Reader's Encyclopedia

Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803-1882)

American poet, essayist, and philosopher. After a studious but undistinguished career at Harvard, and a brief period of teaching, Emerson entered the ministry. He was appointed to the Old Second Church in Boston, his native city, but soon became an unwilling preacher. Unable in conscience to administer the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, he resigned his pastorate at the death of his young wife, Ellen Tucker. The following year, 1832, he sailed for Europe. Visiting Landor, Carlyle, and Coleridge, he began to formulate his own philosophy. Emerson's friendship with Carlyle was both lasting and significant. The insights of the British thinker helped him to reconcile some of his own confusions. Two other trips to England followed, in 1847 and 1872, but neither was as vital as the first.

On his return to New England, Emerson became known for the challenges to traditional thought in his essays and lectures. His first book, Nature, summarized his major ideas. In 1835, he married Lydia Jackson and settled in Concord, Massachusetts. The center of a literary circle, "the sage of Concord" became the chief spokesman for Transcendentalism. Other members of his group included Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Henry Thoreau, and W. E. Channing.

Among Emerson's best work are Essays, First and Second Series; Poems (1847); Representative Men; The Conduct of Life (1860) and English Traits (1865). His best - known addresses are The American Scholar (1837) and The Divinity School Address. For two years, 1842-44, Emerson edited the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial.

Emerson's philosophy is characterized by its reliance on intuition as the only way to comprehend reality. His conception of life as "spiritual vision" owes much to the work of Plotinus. He was influenced, too, by Swedenborg and Bohme. Like Thoreau and Whitman, he was attracted to mystical Indian literature and philosophy.

Emerson's unit of thought is the epigrammatic sentence. His prose style is not clearly organized or easy to follow but has moments of great brilliance. Emerson wrote a poetic prose; intuitive rather than logical in form, the essays are ordered by recurring themes and images. His poetry, on the other hand, is often called harsh and didactic; he knew himself to be a "husky singer."

A believer in the "divine sufficiency of the individual," Emerson was a steady optimist. His refusal to grant the positive existence of evil caused Melville, Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr., among others, to doubt his judgment. In spite of skepticism, Emerson's beliefs -- that each man shares in the Over - Soul, or God; that Nature is a manifestation of Spirit; and that man possesses, within himself, the means to all knowledge -- expressed in his memorable sentences, are of central importance in the history of American culture. See Boston Hymn; Brahma; Concord Hymn; Days; Each and All; Merlin; Very, Jones.