The Reading Room
OLL’s May Birthday: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803-April 27, 1882)
May’s OLL Birthday essay is dedicated to the American essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through his life of lecturing and writing, Emerson was a tireless supporter of the dignity and freedom of every individual.
Emerson was born, the fifth of five children to survive to adulthood, on May 25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts, son of the Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian pastor, himself descended from a long line of New England ministers. His father died in 1811 and he was raised thereafter by his mother and his Aunt Mary, a woman of strong Calvinist predilections.
In 1812 Emerson enrolled in studying Greek, Latin, mathematics and writing, and in 1817 he enrolled in Harvard College, where he had an undistinguished career. Nevertheless, in 1827 the Old Second Church of Boston offered him the position of minister. In 1829 he married a woman named Ellen Tucker, with whom he had fallen in love several years earlier. Already sick when they married, their happy life together proved to be a short one as she died of tuberculosis in 1831. This seems to have been the final blow to his religious faith, doubts about which had been building for some time, and he left the ministry that same year.
The next year he left for a tour of Europe that took him to the British Isles, Italy, and France, and during which he met, among others, John Stuart Mill, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, with whom he became good friends.
Upon his return home, Emerson moved to Concord and settled in a family home, called the Old Manse, where he lived with his elderly step-grandfather, mother, and younger brother Charles (who died of tuberculosis in 1836). He had inherited a substantial sum from his late wife, but was still without steady work, much less a calling. Impressed with the Lyceum Movement, which provided public lectures on all sorts of educational topics, Emerson decided to try his hand as a public lecturer. His first lecture was in Boston, in October 1833 on “The Uses of Natural History,” based largely on his experiences in Europe. It was so popular that he gave several more lectures on similar topics over the next several years, and in 1836 edited and published them as a small book, Nature, which provided the foundational ideas of what became known as Transcendentalism. A kind of pan-theistic philosophy, it drew heavily on English and German Romanticism, but was also influenced by Plotinus and neo-Platonism, by Kant and German Idealism, as well as by the mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg and Hinduism. It stressed the immanence of the divine in Nature, and the ability of each individual person to have access to it through intuition and personal experience.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1836, shortly after publication of Nature, Emerson was one of the founders of The Trascendentalist Club, with George Putnam, Frederic Henry Hedge, and George Ripley (all Unitarian ministers), Ripley’s wife Sophia, Margaret Fuller (a journalist), and Henry David Thoreau. They had difficulty finding outlets that would publish their work, and so launched their own journal, The Dial (edited by Margaret Fuller) in 1840.
In the meantime, in 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson (1802-1892), whom he called “Lidian.” Lydia had a difficult childhood; orphaned at sixteen and then stricken with scarlet fever, which she barely survived and which left her in poor health for the rest of her life. She attended two of Emerson’s lectures in her hometown of Plymouth in 1834, where she also had the opportunity of speaking with him. These encounters moved her deeply; she reported that she had a vision of them as a married couple. Incredibly, shortly thereafter she received his proposal of marriage, and they wedded in September 1835. They immediately moved back to Concord, where they bought a large house which they named “Bush” (now known as the Emerson House). Together the couple had four children. “Lidian” was an intelligent and well-read woman who championed several important social causes, including the abolition of slavery, female emancipation, and animal welfare; all of which she urged (successfully) that Emerson take up himself. On the other hand, she never fully embraced his Transcendentalist ideas, nor did she ever quite fit into Concord society (despite the great friendship she developed with Henry David Thoreau).
Emerson’s successful early lectures, culminating with the publication of Nature, were quickly followed by what some have regarded as his most important work, “The American Scholar,” delivered as an address to the Phi Beta Kappa chapter of Harvard in August 1837. Based on his Transcendentalist values, the lecture, was a call for Americans to develop their own academic and intellectual life, free from the dominance of Europe. It stressed individual boldness and freedom, and the courage to break away from old and traditional ways of thinking. The address proved incredibly popular and influenced an entire generation of young people. The Phi Beta Kappa journal was re-named “The American Scholar” in its honor. The sensation created by his Phi Beta Kappa lecture stood in stark contrast to his graduation address delivered to Harvard Divinity School a year later. In it, he argued that Jesus, though a great and good man, was not divine, and that later Christian theologians, influenced by pagan Greek and Asian religions, had turned him into a demigod. The reaction from the establishment was outrage, and Emerson was not invited back to Harvard for thirty years.
It hardly mattered. In the meantime, building on the success of his earlier lectures, in 1837 (shortly after his American Scholar address), Emerson organized a series of lectures on History, which he delivered at the Masonic Hall in Boston. This was the first time that he organized and delivered his own lectures, rather than being hired by some other group, thus setting himself up as a professional lecturer. He became terrifically popular, traveling widely and often giving up to 80 lectures a year on a wide variety of topics. He published several collections of these lectures, as well as poetry and essays, but his lecturing provided the bulk of his income, often totaling around $2,000 (about $70,000 in 2023 dollars) from a single winter lecture season. He invested much of this money in land, including his purchase of the area around Walden Pond.
Central to Emerson’s personal philosophy, and indeed to Transcendentalism, was the importance of individual freedom, and this led Emerson to be an early opponent of slavery. He addressed the issue in lectures as early as 1837, but the evils of slavery and the necessity of its abolition did not become prominent themes in his lectures and writing until around 1844, possibly due to the influence of his staunchly abolitionist wife. He condemned the 1850 fugitive slave law and became increasingly vocal in his arguments in favor of abolition. He welcomed the Civil War, not primarily as a fight to preserve the Union, but as an event that would end slavery, and was disappointed when Lincoln did not declare its immediate abolition.
After the war he kept up a rigorous schedule of lecturing and writing, even though by 1872 he was showing signs of declining health and fading memory. By 1877 he was showing clear signs of aphasia and memory loss, and his overall physical state had weakened considerably. He died of pneumonia on April 27, 1882 and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.