Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803-1882), American essayist and poet, a leader of the philosophical movement of transcendentalism. Influenced by such schools of thought as English romanticism, Neoplatonism, and Hindu philosophy. Emerson is noted for his skill in presenting his ideas eloquently and in poetic language.
Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 1829 he became minister of the Second Church (Unitarian) of Boston. That same year he married Ellen Tucker, who died 17 months later. In 1832 Emerson resigned from his pastoral appointment because of personal doubts about administering the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. On Christmas Day, 1832, he left the United States for a tour of Europe. He stayed for some time in England, where he made the acquaintance of such British literary notables as Walter Savage Landor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and William Wordsworth. His meeting with Carlyle marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
On his return to the United States in 1833, Emerson settled in Concord, Massachusetts, and became active as a lecturer in Boston. His addressesâ€’including “The Philosophy of History,” “Human Culture,” “Human Life,” and “The Present Age”â€’were based on material in his Journals (published posthumously, 1909-1914), 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.
Emerson applied these ideas to cultural and intellectual problems in his 1837 lecture “The American Scholar,” which he delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard. In it he called for American intellectual independence. 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.
Emerson again went abroad from 1847 to 1848 and lectured in England, where he was welcomed by Carlyle. His Journals give evidence of his growing interest in national issues, and on his return to America he became active in the abolitionist cause, delivering many antislavery speeches.
Emerson is remembered as one of the leading thinkers and poets of the transcendentalism movement. He remains one of America’s most popular poets.
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