An Introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Reply Sat 20 Dec, 2008 02:06 pm
Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 - April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, philosopher, poet, and center of the American transcendental movement in the early 19th century.

The son of Ruth Haskins and the Reverend William Emerson, Ralph was born in Boston, Massachesetts on May 25, 1803. Emerson's father descended from a well-known line of ministers. Ralph was the second of five sons to survive into adulthood while the other three Emerson children died in childhood.

Reverend William Emerson died from stomach cancer on May 12, 1811, two weeks before Ralph turned eight years old. As a result, Ralph's mother and other spiritual women in his family raised him and also made a profound impact on his life. Ralph's aunt Mary Moody Emerson lived with the family on and off and maintained continued correspondence with Ralph until her death.

Emerson went to Boston Public Latin School when he was nine, and to Harvard College when he was fourteen. He then went on to study at the Harvard Divinity School, but Emerson's undergraduate career was not illustrious as he was hampered by vision problems. He was ordained at the Second Church in Boston as a minister just before marrying Ellen Tucker in 1829. In 1832 she died of tuberculosis and Emerson resigned his minister position, because he felt he could no longer perform the communion ceremony that had become meaningless to him. With his wife dead and his career broken off, Emerson now sold his house and furniture and set out for Europe.

He spent nine months abroad, almost six of them in Italy, working from Sicily to Naples to Rome, Florence, Venice, then on to Switzerland and Paris. In Paris, at the Jardin des Plantes, he experienced the full power and appeal of the new botanical and zoological sciences, and he turned decisively from theology to science, vowing to become a naturalist. Emerson returned back to the states to begin a career of lecturing. He married Lydia Jackson in 1835 and they lived in Concord, Massachusetts having four children. Emerson settled into a life of conversation, reading, writing, and lecturing which provided a comfortable income for the family.
Emerson and other like-minded intellectuals formed the Transcendental Club to serve at the center of their new movements with the first meeting being held on September 19, 1836. Emerson published his first essay, Nature, anonymously in September 1836 and gave his famous speech, The American Scholar, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge on August 31, 1837.

The Emersons constantly entertained visitors with friends Elizabeth Hoar, Margaret Fuller, and Henry Thoreau staying for month to talk and help out. Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and George Ripley started the magazine The Dial with Margaret Fuller editing and then Emerson taking over the editorial duties for the final two years, ending in 1844.

On April 19, 1882, Emerson went walking despite having an apparent cold and found himself in a sudden rain shower. Two days later, he was diagnosed with pneumonia, and he died on April 27, 1882. Emerson is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. He was placed in his coffin wearing a white robe given by American sculptor Daniel Chester French.

Transcendentalism was rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German Idealism more generally), which offered the New England intellectuals of the early 19th century an alternative to the Lockean "sensualism" of their fathers and of the Unitarian church. This alternative was extracted from Vedic thought, German idealism, and English Romanticism.

Emerson himself said in a lecture called "The Transcendentalist," delivered in December 1841:
[quote=] What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism. As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses gives us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell. The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture.[/quote]

[quote=]You will see by this sketch that there is no such thing as a transcendental party; that there is no pure transcendentalist; that we know of no one but prophets and heralds of such a philosophy; that all who by strong bias of nature have leaned to the spiritual side in doctrine, have stopped short of their goal. We have had many harbingers and forerunners; but of a purely spiritual life, history has afforded no example. I mean, we have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels' food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands. ... Shall we say, then, that transcendentalism is the Saturnalia or excess of Faith; the presentiment of a faith proper to man in his integrity, excessive only when his imperfect obedience hinders the satisfaction of his wish.[/quote]

[CENTER][CENTER]The American Scholar[/CENTER]
Emerson gave his famous speech, The American Scholar, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge on August 31, 1837. Emerson declared literary independence in the United States and urged Americans to create a writing style all their own and free from Europe in his famous speech.

According to Emerson,
[quote=]The scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state his in Man Thinking
In 1845, Emerson's journals show he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and Henry Thomas Colebrooke's Essays on the Vedas. Emerson was strongly influenced by the Vedas, and much of his writing has strong shades of nondualism. One of the clearest examples of this can be found in his essay "The Over-soul":
[quote=]We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.[/quote]

[CENTER]Selected Works by Ralph Waldo Emerson


    • Nature
    • The Transcendentalist
    • The Over-soul

    • History
    • Self-Reliance
    • Spiritual Laws
    • Love
    • Friendship
    • Prudence
    • Heroism
    • Shakspeare; or, the Poet
    • Intellect
    • Art
    • Goethe; or, the Writer
    • Divinity School Address
    • Life of Emerson
    • The American Scholar
    • Literary Ethics
    • The Method of Nature
    • Man the Reformer


    • Alphonso of Castile

    • Bacchus
    • Berrying
    • Blight
    • Celestial Love
    • Compensation
    • Concord Hymn
    • Days
    • Dirge

    • Fate
    • Ode To Beauty
    • Song Of Nature
    • Sphynx
    • The Amulet
    • The Apology
    • The Bell
    • The Day's Ration
    • The Problem
    • The Rhodora
    • The Snow-Storm
    • The World-Soul
    • To-day

[CENTER] Resources
Ralph Waldo Emerson at the American Transcendentalism Web
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson at the Literature Network
Ralph Waldo Emerson - Biography and Works

"Nature" by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Wikisource
Reply Sat 20 Dec, 2008 11:40 pm
I'll check this all out, thanks!

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