Essayist, philosopher, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. Son and grandson of Protestant divines, Emerson attended Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, entering the Unitarian ministry in 1829.
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion;…The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance.” In Essays, First Series. Boston: James Munroe & Company, 1841. p. 38
A popular, if unconventional preacher, young Emerson’s sermons consisted of personal reflections on spirituality and virtue. He avoided expounding doctrine or engaging in scriptural exegesis. Increasingly dissatisfied with traditional protestant theology, Emerson resigned from the ministry in 1832. By the end of the decade, however, he was the leading exponent of transcendentalism, a philosophy that maintains the universality of creation, upholds the intrinsic goodness of man, and grounds truth in personal insight.
From the 1830s on, Emerson and a group of like-minded thinkers including Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody were based in Concord, Massachusetts. The transcendentalist community at Concord not only shared radical religious views, but also embraced forward-looking social reforms including abolition, temperance, and woman suffrage.
Emerson lived in his family home, The Old Manse, for one year, where he completed his manifesto, Nature (1836) External, and composed the poem “Concord Hymn” (1837) which commemorates the Revolutionary War battle with its phrase, “And fired the shot heard round the world.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife later rented the Old Manse.) A prolific writer and thinker, Emerson’s collected essays earned international acclaim, and, for decades, he remained a popular lecturer.
By the time of his death in 1882, the eighty-year-old radical was heralded as the “Sage of Concord.”
- Search Today in History for features on the reformers, philosophers, writers, and artists who formed Emerson’s circle:
- Read Ralph Waldo Emerson, Philosopher and Seer; an Estimate of His Character and Genius in Prose and VerseExternal by A. Bronson Alcott (1882).
- Read a letter from Emerson to Walt Whitman praising Whitman’s poetry. This famous Emerson letter is available in manuscript format in the Walt Whitman Papers in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection. A printed copy of the letter can be found in the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers. Search both of these collections on Emerson for drafts of essays and articles written by Whitman about Emerson.
- Emerson edited and wrote a moving biographical sketch for Henry David Thoreau’s final work, Excursions. Published posthumously in 1863, Excursions is available through the collection The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
- Emerson was a popular lecturer as well as writer. Search historic newspapers through Chronicling America to find reviews and notices about his books and speaking engagements.
- In 1840, Emerson founded the transcendentalist literary magazine, The Dial External, with Margaret Fuller and others. A writer, editor, and intellectual, Fuller published an introspective account of a trip to the Great Lakes region in 1843. Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 is available through the collection Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910.
- Take a virtual tour of turn-of-the-century Concord, Massachusetts. Homes and haunts of the transcendentalists include the large white house Emerson occupied after renting the Manse to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
- Emerson’s works are available through the Internet ArchiveExternal and the HathiTrust Digital LibraryExternal.
- View the Woman Suffrage collections: