Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay, Nature. As a result of this ground breaking work he gave a speech entitled The American Scholar in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. considered to be America's "Intellectual Declaration of Independence". Emerson once said "Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you."
Considered one of the great orators of the time, Emerson's enthusiasm and respect for his audience enraptured crowds. His support for abolitionism late in life created controversy, and at times he was subject to abuse from crowds while speaking on the topic, however this was not always the case. When asked to sum up his work, he said his central doctrine was "the infinitude of the private man."
The young Ralph Waldo Emerson's father, who called his son "a rather dull scholar", died from stomach cancer on May 12, 1811, less than two weeks short of Emerson's eighth birthday. Emerson was raised by his mother as well as other intellectual and spiritual women in his family, including his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, who had a profund impact on the young Emerson. She lived with the family off and on and maintained a constant correspondence with Emerson until her death in 1863.
Emerson's formal schooling began at the Boston Latin School in 1812 when he was nine. In October 1817, at 14, Emerson went to Harvard College and was appointed freshman messenger for the president, requiring Emerson to fetch delinquent students and send messages to faculty. Midway through his junior year, Emerson began keeping a list of books he had read and started a journal in a series of notebooks that would be called "Wide World". He took outside jobs to cover his school expenses, including as a waiter for the Junior Commons and as an occasional teacher working with his uncle Samuel in Waltham, Massachusetts. By his senior year, Emerson decided to go by his middle name, Waldo. Emerson served as Class Poet and, as was custom, presented an original poem on Harvard's Class Day, a month before his official graduation on August 29, 1821, when he was 18. He did not stand out as a student and graduated in the exact middle of his class of 59 people.
Boston's Second Church invited Emerson to serve as its junior pastor and he was ordained on March 11, 1829. He began to disagree with the church's methods, writing in his journal in June 1832: "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers". His disagreements with church officials over the administration of the Communion service and misgivings about public prayer eventually led to his resignation in 1832. As he wrote, "This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it".
Emerson met his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, in Concord, New Hampshire and married her when she was 18. The couple moved to Boston, with Emerson's mother Ruth moving with them to help take care of Ellen, who was already sick with tuberculosis. Less than two years later, Ellen died at the age of 20 on February 8, 1831, after uttering her last words: "I have not forgot the peace and joy". Emerson was heavily affected by her death, often visiting her grave. In a journal entry dated March 29, 1831, Emerson wrote, "I visited Ellen's tomb and opened the coffin".
Emerson toured Europe in 1832 and later wrote of his travels in English Traits (1856). He left aboard the brig Jasper on Christmas day, sailing first to Malta. During his European trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle in particular was a strong influence on Emerson; Emerson would later serve as an unofficial literary agent in the United States for Caryle. The two would maintain correspondence until Caryle's death in 1881.
Emerson returned to the United States on October 9, 1833, and lived with his mother in Newton, Massachusetts until November 1834, when he moved to Concord, Massachusetts to live with his step-grandfather Dr. Ezra Ripley at what was later named The Old Manse. In 1835, he bought a house on the Cambridge and Concord Turnpike in Concord, Massachusetts, now open to the public as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House, and quickly became one of the leading citizens in the town. He married his second wife Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, Massachusetts, in her home town on September 14, 1835. He called her Lidian and she called him Mr. Emerson. Their children were Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward Waldo Emerson. Ellen was named for his first wife, at Lidian's suggestion.
Emerson lived a financially conservative lifestyle. He had inherited some wealth after his wife's death, though he brought a lawsuit against the Tucker family in 1836 to get it. He received $11,674.79 in July 1837. Around this time, he had enough money to pay the rent of his neighbor Bronson Alcott.
Emerson and other like-minded intellectuals founded the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement. Its first meeting was held on September 19, 1836. The group did not publish its journal, The Dial, until July 1840. Emerson anonymously published his first essay, Nature, in September 1836. A year later, on August 31, 1837, Emerson delivered his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa address, "The American Scholar", then known as "An Oration, Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge"; it was renamed for a collection of essays in 1849. In the speech, Emerson declared literary independence in the United States and urged Americans to create a writing style all their own and free from Europe. James Russell Lowell, who was a student at Harvard at the time, called it, "an event without former parallel on our literary annals".
In 1838 Emerson was invited into Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School, for the school's graduation address, which came to be known as his Divinity School Address. Emerson discounted Biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. His comments outraged the establishment and the general Protestant community. For this, he was denounced as an atheist, and a poisoner of young men's minds. Despite the roar of critics, he made no reply, leaving others to put forward a defense. He was not invited back to speak at Harvard for another thirty years, but by the mid-1880s his position had become standard Unitarian doctrine.
In January 1842, Emerson lost his first son, Waldo, to scarlet fever. Emerson wrote of his grief in the poem "Threnody", and the essay "Experience". In the same year, William James was born, and Emerson agreed to be his godfather.
In the 1840s Emerson was hospitable to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family, and appears to have heavily influenced Hawthorne during these three years.
Emerson made a living as a popular lecturer in New England and the rest of the country outside of the South. During several scheduled appearances he was not able to make, Frederick Douglass took his place. Emerson spoke on a wide variety of subjects. Many of his essays grew out of his lectures. He charged between $10 and $50 for each appearance, bringing him about $800 to $1,000 per year.
Emerson associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau and often took walks with them in Concord. Emerson encouraged Thoreau's talent and early career. The land on which Thoreau built his cabin on Walden Pond belonged to Emerson. While Thoreau was living at Walden, Emerson provided food and hired Thoreau to perform odd jobs. When Thoreau left Walden after two years' time, it was to live at the Emerson house while Emerson was away on a lecture tour. Their close relationship fractured after Emerson gave Thoreau the poor advice to publish his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, without extensive drafts, and directed Thoreau to his own agent who made Thoreau split the price/risk of publishing. The book found few readers, and put Thoreau heavily into debt. Eventually the two would reconcile some of their differences, although Thoreau privately accused Emerson of having drifted from his original philosophy, and Emerson began to view Thoreau as a misanthrope. Emerson's eulogy to Thoreau is largely credited with the latter's negative reputation during the 19th century.
Emerson was noted as being a very abstract and difficult writer who nevertheless drew large crowds for his speeches. The heart of Emerson's writing were his direct observations in his journals, which he started keeping as a teenager at Harvard. The journals were elaborately indexed by Emerson. Emerson went back to his journals, his bank of experiences and ideas, and took out relevant passages, which were joined together in his dense, concentrated lectures. He later revised and polished his lectures for his essays and sermons.
He was considered one of the great orators of the time, a man who could enrapture crowds with his deep voice, his enthusiasm, and his egalitarian respect for his audience. His outspoken, uncompromising support for abolitionism later in life caused protest and jeers from crowds when he spoke on the subject, however this was not always the case. He continued to speak on abolition without concern for his popularity and with increasing radicalism. He attempted, with difficulty, not to join the public arena as a member of any group or movement, and always retained a stringent independence that reflected his individualism. He always insisted that he wanted no followers, but sought to give man back to himself, as a self-reliant individual.
In 1845, Emerson's journals show he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and Henry Thomas Colebrooke's Essays on the Vedas. Emerson was strongly influenced by the Vedas, and much of his writing has strong shades of nondualism. One of the clearest examples of this can be found in his essay "The Over-soul":
Emerson was introduced to Indian philosophy when reading the works of French philosopher Victor Cousin.
In February 1852, Emerson and James Freeman Clarke and William Henry Channing edited an edition of the works and letters of Margaret Fuller, who had died in 1850. Within a week of her death, her New York editor Horace Greeley suggested to Emerson that a biography of Fuller, to be called Margaret and Her Friends, be prepared quickly "before the interest excited by her sad decease has passed away". Published with the title The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Fuller's words were heavily censored or rewritten. The three editors were not concerned about accuracy; they believed public interest in Fuller was temporary and that she would not survive as a historical figure. Even so, for a time, it was the best-selling biography of the decade and went through thirteen editions before the end of the century.
Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, Emerson's was losing his memory. By the end of the decade, he forgot his own name at times and, when anyone asked how he felt, he responded, "Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well".
Emerson's Concord home caught fire on July 24, 1872; Emerson called for help from neighbors and, giving up on putting out the flames, all attempted to save as many objects as possible. The fire was put out by Ephraim Bull, Jr., the one-armed son of Ephraim Wales Bull. Donations were collected by friends to help the Emersons rebuild, including $5,000 gathered by Francis Cabot Lowell, another $10,000 collected by LeBaron Russell Briggs, and a personal donation of $1,000 from George Bancroft. The fire marked an end to Emerson's serious lecturing career; from then on, he would lecture only on special occasions and only in front of familiar audiences.
While the house was being rebuilt, Emerson took a trip to England, the main European continent, and Egypt. He left on October 23, 1872, along with with his daughter Ellen while his wife Lidian spent time at the Old Manse and with friends.
On April 19, 1882, Emerson went walking and was suddenly caught in the rain, exacerbating an apparent cold. Two days later, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He died on April 27, 1882. Emerson is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. When placed in his coffin, he wore a white robe given by American sculptor Daniel Chester French.
There is evidence suggesting that Emerson was bisexual. During early years at Harvard, he found himself 'strangely attracted' to a young freshman named Josh Gay about whom he wrote sexually charged poetry. Gay would be only the first of his infatuations and interests, with Nathaniel Hawthorne numbered among them.
In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom repeatedly refers to Emerson as "The prophet of the American Religion," which in the context of the book refers to indigenously American and gnostic-tinged religions such as Mormonism, Christian Science, and Seventh Day Adventism that arose largely in Emerson's lifetime.
Emerson's "Collected Essays: First (1841) and Second (1844) Series," including his seminal essays on "History," "Self-Reliance," "Compensation," "Spiritual Laws," "Love," "Friendship," "Prudence," "Heroism," "The Over-soul," "Circles," "Intellect," and "Art" in the first and "The Poet," "Experience," "Character," "Manners," "Gifts," "Nature," "Politics," and "Nominalist and Realist" in the second, is often considered to be one of the 100 greatest books of all time.
In May 2006, 168 years after Emerson delivered his "Divinity School Address," Harvard Divinity School announced the establishment of the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship. Harvard has also named a building, Emerson Hall (1900), after him.