Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was nineteenth-century America 's most notable prophet and sage. He was an apostle of progress and optimism, and his dedication to self-reliant individualism inspired his fellow transcendentalist Bronson Alcott to observe, "Emerson's church consists of one member, himself. He waits for the world to agree with him." Emerson was born in Boston, the son of a Unitarian minister and the descendant of a long line of distinguished New England clergymen. He was educated at the Boston Latin School and at Harvard. After his graduation from college in 1821 he taught in a Boston school for young ladies. In 1825 he entered the Harvard Divinity School , where he absorbed the liberal, intellectualized Christianity of Unitarianism. It rejected the Calvinist ideas of predestination and total depravity, substituting instead of faith in the saving grace of divine love and a belief in the eventual brotherhood of man in a Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
In his twenty-sixth year Emerson was ordained the Unitarian minister of the Second Church of Boston. He was a popular and successful preacher, but after three years he left the pulpit, unable to believe in the efficacy of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. At twenty-nine one part of Emerson's life had ended. He had married Ellen Tucker, and was in a fair way of becoming influential not only as a chaplain but as an educator. Three years after his marriage, his wife, like Emerson's father and two of his brothers, died of tuberculosis. After preaching his farewell sermon Emerson went on a tour of Europe (1832), where he met Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth and was strongly influenced by the ideas of European romanticism. Upon returning to America, he bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts . He remarried and began his lifelong career as a public lecturer, which took him to meeting halls and lyceums in cities and villages throughout much of the nation. He associated with Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and others who belonged to the informal Transcendentalist Club, organized for the "exchange of thought among those interested in the new views in philosophy, theology, and literature." On the other hand, Emerson published his first volume, Nature , a milestone in American letters. Poems and essays followed with ever-growing strength and conviction. Emerson spoke up for intellectual as well as religious independence; he held that humanity had lost self-rule and self-reliance, that man was dominated by things rather than by thought. As a result of Emerson's attack on the conventions, clergymen assailed his "heresies" and Harvard closed its lecture rooms to him. Thirty years later he received an honorary degree from Harvard and was chosen one of its overseers. At sixty-seven he gave a course in philosophy at Cambridge .
In Concord, Emerson became the chief spokesman of transcendentalism in America . His philosophy was a compound of Yankee Puritanism and Unitarianism merged with the teachings of European romanticism. The word "transcendental" had long been used in philosophy to describe truths that were beyond the reach of man's limited senses, and as a transcendentalist, Emerson argued for intuition as a guide to universal truth. He believed that God is all-loving and all-pervading, that His presence in men made them divine and assured their salvation. Emerson believed that there is an essential unity in apparent variety, that there is a correspondence between the world and the spirit, that nature is an image in which man can perceive the divine. His house had burned down in his seventieth year, and Emerson had been weakened by exposure and disheartened by the loss of his books and furniture. Friends sent him abroad and admirers rebuilt the house to the last detail. Emerson returned as "The Sage of Concord" to spend his days in increasing solitude. But he was still energetic; at seventy-seven he loved to swim naked in Walden Pond. His memory faded. The end was a gradual diminishing, and Emerson died at Concord , April 27, 1882.
Emerson was a seer and poet, not a man of cool logic. In his letters, essays, and poems he sought to inspire a cultural rejuvenation, to transmit to his listeners and readers his own lofty perceptions. Emerson's perceptions of man and nature as symbols of universal truth encouraged the development of the symbolist movement in American writing. His assertion that even the commonplaces of American life were worthy of the highest art helped to establish a national literature. His ideas influenced American writers from Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, and Emily Dickinson in the nineteenth century to E. A. Robinson, Robert Frost, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens in the twentieth century. His repudiation of established traditions and institutions encouraged a literary revolution; his ideas, expressed in his own writing and in the works of others, have been taken as an intellectual foundation for movements of social change that have profoundly altered modern America. Emerson was no political revolutionary. He preached harmony in a discordant age, and he recognized the needs of human society as incompatible with unrestrained individualism. As he grew older he became increasingly conservative, but he remained a firm advocate of self-reliant idealism, and in his writings and in the example of his life Emerson has endured as a guide for those who would shun all foolish consistencies and escape blind submission to fate.