Even though Ralph Waldo Emerson died over a century ago, his work is read and consulted frequently. In 1841 he published Essays: First Series and in 1844 Essays: Second Series, both essay series are still very popular even today. He was an abolitionist and refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law.
Name: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Birth Date: May 1803 – April 1882
Job Functions: Essayist, Poet and Lecturer
Fields: Education, Literature
Known For: Essay Series One and Two
At the age of 14, Ralph Waldo Emerson went to Harvard College on a scholarship which he made the very most of. At the age of 17 he started journaling, which he continued for over 50 years. When Emerson graduated from Harvard he taught for a while because he was unsure of what to do with himself. Emerson decided to become an ordained Christian minister and enrolled at Harvard Divinity School. In 1826, when Emerson completed his studies, he was offered a junior pastorship position at Second Church in Boston.
Emerson was a voracious reader, digesting works of Zoroaster, Confucius, Muhammad, the Neoplatonists, Jakob Boehme, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, the Scottish philosophers, Emanuel Swedenborg, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Madame de Staël. He also devoured Thomas Carlyle’s pioneering essays on German literature, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, and Dante’s Vita Nuova.
Emerson married Ellen Louisa Tucker in 1829, a woman whom he loved dearly unfortunately she died about 18 months later from tuberculosis (Emerson later married Lydia Jackson in 1835, and had four children). He was in deep despair about his wife’s death, and organized religion could not give him what he needed during this dark period, so religious doubts arose inside of him. Though the Unitarian church is ideally suited for the questioner, Emerson could not find any solace, and in 1832, he resigned from Second Boston, but this left him with too much time on his hands.
After months of just floundering around, in 1833, Emerson decided to travel to Europe on a 10-month tour to find himself. While he was there, Emerson met with John Stuart Mill, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle who became a lifelong friend.
When Emerson returned to the United States, he discovered that he could make a living as a lecturer. The Lyceum movement provided lectures on various topics to rabid audiences who were willing to pay for the very best lectures. Emerson had found his stride. After giving lectures using the Lyceum platform for a few seasons, Emerson decided that he would organize his own lectures as well. In 1837 – 1838, he offered a group of 10 lectures on the theme of human nature to the Boston public. These lectures were later turned into essays and then into books. Leading themes in Emerson’s lectures and essays were man, nature and God.
Emerson looked for the essential spirit of religion. He probed into human reality and the world of nature to release men from a mechanistic view of the world. “[Emerson] believed in a reality and a knowledge that transcended the everyday reality Americans were accustomed to. He believed in the integrity of the individual.” He also believed that reality is discovered through thought and not experience, and “the purpose of life seems to be to acquaint a man with himself.” One of Emerson’s famous saying is “Trust thyself.”
In 1836, Emerson published a pamphlet titled Nature, which pulled a group of people known as transcendentalists to him. That same year, Emerson, George Putnam, and Frederick Henry Hedge founded the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1836.
In 1841 he published Essays: First Series and in 1844 Essays: Second Series, both essay series are still very popular even today. Emerson followed up with Poems (1847), Representative Men: Seven Lectures (1850), English Traits (1856), Conduct of Life (1860), May Day (1867), Society and Solitude (1870), and Letters and Social Aims (1875). Emerson became a leading transcendentalist in the United States. In addition to Emerson and those who founded the Transcendental Club, major figures in the movement were Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller, and Amos Bronson Alcott.
As a transcendentalist, Emerson opposed materialism, formal religion and slavery, and spoke out against them. He was particularly incensed with the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850 and is quoted as saying, “I will not obey it, by God.” Even though Emerson had been apolitical, he registered as a Republican and voted for Abraham Lincoln.
After the Civil War, Emerson continued on the lecture circuit and wrote more books. Society and Solitude (1870), and Letters and Social Aims (1875) were very well received. His ideas influenced Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.
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Encyclopedia of World Biography
UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography
Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Encyclopedia of Religion
New Catholic Encyclopedia
Transcendentalism – Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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