This Day In Literary History
On May 25th, 1803, the legendary American poet, essayist, philosopher, and orator Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Emerson's father, Rev. William Emerson, was a Unitarian minister who died two weeks before his son's eighth birthday.
Young Ralph would be raised by his mother and other female family members, all of whom were both intellectuals and devoutly religious. Emerson was especially close to his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. They wrote to each other frequently until her death in 1863.
At the age of 9, Emerson attended Boston Latin School, then at 14, he went to Harvard College, where he was appointed freshman messenger for the president.
During his junior year, he began compiling a list of books he'd read and started keeping a journal in a series of notebooks, which he called the Wide World. In his senior year, he served as Class Poet and recited an original poem on Harvard's Class Day, though by all accounts, he was an average student.
After graduating Harvard, Emerson helped his brother run a school for young women originally run out of their mother's house. Emerson took over the school when his brother went off study divinity.
Emerson hated running the school, as he was very awkward around women. But it gave him the experience that enabled him to work as a schoolmaster for a few years before going to divinity school himself.
Emerson was most likely bisexual. During his Harvard years, he wrote in his journal of being "strangely attracted" to a male classmate by the ironic name of Martin Gay, about whom he wrote sexually charged poems. Emerson also wrote of his other male infatuations, including the legendary writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.
However, in 1829, not long after being ordained as a junior pastor at Boston's Second Church, Emerson met a young girl named Ellen Louisa Tucker and fell love with her. He married her when she turned 18 - even though she was stricken with tuberculosis.
When Ellen died two years later, Emerson was devastated and visited her grave frequently. His wife's death forced him to come to terms with his simmering discontent with religion.
In his journal, he wrote, "I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers." He resigned as pastor.
Emerson then toured Europe, writing of his travels in English Traits (1856). During his trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle was a strong influence, and Emerson would serve as his unofficial literary agent in the U.S., maintaining a lifelong friendship with him.
In 1835, he bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts, which is now a historical landmark. He married his second wife Lydia Jackson in September, 1835, and she bore him four children: Waldo, Edith, Ellen, and Edward. Ellen was named after Emerson's first wife at Lydia's suggestion.
The following year, Emerson and some like-minded intellectuals formed the Transcendental Club, which held its first meeting on September 19, 1836. Shortly thereafter, he published his first essay, Nature.
In this essay, Emerson puts forth the foundation of transcendentalism, defining nature - the very universe - as an all-encompassing divine entity that is part of us, rather than a kingdom ruled by a separate divine entity.
In pursuing his new philosophy, Emerson delved into the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedic Texts - all of which are the ancient, sacred writings of the Hindu religion.
A year later, Emerson delivered his famous Phi Beta Kappa Address at Cambridge, where he issued a declaration of literary independence from Europe, urging his fellow American writers to create a literary style all their own, free from European influence.
Around this time, Emerson struck up a friendship with writer Henry David Thoreau and asked him if he kept a journal. Thoreau's fascination with Emerson's journaling practice strongly influenced his own writing. He became Emerson's protege.
On July 15, 1838, Emerson was invited to Harvard Divinity School to deliver the graduation address at Divinity Hall. In what came to be known as his famous Divinity School Address, Emerson disputed biblical miracles and proclaimed Jesus to be neither God himself nor the son of God.
He was simply a great man and spiritual teacher whom organized Christianity had turned into a "demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo." Emerson's address caused considerable outrage. He was denounced as an atheist and a corrupter of young people's minds.
Nevertheless, Emerson remained a popular lecturer in New England and throughout the country. He also toured England, Ireland, and Scotland. By the 1850s, he was giving up to 80 lectures a year. His earnings from the lectures enabled him to buy eleven acres of land near Walden Pond.
In 1845, Emerson published his classic essay The Over-soul, which is clearly influenced by the Vedic Texts and has a distinct tone of non-dualism:
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
In 1847, Emerson published his first book of poetry, simply titled Poems. Among these is Threnody, a heart wrenching, dazzlingly lyrical ode to grief written after Emerson lost his firstborn son Waldo to scarlet fever in 1842. His second book of poetry, May-Day and Other Poems, was published in 1867.
In 1860, Emerson, a ferocious abolitionist, voted for Abraham Lincoln for President, but was greatly disappointed by Lincoln's initial inclination to allow the Southern states to maintain the institution of slavery in order to preserve the Union.
On January 31st, 1862, Emerson gave a public lecture in Washington DC, declaring "The South calls slavery an institution. I call it destitution. Emancipation is the demand of civilization." The next day, his friend Charles Sumner took him to meet Lincoln. He came away with a more favorable opinion of the President.
The decade of the 1870s marked the beginning of the end of Emerson's career. His Concord home burned down in July of 1872, and though his friends collected over $15,000 in donations to help him and his family rebuild, it added to the stress caused by the fact that Emerson's memory was failing.
In 1874, he edited and published a poetry anthology called Parnassus. By the end of the decade, his memory had failed considerably, and in 1879, at the age of 76, he finally retired from lecturing. When asked by friends how he felt, Emerson would reply in classic form "Quite well. I have lost all my mental faculties, but am perfectly well."
On April 19th, 1882, despite having a cold, Emerson went out for a walk and got caught in the rain. His cold turned into pneumonia, and he died eight days later at the age of 79.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the all-time great American intellectuals - a poet, essayist, philosopher, and orator years, if not decades, ahead of his time. He will always have a place in the annals of literary history.
Quote Of The Day
"Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book; a personality which, by birth and quality, is pledged to the doctrines there set forth, and which exists to see and state things so, and not otherwise." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today's Video features a complete reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson's classic essay, The Poet. Enjoy!