Emerson, Ralph Waldo

Essayist and Poet


Born in Boston on May 25, 1803, Emerson graduated from Harvard in 1821. Four years later, he entered the Divinity School there, but was forced to leave after a month of study due to ill health. Nevertheless, in 1826, he was licensed to preach, and three years later assumed the pastorate of the Second (Unitarian) Church of Boston.

He grew more and more displeased with his position, feeling that the bread and wine sacrament had become a meaningless ritual; and in 1832 he resigned. After a visit to Europe, he moved to Concord Massachusetts and began what was to be a life of lecturing. He helped start the Transcendental Club (1834), and two years later published Nature, a small volume dedicated to American transcendentalism– – a mystical philosophy encouraging people to transcend reason and put their faith in their own limitless abilities. In 1837, he delivered the Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard, "The American Scholar," asking Americans to put aside their concern for European values and look for inspiration in their own culture. And after helping found the Dial, a new transcendentalist magazine, in 1840, he began an active period of writing and publishing. His Essays published at this time include, "Self-Reliance," the "Over-Soul," Circles," and "The Poet."

Although he resisted involvement in the reform movements of the time, Emerson was particularly outspoken on the issue of slavery. He supported the antislavery faction in Kansas and championed John Brown‚s attempt to free the southern slaves.

In 1867, Emerson again delivered the Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard. However, in his last years, he grew ill and gradually lost his mental powers. He died in Concord on April 27, 1882.