Dr. Josey--4th Period
Ralph Waldo Emerson Research Paper
Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leader of a revolutionary movement called transcendentalism. Throughout his life he championed individual thought and self-reliance. While his works were a mine of thought, beneath all the lofty aspirations was the man--serene, gentle, forever a gentleman.
Emerson was born May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. He came from a scholarly family. His father, the Reverend William Emerson, was a Unitarian minister of the First Church in Boston. Though he played an indistinct and minor role in his son's life he led an active public life (Richardson 20). A notable man of his day, he left an influence on the science, literature, and art of Boston. Because he died young (at age 42), the family lived in near-poverty (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson). Emerson's mother, Ruth, was quite the opposite of her husband. A spirited woman with very original religious views, she was able to keep the family together after her husband's death. She instilled within Emerson her own religious self-knowledge and self-cultivation (Richardson 22).
Born third of five sons, Emerson was very close to his brothers. His brothers were gifted overachievers with high ambitions. Almost all of them went to Harvard, and three died from tuberculosis later in life. For a long while Ralph was the least promising out of the five (Richardson 35). His older brother William not only paid for all the brother's college tuition, but also upkept his mother. His youngest brother, Robert, was retarded and institutionalized (38).
Emerson's most inspiring relation was his Aunt Moody. Very intellectual and slightly eccentric, she was a burning brand in the household (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson ). Always there to prod Emerson along, to make him think differently, his Aunt Moody was an essential part of his upbringing. She nurtured his predilection for self-thought and creativity.
His education was typical of boys in that day. Because life spans were shorter and conditions more severe, childhood was rushed along (Allen 18). Emerson attended school before age 3, and graduated by age 14. In 1817 he entered Harvard (Clendenning 259). At Harvard he was very poor, and felt it keenly (Richardson 6). He was not an extraordinary scholar and only ranked in the middle of his class. However, he did develop a lifelong passion for literature, philosophy, and nature while at Harvard (Clendenning 259). He graduated in 1821.
A short time after graduation, he taught at a girl's school for three years in Boston. He was not fond of teaching, especially when many of the women were not much younger than himself (Allen 61).
Though he was already having religious doubts, in 1825 Emerson entered Harvard Divinity School. His father had been sixth in a long line of Unitarian ministers, and Ralph was expected to carry on the line. However, within a month of his taking up residence at the Divinity School, his eyes failed, making further study impossible (Richardson 59). He had uveitus, a rheumatic inflammation of the eye. The underlying cause was tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis was pandemic at the time; one in three people died from it. Emerson's life was bloodstained with tuberculosis-related deaths of friends and family.
Though he was resolved to finish his stay at Harvard Divinity School, his purpose was not altogether for religious reasons. He wanted to be first, to succeed, to thrive, to be eloquent, and to be known to be eloquent (Richardson 55).
In hopes that the warm climate would benefit his health, in 1826 Ralph traveled to St. Augustine, Florida. Florida was rugged and largely unsettled at the time. While there, he met a wealthy plantation owner named Murat. Murat was a direct descendent of Napoleon and an atheist. He was the complete opposite of Emerson. However, they became very good friends. Emerson was anti-slavery and Murat was the perfect motivator for rebuttal (Richardson 76). The benefits of Emerson's winter in the South were apparent in his writings (Allen 106).
In 1826 Emerson graduated from the Divinity School and was licensed to preach. He gave numerous sermons at sever different churches and in 1829 was ordained Unitarian pastor of the Second Church of Boston (Clendenning 259). He always read his sermons, never memorizing them or speaking without notes.
Around this same time he married a woman named Ellen Tucker. Ellen, at only 16, was beautiful and lively. She loved the outdoors and nature. She was a poetess with wit and a mind of her own. However, she had the dreaded tuberculosis. She joked that blood vermeil should be on the family crest. She affected Emerson like a religious conversion. When she died in 1932 he was devastated (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson ).
Emerson preached very eloquently and was loved by his congregation. He'd met a woman named Lydia Jackson. She was very impressed with his sermons; they had the same ideas (Rusk 210). He sent her a letter of marriage proposal; she asked him to come ask her in person instead (211). They married in 1832; Emerson felt different about her than he had Ellen--more of a sober joy. He had little time for her and wasn't that enthusiastic over her (212). Also, he was beginning to have doubts about organized religion. In 1832, he gave a regretful last sermon, telling his congregation that he could no longer preach when he did not fully believe in the church`s dogma. He resigned and went to teach at his brother's school (Clendenning 259).
On Christmas Day of 1832, Ralph Waldo left the United States for a tour of Europe. He spent most of his time in England where he met and befriended several influential literary people like Wordsworth and Carlyle. After his year in Europe, Emerson returned to Concord, Massachusetts and became an active writer and lecturer (Encarta 2000).
He was a beautiful orator. He had a most interesting countenance-- a combination of intelligence and sweetness. When at the podium, his eyes would light up from rapt inner illumination, and he would stamp his foot to emphasize a point (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson). He gained a solid, though controversial reputation as a public lecturer with forceful and original ideas (Clendenning 259).
His most detailed statement of belief was reserved for his first published book--Nature which was published in 1836. This idealist doctrine opposed the popular materialist and Calvinist views of life and at the same time voiced a plea for freedom of individual from artificial restraints. It received little notice but came to be regarded as his most original and significant work (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson ). Young people received it with enthusiasm (Clendenning 259).
Soon after the publication of Nature, a discussion group arose with Emerson as its leader. It was called the Transcendentalist Club. This club published a magazine called The Dial, devoted to literature and philosophy. Emerson was the editor (Clendenning 259).
He applied the ideas of transcendentalism to culture and intellectual problems in 1837 when he gave The American Scholar Harvard Address (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson). He outlined the philosophy of humanism and urged listeners to learn directly from life. He said that independent scholars must interpret and lead their culture by means of nature and books. He also urged readers to know the past from books but to express themselves through action (Clendenning 259). He proclaimed America's intellectual independence from Europe. Harvard was scandalized and didn't invite Emerson back for thirty years.
His second address was at the Cambridge Divinity College delivered in 1838 to the graduating class. He attacked formal religion and argued for self-reliance and intuitive spiritual experience (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson). He favored a new religion founded in nature and fulfilled by direct, mystical intuition of God, and opposed formal Christianity's emphasis on ritual (Clendenning 259).
His first volume of essays based on his lectures was published in 1841. Essays included some of his most popular works (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson). In Experience he allowed room for skepticism and showed how doubts are conquered through faith. In Art and The Poet, he outlined his philosophy of aesthetics. In Politics and New England Reformers, he explained his social philosophy. In Compensation, Spiritual Laws, and The Over-Soul, he stated his faith in the moral orderliness of the universe and the divine force governing it (Clendenning 259).
His second volume of essays published in 1844 was more tempered. He acknowledged the limits of reality. In 1846 his first volume of poems was published. He wrote verse in traditional forms characterized by conventional rhythms, rhyme patterns, and stanza forms, as well as economy of phrasing and simplicity of energy
Emerson went abroad 1847-1848 and lectured in England. Several of these lectures were collected in Representative Men, published in 1850. While visiting abroad, Emerson gathered impressions published as English Traits (1856). Spending time abroad furthered his growing interest in national issues; he returned to America to become an active abolitionist (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson). He also published The Conduct of Life.
The Conduct of Life was the first of his books to be immediately popular. It was daring because it lacked religiousness, such as biblical texts and references. (Ralph Waldo Emerson) It began with the main question; How shall I live?
After publishing this final book he did little writing; his mental powers declined. However, his reputation spread far and wide. He influenced people like Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Henry James, and Robert Frost (Clendenning 258). On April 19, 1882, he got soaked while walking and worsened the cold he already had. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and died in Concord April 27, 1882 (257).
Throughout Emerson's life there was no lack of tenderness in his heart, but there was coldness in his personal relations with friends and distance in his relations with the stranger (Holmes 183). He exhibited that trait of romanticism which sought out the primitive and the distant . . . with such indifference to beauty in artistic embodiment (187).
Emerson's works are a mine of thought, all the more valuable, perhaps, that they are not webbed into a system (Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson). He will always be dear to thinkers and to poets and inspiration to the young. His whole life shows no flaw of temper or of foible. He was haunted for most of his days by the sense that the days were slipping past him, one by one, in an irrevocable procession. He seldom felt he had made the fullest possible use of a day (Richardson 67). He was one of the great souls of the century and a great source of inspiration.Sources
Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson--A Biography. New York: The Viking Press. 1981.
Clendenning, John. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. World Book Millenium 2000. 2000 Edition.
Emerson. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson Trans. Nathan Haskell Dole. Online. Ralph Waldo Emerson-texts. Internet. 20 April 2001. Available FTP: jjnet.com
Emerson Ralph Waldo. Encarta 2000. CD-ROM. Redmond, WA: Microsoft, 1993- 1999.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Poetry Exhibits. Online. American Online. 23 April 2001.
Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkely and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1995.
Rusk, Ralph L. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York and London: Columbia University Press 1949.