The first type of writing that comes to mind you hear the name Ralph Waldo Emerson is probably not poetry. After all, Emerson’s towering stature in American letters is primarily derived from his essays. Therefore it should not be at all surprising...
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 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 at the Boston Latin School in 1812; he also began to write poetry. In October 1817, Emerson entered Harvard College, and supported himself as a freshman messenger for the president, and through outside jobs as a waiter and occasional teacher. During his junior year in 1820, he began to keep a journal entitled "Wide World," a practice that would continue into the 1870s. During his senior year, Emerson decided to go by his middle name, Waldo. Although Emerson served as Class Poet and graduated from the university at the age of 18, he did not stand out as a student - he graduated in the middle of his class of 59 people.
After he graduated from Harvard, Emerson taught in Boston at his brother William's school for young women until 1825, when he was admitted to Harvard Divinity School. However, his studies were interrupted by health problems (e.g., eye and lung troubles), which compelled him to travel south in 1826 to improve his health. He went to Charleston, South Carolina and then further south to St. Augustine, Florida where he met Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Murat and Emerson became friends, and discussed religion, society, philosophy, and government. Emerson considered Murat an important figure in his intellectual education. In St. Augustine, Emerson also encountered slavery for the first time at a meeting of the Bible Society, which held a slave auction in the yard outside.
In June of 1827, Emerson returned to Cambridge. Later that year, he met his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, in Concord, New Hampshire on Christmas Day in 1827. The couple was engaged by 1828, and married by 1829. Unfortunately, after less than two years of marriage, Ellen died at the age of 19 on February 8, 1831 of tuberculosis.
In 1829, Emerson was ordained junior pastor of Boston's Second Church (Unitarian), but by 1832, due to his deteriorating health and increasing scruples with the methods and beliefs of the church (e.g., serving communion), he resigned from his post.
In December of 1832, he set sail for Europe, and traveled to Italy, France, and Great Britain. During his travels, he met many literary giants, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle.
Emerson returned to the Untied States in the fall of 1833 and began his career as a lecturer with talks on "natural history." In the spring of 1834, he received the first half of the Tucker inheritance, which helped to support his lifestyle. In October, he learned that his brother, Edward, died.
In 1835, he proposed to and married Lydia Jackson. The two married in September 1835 in Lydia’s hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
In May of 1836, Emerson learned that another of his brothers, Charles, died. The year is not defined by tragedy though. Emerson's landmark book, Nature, is published anonymously in Boston in September, and his son (the first of four children), Waldo, is born in October.
In 1837, Emerson received the second portion of the Tucker estate, and delivered "The American Scholar" before the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He befriended his future disciple, Henry David Thoreau, who graduated from Harvard in August.
In 1838, he delivered the controversial address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School that caused him to be banned from speaking at Harvard.
In 1840, in collaboration with his emerging Transcendental group, the Transcendental journal The Dial was launched with Margaret Fuller as first editor.
In March of 1841, the first series of Essays was published, which included the famous essay, "Self-Reliance." By spring, Thoreau joined his household (though he will not build his famous cabin at Walden Pond until July 1845).
In 1842, Waldo died, and Emerson succeeded Fuller as editor of The Dial.
In 1844, Emerson published the second series of Essays, which included such famous essays as "The Poet" and "Experience."
The following years were not only marked by a series of publications (e.g., Poems in 1846, Representative Men in 1850, English Traits in 1856, The Conduct of Life in 1860, May-Day and Other Pieces in 1867, and Society and Solitude in 1870) and lectures on a variety of topics throughout the country, but also antislavery statements condemning the Fugitive Slave Law (in 1851, directed to Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster, who supported the law) and the practice of slavery in general (in 1855 in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia). Emerson met President Lincoln in 1862 (the same year Thoreau died), and would later eulogize the slain Lincoln in April 1865.
In 1871, Emerson traveled to California by train, where he met Brigham Young and John Muir. The following year, his house burned, and he set sail for Europe and Egypt with his daughter, Ellen. When he returned a year later in April 1873, the town of Concord celebrated his return and school was canceled.
By 1879, Emerson ceased making public appearances, embarrassed by problems with his memory.
On April 21, 1882 Emerson was diagnosed with pneumonia. He died six days later in Concord and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
Study Guides on Works by Ralph Emerson
Emerson lived and wrote in the days of Westward expansion, religious upheaval, and domestic and international political ferment.
He and his generation grew up during the War of 1812, the Annexation of Texas, the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the...