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Ralph Waldo Emerson is known as a founder of the Transcendentalist movement. He espoused what would become a distinctly American philosophy, one that emphasized optimism and individuality in addition to mysticism. Raised to be a minister in nineteenth-century New England, Emerson stressed the recognition of ”God immanent”, or the presence of ongoing creation by a god apparent in all things. Emerson also believed in an Eastern concept that seeks to unify all thoughts, persons, and things in a divine whole. in general, Emerson focused on the individual and his quest to forego the trappings of the illusory world and discover the godliness of the inner self.
Biographical and Historical Context
The Young Minister Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 25, 1803, and grew up as the sheltered son of a Unitarian pastor. The latest in a long line of ministers, he was tagged a ‘rather dull scholar by his father, who died when Emerson was eight. Emerson attended Boston Latin School and Harvard College, and after graduation he became a schoolmaster at the school for young ladies that his brother had established. From there, Emerson went to Harvard Divinity School, where he studied to become a minister and discussed controversial translations of Hindu and Buddhist poetry. These nontraditional influences, among many others, would have a significant impact on Emerson s thinking: by the time he was twenty-six, when he became the pastor of a Boston church, he was questioning the Christian belief system with which he d been raised. Also during this period Emerson married his first wife, Ellen, who died of tuberculosis two years later.
European Travels and Naturalism
In 1832, Emerson resigned from the church and spent the next few years writing and studying his way across Europe. During these wandering years, he encountered other famous writers, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle. He decided to become a ”naturalist. The Naturalist movement, led by French novelist Emile Zola, promoted writing, particularly fiction, that presented human life through the objective lens of scientific inquiry. Naturalists believed human beings fell into two categories: they were either products of ”bio logical determinism, ruled by instinct and a need for survival or products of ”socioeconomic determinism, ruled by social and economic forces that they could not control. Emerson later wrote of his travels in English Traits (1856).
A Lecture Tour and Controversy
During the late 1830s and early 1840s, upon returning to the United States, Emerson began a speaking career. He lectured as a part of the new lyceum movement; writers, politicians, philosophers, and historians traveled across the United States on “tours” of lectures, debates, and dramatic performances. Emerson presented his most idealistic work, which included the essay “Nature” (1836), a pamphlet denouncing materialism and conventional religion and identifying nature as the divine example for inspiration as well as the source of boundless possibilities for humanity’s fulfillment. Emerson delivered an address titled ”The American Scholar” to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837; the speech criticized American dependence on European ideology and urged the creation of a new literary heritage. A year later, Emerson spoke again at Harvard, and his ”Divinity School Address” caused a huge stir. In the speech, he dismissed the tenets of historical Christianity and defined Transcendentalist philosophy in terms of the “impersoneity” of God.
Well-Known Doctrines of Transcendentalism
Emerson enhanced and expanded the Transcendentalist ideas in ”Nature,” ”The American Scholar,” and the ”Divinity School Address,” publishing revised versions of these essays in Essays and Essays: Second Series (1844). Emerson’s Transcendentalist philosophy espoused a unity in all creation and touted Nature as a symbol of spiritual truth. Essentially, it said that one must cultivate a connection to nature in order to understand spirituality. Additionally, Transcendentalism promoted emancipation from stagnant traditions and conventions and consequently inspired progressive social movements, such as the abolition of slavery and education reform.
Emerson became the spokesperson for Transcendentalism in the 1840s and headed the quarterly periodical The Dial. This publication was considered a ”a medium for the freest expression of thought on the questions which interest earnest minds in every community,” but it had only a small readership. However, the journal did publish work by women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller and Naturalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau, as well as Emerson’s first poems.
Around this time, Emerson associated with a tight-knit group of original and liberal thinkers who eventually became the Transcendental Club. Every major Transcendentalist (including Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thor-eau, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody) came to these gatherings; however, conflict over the group’s mission, the definition of Transcendentalism, and the ”nature of intuitive knowledge” eventually dissolved the circle.
Emerson the Poet and Personal Matters
In Essays: Second Series, Emerson published ”The Poet,” a tribute to the creative imagination. Emerson suggests that a poet articulates the meaning of the universe and that poetry reflects the truth and symbolism of nature. Though some critics accused Emerson of not having the ”soul of a poet,” he worked hard at his verse, as evidenced by the collections Poems (1847) and May-Day and Other Pieces (1867). Readers best know Emerson for the poem the ”Concord Hymn,” which celebrates ”the shot heard round the world” that started the Battle of Concord, at the onset of the American Revolution.
Emerson married second wife Lydia in 1835. They had four children together. Some say his once-radical Transcendentalist beliefs became more conservative, or more stoic, after his first child, five-year old Waldo, died of scarlet fever. Emerson himself died on April 27, 1882, and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.
Works in Literary Context
While contemporaries had varying opinions of Emerson’s work and philosophy, there is no doubt today that Emerson had a profound impact on the course of American literature. It was Emerson who insisted that American writers break free of old European literary models and look to the American experience—the American landscape in particular—for inspiration. Emerson actively sought out and championed writers (such as Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman) whom he believed could offer such purely American literature. His oft-anthologized essays encapsulate what many Americans have come to believe about their culture: that the United States is a country of vast size and potential peopled by rugged individualists who pursue their dreams no matter the consequences.
Lessons in Living
”How shall I live?”—the implicit question in Emerson’s ”Self-Reliance”—is the central question of The Conduct of Life, which is Emerson’s clearest philosophical statement. According to Emerson, a person seeks self-understanding and self-actualization. Emerson stressed that staying true to one’s purpose in the face of societal censure takes courage, but that truly great people can muster this courage. Because of his insistence on nonconformity, Emerson became a hero of the countercultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Emerson’s essay ”Nature” epitomizes the Romantic idea of nature as holy, almost a deity itself. In ”Nature,” Emerson declares that through humankind’s connection to nature, people will ”enjoy an original relation to the universe.” ”Nature” inspired Henry David Thoreau’s famous Walden; or a Life in the Woods, a book Thoreau wrote while living in a cabin on land owned by Emerson. ”Concord Hymn,” while popular for its patriotic sentiment, also reflects Emerson’s ideology of man connecting with nature. Emerson’s ideas about nature influenced many future American writers, including American essayist and conservationist John Burroughs and Scottish-born American naturalist and writer John Muir.
Works in Critical Context
In the past, although critics could not deny the impact Emerson’s work had on other writers and literary movements, let alone social, political, and cultural philosophies, they could not clearly categorize Emerson’s influence. His writings imparted proverbial wisdom that was rooted itself in American culture, yet his poetry and philosophy did inspire the future work of Whitman and Dickinson. Ultimately, however, critics have embraced Emerson’s body of writing as individualistic, yet as unified as his natural doctrines themselves.
As noted by Joel Myerson, recent commentators have tended to emphasize Emerson’s historical significance, his affinities with modern intellectual trends like symbolic philosophy and existentialism, and his achievement as a writer. The apparent murkiness of his essays has been explained as the expression of a conscious aesthetic within the tradition of the Romantic movement and the major Victorian prose writers. One of the fore most historians of literary criticism, Rene Wellek, called Emerson ”the outstanding representative of romantic symbolism in the English-speaking world.” Viewing Emerson’s work in a sociopolitical context, other modern criticism has emphasized the significance of his philosophical contributions. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke wrote that Emerson ”struggles to see high moral principles behind men’s economic acts. And he places modern inventions in this pattern of an idealized utility.” Ultimately, Burke concluded, ”In Emerson secular agency is a function of divine purpose.” Similarly, Joyce Warren wrote, ”Emerson’s first published work, ‘Nature,’ established his concern with the self. He begins with an appreciation of nature, but it soon becomes apparent that his essay is not a hymn to the glories of the natural world in the tradition of the nineteenth-century nature worshippers but rather a glorification of the individual man.”
At the time of publication of Essays, The Daily Advertiser in Boston printed a rather negative review, calling the work ”tough, distorted, ponderous, and labored.” At the same time, the work was received remarkably well: the 1,500 copies of the first American edition sold out. Emerson printed the book in England at the same time, and that printing sold out as well. Essays consisted of twelve pieces on moral, religious, and intellectual complimentary themes, for example, Love and Friendship, and Prudence and Hero ism. The guiding message in one of the essays, “Self-Reliance,” was particularly controversial: it stated that people must rely on their own instincts of what is right and who they are, lest they commit moral suicide.
“Concord Hymn” and Other Poetry
Early critiques of Emerson focused largely on the artistic merits of his work. Matthew Arnold, a British poet and critic, judged Emerson’s poetry to be bland, lacking energy and passion. In 1884, however, Arnold made an exception to his general sentiments in an essay later published in his Discourses on America, in which he singles out ”Concord Hymn” as deserving of praise: ”Such good work as the noble lines on the Concord Monument is the exception.” Similarly, in an 1880 essay, Walt Whitman criticized Emerson’s artistic choices and thematic content, stating that he found Emersonrsquo;s verse cold and artificial. Whitman’s words were cutting: ”It has been doubtful to me if Emerson really knows or feels what Poetry is.” Despite his views on the quality of the latter’s verse, Whitman did think Emerson’s spirit to be ”exactly what America needs,” because Emerson advocated for a cultural identity distinct from that of America’s European roots.
- Cayton, Mary Kupiec. Emerson’s Emergence: Self and Society in the Transformation of New England, 1800-1845. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
- Hodder, Alan D. Emerson’s Rhetoric of Revelation: Nature, the Reader, and the Apocalypse Within. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press,1989.
- Holmes, Oliver Wendell. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1885.
- Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Paul, Sherman. Emerson’s Angle of Vision: Man and Nature in the American Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952.
- Porte, Joel. Emerson and Thoreau: Transcendentalists in Conflict. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1966.
- Porter, David. Emerson and Literary Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
- Robertson, Susan L. Emerson in His Sermons: A Man-Made Self. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
- Yannella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
- Zwarg, Christina. Feminist Conversations: Fuller, Emerson, and the Play of Reading. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.
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