Ralph Waldo Emerson

(1803-82)

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Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. Seven of his  ancestors were ministers, and his father, William Emerson,  was minister of the First Church (Unitarian) of Boston.  Emerson graduated from Harvard University at the age of 18  and for the next three years taught school in Boston. In 1825  he entered Harvard Divinity School and in 1826 was  "approbated to preach" by the Middlesex Association of  Ministers. Despite ill health, he delivered occasional sermons  in churches of the Boston area. In 1829 he became minister of  the Second Church (Unitarian) of Boston. In that same year he  married Ellen Tucker, who died 17 months later. In 1832  Emerson resigned from his pastoral appointment after  declaring that he had ceased to regard the Lord's Supper as a permanent sacrament  and could not continue to administer it. On Christmas Day, 1832, he went abroad and  stayed for some time in England, where he met Walter Savage Landor, Samuel Taylor  Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and William Wordsworth. His meeting with Carlyle was the  beginning of a lifelong friendship.

On his return in 1833, Emerson settled in Concord, Mass., and became active as a  lecturer in Boston. His addresses, on such subjects as "The Philosophy of History,"  "Human Culture," "Human Life," and "The Present Age," were based on material in his  Journals (published posthumously, 1909-14), a collection of observations and notes that  he had begun while a student at Harvard. His most detailed statement of belief was  reserved for his first published book, Nature (1836), which appeared anonymously, but  was soon correctly attributed to him. The volume received little notice, but it has come to  be regarded as Emerson's most original and significant work, offering the essence of  his philosophy of transcendentalism. This idealist doctrine opposed the popular  materialist and Calvinist views of life and voiced a plea for freedom of the individual from  artificial restraints.

 The next year Emerson applied these ideas to cultural and intellectual problems in his  lecture "The American Scholar," delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of  Harvard; a second address, commonly referred to as the "Address at Divinity College"  delivered in 1838 to the graduating class of Cambridge Divinity College, aroused  considerable controversy, because it attacked formal religion and argued for  self-reliance and intuitive spiritual experience.

Although he did little writing after this time, and his mental powers  declined, Emerson's reputation as a writer spread. He was the first distinctively American author to  influence European thought. His works also include Letters and Social Aims  (1876) and Natural History of Intellect (1893). Emerson died in Concord on April 27,  1882.



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