Ralph Waldo Emerson life and biography

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Ralph Waldo Emerson biography

Date of birth : 1803-05-25
Date of death : 1882-04-27
Birthplace : Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-05-27
Credited as : Philosopher and poet, Transcendentalist movement , The American Scholar

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, philosopher, and poet, best remembered for leading the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. His teachings directly influenced the growing New Thought movement of the mid-1800s. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society.

Known as a cultural revolutionary who sparked transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson would become one of the most revered men in the United States. He believed and eloquently wrote about the freedom, power, and potential of the self, as seen in his social commentary. The exploration of one’s self and nature had suddenly become more than a doctrine, movement, or philosophy.

Young Ralph grew up in a well-to-do and well-respected family in Boston. He won great respect for his intellect, even as he attended the Boston Latin School – one of the best schools on the east coast. In his early teens, he attended Harvard College and even won awards for his writing. As he worked hard, his intellect grew. Following, he studied at the Harvard Divinity School where he would become a Unitarian pastor.

With the death of the love of his life after only one-and-a-half years of marriage, he began to question his own beliefs. The fact that he had heard controversial information about miracles also caused his mind to sway. Emerson knew that he would have to search deeper for life’s truest meanings. Even holding onto his high position in Boston’s Second Church couldn’t prevent him from quitting his position and heading to Europe to explore man, his religions, and his need to be connected with nature.

Upon his return, his popularity grew as he began lecturing and eventually charging audiences for his lyceum lectures. He focused on what interested him most, human and societal culture. His essay writings turned into books and his ideas spread across college campuses in both the United States and Europe.

His controversial popularity was eventually accepted, even though he spoke out against America and Americans for their ways in regards to money-hording, slavery, and materialism. In his writings and lectures, however, he always kept an optimistic overtone. He supported the arts and praised music and philosophy that would help America find her identity in the world. In his publication entitled Nature in 1836, he delved into the incredibly difficult subjects of man, nature, and God. As he continued publishing his works and giving speeches, he raised a family of four children. The world remembers him, his teachings, and philosophies, especially through one of his followers who continued Emerson’s own explorations in regard to nature and man. His name was Henry David Thoreau.

Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, Emerson was losing his memory and suffered from aphasia. By the end of the decade, he forgot his own name at times and, when anyone asked how he felt, he responded, "Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well".

Emerson's Concord home caught fire on July 24, 1872; Emerson called for help from neighbors and, giving up on putting out the flames, all attempted to save as many objects as possible. The fire was put out by Ephraim Bull, Jr., the one-armed son of Ephraim Wales Bull. Donations were collected by friends to help the Emersons rebuild, including $5,000 gathered by Francis Cabot Lowell, another $10,000 collected by LeBaron Russell Briggs, and a personal donation of $1,000 from George Bancroft. Support for shelter was offered as well; though the Emersons ended up staying with family at the Old Manse, invitations came from Anne Lynch Botta, James Elliot Cabot, James Thomas Fields and Annie Adams Fields. The fire marked an end to Emerson's serious lecturing career; from then on, he would lecture only on special occasions and only in front of familiar audiences.

While the house was being rebuilt, Emerson took a trip to England, continental Europe, and Egypt. He left on October 23, 1872, along with his daughter Ellen while his wife Lidian spent time at the Old Manse and with friends. Emerson and his daughter Ellen returned to the United States on the ship Olympus along with friend Charles Eliot Norton on April 15, 1873. Emerson's return to Concord was celebrated by the town and school was canceled that day.

In late 1874 Emerson published an anthology of poetry called Parnassus, which included poems by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Julia Caroline Dorr, Jean Ingelow, Lucy Larcom, Jones Very, as well as Thoreau and several others. The anthology was originally prepared as early as the fall of 1871 but was delayed when the publishers asked for revisions.

The problems with his memory had become embarrassing to Emerson and he ceased his public appearances by 1879. As Holmes wrote, "Emerson is afraid to trust himself in society much, on account of the failure of his memory and the great difficulty he finds in getting the words he wants. It is painful to witness his embarrassment at times".

On April 19, 1882, Emerson went walking despite having an apparent cold and was caught in a sudden rain shower. Two days later, he was diagnosed with pneumonia.
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.


As a lecturer and orator, Emerson—nicknamed the Concord Sage—became the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. Herman Melville, who had met Emerson in 1849, originally thought he had "a defect in the region of the heart" and a "self-conceit so intensely intellectual that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name", though he later admitted Emerson was "a great man". Theodore Parker, a minister and Transcendentalist, noted Emerson's ability to influence and inspire others: "the brilliant genius of Emerson rose in the winter nights, and hung over Boston, drawing the eyes of ingenuous young people to look up to that great new start, a beauty and a mystery, which charmed for the moment, while it gave also perennial inspiration, as it led them forward along new paths, and towards new hopes".

In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom repeatedly refers to Emerson as "The prophet of the American Religion," which in the context of the book refers to indigenously American and gnostic-tinged religions such as Mormonism and Christian Science that arose largely in Emerson's lifetime. In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom compares Emerson to Michel de Montaigne: "The only equivalent reading experience that I know is to reread endlessly in the notebooks and journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American version of Montaigne."

In May 2006, 168 years after Emerson delivered his "Divinity School Address," Harvard Divinity School announced the establishment of the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship. Harvard has also named a building, Emerson Hall (1900), after him.

Emerson Hill, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Staten Island is named for his eldest brother, Judge William Emerson, who resided there from 1837 to 1864.


* Poems (1847)
* Representative Men (1850)
* English Traits (1856)
* The Conduct of Life (1860)
* May Day and Other Poems (1867)
* Society and Solitude (1870)
* Letters and Social Aims (1876)


* "Self-Reliance"
* "Compensation"
* "The Over-Soul"
* "The Poet"
* "Experience"
* "Nature"
* "The American Scholar"
* "Politics"
* "Circles"
* "New England Reformers"


* "Concord Hymn"
* "The Rhodora"

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