Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts on the 25th of May, 1803 to his mother, Ruth Haskins, and his father Rev. William Emerson. Emerson’s father died at an early age, and he was raised by his mother as well as his Aunt Mary Emerson, who became a big influence in his life. In his younger years, Emerson attended the Boston Latin School at the age of nine, and then Harvard College at the early age of fourteen. After graduating from Harvard in 1821 at eighteen, Emerson started a school for young women with his brother, and he made his living as a school teacher for the next several years.
Emerson’s brother, William, originally attended Divinity School to become a minister like their father, but abandoned that route and decided to study law instead. It was at this time that Emerson’s Aunt Mary Emerson came to him and convinced him to attend Divinity School saying, “There was always meant to be a Reverend Emerson in Boston” (Seavey 3).
After attending Harvard Divinity School, Emerson was ordained in March of 1829 and served as an assistant minister at Boston’s Second Church.
Shortly thereafter, Emerson married his first wife, Ellen Tucker, a marriage that lasted only two short years before Ellen died of tuberculosis in 1831. Emerson did not handle his wife’s death very well, and soon after he began disagreeing with certain practices of the church which led to his personal statement, “This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it” (Packer 39). In 1836, Emerson helped found the Transcendental Club, and published his first essay “Nature,” later that year.
It was this essay, as well as his Phi Beta Kappa Address, “The American Scholar,” and his Harvard “Divinity School Address” that began Emerson’s career in literature. Around this time, he married his second wife, Lydia Jackson, in Massachusetts, with whom he had four children. After years of working as the editor to the Transcendental Club’s flagship journal, “The Dial,” Emerson published his world renowned essay “Self-Reliance. ” Emerson then spent the rest of his career traveling and lecturing all around New England. After a period of publishing numerous essays and poems, the Civil War era arrived, and Emerson once again found imself at the center of political movements. Emerson sided with the abolitionist movement and he believed in the emancipation of the slaves, “The South calls slavery an institution… I call it destitution… Emancipation is the demand of civilization” (Baker 433). In his later years, Emerson’s memory began to fade and his lecturing career became less demanding, as his appointments slowly dwindled to a few and they were far between. His condition soon became too embarrassing for him personally, and he ceased public appearances all together in 1879.
Three short years after he disappeared from the public eye, Emerson died of pneumonia and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery located in Concord, Massachusetts in 1882. Emerson’s belief in Transcendentalism carved the path for his successful career. Transcendentalism, defined by the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, is the “system of thought based on a belief in the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of man, and the supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths. ” Ironically, Emerson’s most famous works are those that received the most criticism.
His essays “Nature” and “Self-Reliance”, as well as his address, the “Divinity School Address”, are all of his most famous works. “Nature,” published anonymously, was Emerson’s first essay. In this work, Emerson demonstrates his “willingness to offer testimony to his own revelatory experience” (Geldard 24), in terms of his faith being converted from Unitarianism over to this new view of Nature. This experience that Emerson refers to was “recorded in his journal in almost the exact form that it appears in Nature” (Geldard 24). “… all mean egotism vanishes.
I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God (an excerpt from Emerson’s Essay “Nature”). This moment would echo throughout Emerson’s entire life and it is what “drove Emerson from the pulpit into his study to become a writer and thinker and to find his original relation to the universe” (Felton 5). In 1838, two years after founding the Transcendental Club, Emerson was invited to speak at the Harvard Divinity School to give the school’s graduation address. Emerson knew that this opportunity to give a formal address at Divinity College, of which he himself was a graduate, would be his chance to influence the future direction of the Unitarian worship in New England” (Geldard 72). However, the content of his address was so offensive to the authorities of the Divinity College that he “would not be invited back to speak at Harvard for more than thirty years… The greatest offense was his reference to Jesus as a man and not God incarnate” (Geldard 73). Emerson’s address was not a conscious attempt to destroy or to claim the Unitarian faith to be false.
Instead, he only wanted to provide a balance to spiritual and personal human capacities, “but the theologians present heard only the criticism of their Church and the doctrines it supported” (Geldard 74). Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” was the most radical essay that he wrote during his career. It is with this essay that he promoted his views on transcendentalism and the belief that the answers to life’s questions could be answered and achieved through the study of the nature around him. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” (Emerson Self-Reliance).
Emerson’s goal was to influence his readers to find the same realization that he had personally discovered. Emerson hoped that they “would see beneath apparent confusion, a unity of purpose within nature, and that vision in turn would enable one to overcome the contentiousness that a shortsighted society had permitted to flourish” (Cayton 222). “Self-Reliance” was the work that made Emerson famous world-wide. While his family and Unitarian friends did not approve of his message, the essay received wide attention from his readers in New England, as well as in England and other Eastern countries.
This work sparked Emerson’s career as a traveling lecturer which contributed the greater portion of his income for the rest of his life. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the first writers to create a form of literature that was purely American. Before Emerson’s time, previous authors in New England had remained faithful to the traditional European styles of writing, using history and religion as forms of imagery. Emerson became the leader of a new era, using nature and the mysteries of life to convey his ideas, rather than relying on the traditional writings.
Unlike many others who had lead the way in their respective fields with new and modern ideas, Emerson was not cast aside and left to be unrecognized until years later. Emerson possessed the right ideas at precisely the right time, and he presented them in the right manner to a hungry audience. His address that was given to the Harvard Divinity School may not have been extremely popular with the authorities of the college but the “young graduates on the other hand, were delighted by the message and urged Emerson to publish the address, which he did” (Geldard 74).
Emerson held the view that “we are located firmly in a world of polarities, and yet to stop there, to believe that this fragmented view of reality is all we have, ignores the hidden sources of creation and meaning in existence” (Geldard 77). Emerson effectively challenged the Unitarian Church in an effort to bring about a reform, not the destruction. But when the church officials would not see past his criticisms, he took it upon himself to spread his message of nature and self realization, through the study of one’s surroundings, by way of his own personal lectures and essays.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s name and legacy are synonymous with Transcendentalism. Emerson’s view on life was that it is possible “to renew the world with a new idealist philosophy that went beyond the materialism of science and beyond the boundaries of traditional religion. ” (Kateb 44). Emerson expressed these beliefs in his essay “Self-Reliance,” using the theme of trusting your inner voice. “Emerson believed every human being has inborn knowledge that enables him to recognize and understand moral truth without benefit of knowledge obtained through the physical senses.
Using this inborn knowledge, a gift of God, an individual can make a moral decision without relying on information gained through everyday living, education, and experimentation” (Kateb 53). This belief is what led to the establishment of the Transcendentalist Club that consisted of Emerson and others who believed that this “inborn knowledge” served as a person’s moral guiding force. It was Emerson and the Club’s goal for people to give back meaning to the individual, in terms of their original thought, and to teach them to embrace that thought, rather than to reject it because it is their own, and seemingly unworthy.
Emerson drove forcefully at his readers, to the point of criticism, in order to establish his relentless point of view. Quotes from his essay, such as “Who so would be a man must be a nonconformist” and “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do,” were both written with the intent to instill knowledge and to persuade his readers. In his time and place Emerson played a needed role, awakening longing and a sense of a life that justified his (radical) eloquence” (Kateb 197).
- Anderson, Quentin, Stephen Donadio, Stephen Railton, and Ormond Seavey. Emerson and His Legacy: Essays in Honor of Quentin Anderson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1986. Print.
- Baker, Carlos. Emerson among the Eccentrics: a Group Portrait. New York: Penguin, 1997. Print. Felton, R. Todd. A Journey into the Transcendentalists’ New England. Berkeley, Calif. : Roaring Forties, 2006.
- Print. Geldard, Richard G. The Esoteric Emerson: the Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne, 1993. Print. Geldard, Richard G. The Essential Transcendentalists. New York: J. P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005. Print.
- Kateb, George. Emerson and Self-reliance. Thousand Oaks (Calif. ): Sage Publications, 1995. Print. Packer, Barbara L. The Transcendentalists. Athens: University of Georgia, 2007. Print.
- Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.
Cite this A Critique on Ralph Waldo Emerson
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