Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the most popular thinkers of his time. This popular American essayist, philosopher, and poet also led the transcendentalism movement in America in the mid-19th century. Throughout his life, he was able to publish dozens of essays and hold hundreds of lectures across the States.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1803, Emerson was the second of five sons. After Emerson’s father died of stomach cancer, his mother raised him and his brothers with the help of their aunts. Emerson started school at age nine at the Boston Latin School. Only five years later, he was able to attend Harvard College. While studying, Emerson took on different jobs to support himself. At 18, he graduated along with 58 other students in his class.
After Harvard, Emerson worked with his brother William at a school he had established in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. When William left to study divinity at Gottingen, Emerson became the schoolmaster and made his living there for several years.
Emerson encountered health problems because of the cold weather in Boston, so he decided to move south, first to South Carolina and then further down to Florida. He had his first encounter with slavery in Florida, witnessing a slave auction outside a Bible Society meeting.
In 1829, Emerson was invited to serve as a junior pastor at Second Church in Boston. After the death of his first wife Ellen, he started questioning the church’s methods. This led to his resignation from the church in 1832 and travel to Europe in 1833. He traveled to countries such as Italy, Malta, France, and England, where he met and befriended the likes of William Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Later that year, he returned to the States and ventured into becoming a lecturer. His first lecture was conducted on November 5, 1833, titled The Uses of Natural History. The lecture later became the basis of his first published essay Nature.
Before the publication of Nature, Emerson was also starting what would be later known as the transcendentalism movement. The first few members included George Putnam, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Margaret Fuller. Transcendentalism fought against intellectualism and spirituality. One of its core beliefs is that people and nature are inherently good. The movement also believes that one has the capacity to create one’s own insights and opinions, without being influenced by the beliefs of the past.
One year after the publication of Nature, Emerson gave a speech at Phi Beta Kappa titled The American Scholar, which he also later published. The speech urged Americans to try writing styles that weren’t influenced by Europeans.
Emerson furthered his lecturing career in 1837 when he gave a lecture series on the philosophy of history at the Masonic Temple in Boston, the first that he gave on his own. This launched his lecturing career, and eventually, he was able to conduct as many as 80 lectures a year, traveling to places such as Idaho, Missouri, and California.
The transcendental group, which was the core of the transcendentalism movement, started a flagship journal in 1840 called The Dial. Margaret Fuller was its first editor, but after two years, Emerson himself took over. The Dial was used to promote young writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ellery Channing. The journal was published until 1844.
Essays, Emerson’s second book, was published in 1841. The collection contained his famous essay “Self-Reliance.” The essay discussed individualism, which Emerson greatly advocated. Through this essay, he expressed that it was necessary for humans to avoid conformity and to follow their own ideas.
During the Civil War, Emerson was a vocal abolitionist, even declaring his opposition at a lecture he gave in Washington DC. He also spoke up against slavery in The Conduct of Life, an essay collection published in 1860. However, the essays also revealed that he was a supporter of war as a means of revitalizing a nation.
By the late 1860s to the early 1870s, Emerson’s health started to decline. He stopped writing in his journals, and his memory started fading. In 1874, he was able to publish an anthology of poetry, containing works by Lucy Larcom, Jones Very, Henry David Thoreau, and many more. By 1879, his memory had become so bad that he stopped appearing in public.
Emerson died on April 27, 1882, following complications due to pneumonia. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. Throughout his life, he was able to publish dozens of essays, poetry, and speeches. He was also able to deliver hundreds of lectures across the United States. His large body of work was able to inspire the works of Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize was also created in his honor. The prize is awarded annually to high school students with exceptional essays on historical subjects.
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