Emerson, Ralph Waldo
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Emerson, Ralph Waldo
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
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).
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).
WORKSComplete Works, vols. 1–12. New York, 1923.
The Letters, vols. 1–6. New York, 1939.
Essays, series 1–2. New York .
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.)
REFERENCESIstoriia 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.]
B. E. BYKHOVSKII