Friendship Poems

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography

Emerson is credited with gradually moving away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, while formulating and expressing the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay, Nature. As a result of this ground breaking work he gave a speech entitled The American Scholar in 1837, which was considered to be America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence”. Emerson was considered one of the great orators of his time; his enthusiasm and respect for his audience enraptured crowds. His support for abolitionism late in life also created controversy, and, at times, he was subject to abuse from crowds while speaking on the topic; however, this was not always the case.

Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 25, 1803, the son of Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian minister who descended from a well-known line of ministers. Ralph Waldo was the second of five sons who survived into adulthood; the others were William, Edward, Robert Bulkeley and Charles. Three other siblings Phoebe, John Clarke, and Mary Caroline all died in childhood.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was traumatized as a youngster when his father died from stomach cancer on May 12, 1811, less than two weeks before his eighth birthday. Emerson was raised by his mother and other intellectual and spiritual women in his family who had a profound impact on the young Emerson.

Emerson’s formal schooling began at the Boston Latin School in 1812 when he was nine years old. In October 1817, at age 14, Emerson went to Harvard College and was appointed freshman messenger for the president, a job which required Emerson to fetch delinquent students and send messages to faculty. He did not stand out as a student and graduated in the exact middle of his class of 59 students.

After graduating from Harvard, Emerson assisted his brother in the finishing school for young ladies that they established in their mother’s house. Emerson took charge of the school and, over the next several years, Emerson made his living as a schoolmaster, and then went to Harvard Divinity School.

Boston’s Second Church invited Emerson to serve as its junior pastor and he was ordained on March 11, 1829. Emerson soon met his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, in Concord, New Hampshire and married her when she was 18. The couple then moved to Boston; Emerson’s mother, Ruth, moved with them to help take care of Ellen, who already had with tuberculosis. Sadly less than two years later, Ellen died at the age of 20 on February 8, 1831. Emerson was deeply affected by her death and often visited her grave.

He toured Europe in 1832 and later wrote of his travels in English Traits , which was published in 1856.

Emerson returned to the United States on October 9, 1833, and lived with his mother in Newton, Massachusetts until November 1834. He married his second wife, Lydia Jackson, in her home town of Plymouth, Massachusetts on September 14, 1835. Their four children were Waldo, Ellen, Edith and Edward Waldo Emerson. Ellen was named for his first wife, at Lydia’s suggestion.

It was during this time of happiness and stability that Emerson focused on his prolific writing career. His body of work became immense as he wrote about several subjects of interest.

Beginning as early as the summer of 1871 or in the spring of 1872, Emerson began losing his memory and suffered from aphasia. By the end of the decade, he would forget his own name at times and, when anyone asked how he felt, he responded, “Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well”. The problems with his memory had become increasingly embarrassing to Emerson and. by 1879, he stopped appearing in public.

On April 19, 1882, Emerson went out walking despite having an apparent cold and was caught in a sudden rain shower. Two days later, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He died on April 27, 1882 and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. He was placed in his coffin wearing a white robe given to the family by American sculptor Daniel Chester French.

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