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Home > History > Ralph Waldo Emerson - Authors Series

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Authors Series

This page describes the life and times of philosopher and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is part of our authors series.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts.  He was the middle child of William and Ruth Emerson. Ralph attended the Boston Latin School as a child. He went to college at Harvard University, graduating in 1821. While in college, he dropped the “Ralph” in his name. After attending Harvard University, Emerson studied at the Harvard School of Divinity. He was ordained a minister of the Second Church in Boston.

In 1829, Emerson married Ellen Tucker. She died in 1832 from tuberculosis. Struck with grief, Emerson resigned as minister the same year.

In 1832, he traveled to Europe and met well-known writers such as Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. He returned home in 1833 and started to give public lectures on spirituality. In 1834, Emerson moved to Concord, Massachusetts. The next year he married Lydia Jackson. They had four children together. Emerson met other writers and thinkers living in Concord who shared similar views to his own, including Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau and Amos Bronson Alcott.

In 1836, Emerson published Nature, an essay about transcendentalism, the idea that reality could be understood through nature and that people fail to recognize the beauty of nature because of the demands and distractions of their personal lives. The essay The American Scholar was based on a lecture that he gave in 1837. The American Scholar encouraged Americans to forge their own identity apart from European influence. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. called The American Scholar the “Intellectual Declaration of Independence” because it encouraged authors to find their own unique style of writing.  

In 1840, Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and George Ripley decided to start a magazine called The Dial.  Margaret Fuller was the editor of the magazine. Emerson served as the editor for the last two years the magazine was published. He also contributed essays to several issues of the magazine.

In 1841, Emerson published his first book of essays. Shortly after, in 1844, his second book of essays was published. These volumes included some of his most well known works, such as Self Reliance, Friendship and Experience. In 1847, Emerson traveled to England. He returned to Massachusetts nine months later. He expressed his new approach to English culture in his lectures on the Natural History of Intellect and in his book, English Traits.

In 1850, Representative Men was published.  At this time, Emerson was giving about 80 lectures per year. Throughout his career he gave about 1500 lectures to the public.

In 1851, he began a series of lectures, which would become a book called The Conduct of Life. This book was published in 1860. In this book he advocated for the abolition of slavery. At this time Emerson had become a well-known writer and inspiration to many other writers including Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

Emerson continued his speeches against slavery. In 1857, he wrote an essay called Memory. Ironically, as he aged, his own memory began to fail him. However, he still continued to write, publishing Society and Solitude and Parnassus, a collection of poetry. Emerson died on April 27, 1882 from pneumonia in Concord.

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