The Sage of Concord and the central intellectual figure of the American Renaissance, Ralph Waldo Emerson--as preacher, philosopher, and poet--embodied the finest spirit and highest ideals of his age. Emerson was a thinker of bold originality, and his essays and lectures offer models of clarity, style, and thought; this made him a formidable presence in 19th-century American life. Charles Ives is among the composers who set Emerson’s verses.
Born on May 3, 1803, in Boston, Waldo, as Emerson preferred to be called, received a classical education at Boston Latin School and at Harvard College. Following in his father's footsteps, he was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1829, but he experienced a religious crisis after the death from tuberculosis of his first wife, the beautiful and romantic Ellen Tucker, to whom he had been married only eighteen months. Resigning from the Second Church and journeying to England in 1832, he became friends with Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and began to formulate his Transcendental faith.
Returning to American in 1834, Emerson began a new career as a lecturer. The subsequent few years proved a roller-coaster of emotional events: the untimely deaths of his brothers Edward (1834) and Charles (1836); his marriage to Lydia Jackson of Plymouth (whom he renamed Lidian because it had a more euphonious classical ring to it) and settling comfortably in a new home in Concord (1835); the birth of their children--Waldo in 1836, Ellen in 1838, Edith in 1841, and Edward in 1844. This period also saw the publication of Emerson's first major essay, Nature (1836).
Emerson gathered around himself a circle of poets, reformers, artists, and thinkers who helped define a new national identity for American art. Among them were Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Peabody sisters, the Alcott family, Jonas Very, the Ripleys, and the Channings. Within this group Emerson expounded his views on the mystical harmonies of man and nature, the essential perfectibility of the human spirit, the unity of the human soul with the divine Over-Soul, and the values of nonconformity, intellectual and spiritual independence, self-reliance, and utopian friendship. Emerson was a committed Abolitionist, a champion of the hounded Native Americans, a tireless crusader for peace and social justice, a supporter of educational reform, and a selfless champion of other creative geniuses around him (his letter endorsing Whitman's Leaves of Grass hailed the younger poet as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed"). Emerson's writings combine passion with a purity of prose. With Margaret Fuller he founded The Dial, which published Transcendentalist literature from1840 to 1844. In the years between 1837 and 1844 he published his most famous works, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, and two volumes of Essays (1841 and 1844), which contained the influential pieces “Self-Reliance,” “The Poet,” “Friendship,” and “The Over-Soul”--this last an outline of the tenets of Transcendentalism.
1842 saw the death of little Waldo, followed by the birth of Edward in 1844. In 1847 Emerson again went abroad, to England and to France, while Thoreau remained in Concord watching over the Emerson family. Throughout the remaining three and a half decades of his productive, disciplined life, during which he lectured extensively and wrote seven more major works, Emerson faced with stoic faith the departure of those close to him: his mother in 1853; his brother Robert Bulkeley in 1859; his comrade Thoreau in 1862; his Aunt Mary Moody, who had been a profound influence since childhood on his moral and intellectual life, in 1863; his brother William in 1868.
The last blow came in 1872, when the house where he and Lidian had lived for 37 years burned. To relieve Emerson’s depression, his friends arranged for him to travel abroad, while they raised funds for the rebuilding of the house and the reconstruction of his library--gifts they presented to the speechless poet upon his return in 1873. He lived quietly in the house, struggling with a waning memory but persevering, with his daughters' help, in editing his papers and publishing his last two volumes: Parnassus and Letters and Social Aims.
On April 27, 1882, the great thinker died of pneumonia, caught some weeks before following a rain-soaked walk through his beloved Concord woods. The tiny New England town tolled the bell once for each of his 79 years, shrouded itself in black, and prepared for the onslaught of mourners who came from far and near to accompany Emerson to his rest on Authors Ridge in the village’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
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