Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Tom Hogrefe

Biographical Information

Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston,, Massachusetts. He began attending school at age 9, and graduated from Harvard at 18 having served as Class Poet. In 1826 he moved south to St. Augustine, Florida, in search of a warmer climate to aid his poor health. In St. Augustine, he met Prince Achille Murat, nephew to one Napoleon Bonaparte. The two became good friends, and often had long, intellectual discussions with each other. Emerson considered Murat to be an influential figure in his education. Upon his health improving, Emerson moved back north and established a school for young women in Massachusetts. He spent several years as schoolmaster before going to the Harvard Divinity School, and his studies allowed him to become a Pastor for Boston's Second Church. Emerson eventually gave up on being a clergyman and traveled to Europe between 1832 and 1833 and, upon his return to America, began preaching about spiritual existence and ethical living. In the later half of the 1830s, Emerson began printing his lectures as essays. These essays elevated Emerson to being the central figure of the American Transcendentalist movement. The Transcendentalists believed that "each individual could transcend, or move beyond, the physical world of the senses into deeper spiritual experience through free will and intuition." (Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography). He maintained his views and continued to be an influential Transcendentalist until his death in 1882.


Ralph Waldo Emerson


Common Themes

-Education -- Emerson believed that scholars are wducated through nature, books, and action. Nature contains many underlying laws in terms of math, science, and life. Books are used to stimulate creativity and incite learning. Lastly, action is what preoves thought. Withought action, thought is just hypothetical conjecture.


-Process -- Everything follows a larger, general process. Nothing is final, and can always change.

-Morality -- Through his works, Emerson created a series of virtues and vices, and heroes and villans to serve as examples for people to follow. He uses this to criticize groups of people he believes to be fakes (such as abolitionists who condemn southern slavery but support segregation) and actions that are meaningless (such as "virtues" that are really penances).

-Christianity -- Born the son of a minister, educated at the Harvard Divination School, and a pastor himself for three years, Emerson's work was always going to include some elements of religion. Emerson talks about religion almost nostalgically, encouraging his fellow graduates to return to the clergy and lead a revival of sorts of Christianity, returning it to a state where clergy lead by example, not by teachings.

-Power -- To Emerson, every opportunity for action was power, and those who passed it up were weak. Power is a thing which is brief and fleeting, a chance to be grasped then or never, and something that cannot be predicted.

-Unity and Moods -- Emerson's theme about unity fits with his theme of process. He refers repeatedly to a larger being that everyone is connected to.


Major Works

Nature (1836)

Essays: First Series (1841)

Essays: Second Series (1844)

Poems (1847)

Representative Men (1850)

The Conduct of Life (1860)

English Traits (1865)

Society and Solitude (1870)

Parnassus (1874)

Letters and Social Aims (1875)


The grave of Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ralph Waldo Emerson Bio