Emerson, Ralph Waldo

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Emerson, Ralph Waldo

Emerson, Ralph Waldo (ĕmˈərsən), 1803–82, American poet and essayist, b. Boston. Through his essays, poems, and lectures, the “Sage of Concord” established himself as a leading spokesman of transcendentalism and as a major figure in American literature.


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.

Edward Waldo 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); L. Rosenwald, ed., Selected Journals, 1820–1842 and Selected Journals, 1841–1877 (both: 2010); 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), R. D. Richardson (2009), and B Tharaud, ed. (2010).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo


Born May 25, 1803, in Boston; died Apr. 27, 1882, in Concord. American idealist philosopher, poet, and essayist. Head of the Transcendentalist movement.

Emerson’s philosophical views developed under the influence of classical German idealism. His world view was spiritualist and presented the spirit as the only reality. Taking a position close to pantheism, Emerson regarded nature as the embodiment of the spiritual absolute. He viewed the human soul as a microcosm that forms an intermediate link between the macrocosmic oversoul and nature. For Emerson, personal moral perfection consisted in the attainment of harmony with the oversoul.

Emerson’s ethics, which derive from romanticism, are individualist despite their pantheist tendency. Emerson sharply criticized capitalism; he thought that the institution of property in its 19th-century form was unjust and that it had pernicious effects. His social ideal was a utopia based on private property; according to Emerson, each person should live the simple and wise life of a free farmer or craftsman alone with nature.

Emerson won widespread fame for his lectures on social and ethical themes, such as those published in Letters and Social Aims (1876).


Complete Works, vols. 1–12. New York, 1923.
The Letters, vols. 1–6. New York, 1939.
Essays, series 1–2. New York [1961].
The Journals, vols. 1–6. Cambridge, Mass., 1960–66.
In Russian translation:
Soch., vols. 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1902–03.
Nravstvennaia filosofiia, parts 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1868.
O bessmertii dushi. Moscow, 1887.
Vysshaia dusha. Moscow, 1902.
O doverii k sebe, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1904.
Estetika amerikanskogo romantizma, Moscow, 1977. Pages 178–397. (Translated from English.)


Istoriia filosofii, vol. 3. Moscow, 1943. Pages 498–504.
Parrington, V. L. Osnovnye techeniia amerikanskoi mysli, vol. 2. Moscow, 1962. Pages 448–64. (Translated from English.)
Brooks, V. W. Pisatel’ i amerikanskaia zhizn’, vol. 1. Moscow, 1967. (Translated from English.)
Gray, H. D. Emerson. [Palo Alto, Calif.] 1917.
Sakmann, P. R. W. Emerson’s Geisteswelt nach den Werken und Tagebuchern. [Stuttgart, 1927.]
Gonnaud, M. Individu et société dans l’oeuvre de R. W. Emerson. Paris-Brussels, 1964. (Contains bibliography.)
Perry, B. Emerson Today. Hamden, Conn., 1969.
Cooke, G. A Bibliography of R. W. Emerson. [Ann Arbor, Mich., 1962.]


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo

(1803–82) essayist, poet, lecturer; born in Boston, Mass. Son of a Unitarian minister, he was eight years old when his father died leaving six young children. At age 14 Ralph entered Harvard where he ran messages for the president and waited tables. He also began the journal that he kept up for 50 years, the source of many of his poems, essays, and lectures. Unhappy teaching (1821–25), he tried the Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and in 1826 began to guest preach in Unitarian pulpits, but his liberal ideas led him to break with the Unitarians in 1832. At the end of the year he went to Europe where he sought out many of the major literary-intellectual figures—in particular, Thomas Carlyle, his lifelong correspondent—and began to develop his own philosophy, a compound of German idealism, Neo-Platonism, Asian mysticism, and Swedenborgianism. Back in America in 1833 he took up guest preaching again, but he gradually abandoned that for public lectures. His first wife having died (1831), he remarried (1835) and settled in Concord, Mass., where he spent mornings writing and afternoons walking in the woods and fields; he enjoyed his four children and among his circle of friends was Henry David Thoreau. His famous Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard in 1837, "The American Scholar," was a humanist manifesto, stressing Americans' distinctive traits; and in place of traditional Christianity, he subscribed to a philosophy known as Transcendentalism, stressing the ties of humans to nature. Hardly an activist, he did support the abolitionists and the Civil War. Although he published many volumes of essays and poetry—Nature (1836), Representative Man (1850), The Conduct of Life (1860)—his main source of income as well as of his popular reputation came from the lectures that he gave throughout America and in England. He made a final trip to Europe and Egypt (1872–73) and continued to lecture and publish, but his mind clouded over during his final decade. Never accepted solely as a poet, philosopher, or creative writer, he has survived as one of America's most unique voices and influences.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform.
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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nominalist and Realist." Emerson's Essays.