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Library of Congress

Happy Birthday, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Father of Transcendentalism

May 25, 2010
by Rachel Balik
Ralph Waldo Emerson—essayist, minister, poet and philosopher from New England—was the founding father of the transcendentalist movement and the creator of many literary works praising nature and its relationship to humanity and creation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Early Days

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Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts, to a Unitarian minister and his religious wife. Emerson’s father, who died when he was only eight years old, came from a long line of ministers, and his son would follow suit. The young Emerson attending Harvard Divinity School and became a minister of the Second Church in Boston in 1829.

In September of that same year, Emerson married Ellen Louisa Tucker, who died of tuberculosis a few years after their marriage. His wife's death prompted him to question and doubt his religion and vocation, and led him to abandon his church.

Emerson left America to travel extensively around Europe
, and upon his return, began his career as a lecturer and essayist. In 1835, he married Lydia Jackson, with whom he settled in Concord, Mass., and raised a family of four children.

The Philosophy of Emerson

Emerson’s first high-profile work was “Nature,” a collection of essays published in 1836 that inspired the entire movement known as transcendentalism. According to Jone Johnson Lewis on the Transcendentalists Web site, transcendentalism attempted to “define spirituality and religion ... in a way that took into account the new understandings their age made available.”

In the book, Emerson sought to change America’s interpretation of and relationship with nature. The book helped to establish Emerson as one of the originators of an American style and tradition of writing. Although “Nature” is probably the most famous of Emerson’s works, he published many other books and wrote numerous essays during his extensive career as a lecturer.

Emerson gained considerable fame as a minister, lecturer and poet, but his primary legacy is due to his work as a philosopher. University of New Mexico philosophy professor Russell Goodman outlines the main themes of his philosophy, derived primarily from “The American Scholar” (1837), written after his renowned “Nature” and delivered as an address to the select students of Phi Beta Kappa. This work advocates “that the scholar is educated by nature, books, and action,” according to Goodman.

The Rest of the Story

Emerson’s enlightened mind and career thrived alongside a personal life fettered by sadness and disappointment. In addition to losing his father and first wife at a young age, Emerson also had to endure the death of his first son and namesake, Waldo.

Later in Emerson's life many of those close to him died, including his mother, aunt and brother. When his house burned down in 1873, it was nearly the last straw. To help with his depression, his friends sent him off on a trip to Europe and raised money to rebuild the house and his library. Emerson lived there until his death on April 27, 1882, from pneumonia. 

According to PBS, the entire town of Concord mourned the great thinker's departure, tolling the bells for each of his 79 years. Emerson's house in Concord is now a museum and historical landmark.
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