Ralph Waldo Emerson: Biography, Poems, Books & Success

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

America's often referred to as a 'melting pot' of cultures and ideas, but Americans still have a unique identity. Meet one of the most influential shapers of that identity in this lesson on the life and work of American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson.

'The Sage of Concord': A Brief Biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many of us have complaints about various aspects of American culture, politics, and bureaucracy (think about the last time you were at the DMV). But if you want to learn about a beef with American society that lasted a lifetime, look no further than Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the country's preeminent thinkers to this day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): American philosopher, poet, and essayist
Photo of Ralph Emerson

Born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Emerson was the son of a clergyman who came from a long line of men in this vocation. Naturally, then, Emerson received an early education in ancient literature and languages from the Boston Latin School. He later enrolled at Harvard University, where he graduated in 1821, and returned to attend Harvard Divinity School. In 1826, Emerson was licensed as a minister, and three years later, he was ordained in the Unitarian church. That same year, he married Ellen Tucker.

Tragedy soon struck, however. Ellen died from tuberculosis in 1831, causing Emerson to have a crisis of faith and ultimately leave the clergy. The following year, he traveled through Europe, meeting several figures who would inspire him greatly, including Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth. He returned from his year abroad to lecture on spirituality and the proper way to conduct one's life while also producing poetry and essays on these subjects.

The 1830s also saw Emerson's second marriage to Lydia Jackson, the mother of his four children, and in 1835, his permanent relocatation to Concord, Massachusetts, where 'The Sage' is still a local hero. This decade marked Emerson's prominence in American literary and intellectual circles as he continued to lecture throughout the U.S., particularly New England and the Midwest. By the 1840s, he was the founder and co-editor of his own literary magazine, The Dial, and he showed no signs of slowing down almost right up to his death on April 27, 1882.

But what helped Emerson grab America's attention? Keep reading as we take a look at the secret to his wild success.

A Transcendental Intellect: Emerson's Success

The biggest factor in Emerson's renown is his place at the center of American Transcendentalism, an artistic and philosophical movement of the mid-19th century that stressed the concept of universal unity and the value of intuitive over prescribed (i.e. rules, rituals, etc.) experiences.

His essay Nature, which we'll discuss more in a moment, was published in 1836 and was instrumental in sparking interest in the movement. Emerson's famous speech The American Scholar, delivered the next year, fanned these flames, urging U.S. authors to develop their own styles not based on European predecessors. This led to a rush of literary and intellectual output in America (particularly New England) during the mid-19th century that became known as the 'New England' or American Renaissance.

Emerson inspired many of not just America's but the world's greatest literary and philosophical minds, including Herman Melville, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henry David Thoreau. From this perspective, we can say that Emerson's greatest success was his works' ability to transcend time and place to touch the hearts and minds of so many people. Below you'll find just a few of those works and get a glimpse at what made them so groundbreaking.

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