Waldo Emerson was a famous American author, poet, and philosopher.
Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to the Rev. William Emerson,
a Unitarian minister in a famous line of ministers. He gradually
drifted from the doctrines of his peers, then formulated and first
expressed the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his essay Nature.
he was three years old, Emerson's father complained that the child
could not read well enough. Then in 1811, when Emerson was eight
years old, his father died. He attended Boston Latin School. In
October 1817, at the age of 14, Emerson went to Harvard University
and was appointed President's Freshman, a position which gave
him a room free of charge. He waited at Commons, which reduced
the cost of his board to one quarter, and he received a scholarship.
He added to his slender means by tutoring and by teaching during
the winter vacations at his Uncle Ripley's school in Waltham,
Emerson graduated from Harvard in 1821, he assisted his brother
in a school for young ladies established in their mother's house;
when his brother went to Göttingen to study divinity, Emerson
took charge of the school. Over the next several years, Emerson
made his living as a schoolmaster, then went to Harvard Divinity
School, and emerged as a Unitarian minister in 1829. A dispute
with church officials over the administration of the Communion
service, and a reticence for public prayer led to his resignation
in 1832. A year earlier his young wife and reputed one true love,
Miss Ellen Louisa Tucker, died in April 1831.
1832–33, Emerson toured Europe, a trip that he would later
write about in English Traits (1856). During this trip, he met
Wordsworth, Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Emerson
maintained a correspondence with Carlyle until Carlyle's death
in 1882. He served as Carlyle's agent in the U.S.
1835, Emerson bought a house on the Cambridge Turnpike, in Concord,
Massachusetts. He quickly became one of the leading citizens in
the town. He also married his second wife Lydia Jackson there.
September 1836, Emerson and other like-minded intellectuals founded
the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement,
but didn't publish its journal The Dial, until July 1840. Emerson
published his first essay, Nature, anonymously in September 1836.
While it became the foundation for Transcendentalism, many people
at the time assumed it to be a work of Swedenborgianism.
1838 he was invited back to Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School,
for the school's graduation address, which came to be known as
his Divinity School Address. His remarks managed to outrage the
establishment and shock the whole Protestant community at the
time, as he proclaimed Jesus a great man, but not God. For this,
he was denounced as an atheist, and a poisoner of young men's
minds. Despite the roar of his critics, he made no reply, leaving
it to others for his defense. He was not invited back to speak
at Harvard for another 40 years, but by the mid 1880s his position
had become standard Unitarian doctrine.
in 1842, Emerson lost his first son, Waldo, to scarlet fever.
Emerson wrote about his grief in two major works: the poem "Threnody",
and the essay "Experience". In the same year, William
James was born, and Emerson agreed to be his godfather.
made a living as a popular lecturer in New England and the rest
of the country outside of the South. During several scheduled
appearances that he was not able to make, Frederick Douglass took
his place. Emerson spoke on a wide variety of subjects. Many of
his essays grew out of his lectures.
associated closely with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau
and often took walks with them in Concord. Emerson encouraged
Thoreau's talent and early career. The land on which Thoreau built
his cabin on Walden Pond belonged to Emerson. While Thoreau was
living at Walden, Emerson provided food and hired Thoreau to perform
odd jobs. When Thoreau left Walden after two years' time, it was
to live at the Emerson house while Emerson was away on a lecture
tour. Their close relationship fractured after Emerson gave Thoreau
the poor advice to publish his first book, A Week on the Concord
and Merrimack Rivers, without extensive drafts, and directed Thoreau
to his own agent who made Thoreau split the price/risk of publishing.
The book was a flop, and put Thoreau heavily into debt. Eventually
the two would reconcile some of their differences, although Thoreau
privately accused Emerson of having drifted from his original
philosophy, and Emerson began to view Thoreau as an anti-social
misanthrope. Emerson's eulogy of Thoreau is largely credited with
the latter's negative reputation during the 19th century.
was noted as being a very abstract and difficult writer who nevertheless
drew large crowds for his speeches. The heart of Emerson's writing
was his direct observations in his journals, which he started
keeping as a teenager at Harvard. The journals were elaborately
indexed by Emerson. Emerson went back to his journals, his bank
of experiences and ideas, and took out relevant passages, which
were joined together in his dense, concentrated lectures. He later
revised and polished his lectures for his essays.
was considered one of the great orators of the time, a man who
could enrapture crowds with his deep voice, his enthusiasm, and
his egalitarian respect for his audience. His outspoken, uncompromising
support for abolitionism later in life caused protest and jeers
from crowds when he spoke on the subject. He continued to speak
on abolition without concern for his popularity and with increasing
radicalism. He attempted, with difficulty, not to join the public
arena as a member of any group or movement, and always retained
a stringent independence that reflected his individualism. He
always insisted that he wanted no followers, but sought to give
man back to himself, as a self-reliant individual. Asked to sum
up his work late in life, he said it was his doctrine of "the
infinitude of the private man" that remained central.
many of his fellow American Transcendentalists of the 19th century,
Emerson was strongly influenced by the Vedas, and much of his
writing has strong shades of nondualism. One of the clearest examples
of this can be found in his essay, "The Over Soul":
"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
strongly influenced Emerson by his early reading of the French
essayist. From those compositions he took the conversational,
subjective style and the loss of belief in a personal God. He
never read Kant's works, but, instead, relied on Coleridge's interpretation
of the German Transcendental Idealist. This led to Emerson's non-traditional
ideas of soul and God.
is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord.