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.