Biography of Ralph Emerson (1803-1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25th, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts to Ruth Haskins and Reverend William Emerson, a Unitarian Minister. Ralph Waldo was the second of five sons who survived into adulthood. Three other children died in childhood. Rev. William Emerson died of stomach cancer in May of 1811, before Ralph Waldo Emerson turned eight. Emerson mother then raised him along with her other children with the help of her Aunt Mary Moody Emerson. Emerson’s Aunt had a profound impact on Emerson and they kept in touch throughout his life until her death in 1863. Emerson’s formal schooling began in 1812 at the Boston Latin School. In October 1817, Emerson went to Harvard College and worked as a freshman messenger for the president. Emerson took jobs outside of the college in order to support himself at Harvard, most notably work as a teacher with his uncle Samuel in Waltham, Massachusetts. During his senior year, Emerson decided to go by his middle name Waldo. Emerson served as Class Poet and presented an original poem on Harvard’s Class Day, a month before his graduation from the university at the age of 18. He graduated in the exact middle of his class of 59 people. In 1856 Emerson decided to move to warmer climates because of poor health. He first went to Charleston, South Carolina and then further south to St. Augustine, Florida where he began to write poetry. While in Florida, Emerson made friends with Prince Achille Murat the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Murat and Emerson exchanged correspondence often, discussion religion, society, philosophy, and government. Emerson himself considered Murat to be an important figure in his intellectual education. It was in St. Augustine that he first encountered slavery, attending a meeting of the Bible Society during which slaves were sold.
Once he graduated from Harvard, Emerson worked with his brother William to establish a school for young women in their mother’s house. When William went to Göttingen to study divinity, Emerson took over the school. Emerson worked for several year’s as the school’s headmaster after which he went to Harvard Divinity School. Emerson met his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker in Concord, New Hampshire on Christmas Day in 1827 and married her when she was 18. The couple returned to Boston, Massachusetts where Emerson’s mother Ruth joined the two to help take care of Ellen, who was already ill from tuberculosis. After less than two years of marriage, Ellen died at the age of 20 on February 8, 1831. Emerson missed her dearly and visited her grave in Roxbury daily.
In January of 1829, Emerson joined Boston’s Second Church as a junior pastor. He was ordained on January 11, 1829. His initial salary was $1,200 a year with an increase to $1,400 in July of that year. Along with his role as a pastor, he also served as chaplain to the Massachusetts legislator, and served as a member of the Boston school committee. After the death of his wife Ellen in 1831, Emerson began to doubt his own religious beliefs and the methods of the church. He wrote extensively about his disagreements with the Church in his journal starting in 1832, which culminated with his resignation.
In 1833 Emerson traveled throughout Europe and wrote about his travels in English Traits which was published in 1857. He left Christmas Day 1832 upon the bring Jasper and sailed first to Malta then Italy. In Italy he spent time in Rome, Florence, and Venice. While in Rome he met John Stuart Mill who gave him a letter of recommendation to meet Thomas Carlyle. He also visited Voltaire’s home in Switzerland under much protest and claimed that Paris was a “loud modern New York of a place.” In England, Emerson met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. Thomas Carlyle had a strong influence on Emerson, so much so that Emerson would later serve as Carlyle’s unofficial literary agent in the United States. In March of 1835, Emerson tried to convince Carlyle to come to America to lecture. The two would remain good friends; keeping correspondence until Carlyle’s death in 1881.
Emerson returned to the Untied States in the fall of 1833 and moved in which his mother in Newton, Massachusetts. He would remain there for year after which he moved to Concord, Massachusetts to live with his step-grandfather Dr. Ezra Ripley. In Concord, he witnessed the Lyceum movement, which provided lectures on a variety of topics. It was because of this movement that Emerson envisioned himself as a lecturer. On November 5, 1833 he gave the first of 1,500 lectures discussing The Uses of Natural History in Boston, much of which was based on his experiences in Paris. This first lecture became the foundation for his groundbreaking essay Nature.
In January of 1835 Emerson wrote to Lydia Jackson proposing marriage. The two were married on September 12, 1835 in Lydia’s hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts. She would accept his proposal in that same year and the two would buy a house in the summer of that year on the Cambridge and Concord Turnpike in Concord, Massachusetts. The house was originally named “Bush” by the couple and is currently open to the public as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House. Emerson’s mother Ruth would join them in their new house in September of that same year. Emerson changed his wife’s name to Lidian and would refer to her as Queenie or Asia. They had four children together, Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward Waldo Emerson. Ellen was named after Emerson’s first wife at Lidian’s suggestion.
As a student at Harvard, Emerson was poor but would later go on to support much of his family later in his career. He inherited a large amount of money after his first wife’s death, though he would have to file a lawsuit against her family in order to claim it. He received $11,600 in May 1834 as part of her inheritance and in 1837 would receive $11,674.
In 1867, Emerson’s health began to decline and her wrote less. In the Summer of 1871, Emerson began to have memory problems and suffered from aphasia. By 1880, Emerson would often forget his own name at times. On July 24, 1872, Emerson’s Concord home caught fire. Emerson called to his neighbors for help, but when it became clear that the building could not be saved, he and his neighbors attempted to save as many objects as possible. Donations to help with the rebuilding of the house came in from neighbors such as Francis Cabot Lowell, LeBaron Russel Briggs, and George Bancroft. Emerson and his family would end up staying in the family house, though he had a great many initiations from his friends. The fire marked an end out Emerson’s lecturing career and from then on out he would only lecture in front of familiar audiences.
While his home was being rebuilt, Emerson took at trip to England, Europe, and Egypt with his daughter Ellen in October 1872. He returned a year later in April with his friend Charles Eliot Norton. The town of Concord celebrated his return and school was canceled. In late 1874, Emerson published an anthology of poetry called Parnassus, which included poems by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Julia Caroline Door, Jean Ingelow, Lucy Larcom, Jones, Verry and Throeau. By 1879, Emerson had ceased making public appearances, embarrassed by the memory problems he was having. On April 21, 1882 Emerson was diagnosed with pneumonia. He died six days later. Emerson is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord Massachusetts. He was placed in a coffin wearing a white robe given to him by the American sculptor Daniel Chester French.