The writer's father, William Emerson, a descendant of New England clergymen, was minister of the First Unitarian Church in Boston. Emerson's early years were filled with books and a daily routine of studious and frugal homelife. After his father's death in 1811, his eccentric but brilliant aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, became his confidante and stimulated his independent thinking. At Harvard (1817-21) he began recording his thoughts in the famous Journal. Poor health hindered his studies at the Harvard divinity school in 1825, and in 1826, after being licensed to preach, he was forced to go south because of incipient tuberculosis. In 1829 he became pastor of the Old North Church in Boston (Second Unitarian). In the same year he married Ellen Tucker, whose death from tuberculosis in 1831 caused him great sorrow.
Emerson's personal religious scruples and, in particular, his conviction that the Lord's Supper was not intended by Jesus to be a permanent sacrament led him into conflict with his congregation. In 1832 he retired from his only pastorate. On a trip to Europe at this time he met Carlyle (who became a close friend), Coleridge, and Wordsworth. Through these notable English writers, Emerson's interest in transcendental thought began to blossom. Other strong influences on his philosophy, besides his own Unitarian background, were Plato and the Neoplatonists, the sacred books of the East, the mystical writings of Swedenborg, and the philosophy of Kant. He returned home in 1834, settled in Concord, Mass. and married (1835) his second wife, Lydia Jackson.
During the early 1830s Emerson began an active career as writer and lecturer. In 1836 he published anonymously his essay Nature, based on his early lectures. It is in that piece that he first set forth the main principles of transcendentalism, expressing a firm belief in the mystical unity of nature. He attracted wide attention with "The American Scholar," his Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard in 1837, in which he called for independence from European cultural leadership. In his lecture at the Harvard divinity school in 1838, his admonition that one could find redemption only in one's own soul was taken to mean that he repudiated Christianity. This caused such indignation that he was not invited to Harvard again until 1866, when the college granted him an honorary degree.
In 1840 Emerson joined with others in publishing The Dial, a magazine intended to promulgate transcendental thought. One of the younger contributors to The Dial was Henry David Thoreau, who lived in the Emerson household from 1841 to 1843 and became Emerson's most famous disciple. The first collection of Emerson's poems appeared in 1847. In spite of his difficulty in writing structurally correct verse, he always regarded himself essentially as a poet. Among his best-known poems are "Threnody," "Brahma," "The Problem," "The Rhodora," and "The Concord Hymn."
It was his winter lecture tours, however, which dominated the American lecture circuit in the 1830s and first made Emerson famous among his contemporaries. These lectures received their final form in his series of Essays (1841; second series, 1844). The most notable among them are "The Over-Soul," "Compensation," and "Self-Reliance." From 1845-47 he delivered a series of lectures published as Representative Men (1850). After a second trip to England, in 1847, he gave another series of lectures later published as English Traits (1856). During the 1850s he became strongly interested in abolitionism, and he actively supported war with the South after the attack on Fort Sumter. His late lecture tours are contained in The Conduct of Life (1860) and Society and Solitude (1870). Though his last years were marked by a decline in his mental powers, his literary reputation continued to spread. Probably no writer has so profoundly influenced American thought as Emerson.
Emerson's son, Edward Waldo Emerson, 1844-1930, was a graduate of Harvard medical school. After his father's death he devoted himself to editing and to writing about the literary men of his father's generation. He was the editor of the Centenary edition (12 vol., 1903-4) of Emerson's works, and, with W. E. Forbes, of the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (10 vol., 1909-14).
See Emerson's letters (10 vol.; vol. I-VI ed. by R. L. Rusk, 1939; vol. VII-X ed. by E. M. Tilton, 1990-95); biographies by O. W. Holmes (1885), V. W. Brooks (1932), E. Wagenknecht (1974), G. W. Allen (1981), R. D. Richardson, Jr. (1995), and L. Buell (2003); studies by J. Bishop (1964), J. Porte (1966, repr. 1979), K. W. Cameron, ed. (1967), S. E. Whicher (2d ed. 1971), C. Baker (1995), K. S. Sacks (2003), and R. D. Richardson (2009).
Ralph Waldo Emerson, lithograph by Leopold Grozelier, 1859
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The final lines in the essay read as follows:
The essay played an instrumental role in the 1855 appearance of the first edition of Walt Whitman's collection of poems, Leaves of Grass. In the essay, Emerson expresses the need for the United States to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country's virtues and vices: