logotype

Life and Works

Ralph Waldo Emerson is the central figure of American Transcendentalism, a philosophical, religious and literary movement that grew up in and around his home of Concord, Massachussetts, in the middle of the decade of the 1830s. He was, first and foremost, a brilliant, if somewhat idiosyncratic essayist, who managed to digest and assimilate European Romantic theories and to give them a fresh expression for the particular cultural climate of the United States of the time. He was also one of the best-known American poets of the mid-century, although it is clear today that most of his poems were written to exemplify the Romantic ideas put forth in his essays. For this very reason, nevertheless, they remain of interest for students of the development of 19th-century American poetry. His influence on the course of the intellectual life of the United States-and especially its literature-can hardly be overestimated.

He was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, the third of six sons (the eldest of whom died in 1807, at the age of 8). His father, a Unitarian minister, died when Ralph was only eight years old, leaving a widow and four of their five children dependent on the strained charity of his congregation (one of the sons, who was mentally retarded, was sent to live with relatives). In order to support the family, his mother kept a succession of boarding-houses, where they managed to make ends meet in spite of numerous hardships. Perhaps as a result of their poverty, the family was susceptible to tuberculosis. Ralph was infected, but survived. Other family members were not so fortunate. His brother Edward, also infected, became mentally ill in 1827, and died in 1834. And his beloved younger brother, Charles, also died of the disease, in 1836.

Emerson graduated from Harvard College in 1821 and suffered through several years as an ineffectual teacher in a school for young ladies before deciding to study theology. He was trained as a Unitarian at the Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as junior pastor of the Second Church in Boston on March 30, 1829. In September of the same year he married Ellen Tucker, a beautiful young woman of 18, in whose love he finally seemed to have found happiness. Thus, by the age of 26, both the personal and professional foundations of his life appeared to be solidly established.

But neither one was to last. After little more than a year of marriage, Ellen also died of tuberculosis, leaving Emerson desolate. The second crisis came shortly afterward. Early in 1832, he declared to his congregation that his conscience would no longer permit him to administer the Eucharist. His consequent resignation from the church was accepted in October of 1832. This profound questioning of his faith, probably spurred by his reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Aids to Reflection, was the beginning of a complicated process that eventually made him one of the most influential authors and thinkers of the cultural life of America.

Two months later he embarked on a European journey (December, 1832-October, 1833) that signified an essential step in that process. His visits to important literary figures such as Walter Savage Landor, William Wordsworth, Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, with whom he maintained a long-standing correspondence, served to focus his mind on the literary and philosophical issues that would occupy the remainder of his life.

Ellen Tucker had come from a financially comfortable family, and in 1834 he received the first benefits of his wife's legacy, which would provide him with enough money to make it unnecessary for him ever to work at a regular job again. He moved to Concord, where the Emerson family had lived for generations, and began to give occasional lectures at New England lyceums. He married again, in 1835, to Lydia Jackson, whom he always called affectionately Lydian. They would eventually have four children: Waldo, born in 1836; Ellen, born in 1839; Edith, born in 1841; and Edward, born in 1844.

Nature, the essay in which he coherently set out his understanding of the implications of Romantic thinking, and which forms the ground-work for all of his own later thinking, was published as a short book in 1836. It became the unofficial manifesto for a group of like-minded individuals (such as Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker and Orestes Brownson) who formed the Transcendental Club, the primary purpose of which was to protest against what they considered to be the arid intellectual climate of Harvard and Cambridge.

Despite this attitude, Emerson was invited in 1837 (as second choice) to deliver the annual address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard. Perhaps his most famous essay, "The American Scholar" was highly inspirational for the students who heard it, among them Richard Henry Dana, James Russell and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Its stress on self-reliance, however, on learning as an individual process of discerning and cultivating the intuitive sources of knowledge within the mind, was considered by many of the older members of the audience to be subversively anti-institutional. What began with that speech as an irritation blossomed into a full-blown scandal one year later, when he was invited by the students of theology (not, significantly, by the faculty) to speak at their graduation ceremony. His application of the same Romantic ideas to issues of religion and faith in his "Address to the Harvard Divinity School" was conceived to be a direct assault on the principles of Unitarianism then regnant in the Theology department and ignited a bitter public debate that lasted for the next three years. The experience became a severe trial of Emerson's own adherence to his hard-won principle of self-reliance, but he refused to yield to the pressures to recant.

In the early 1840s the pattern of his mature life was established. The publication of Essays, in 1841, brought his work to a much larger audience; and he began to give lecture tours, first in the Northeast and later in the Mid-Atlantic states. He acted as Editor of The Dial, the leading Transcendental journal, from 1842 until 1844. He published Essays: Second Series that same year, a volume containing some of his most successful developments of the philosophy he had set out in Nature. Especially relevant to our interests here is "The Poet," in which he explains how the proper "Romantic" use of the mind as a receptive channel through which unconscious nature transcends itself into awareness through language, inevitably leads to the creation of poetic speech.

 

By the middle of the decade this recalcitrant Unitarian minister and one-time reluctant lecturer had blossomed into a confident spokesman for the unique present and future of American culture. A volume of poetry, Poems, was published in December of 1846, a collection of verses that Emerson had written over the previous ten years.

A second trip to Europe (1847-48) marked, perhaps, another turning-point in his life. Soon after his return he bought a number of properties in and around Concord, thus making himself a comfortable landholder. He dedicated the rest of his active life to satisfying the increasing demands on him as a public lecturer-and collecting his lectures for publication. His Representative Men was published in 1850, English Traits in 1856, and The Conduct of Life in 1860. His second, and final, volume of poetry, May-Day and Other Pieces, was published in 1867.

While these later books lack the power and profound coherence of his earlier work, it was during this period that Emerson's reputation as a major literary figure was consolidated. Ironically, once he reached that peak, his capacities began to fade. This man whose love of the mind and passion for complex thought had driven him from anonymity to fame spent the final years of his life declining into a mellow senility, surrounded by caring family and friends, less and less aware of the growing reputation the labor of his significant soil had rightly earned him.

 

Autor: Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)