Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.
Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, a son of Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Ralph Waldo. His father died from tuberculosis when he was four years old, and his mother returned to her family in Boston. She remarried several years later to the Reverend Robert Bulkeley and moved with her children to Concord, Massachusetts, where they lived as neighbors to the Alcott family (the future authors of “Little Women”).
In fact, Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature”. Following this work, he gave a speech entitled “The American Scholar” in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. considered to be America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence”.
Poet wrote most of his important essays as lectures first, then revised them for print. His first two collections of essays – Essays: First Series and Essays: Second Series – represent the core of his thinking. They include the well-known essays “Self-Reliance”, “The Over-Soul”, “History”, “The Poet” and “Experience”. Together with Nature (1836), these essays made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson’s most fertile period.