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Emerson at 200

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March/April 2003

Emerson at 200

Emerson’s Mirror What do we see in the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "the most recognized and revered figure in the Unitarian movement"? His two-hundredth birthday makes this a good time to ask.

by Richard Higgins

One of the most famous public speakers of his day, Ralph Waldo Emerson drew all sorts of listeners. A scrubwoman who went to his lyceum lectures is reported to have said that she didn’t really understand him, "but I like to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought everyone else is as good as he is." A version of this story appears in most Emerson biographies. Sometimes it is a workman or farmer who braves a snowstorm to hear Emerson talk and explains his devotion by saying, "We don’t know what he said, but we’re sure he’s giving us the best there is." As Wesley Mott, the founder and president of the Emerson Society, puts it: "People went away tremendously uplifted — and had no idea what they just heard."

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