Ralph Waldo Emerson l Life, Works, Quotes, Chronology, Themes, Facts

Here is a superb piece of writing on Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Table of Contents:

  • Emerson’s Life/Biography
  • Emerson’s Works
  • Emerson’s Famous Quotes
  • Chronology of Emerson’s Life
  • Major Themes in Emerson’s Works
  • Key Facts about Emerson
  • Selected Writings on Emerson

Emerson’s Life:

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. He was the son of Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson. Emerson was the second of five sons who survived into adulthood. Emerson’s father died from stomach cancer less than two weeks before Emerson’s 8th birthday. Emerson was raised by his mother, with the help of the other women in the family. His aunt Mary Moody Emerson had a profound effect on him. Emerson’s formal schooling began at the Boston Latin School in 1812 when he was nine. In October 1817, at age 14, he went to Harvard College. In the early 1820s, Emerson was a teacher at the School for Young Ladies. In 1826, Emerson went to seek a warmer climate. He first went to Charleston and then went to St. Augustine. While in St. Augustine he made the acquaintance of Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Emerson considered Murat an important figure in his intellectual education. Emerson was accepted into the Harvard Divinity School in late 1824. Boston’s Second Church invited Emerson to serve as its junior pastor, and he was ordained on January 11, 1829.
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He married Ellen Louisa Tucker in 1829 and Lidian Jackson in 1835. After his wife’s death in 1831, he began to disagree with the church’s methods. He resigned from church services in 1832. Emerson toured Europe in 1833 and later wrote of his travels in his work English Traits. During his European trip, he spent several months in Italy, visiting Rome, Florence, and Venice. When in Rome, he met with John Stuart Mill, who gave him a letter of recommendation to meet Thomas Carlyle. Moving north to England, Emerson met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle in particular was a strong influence on him. Emerson would later serve as an unofficial literary agent in the United States for Carlyle, and in March 1835, he tried to persuade Carlyle to come to America to lecture. The two maintained a correspondence until Carlyle’s death in 1881. Emerson returned to the United States in October 1833. In 1837, Emerson befriended Henry David Thoreau. 
Emerson made a living as a popular lecturer in New England and much of the rest of the country. He had begun lecturing in 1833; by the 1850s he was giving as many as 80 lectures per year.
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Emerson was introduced to Indian philosophy through the works of the French philosopher Victor Cousin. In 1845, Emerson’s journals show he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and Henry Thomas Colebrooke’s Essays on the Vedas. He was strongly influenced by Vedanta. The central message Emerson drew from his Asian studies was that “the purpose of life was spiritual transformation and direct experience of divine power, here and now on earth.” In 1847–48, he toured the British Isles. He also visited Paris between the French Revolution of 1848 and the bloody June Days. Emerson’s religious views were often considered radical at the time. He believed that all things are connected to God and, therefore, all things are divine. Emerson saw himself as a man of “Saxon descent”.
Emerson was staunchly opposed to slavery. Once the American Civil War broke out, Emerson made it clear that he believed in the immediate emancipation of the slaves. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1864.
He was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, abolitionist, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century.
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Mysticism and individualism were his main interests. He influenced Harold Bloom,
Freud, James, Marx, Muir, Nietzsche, Thoreau, and Whitman. He was a crucially important figure for the impetus and development of 20th-century intellectual thought and culture. He was born in Boston in 1803. He wrote dozens of essays and delivered more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States. He was best known as the champion of the individual against the pressures of society. He also won fame as the spokesman for transcendentalism. Emerson’s writings and essays reveal a mind deeply interested in exploring the condition of instability and movement. Stasis is never a point at which he seeks to arrive because stasis means the death of consciousness. His ideas first took root in his 1836 essay titled “Nature” and “The American Scholar”. Wendell Holmes described “The American Scholar” as “the American intellectual declaration of independence”. Both of these essays are crucial in terms of assessing Emerson’s contribution to modern literary culture. In “The American Scholar”, Emerson called for American literary self-sufficiency and the inauguration of American literature and culture distinct from that of Europe.
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Emerson reiterated his desire to free the American intellectual landscape in later essays such as “History”, “Circles” and “The Poet”. He called for the scholar’s liberation from the tyranny of orthodox religious devotion in an address to the Divinity College at Harvard in 1838. However, this address was sharply criticized and resulted in Emerson’s disbarment from speaking at Harvard until after the Civil War. His essays such as Self-Reliance and Experience insist on the centrality of individual consciousness to the world and breaking away from shackles of empiricism and organized religion. Emerson instructed his audience to discard Christian scripture or philosophical treatise. What was so shocking about Emerson’s 1838 address was its rejection of Christianity and other religious organizations, which he thought obstructed the immediate relationship between the individual and the divine. He viewed religious devotion as enslavement. For Emerson, the individual is the only arbiter of the world and is certainly more important than the institutions which formerly offered guidance and moral codes. It was Emerson’s belief that some kind of veil or wall exists between the individual and the external world.
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Emerson’s emphasis on self-reliance was undoubtedly influenced by his reading of German philosophical treatises and British Romantic writers such as William Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, whom he met in the early 1830s after relinquishing his role as a Unitarian Minister. Emerson came to know Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and Friedrich Schelling through Coleridge and Carlyle. Emerson’s thinking and his ideas came to be influential upon a large number of late 19th and early 20th century thinkers. One of the most important aspects of Emerson’s work is his insistence on transition. For Emerson stasis is equivalent to the subjugation of the spirit. For Emerson, the new state is not the endpoint but rather part of a wider circle in Emerson’s transitive process. Indeed, almost all of his essays touch on the issue of departure or transition. He says in his essay titled “Circles” that there is no end to nature, but every end is a beginning. In his essay titled Montaigne, he implores the individual to look for the permanent in the mutable and fleeting. For Emerson when the truth is put into language, it is put into repose. It is movement and action that bring truth, not language. Language is a prison from which truth can not escape.

Emerson’s skeptical attitude to the power of words proved enormously influential. It influenced writers like Gertrude Stein and William James. For Emerson, language is both a force of creative generation and the repository of death. Emerson himself never resolved this paradox and contradictory legacy. Starting in 1867, Emerson’s health began declining. Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, he started experiencing memory problems and suffered from aphasia. On April 21, 1882, Emerson was found to be suffering from pneumonia.  He died six days later. He died at the age of 78 on April 27, 1882.
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Emerson’s Works:

Emerson’s famous collections include:

Essays: First Series (1841),
Essays: Second Series (1844),
Poems (1847),
Nature, Addresses and Lectures (1849), Representative Men (1850),
English Traits (1856),
The Conduct of Life (1860),
May-Day and Other Pieces (1867),
Society and Solitude (1870),
Natural History of the Intellect: the last lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1871)
Letters and Social Aims (1875).

Emerson’s famous individual essays include:

“Nature”, “Self-Reliance”, “Compensation”, “The Over-Soul”, “Circles”, “The Poet”, “Experience”, “Politics”, “Saadi”,
“The American Scholar” and
“New England Reformers”.

Emerson’s famous poems include:

“Concord Hymn”, “The Rhodora”, “Brahma” and “Uriel”.

Emerson’s famous letters include:

“Letter to Martin Van Buren” and
“The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson”.

Emerson’s famous Quotes:

  • A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
  • Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.
  • Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
  • Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
  • What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
  • Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.
  • The earth laughs in flowers.
  • To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
  • What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.
  • To be great is to be misunderstood.

Chronology of Emerson’s Life:

1803: Born in Boston to William and Ruth Haskins Emerson.
1811:  Father dies, probably of tuberculosis.
1812:  Enters Boston Public Latin School
1817:  Begins study at Harvard College
1820: Starts first journal, entitled “The Wide World.”
1821: Graduates from Harvard and begins teaching at his brother William’s school for young ladies in Boston.
1825: Enters Harvard Divinity School.
1829: Marries Ellen Tucker and is ordained minister at Boston’s Second Church.
1831: Ellen Tucker Emerson dies, at age 19.
1832: Resigns position as minister and sails for Europe.
1833: Meets Wordsworth, Coleridge, J. S. Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Returns to Boston in November, where he begins a career as a lecturer.
1834: Receives first half of a substantial inheritance from Ellen’s estate
1835: Marries Lidian Jackson.
1836: Publishes first book, Nature.
1837: Receives second half of a substantial inheritance from Ellen’s estate
1838: Delivers the “Divinity School Address.” Protests relocation of the Cherokees in letter to President Van Buren.
1841: Essays published. It contains “Self-Reliance,” “The Over-Soul,” “Circles,” “History”
1842: Son Waldo dies of scarlet fever at the age of 5.
1844: Essays, Second Series published. It contains “The Poet,” “Experience,” “Nominalist and Realist”
1847–1848: Lectures in England.
1850: Publishes Representative Men. It contains essays on Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Goethe, Napoleon
1851–60: Speaks against Fugitive Slave Law and in support of anti-slavery candidates in Concord, Boston, New York, Philadelphia.
1856: Publishes English Traits.
1860: Publishes The Conduct of Life. It contains “Culture” and “Fate”
1867: Lectures in nine western states.
1870: Publishes Society and Solitude.  Presents sixteen lectures in Harvard’s Philosophy Department.
1872–1873: After a period of failing health, travels to Europe, Egypt.
1875: Journal entries cease.
1882: Dies in Concord.
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Major Themes in Emerson’s Works:

“Education,” “Process,” “Christianity,” “Morality,” “Power,” “Unity and Moods”

Key Facts about Emerson:

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson was a brilliant student
  • He was brought up surrounded by women
  • Emerson was influenced by the culture and philosophical ideas of Asia and Middle East
  • Ralph Emerson was one of the transcendentalism movement leaders
  • He was a close friend of David Thoreau
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson was married twice
  • His lectures were popular
  • He Was an Ordained Unitarian Minister
  • He Was Known as “The Sage of Concord”
  • He exposed American Thinkers to the Writings and Philosophies of Asia and the Middle East
  • He Was a Boy Genius
  • He Was Raised By Women
  • He lost his father at an early age.
  • He was Harvard’s class poet
  • He ran a school for girls
  • He was friends with Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew
  • His young wife died of tuberculosis.
  • He criticized Jane Austen’s writing
  • He named his daughter after his first wife
  • Louisa May Alcott had a crush on him
  • Meeting Abraham Lincoln changed his mind about the president
  • He praised Walt Whitman, but felt burned when Whitman published his private letters
  • He suffered from memory problems late in life
  • He helped design the cemetery he’s buried in.

Selected Writings on Emerson:

  • Allen, Gay Wilson, 1981, Waldo Emerson, New York: Viking Press.
  • Arsić, Branka, 2010. On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Arsić, Branka, and Carey Wolfe (eds.), 2010. The Other Emerson, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Bishop, Jonathan, 1964, Emerson on the Soul, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Buell, Lawrence, 2003, Emerson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cameron, Sharon, 2007, Impersonality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Carpenter, Frederick Ives, 1930, Emerson and Asia, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cavell, Stanley, 1981, “Thinking of Emerson” and “An Emerson Mood,” in The Senses of Walden, An Expanded Edition, San Francisco: North Point Press.
  • Constantinesco, Thomas, 2012, Ralph Waldo Emerson: L’Amérique à l’essai, Paris: Editions Rue d’Ulm.
  • Ellison, Julie, 1984, Emerson’s Romantic Style, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Firkins, Oscar W., 1915, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Follett, Danielle, 2015, “The Tension Between Immanence and Dualism in Coleridge and Emerson,” in Romanticism and Philosophy: Thinking with Literature, Sophie Laniel-Musitelli and Thomas Constantinesco (eds.), London: Routledge, 209–221.
  • Friedl, Herwig, 2018, Thinking in Search of a Language: Essays on American Intellect and Intuition, New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Goodman, Russell B., 1990a, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Chapter 2.
  • Porte, Joel, and Morris, Saundra (eds.), 1999, The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Richardson, Robert D. Jr., 1995, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Sacks, Kenneth, 2003, Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Urbas, Joseph, 2016, Emerson’s Metaphysics: A Song of Laws and Causes, Lanham, MD and London: Lexington Books.
  • Versluis, Arthur, 1993, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Whicher, Stephen, 1953, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Zavatta, Benedetta, 2019, Individuality and Beyond: Nietzsche Reads Emerson, trans. Alexander Reynolds, New York: Oxford University Press

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