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Ralph Waldo Emerson


A short biographical sketch of Ralph Waldo Emerson

by Joel Porte

This passage and these images of Emerson, are from
Joel Porte's Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time. (Oxford University Press: 1979.)

1803 -1836

Born in Boston on Election Day, the 25th of May, 1803, Ralph Waldo Emerson was the fourth child of Williamand Ruth Haskins Emerson. His mother was the daughter of a successful distiller; his father was a liberally inclined minister, pastor of Boston's Oldest church (the First). Ralph's paternal grand-father, also named William, built the Old Manse at Concord and was himself a minister and graduate of Harvard College (1761); known for his ardent patriotism, he died, aged thirtythree, at Ticonderoga, where he had gone to serve as chaplain to the army. The Emerson line could claim descent in America from the Reverend Peter Bulkeley, who left Bedfordshire, England, in 1634 and settled in Musketaquid (the original name of Concord). Young Emerson

Ralph, who lost his father when he was eight, seemed destined to continue the ministerial line, and passed in due course through Boston Latin School, Harvard College (1821), and a year of divinity studies at Harvard (which were interrupted by eye trouble). Approbated to preach in the fall of 1826, he became pastor of Boston's Second Church two and a half years later, but left that post in the fall of 1832 because he could no longer serve the Lord's Supper (communion) in good conscience.

This disturbance in Emerson's professional life was preceded by personal tragedy the death from consumption, in February, 1831, of his nineteen-year-old bride Ellen (Tucker). Critically in need of recuperation (he, too, had a "mouse" in his chest), Emerson sailedfor Europe on December 25, 1832. He landed in Malta in early February and enthusiastically worked his way north through Italy, Switzerland, France, England, and Scotlalzd. Eager to meet great men, he sought out Walter Savage Landor in Florence, saw Lafayette in Paris, and visited John Stuart Mill in London, Coleridge in Highgate, and Wordsworth at Rydal Mount. But the one lasting friendship he established was with Thonas Carlyle.

Returning to America in the fall of 1833, Emerson immediately initiated his new career as a lecturer with a series on science. He also continued to preach sporadically while he wrote more lectures and planned his first book, Nature (published in September, 1836). Emerson settled in Concord in the fall of 1834, married Lydia (whom he renamed Lidian) Jackson the following year, and became a householder. Their first son, Waldo, was born shortly after Nature made its appearance. Emerson had a new vocation, a family, and the expectation of about $1200 in annual income from the settlement of his First wife' estate.


Emerson had lost his brother Edward to tuberculosis in the fall of 1834, and his especially beloved youngest brother, Charles Chauncy, followed the same grim path in May, 1836, leading Emerson to feel that a "gloomy epoch" was beginnig in his own life (indeed, a year later, his lungs too brought the threat of severe ill-health). But there were in fact many compensations.Middle-Age Emerson

Apart from the publication of Nature and the birth of Waldo, 1836 brought Margaret Fuller, and probably Henry Thoreau, into Emerson's orbit. He was succeeding as a lecturer ("The Philosophy of History" series in the wirnter of 1836-37 was followed the next year by "Human Culture" and in 1838-39 by "Human Life"). Though the country fell into deep economic trouble in 1837, Emerson had the good fortune to receive the second installment of the Tucker estate in July of that year, bringing his invested capital to around $22,000. On August 31 he delivered "The American Scholar" address at Harvard (which Holmes called "our intellectual Declaration of Independence") and afterward had the pleasure of hearing himself toasted as "The Spirit of Concord" who "makes us all of One Mind."

By the following summer, the genial agreement disappeared when Emerson read the Divinity School Address, his controversial thrust at the Unitarian establishment, on July 15. Reviled as a heretic, Emerson was probably relieved to get out of town about a week later, when he traveled to Dartmouth to deliver an oration later entitled "Literary Ethics." His own spirits were deeply affected by the storm he caused, and there followed a period of intense self-examination and reflection.

But the die was cast. Emerson was no longer to be a sometime minister and amateur literatus but a Professional lecturer and writer committed to the free expression and dissemination of new ideas. He reviewed his eventful revolutionary year in his lecture "The Protest" on January 16, 1839, and four days later preached his last sermon at Concord. Emerson's first daughter was born at this time. Named Ellen Tucker, after his first wife, she never married and served as Emerson's guide and support in old age.


Emerson continued to lecture in the winter of 1839-40 ("The Present Age") and drew a good audience and financial return, notwithstanding the continuing hard times. He-supported the Whigs against the incumbent Van Buren in the election of 1840, despite their weak candidate and foolish slogan ("Tippecanoe and Tyler too"), probably because he thought his investments would be more secure with the Democrats out of office.Older Emerson

In July, 184O, Emerson and Margaret Fuller brought out the first number of The Dial, fervently hoping that it would "be one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics." Fuller would bear the main editorial responsibility until 1842; Emerson would then continue until the demise of the journal two years later. His First book of Essays appeared early in 184I and extended his reputation as a free-thinker (his Aunt Mary considered it a "strange medly of atheism and false independence").

In the summer, Emerson journeyed to Waterville College in Maine to deliver one of his most intense and orphic orations, "The Method of Nature," proclaiming ecstasy and metamorphosis as the ruling principles of the universe. Emerson's second daughter, Edith, was born in November, and one month later, on December 23, he expounded his "new views" to a Boston audience in "The Transcendentalist." Concord mourned the death of Henry Thoreau's brother John on January 12, 1842, but just over two weeks later, Emerson had a more severe and private grief to bear when his little Waldo was carried off by scarlet fever.

It was a devastating blow from which he never quite recovered, comprehending "nothing of this fact but its bitterness." On his death bed forty years later, he would exclaim, "Oh that beautiful boy." A Second son, Edward, was born in July, 1844, but Emerson's vision seemed permanently darkened by Waldo's death. In the second series of Essays, published in October, 1844, Emerson exposed his benumbed state in "Experience" and expatiated on the "Fall of Man." In the winter of 1845-6 he lectured on "Representative Men" and identified closely with the disillusioned and skeptical Montaigne. "Threnody," a moving elegy to the lost boy, appeared in Poems, published at the end of 1846.


Restless and badly in need of stimulation, Emerson set sail for Europe a second time in October, 1847, leaving his family in the able hands of Henry Thoreau. A substantial amount of fame (indeed, notoriety) prececed him, and his lectures in England and Scotland were well-attended and generally well-received. Both Emerson and Carlyle tried hard to transform their warn epistolary friendship into a new reality, but sharp differences of temperament and opinion stood ineluctably between them. Emerson met many notables and crossed the Channel to spend an eventful month in revolutionary Paris. He returned home, by way of Liverpool, on July 27, 1848.Elderly Emerson

In English Traits (1856) he would praise that great preserve of Anglo-Saxondom ambiguously, suggesting that the strength of the race might well be shifting to "the Alleghany ranges." Publication of Representative Men at the beginning of 1850 was overshadowed by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Outraged, Emerson called it a "filthy enactment" and vowed not to "obey it, by God." In the summer of 1850, he dispatched Thoreau to Fire Island to search for effects of the drowned Margaret Fuller. Emerson lectured widely in the 1850's, traveling as far as St. Louis.

The Conduct of Life was published in 1860. Emerson was much agitated by the coming of the Civil War, and eventually looked forward to it as a cleansing fire. lnitially put off by Lincoln's apparent lack of refinement, Emerson mourned him after his death as the "father of his country." In 1866 Harvard honored the former heretic with the Doctor of Laws degree, and he was elected overseer of the college the following year. In 1871 he traveled to San Francisco with his daughter Edith and her husbalzd William Forbes, and visited an opium den, where he looked upon the "stupefied Mongolians" with "serene eye" (as Forbes's father reported).

On the 24th of July, 1872, Emerson's house burned, and the event precipitated a sharp downturn in his health. In the fall, he went abroad with his daughter Ellen, traveling to Europe and Egypt, and returned just after his seventieth birthday to a cheering crowd and a restored home. But his gentle decline into aphasia had begun. He died on April 27, 1882. Standing by his grave nine days later, Whitman, noted: "A just man, poised on himself, all-loving, all-inclosing, and sane and clear as the sun."