A key figure in the “New England Renaissance”, Ralph Waldo Emerson is remembered as a philosopher, lecturer, essayist and poet. Check out this biography to know about his childhood and life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography

Born On: May 25, 1803
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Born In: Boston, Massachusetts
Died On: April 27, 1882
Career: Philosopher, Lecturer, Essayist, Poet
Nationality: American
A renowned poet, lecturer and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a chief figure in Transcendentalism—an American literary, philosophical and religious movement. Power, energy and inspiration were the key qualities that revolved around Emerson’s works of literature and essays. As mentioned in the first literary critical lecture titled “Milton”, Emerson emphasized on the liberty of a man. Likewise, this extraordinary English poet largely advocated civil, ecclesiastical, literary and domestic liberty. By opposing slavery, denying predestination, arguing the freedom of the press and favoring the principle of divorce, Emerson had done enough on generating pathways for the common man. Ralph Waldo Emerson is best remembered as the pioneer of metaphysical and transcendental thought and oriental philosophy.
Early Years
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born to Rev. William Emerson, a conservative Unitarian minister, among a long line of ministers, and Ruth Haskins, a quietly devout mother. He shared his name with his mother’s brother Ralph and father’s great-grandmother Rebecca Waldo. The fourth of eight children, Ralph Waldo was the second surviving kid among the five, as the other three died either in infancy or childhood. He was fortunate to be born in the family of descendants with prominent New England ministers, who were known for prized education, learning and culture. Ralph Waldo had been a witness to many premature deaths in his childhood, the first being his father who died from stomach cancer, days before Ralph could complete his eighth birthday.
Ralph Waldo stepped into his father’s shoes by getting admission in Boston Public Latin School for formal education in 1812, when he was nine. Thereafter, he enrolled in Harvard College at the age of 14. It was there that Ralph took the first step towards maintaining a journal, which later became a major source of his lectures, essays and books. This practice continued until his death. He graduated in 1821, only to become a school teacher which he later ceased.
Early Career
After graduation, Ralph joined his brother William in running a young women’s school at his mother’s residence. Later, he set up his own school in Chelmsford, Massachusetts and took charge when William headed for Göttingen to study divinity. Though he made sufficient earning from the school, he closed the school after four years, only to get admitted to Harvard Divinity School in 1825. A year later in October 1826, he was licensed to preach by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. However, his health started to decline probably due to the early symptoms of tuberculosis that his brother Edward died from.
The same year, i.e. in 1826, Ralph moved south to Charleston, South Carolina and St. Augustine, Florida in the hope of finding a warmer climate that would help him recuperate. He returned to New England and began preaching in Unitarian churches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He was ordained minister of Boston’s Second Church in 1829, shortly before marrying his first wife, Ellen. In 1832 he traveled Europe extensively visiting Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice, Switzerland and Paris. During his tour, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle.
Emerson was highly influenced by Carlyle, which was evident from their regular communication, until Carlyle’s death in 1881. On returning from his European trip in 1833, Emerson lived with his mother for a while before shifting to Concord, Massachusetts to live with his step-grandfather, Dr. Ezra Ripley, in 1834. His private property, bought in 1835 on the Cambridge and Concord Turnpike, has now been open for public viewing as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House.
As a Lecturer and Philosopher
On returning home in 1833 from Europe, Emerson embraced a new career, that of a public lecturer. He was invited by the Boston Natural History Society, where he delivered his first lecture on science. This was followed by lectures in Concord and Bedford in Italy. Emerson got his major break in the year 1835 at Boston’s Masonic Temple, wherein he delivered his first-ever open public lecture series, comprising of six lectures on “Biography”. The year 1836 saw the formation of the Transcendental Club with chief members being Emerson himself and other minded intellectuals, like George Putnam, George Ripley and Frederic Hedge.
The Transcendental Club served as the center of the movement that protested against the general state of culture and society, especially the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian Church taught at Harvard Divinity School. The group came up with new ideas on literature, religion, culture and philosophy. Within a week, the group expanded by including Orestes Brownson, James Freeman Clarke, Convers Francis, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody and Henry Thoreau. The same year, Emerson published his first essay book “Nature”. The group had founded a new magazine titled “The Dial” that was launched in 1840, portraying the group’s interest in the literature of idealism. Although the magazine was planned well ahead in 1839, but was not put into action until 1840. Margaret Fuller served as the first editor after many others declined the offer.
Emerson’s second book “Essays” was published in 1841 including the most popular “Self-Reliance”. By now, Emerson had emerged as the center of Transcendentalism, introducing new, exciting and vital ideas in American cultural life. At his peak, Emerson delivered a series of lectures on great men and published his works and poems widely. Although his audience did not entirely follow the subtleties of his arguments, they were highly captivated and moved by his speaking style and ideas. During his 40 years career, Emerson traveled extensively to Europe, California and Canada with a total of about 1500 lectures, though his base remained at Massachusetts. A major figure in the American literary landscape, Emerson had been a profound inspiration for many writers, the most famous being Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman.
Emerson met Ellen Louisa Tucker, his first wife on Christmas day in 1829 in Concord, New Hampshire. For them, it was love at first sight that ended in their marriage in the same year. Since Ellen was suffering from tuberculosis, the couple, along with Emerson’s mother, moved to Boston. After a year and half, Ellen succumbed to her illness in 1831 which deeply traumatized him. A year later in 1832, he resigned from his port of minister of Boston’s Second Church and set out to travel to Europe. On returning to America, he shifted to Concord where he married for the second time to Lydia Jackson in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1835. With her, he had four kids, namely, Waldo, Ellen, Edith and Edward Waldo Emerson. However, their first child, Waldo, died when he was just 5 years old.
Emerson’s health started deteriorating in 1871, when he began losing his memory, eventually, suffering from aphasia. This was only the beginning of his long slow decline, although he continued to deliver lectures, sometimes from his chair. In 1879, he withdrew from public appearances when his memory problems became highly embarrassing. However, on April 19th, 1882, despite having a bad cold, Emerson went out for a walk only to be caught in a heavy rain downpour. Diagnosed with pneumonia, Emerson breathed his last on April 27th 1882 at his residence in Concord. He was dressed in a white robe presented by American sculptor Daniel Chester French and buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.
Many of Emerson’s work were published posthumously. Amongst them was his fourth lecture on “Milton”, which was published in Natural History of Intellect in 1893. “Milton” was his first important statement which he made on literature. His works that were later published include the five lectures in the "Biography" series, the ten lectures he gave on "English Literature", the twelve lectures on "The Philosophy of History" and the ten lectures on "Human Culture". These were lectures were clubbed and published in 1959, years after his death, as “The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson”.
  • In the May of 2006, about 168 years after Emerson delivered his "Divinity School Address”, Harvard Divinity School had declared the establishment of the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship. Harvard has also named a building, Emerson Hall, after the renowned poet and lecturer.
  • The Emerson String Quartet, which was formed in the year 1976, took their name from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
1803: Born in Boston, Massachusetts
1821: Graduated from Harvard College
1825: Entered Harvard Divinity School
1826: Received preaching license from the Middlesex Association of Ministers
1829: Ordained minister of Boston’s Second Church; Married first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker
1832: Set out on a European tour
1835: Delivered first open public lecture at Boston’s Masonic Temple
1835: Married second wife, Lydia Jackson
1836: Transcendental Club was formed; First essay “Nature” was published
1840: First flagship journal “The Dial” was published
1841: Second book “Essays’ was published
1882: Died at the age of 78 in Concord, Massachusetts

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