Author Spotlight: Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leading figures of America’s transcendentalist movement during the mid-19th century. These set of ideas promoted individualism by rejecting the general intellectual state of the time. Throughout his life, Emerson published hundreds of essays, and gave over 1,500 lectures on the topic. Slowly, Emerson was drawn further toward the importance of the role of nature in one’s life. He championed the relationship between the soul and natural world in a bustling 19th-century America. Emerson’s work greatly influenced generations of writers that followed. This is a glimpse into the life of one of America’s most profound literary legends.

How a Young Man Began Writing

 Emerson and his four brothers were raised by their parents in Boston, Massachusetts. The writer was born in 1803, and was the second of five sons that would survive into adulthood. When Emerson was just eight years old, his father met an untimely death, leaving his mother and aunt to care for the children. His academic career began in 1812, when Emerson enrolled in the Boston Latin School. Five years later, he started at Harvard College. It was here that he began diligently tracking the books he read, and started a journal that would later be called “Wide World.”
Upon graduation, Emerson began suffering from poor health, and decided to move south in search of warmer climates. Eventually, he found himself in St. Augustine, Florida where he began taking long walks on the beach and writing poetry.
In the earliest years of Emerson’s career, he endured a series of personal tragedies. After a successful college career, his younger brother Edward suffered a mental collapse and was committed to an asylum. He was released, but died of tuberculosis soon after. Likewise, another of his brothers, Charles, also died of tuberculosis in 1836. Emerson’s first wife Ellen Louisa Tucker died of the same disease in 1831, just two years into their marriage.
It was the death of his wife that led Emerson to begin doubting the beliefs of the church. After several years working for the institution, he felt he was forced to leave because of his wavering beliefs. He traveled to Europe where he wrote English Trails, documenting his travels. While abroad, he met several famed names in literature at the time: Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Working amongst these writers greatly impacted the future works of Emerson.

How His Career Gained Momentum

 In November of 1833, Emerson gave a lecture titled “The Uses of Natural History.” The lecture detailed a handful of crucial ideas that Emerson would build upon in his essay, “Nature.” In 1836, Emerson and two other prominent intellectuals founded the Transcendental Club. One year later, women were invited to attend. It was here that he met Margaret Fuller, another key figure in the transcendentalist movement and in Emerson’s career.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and his family.
After the success of his essay “Nature,” Emerson was urged by friends to publish a longer piece. He did so, paying for the printing of 50 copies from his own pocket. They sold out almost immediately. In 1841, he published his second book called Essays, which contained the famous “Self-Reliance,” an essay which built steam for Emerson’s international acclaim. His second book, Essays: Second Series, published in 1844 and contained “The Poet,” “The Experience,” and “The Gift,” poems of Emerson’s that are still widely read today.

The Final Years

 In 1867, Emerson’s health started to decay. Troubles with memory and aphasia plagued his everyday life. Despite these challenges, he was revered in his community. When his home burned down in 1872, the community raised over $10,000 to help support the family’s rebuilding of their house. During this time, Emerson and his youngest daughter visited Europe. Upon their return, celebrations were held and school was cancelled for the day.
By 1879, Emerson was too greatly worn down by the memory problems. He frequently forgot his own name and was forced into the care of others. He halted his public appearances, embarrassed by the mental mishaps. In April of 1882, Emerson fell ill with pneumonia. He died six days later, and was buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.
While Emerson’s religious and social beliefs were considered radical for the time, his work in explaining their role in society helped spawn a new era of study and thought. His belief that God does not provide the truth, but nature does was initially rejected then slowly became recognized by pockets of curious Americans. His work we still read today has made a profound impact on readers and writers today. Beginning in the mid-1800s, Emerson’s work began shaping the ways in which we approach our surrounding environment -- ideas that still today inspire thinkers and philosophers globally.