EMERSON, Ralph Waldo, American poet and philosopher; b. Boston, 25 May 1803; d. Concord, Mass., 27 April 1882. The celebration in 1903 of the 100th birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson served as a meter to mark how wide and deep was the influence which a single original thinker gifted with literary expression can exert at the end of his first century; for there was public recognition of his ethical and poetic genius in every quarter of the globe. Along with this appreciation went also the perception that a distinct Emersonian school of thought had arisen, modified in some degree by the circle of striking writers and talkers — men and women of thought, fancy, imagination and eloquence — who gathered around Emerson early or late in his career and now constitute the group known as the “Concord Authors,” or the Concord School of Philosophy.
Most of these at one time or another lived in the rural village of Concord in Massachusetts, where Emerson spent a half century of his life. Such were Alcott, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Ellery Channing, Louisa Alcott, George William Curtis, Elizabeth Hoar, Elizabeth Peabody, Julian Hawthorne, J. W. Chadwick, W. T. Harris, John Albee, F. B. Sanborn, F. P. Stearns — all of whom lived for longer or shorter times in Concord; and on the outside of the circle, yet not far away, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Dr. Bartol, David Wasson, Mrs. Ednah Cheney, Christopher Cranch and John S. Dwight. All these stood in relations more or less direct to Emerson, and were influenced in varying degrees by his fertilizing mind and gentle social attraction. Several of them, as Hawthorne, Thoreau, Channing, Margaret Fuller and Alcott, were as original as Emerson, though less gifted with the qualities that form a school or coterie; and none of them could properly be styled satellites or Emersonidæ although that term has been applied to several of them.
Emerson was the eldest born of all these, except Alcott. He was the son of a Boston pastor, Rev. William Emerson of the First Church, which had become Unitarian instead of Calvinistic. Most of his male ancestors as far back as the English Reformation were clergymen, and his middle name, Waldo, was said traditionally to come from one of those Waldenses who incurred the censure of the popes as heretics far away in the Middle Ages. His oldest American ancestor founded the Christian Church in Concord in 1635 (Rev. Peter Bulkeley) and by that line Emerson was related to the noble English family of Saint John, of which was Pope's brilliant friend Bolingbroke. From another clerical ancestor, Rev. William Thompson, through the Cogswells, he was related to Wendell Phillips, Phillips Brooks and other men famous for eloquence; and by another line he descended from a clerical family of Moodys, whose genius verged upon insanity.
This last name was perpetuated in Emerson's aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, his father's sister, who had more to do with his intellectual and spiritual training than any other of his early instructors. With this strong clerical bent in his ancestry young Waldo Emerson was destined to the pulpit from his cradle, and was carefully educated in Boston and Harvard College with that view. He entered college early and came under eminent teachers, Edward Everett in Greek, George Ticknor and Edward Channing in literature and Caleb Cushing in mathematics — but for the last-named study he had no inclination, and did not stand high in general scholarship at his graduation in 1821. He read widely, however, and the discipline of teaching in his elder brother William's school for young ladies at his mother's house in Franklin street, Boston, gave him exactness in Latin, French and Greek. He presently (1823) took up the study of divinity with Dr. Channing and Prof. Andrews Norton, and began to preach sermons in 1827.
He spent much time in youth at his grandmother's, who owned the Old Manse in Concord, and there he preached for some months in 1828, during the absence of her second husband, Rev. Dr. Ripley. His own grandfather, Rev. William Emerson of Concord, who built the Old Manse, died as a chaplain in the Revolutionary army in 1776.The clerical life of Emerson was a distinct era, marked by originality and independence in the young divine. His first and only settlement was at the Second Church of Boston, which had been Cotton Mather's, and was Henry Ware's when Emerson was ordained as a colleague in 1829. He became sole pastor in 1830, and in the meantime had married a delicate young Bostonian, Ellen Louisa Tucker, who died in 1832. In 1833, upon a point of doctrine concerning the rite of the Lord's Supper, in which he found himself at variance with his deacons, he preached a sermon gently setting forth his scruples and resigned his place, much against the wish of his people. But he had been ill and despondent since the death of his wife and the illness of his brother Edward; and a foreign tour was prescribed for him, which broke the continuity of his preaching, although he continued to officiate in pulpits here and there for some six years after his first visit to Europe. Miss Elizabeth Peabody, who had often heard Emerson preach, said at the Concord School of Philosophy in 1883:"From 1834 I never omitted an opportunity of hearing Emerson preach. I sought and obtained leave to read the sermons he had in manuscript. They were all as truly 'transcendental' as any of his later writings in prose or verse. If a volume of them could be printed to-day in their own form it would interpret his later revelations, of which they are but a varied expression. From first to last he never shut in his vision of the living God to the limitations of his own or any other individual conception. I once repeated to him the reply of an unconsciously wise and pious woman of the Lexington congregation, when asked why they did not settle an eminent preacher (Dr. Hedge). 'Oh, we are a very simple people in East Lexington; we can hardly understand anybody but Mr. Emerson.' He did not laugh; on the contrary, with an accent almost pathetic, he replied, 'If I had not been cut off untimely in the pulpit, perhaps I might have made something of the weekly sermon.'"No doubt he would have made much of it. But what he did was better; he turned the lecture desk into a pulpit, and for more than 30 years preached righteousness there. From 1835, the date of his second marriage, to Miss Lidian Jackson of Plymouth, lecturing was his chief occupation during half the year. His essays were first lectures and were generally given to many audiences before he thought them good enough to print.His first book, ‘Nature,’ published in a small edition in 1835, was not a course of lectures, but rather genuine essays, thought out for years, and mostly written out in their final form at the Old Manse, or finished in his own study at the home he made for himself in 1835 at the east end of Concord village, and where he died, 27 April 1882. The book attracted little notice in America or England at first, and a second edition was not issued until 1849, a dozen years having been required to sell 500 copies. But Carlyle, whom he had visited at Craigenputtock in 1833, and with whom he formed then a strict friendship and corresponded until Carlyle's death, saw its value, and so did Alcott, Hawthorne, Parker, Thoreau and a circle of high-minded women, who became his constant hearers. It now takes rank as the nearest approach to a system of philosophy which he put forth in successive chapters during his whole active life.
He planned another and more elaborate work, which he called ‘The Natural History of Intellect,’ and of which he wrote several chapters, intended to set forth the function and operation of the qualities of the human mind — memory, imagination, reason, volition, etc. — but he never brought it to such completion that it could be published as a whole, either by himself or his successive editors, Mr. Cabot, Dr. Emerson, etc. When invited to lecture on philosophy at Harvard, as he was in 1870, be threw these chapters and copious notes and readings into 18 lectures, two in a week, but the effort was too great for him at his age and in his failing strength, and he could never afterward bring the papers into form for printing. Several of the chapters appear separately; and perhaps some future scholar may combine them with ‘Nature’ into a single work.Emerson was actually introduced to noisy public notice by two of his early addresses, which are now printed in the same volume with ‘Nature’ — his Phi Beta Kappa oration of 1837 and his Divinity School Address of 1838. The first attracted attention and praise, mingled with surprise; the second, from its bold appeal to preachers to revise their theology and meet their hearers with original truths, not with traditional forms of religion, aroused the native intolerance of New England to shrill protest and uncharitable malediction. His own college, of which he was the most illustrious graduate, drew back in timid aversion from thoughts alleged to be revolutionary, and it was not until 1867, 30 years after his first Phi Beta oration, that he was again invited to address the student-body, or to receive any collegiate honor.
About the same time (1837-38) he identified himself with the unpopular cause of negro emancipation, with the advanced ideas of Alcott in education, and with several schemes of social reform, which the commercialism of the period viewed with dislike or scornful indifference; and so he alienated another class in the New England and New York communities, who might olherwise have been charmed with his literary skill and his peculiar eloquence. Thus his audiences continued small and his writings had little general circulation, until the gradual education of people in his ideas and his phraseology gave him the hearing that his genius deserved.Meanwhile Emerson was drawing about him in Concord and Boston, in Plymouth, Salem and other New England towns a circle of friends and a school of thought. The number of these persons was small at first, but their enthusiasm was fervent, and their intellectual and social force was considerable. Prominent among them was Margaret Fuller, a woman of genius who drew other women by her talent and her sympathies, and who had formed a circle of her own in Cambridge and Boston. Among men, the most prominent for a time was Bronson Alcott, an educational reformer, who had shown insight and eloquence in dealing with the young, but whose talent for conversation was not accompanied by any corresponding gift of expressing himself in writing.
Others of the circle were F. H. Hedge, an accomplished student of German literature, afterward distinguished in theology; Dr. Convers Francis, a learned pastor and professor at Cambridge; Theodore Parker, equally learned and more radical in opinion; with younger m
an like William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Henry Thoreau, Wentworth Higginson, Ellery Channing, S. G. Ward, Marston Watson of Plymouth, J. Elliot Cabot; and in his own immediate acquaintance, Mrs. Sarah Ripley, the most learned woman of New England, who had married Emerson's uncle, Rev. Samuel Ripley; her brother, George Bradford; Miss Elizabeth Hoar, an accomplished woman, betrothed to Emerson's brother Charles (who had died in 1836), and Emerson's own aunt, Mary Emerson, who at times favored and at times opposed the movement in which her nephew was engaged. This movement presently was called, rather than called itself, “Transcendental” — the term borrowed from the phraseology of German philosophy, but hardly corresponding in New England to the meaning it had in Germany, and indeed used loosely in America with no fixed meaning.
Its followers were in fact idealists of various shades and divisions of thought and speculative philosophy, whose organ, the quarterly review called The Dial, existing four years (1840-44), became the receptacle of much youthful literature and many earnest essays toward the reformation of society in education, morals and politics. Its first editors were Margaret Fuller and Rev. George Ripley, the founder of the famous community at Brook Farm; but from the first Emerson had great influence in its councils, and ultimately became its proprietor and editor, associating Thoreau with himself in editing it. Hence much of the earlier writing of Thoreau first came out in The Dial, as did that of Emerson and Margaret Fuller and Theodore Parker. For this review Emerson wrote the introductory essay, as he did in December 1847 for a kindred venture the Massachusetts Quarterly Review, in which Parker and Elliot Cabot were frequent writers. In these two brief essays must we still look for a characterization of the so-called transcendental movement, so unimportant in its first appearance, yet so momentous afterward in determining some of the chief results of the Civil War of 1861-65. In The Dial Emerson spoke of it as “the progress of a revolution,” and such it proved indeed to be. He added:"Those who share in it have no external organization, no badge, no creed, no name. They do not vote or print, or even meet together. They do not know each other's faces or names. They are united only in a common love of truth and love of its work. . . . Without concert or proclamation of any kind, they have silently given in their several adhesion to a new hope; and in all companies do signify a greater trust in the nature and resources of man than the laws or the popular opinions will well allow."Seven years later, aproaching the same topic from another point of view, and with more experience of his countrymen, Emerson said in the first number of the Massachusetts Quarterly:"The aspect this country presents is a certain maniacal activity, an immense apparatus of cunning machinery, which turns out at last some Nuremberg toys. Has it generated, as great interests do, any intellectual power? One would say there is nothing colossal in the country but its geography and its material activities; that the moral and the intellectual effects are not on the same scale with the trade and production. . . . It is a poor consideration that the country wit is precocious, and, as we say, practical; that political interests on so broad a scale as ours are administered by little men with some saucy village talent; by deft partisans, good cipherers, strict economists, quite empty of any superstition. . . . The state, like the individual, should rest on an ideal basis. As soon as men have tasted the enjoyments of learning, friendship, and virtue — for which the state exists — the prizes of office appear polluted, and their followers outcasts."The profound discontent so manifested, yet lightened by an ideal hope of better things, was working in the mass of the Northern people, as well as in this small nucleus of Platonists and agitators of New England, New York and Ohio. While The Dial had to perish for want of subscribers, the Tribune of New York rose up to more than fill its place; and Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, George Ripley and George William Curtis found Greeley ready to give them a hearing in his daily and weekly newspaper, which had readers everywhere. It reported Emerson's lectures, the sermons of Parker and printed the higher criticism of Ripley, Dana and Margaret Fuller. Political parties began to be formed on ideal issues and courageous minorities began to grow into triumphant majorities here and there.In this escape out of the ideal into the practical Emerson rather unwillingly found himself involved. He began to be popular, and his books, which up to 1850 had scarcely paid for the cost of publishing them, became a source of moderate income. He had followed up the publication of essays in The Dial by the issue in 1841 of a volume selected from his earlier lectures and essays, a second series in 1843, a collection of his orations annexed to a reprint of ‘Nature’ in 1849, and in 1850 his most effective book for European recognition of his high quality, the ‘Representative Men.’ All these books had been lectures mainly, though much changed in publication, as may he seen by reading the omitted passages cited in the ‘Notes’ to Dr. Emerson's ‘Centenary Edition’ of his father's books, issued in 1904. And by 1850 Emerson had become a widely-sought lecturer and went as far west as Galena and Saint Louis, though practically shut out of the slave-holding States by his pronounced anti-slavery opinions which began to be made public by him in 1844.
This wider hearing as lecturer was needful to him now pecuniarily, for his small fortune which had made him independent since 1832 had become involved in railroad speculations by the ambition of a classmate at college and yielded him little revenue for years. The way had been prepared for his extended reputation in England and on the continent by his visit there in 1847-48, when he lectured extensively in England and Scotland under arrangements made for him by Alexander Ireland of the Manchester Guardian and by his friend Carlyle and others in London. He had even aroused the envy of Mrs. Carlyle by his welcome in England among the aristocratic circle to which he had access through his friends George Bancroft and Charles Sumner, as well as by the simple dignity of his own manners, which admitted him everywhere in the exclusive society of great cities. On this visit he saw something of the French Revolution of 1848, and made acquaintance in England with Arthur Hugh Clough, Matthew Arnold, Froude and others of the rising young men in literature, as well as the older men of letters whom he met at the breakfasts of Rogers and in the circle to which Carlyle, long resident at Chelsea, belonged.Emerson had ever been more forward to publish his friends' books than to hasten to the press with his own. The first edition of ‘Sartor Resartus’ in America was introduced by him in a preface, and he took charge later of American editions of the ‘French Revolution’ and the earlier essays of Carlyle, by all which the author received from sales in America before 1842 about $1,000, which he assured Emerson was more than he had then got from his books (not his review articles) in Great Britain. Emerson also edited the first edition of Jones Very in 1839, and promoted the earlier volumes of Ellery Channing and Thoreau from 1840 to 1854, when Thoreau issued the second of the only two volumes published in his lifetime. Altogether, for Carlyle, Margaret Fuller and his other friends, he had caused to be printed three times as many volumes as appeared of his own writing during the 20 years after his second marriage in 1835. In 1852, while in the midst of his lecturing popularity, he paused at Buffalo, N. Y., from one of his extended tours to urge on his friends at Plymouth to gratify the ambition of Ellery Channing, who would figure as a lecturer as well as a poet. Emerson wrote then to Marston Watson, the “Plymouth Evelyn,” as Alcott styled him, thus (4 Jan. 1852):"Mr. Scherb is a very proper person to take a part in your series of Sunday lectures, and will gladly do so. One other person I should like well to have engaged, my friend Ellery Channing. But I dare not quite say he has any lecture for your purpose, until I hear his lecture on the ‘Future.’ Both the others of his three I have heard; and though they are full of wit and criticism or sarcasm all round the compass, he needs practice and pruning. I am sorry on his very account to leave home just now; for I wish more that he should lecture than that I should."As a poet Emerson had been slightly known to his youthful associates in college and elsewhere, and in 1834 he had been invited to write the customary poem for the Phi Betta Kappa anniversary at Harvard and did so. But he was dissatisfied with it and for some years after did not publish verses. In 1837 he sent to his friend J. F. Clarke at Louisville, Ky., for printing in the Western Messenger of Louisville and Cincinnati three poems of his earlier composition, and he continued to print others in The Dial. In 1846 he collected these and others in a small volume, printed in Boston and London in 1847, and he issued another volume, largely made up from contributions to the Atlantic Monthly, in 1867. His son has added many poems and fragments in the final edition, so that it is now possible to judge of Emerson as poet by a perusal of all that he wrote in metre.
At first his verse attracted little attention, except by parodists, who viewed it as something comical and to be satirized; this he had expected, for it had happened with his prose also. But even those who admired and quoted his poetical prose were rebuffed by his irregular and difficult verse, and only some 20 years after the volutne of 1847 did it begin to be recognized that here was a philosopher putting his thought into oracular verse, some of which was becoming proverbial, as oracles are wont to be. Since 1884, when at the summer session of the Concord School of Philosophy this feature of his poetry was set forth, it has become a fashion to interpret it in readings; and the essence of his deeper philosophy is best given in his verse; a key to the whole Emersonian theory of the universe being found in the oracular ‘Sphinx’ of the first ‘Poems,’ where it stands at the beginning as befits a key. Besides this philosophic quality there is also much of the high hterary character in single poems devoted to love, friendship, patriotism and the cause of liberty.Had it been predicted in 1847, when Harvard professors were scoffing at Emerson's verse and declaring his philosophy unintelligible, that 60 years later Harvard would be teaching philosophy in a spacious hall named for Emerson and built in part by the contributions of his followers and friends, the prophecy would have been classed with almanac presages of the weather. Yet that very thing has happened and happened partly in consequence of the 10 years' continuance, from 1879 to 1888, of the summer school of philosophy and literature just mentioned. This school carried out an early dream of Emerson and Alcott, who both took part in it till Emerson's death in April 1882 and Alcott's stroke of paralysis in the following October. It brought together speculative men of different schools, all in their way idealists, and it raised into prominence Emerson's share in quickening and deepening philosophic ideas in America.Emerson had published his ‘English Traits,’ a masterly summary of English history and character, in 1856; in 1857 he became a leading writer for the new Atlantic; in 1860 published the ‘Conduct of Life’; in 1864, ‘Society and Solitude’; in 1874 a selection of poems (omitting his own) called ‘Parnassus’; and in 1876 ‘Letters and Social Aims,’ edited by his subsequent biographer, Elliot Cabot. During the Civil War he was a frequent orator for the Union and emancipation, and his political speeches have been posthumously collected in a volume of ‘Miscellanies,’ published in 1883 and enlarged in the Centenary edition. A volume of ‘Lectures and Biographical Sketches’ (1883 and 1904) gives his posthumous lectures and personal tributes, and a final volume (1893 and 1904), ‘Natural History of Intellect,’ gives others, and a general index, long needed.The classification of topics in these later books does not well agree with the titles, and there are still other volumes promised from Emerson's journals and letters, although these have been much drawn upon in notes to the 12 volumes already issued. It remains for some future editor to arrange the writings with a better regard to their chronological sequence, since the estimate of Emerson as a writer depends somewhat on the observed growth and decline of his powers as in the analogous cases of Plato and Goethe.It is in the class with these two world-renowned authors that Emerson will stand hereafter. Less copious and less imaginative than either Plato or Goethe, he is not less original than they, and his expression of profound thought and ethical truth was guided by a taste often better than theirs. Much mannerism and many repetitions are found in his books as in theirs; many apparent inconsistencies also, as with them. But these last grew out of the development of his thought and his increasing perception of the complexity of the two worlds, Nature and Man. Of his many biographers and critics few have fully comprehended him — they furnish material for final judgment rather than a statement to satisfy future readers. The best, in this view, are Elliot Cabot and Dr. Emerson, to whom the world is indebted for much material drawn from the manuscripts and not found in type elsewhere.Emerson's health and vigor failed after the partial burning of his house in 1872, and his last tour abroad, in 1872-73, did not restore him. He continued active for years, though withdrawing more and more from publicity by reason of his failing memory. His virtuous and serene nature remained unshaken by these accidents of mortality, and his final illness, though pathetic from his anxiety to avoid burdening others, was short and hardly afflictive. His wife and three of his four children survived him — Mrs. Emerson, the mother of all, dying in 1892 at the age of 90. His descendants are numerous, by various names; his friends are numberless, for he never had a personal enemy and he inspired affection almost as much as admiration.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920