Last reviewed: June 2018
American poet and essayist
May 25, 1803
April 27, 1882
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 25, 1803, and died in nearby Concord on April 27, 1882. Essayist, poet, and lecturer, Emerson was tremendously influential on American thought and literature. He influenced creative minds as various as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. He was the leader of Transcendentalism, an intuitional, religious, aesthetic, philosophical, and ethical movement. A tributary of European Romanticism, it proclaimed a theoretical and practical way of life and a new humanism based upon ancient classical and oriental supernaturalism. He maintained the “infinitude” or spiritual expansiveness of the individual person when divinely awakened. His early influences among philosophers were Plato, Plotinus, Bishop George Berkeley, and the Scottish philosophers; later, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Carlyle, Johann Gottfried Herder, Emanuel Swedenborg, the Methodists, Quakers, and certain Anglican divines; and still later, the writers of China, Persia, and India. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson graduated from Harvard University in 1821, taught school for a while, and then studied theology in Cambridge. Licensed as a Unitarian clergyman in 1826, he was pastor (1829-1832) of the Second Church, Boston, preaching memorable sermons that foreshadowed his future career as essayist. He resigned his pastorate in 1832, partly because of his desire to reach a larger audience and partly in protest against certain rites which seemed to him anachronistic in progressive “liberal Christianity.” (His arguments against the Lord’s Supper were largely drawn from a Quaker source.) Without prospects, in 1832 and 1833 he visited Europe to see Walter Landor, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle; upon his return he began a long career as public lecturer and moral philosopher in the recently launched lyceum movement.
By 1834 Emerson was settled in Concord, Massachusetts. There he launched the first of three memorable challenges in "Nature," published in 1836—a repudiation of both lukewarm Christianity and American materialism. It is a well-organized statement of his earliest idealism, showing the natural world to be a present messiah or viceregent of God, capable of developing the human soul and a mute teacher on the various levels of commodity, aesthetics, language, discipline, and spiritual illumination or mysticism. The final chapter contains a prophecy of humankind’s future or potential greatness on an earth transformed into a new Eden, sung by the “Orphic Poet.” (Coleridge’s distinction between the Reason and the Understanding and Swedenborg’s doctrine of the divine Influx were basic categories during this period.) The second challenge, his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address known as "The American Scholar," urged the abandonment of imitative pedantry and declared the United States’ literary and intellectual independence from England. The training of the man of letters should be primarily Nature (the mediator between God and man), he stated, and secondarily an active participation in life. Books, the preservers of tradition, he relegated to the scholar’s “idle times.” In the third challenge, his "Divinity School Address" in 1838, he proclaimed a God that is, in distinction to a God that has been, a God that speaks rather than one who has spoken in ancient times, openly renouncing traditional Christianity and its deification of Jesus. Herein he summarized his Transcendental or spiritual philosophy, already outlined in Nature, stressed the “impersoneity” of deity, and elevated the categorical imperative of Kantian morality. This decade of his life (1833-1843) was characterized by a militant subjectivity and by a lofty optimism regarding the possibilities of the individual, but the middle years brought doubts and conflicts which necessitated a tempering of his idealism and a shift from the inner world of Self to the objective world—to an increasing awareness of humankind’s animal inheritance and limitations.
Though still only a leitmotif, these viewpoints make their appearance in Essays: First Series and Essays: Second Series, which are condensations and revisions of earlier platform addresses—still, probably, his most popular works. Of these essays, “History” celebrates no chronology but rather an existential awareness in the individual soul of the ever-present Deity. “Self-Reliance” proclaims the God-in-man or Coleridgian Reason as the true Self in opposition to the brutish or animal Understanding that most people commonly exercise. (This doctrine of the true Self became the basis of Emerson’s lofty individualism and theory of democracy.) “Compensation” reveals an instantaneous spiritual judgment upon thoughts, acts, and conditions, illustrating the corresponding alterations or retributions taking place within the inner person. “The Over-Soul” and “Spiritual Laws” develop the doctrine of transcendent ultimate reality. In them Emerson explores the subtle manifestations or laws of spiritual phenomena. “Friendship” owes much to the Swedenborgian doctrines of Influx and the “hells” and to the doctrine of Quantum sumus, scimus (“Like only can know like”), proclaimed by Coleridge, who echoed the Neoplatonists of all ages. “The Poet” predicts Walt Whitman, who either read it in print or heard it as a lecture before the appearance of Leaves of Grass. (He addressed Emerson as “dear Master.”) In “The Poet,” Emerson wrote, “It is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem.” For Platonic Emerson, the poet is the only “complete man,” whereas most people are only half-men. The poet receives a greater flow of divine energy or power than other people; the poet alone is articulate enough to express in words his or her intuitions of eternal beauty. Expression, indeed, is the principal evidence of completeness. “Politics,” a practical application to the state of his doctrine of the individual, shows a keen awareness of American affairs in the midst of which the immortal soul or Self must be developed. Emerson wrote, “To educate the wise man the State exists, and with the appearance of the wise man the State expires.”
Emerson’s late works show an increasing acquiescence to the general state of things, less reliance on the Self, and greater trust in the Over-Soul, conceived of as existing outside and beyond the Self. His Poems appeared in 1847, supplemented by May-Day, and Other Pieces twenty years later. Representative Men: Seven Lectures, showing a philosophical indebtedness to Victor Cousin, may be interestingly contrasted with Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). Emerson’s visits to England in 1834 and 1847 provided rich observations for English Traits, published in 1856. The Conduct of Life, ending in the sublime prose of “Illusions,” reveals a developed humanism and a modest view of humanity’s melioration under the limitations imposed by freedom and fate. Society and Solitude marks a falling off. After Society and Solitude Emerson’s memory rapidly failed him, and his mental contact with the world became tenuous. He had the assistance of an editor or literary executor for Letters and Social Aims. James Elliot Cabot also supervised the posthumous Lectures and Biographical Sketches, Miscellanies, and Natural History of Intellect. In his late years, Emerson issued Parnassus (1874), an anthology of favorite English and American poems. His remarkable journals give insight into Emerson the human being. Many scholars feel that they provide the best portrayal of the American mind and genius during the nineteenth century.