Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson (1803-1882) developed into the leading author of the mid-19th century. As head of the Transcendental movement, he captained a group of revolutionary Romanticists. Even if their numbers were few, their lasting importance was great. Among them was his closest friend, Henry Thoreau, and there is little doubt that he helped to form some of Thoreau's ideas. Emerson also influenced and encouraged Walt Whitman.

Emerson was born in Boston, where his father was a Unitarian clergyman, as six generations of Emersons had been before him. While a student at Harvard he began keeping journalsĦXrecords of his thoughtsĦXa practice he continued throughout his life. He later drew on the journals for material for his essays and poetry. After graduating, he ran a school for a young ladies for a time, but eventually he returned to Harvard to study for the ministry. Following his second graduation he served as pastor of a church for a few years, but finally resigned his position because he had doubts about the beliefs of the church.

In 1832 Emerson toured Europe, meeting such major English poets as Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Coleridge. Through his acquaintance with these men he became closely involved with German idealism and Transcendentalism. Returning to Boston, he devoted most of his time to lecturing. An address that he delivered at the Harvard Divinity School in 1838 in which he attacked formal religion and defended intuitive spiritual experience aroused such an adverse reaction that he was not invited back to Harvard for 30 years.

Emerson was concerned with many reform movements, among them the abolition of slavery. In 1840 he joined with their Transcendentalists in an attempt to spread ideas through publication of a small magazine named The Dial.

At this point in his career, Emerson's ideas seemed radical and dangerous. The ex-president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, spoke of Emerson's "wild and visionary phantasies," which seemed heretical. However, to the men and women of his generation, and to younger people, he seemed a liberator from old conventions, a leader in experimentation and self-reliance. Emerson rejected what he considered to be the philosophy of materialism and moral relativism prevalent in both Europe and America. He rejected both the formal religion of the churches and the Deistic philosophy which portrayed the world as a watch-like mechanism set in motion by a deity who was no longer present. Emerson felt this religion or philosophy was cold and emotionless. His religion was based on an intuitive belief in an ultimate unity, which he called the "Over-Soul." Because he believed in this unity, Emerson saw the world as harmonious, with seeming inequalities balanced in the long run. Emerson envisioned religion as an emotional communication between an individual soul and the universal "Over-Soul" of which it was a part. He held that intuition was a more certain way of knowing than reason and that the mind could intuitively perceive the existence of the Over-Soul and of certain absolutes. Having this certain knowledge, a man should trust himself to decide what was right and to act accordingly.

Later in his life, as his ideas gained popular acceptance, Emerson was honored as a leading American philosopher and writer. His greatest fame, however, came from his ability as a speaker. Journals and speeches were the forms of communication most natural to him, and his essays were usually derived from lectures he had already given. As a result even his written work has a casual style.

Emerson's influence on American literature resulted not so much from the quality of his own writing, but from the guidance and intellectual climate he provided for other writers such as Thoreau, Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. In the American Scholar, in an article written in 1837, he called for a distinctive American style, dealing with American subjects. Emerson urged the American people to trust themselves and give full rein to nature, which he believed to be basically good. He wanted them to declare their independence both as individuals and as a nation. He said so most stirringly in "Self-Reliance." His progress in this essay follows a spiral rather than a straight line, but that was the Transcendental way. He uses many comparisons, especially metaphors, and although he is not always easy to understand in detail, the general idea of his work stands out clearly enough. Furthermore, he draws on his vast reading in the classics of Western European literature, from the days of Greece and Rome down to the mid-19th century. However, his basic message does not depend on the influence of these sources. Rather his references are suggestive, used to enrich his theme.