The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - by R.W. Emerson Institute, Jim Manley, Director -


Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography

Expanded Biographies


Emerson, Ralph Waldo Born May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts, United States; died of complications resulting from pneumonia, April 27, 1882, in Concord, Massachusetts, United States; son of William (minister of a liberal Congregationalist [later Unitarian] parish) and Ruth (Haskins) Emerson; married Ellen Louisa Tucker, September 30, 1829 (died of tuberculosis, c. 1831); married Lydia Jackson, September 14, 1835; children: (second marriage) Waldo (died of scarlatina in 1842), Ellen, Edith, Edward.

A founder of the Transcendental movement and the founder of a distinctly American philosophy emphasizing optimism, individuality, and mysticism, Emerson was one of the most influential literary figures of the nineteenth century. Raised to be a minister in Puritan New England, Emerson sought to "create all things new" with a philosophy stressing the recognition of God Immanent, the presence of ongoing creation and revelation by a god apparent in all things and who exists within everyone. Also crucial to Emerson’s thought is the related Eastern concept of the essential unity of all thoughts, persons, and things in the divine whole. Traditional values of right and wrong, good and evil, appear in his work as necessary opposites, evidencing the effect of German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel’s system of dialectical metaphysics. Emerson’s works also emphasize individualism and each person’s quest to break free from the trappings of the illusory world (maya) in order to discover the godliness of the inner Self.


The son of a Unitarian minister, Emerson spent a sheltered childhood in Boston. During his youth the publications of the German Higher Critics and their progeny, as well as translations of Hindu and Buddhist poetry, were causing controversy in American academic circles. Emerson’s class at Harvard Divinity School was affected by these influences; consequently, upon assuming the pastorate of a Boston church in 1829, Emerson experienced many doubts concerning traditional Christian belief. He resigned from his pulpit in 1832, moved to nearby Concord, and then spent the next few years studying and traveling in Europe. After visiting a Paris botanical exhibition, Emerson resolved to be, as he termed it, a "naturalist." Upon returning to the United States, he began his career as a lecturer in the country’s new lyceum movement. During the late 1830s and early 1840s, Emerson published the works that present his thought at its most idealistic and optimistic. The lyrical essay Nature (1836), a pamphlet repudiating both materialism and conventional religion, declares nature the divine example for inspiration and the source of boundless possibilities for humanity’s fulfillment. The American Scholar, an address delivered before Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837, attacks American dependence on European thought and urges the creation of a new literary heritage. Emerson’s Divinity School Address, delivered at Harvard in 1838, caused tremendous controversy for renouncing the tenets of historical Christianity and defining Transcendental philosophy in terms of the "impersoneity" of God. The doctrines formulated in these three works were later expanded and elaborated upon in his Essays (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844), of which "Self-Reliance," "The Over-Soul," and "The Poet" are among the best-known.

Emerson became identified with the Transcendental movement in the 1840s, serving as its spokesperson, and as founder and guiding force of that group’s quarterly periodical, the Dial. Conceived as "a medium for the freest expression of thought on the questions which interest earnest minds in every community," the Dial was published for a small readership from 1840 to 1844, when it folded. Introducing the public to the writings of Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, a group who shared Emerson’s philosophy, the journal also published Emerson’s first poems. The merits of his poetry, collected in Poems (1847) and May-Day, and Other Pieces (1867), are subject to much critical debate. Prominent among them are "The Rhodora," "The Sphinx," "Brahma," "The Humble-Bee," and "Threnody." But the poem best known to the American public is one of his earliest works, the "Concord Hymn," which celebrates "the shot heard round the world" of the Battle of Concord, during the American Revolution.

Emerson’s poetry written from the era of the Dial onward, as well as his prose works dating from Essays: Second Series, chart a steady decline in the author’s idealism and give rise to an emerging recognition of mortal limitations. The Conduct of Life (1860) perhaps best expresses his humanistic acquiescence to the reality of worldly circumstances. Other important later works include Representative Men: Seven Lectures (1850), a series of essays on the men who most closely fit Emerson’s ideals–including Plato, Napoleon, and Shakespeare–and English Traits (1856), a work hailed by his friend Thomas Carlyle as an accurate portrait of English social manners in the midVictorian era. Society and Solitude (1870) marks the beginning of Emerson’s decline as an essayist. He spent his last years in Concord, writing little, but recognized throughout America as a philosopher of great stature.

Many American authors, including Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreau are indebted to Emerson’s thought. While some critics find in him the eternal naif, a writer of pleasant-sounding but ultimately impractical essays, containing ideals that stale with the age of Emerson’s works, others note his energizing influence on inquisitive minds as evidence of his lasting greatness.


· Nature (essay), Munroe (Boston), 1836.
· (Editor and author of preface) Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, Munroe, 1836.
· An Oration, Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, August 31, 1837 (lecture), Munroe, 1837, also published as Man Thinking, 1844, also known as The American Scholar.
· An Address Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, 15 July 1838 (lecture), Munroe, 1838, also called The Divinity School Address.
· Nature: An Essay, and Lectures on the Times, Clarke (London), 1844.
· Orations, Lectures, and Addresses, Clarke, 1844.
· Essays (first series), Munroe, 1841, enlarged edition, 1847.
· Essays: Second Series, Munroe, 1844.
· Poems, Munroe, 1847, enlarged and revised, Houghton, 1884, revised again, Houghton, 1904, also published in enlarged and revised edition as Selected Poems, 1876.
· Nature: Addresses and Lectures (lectures), Munroe, 1849, also published as Miscellanies: Embracing Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, Phillips, Sampson (Boston), 1856, also published as Miscellanies, Macmillan, 1884.
· Representative Men: Seven Lectures (lectures), Phillips, Sampson, 1850.
· (Written and edited with William Henry Channing and James Freeman Clarke) Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, two volumes, Phillips, Sampson, 1852, issued in three volumes, Bentley (London), 1852.
· English Traits (travel essays), Phillips, Sampson, 1856.
· The Conduct of Life (essays), Ticknor and Fields (Boston), 1860.
· May-Day and Other Pieces (poetry and essays), Ticknor and Fields, 1867.
· Society and Solitude, Twelve Chapters (essays), Fields, Osgood (Boston), 1870.
· (Editor) Parnassus, Osgood, 1875.
· Letters and Social Aims, Osgood, 1876.
· Emerson’s Complete Works, twelve volumes, Houghton, 1883-1893.
· The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson 1834-1872, two volumes, edited by Charles Eliot Norton, Osgood, 1883.
· Miscellanies, Houghton, 1884.
· Lectures and Biographical Sketches, Houghton, 1884.
· Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers (essays), Houghton, 1893.
· Two Unpublished Essays: The Character of Socrates; The Present State of Ethical Philosophy, Lamson, Wolffe, 1896.
· A Correspondence between John Sterling and Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson, Houghton, 1897.
· Letters from Ralph Waldo Emerson to a Friend, 1838-1853 [Samuel Gray Ward], edited by Charles Eliot Norton, Houghton, 1899.
· Correspondence between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Grimm, edited by Frederick William Holls, Houghton, 1903.
· The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (essays, lectures, travel essays, and poetry), twelve volumes, Houghton, 1903- 1904.
· The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (journals), ten volumes, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, Houghton, 1909-1914.
· Records of a Lifelong Friendship, 1807-1882: Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Henry Furness, edited by Horace Howard Furness, Houghton, 1910.
· Uncollected Writings: Essays, Addresses, Poems, Reviews and Letters, Lamb, 1912.
· Emerson-Clough Letters, edited by Howard F. Lowry and Ralph Leslie Rusk, Rowfant Club (Cleveland), 1934.
· Young Emerson Speaks: Unpublished Discourses on Many Subjects, edited by Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr., Houghton, 1938.
· The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, six volumes, edited by Ralph Leslie Rusk, 1939.
· The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, volume one, edited by Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller, Harvard University Press, 1959, volume two, edited by Whicher, Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams, Harvard University Press, 1964, volume three, edited by Spiller and Williams, Harvard University Press, 1972.
· The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, sixteen volumes, edited by William H. Gilman and others, Harvard University Press, 1960-1983.
· One First Love: The Letters of Ellen Louisa Tucker to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Edith W. Gregg, Harvard University Press, 1962.
· The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, edited by Joseph Slater, Columbia University Press, 1964.
· The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Alfred R. Ferguson and others, Harvard University Press, 1971.
· The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ralph H. Orth and others, University of Missouri Press, 1986.

Credit and source: Camden County Free Library (Vorhees, NJ)



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