilt his house and reconstructed his library. They surprised him upon his return.
By 1879, Emerson stopped making public appearances, due to his increased memory loss. Eventually he forgot his own name. Once, when a friend asked him how he was doing, Emerson responded, "I have lost my mental faculties but am perfectly well."
Emerson died on April 27, 1882, after catching pneumonia during a rainy walk in the woods of Concord. He was buried on Poets' Knoll in Sleepy Hollow cemetery.
Ralph Waldo Emerson broke away from his Unitarian roots to explore other schools of thought, including Hindu theology. He eventually became the central figure in America's Transcendentalist movement.
He believed that man could discover the truth about God and nature within himself. Emerson said, "In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man."