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Emerson, Ralph Waldo [1809–1882]

Born in Boston on 25 May, Ralph Waldo Emerson was the third of eight children born into a family of Unitarian and Congregational ministers going back to the Puritans. After the age of eight, Emerson grew up without a father. He entered Harvard College in 1817 as the youngest member of his class. It was during his undergraduate days that "Waldo" (as he was called after his junior year) began keeping a journal, or "savings bank," whose life-long entries often served as the first hint of Emerson's sermons, lectures, and essays.

After graduation Emerson assisted his older brother William in the operation of a girls' school in Boston, but Emerson was never comfortable with schoolteaching and soon enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School. This education, which was quite informal at that time, was interrupted several times when Emerson was forced to take to his bed or go to sea or the South to combat recurring bouts of tuberculosis, a frequent malady in the nineteenth century which took early in manhood the lives of Emerson's most promising brothers, Edward and Charles. Following his graduation, Emerson was assigned to the Second Unitarian Church of Boston, where he wrote well over 100 sermons and otherwise conducted the duties of a clergyman. In arguing for Emerson's lack of warmth to any but the closest relatives, it has been said that Emerson was not comfortable with the hand-holding aspect of a clergyman's duties, but this was generally the least popular aspect of a minister's tasks, which were mainly intellectual. While an active minister, Emerson married Ellen Tucker in 1829, but her health was never strong, and she died of tuberculosis in 1831. Soon afterward, Emerson starting thinking about leaving the ministry; his sermons show him becoming more interested in nature than Scripture as a spiritual guide, and he began to think of Christ as someone who had discovered a divinity that was present in all humankind.

Resigning his position in 1832, he traveled abroad, once again for purposes of health, visiting Italy, Germany, France, and England, and returned with at least part of his first book, Nature (1836), drafted either in deed or thought. He joined the Lyceum Movement, which allowed working-class young men the opportunity of educating themselves by giving and hearing lectures on various topics. Emerson gave four in 1835 on the general subject of natural history, but underlying each was the transcendentalist idea that nature was the emblem of the spirit, or God. Successful in his Lyceum lectures, he soon ventured out on his own, announcing a series of lectures each winter, and paying attention to such details as the printing and sale of tickets. For the next fifteen years, this (in addition to what he received from his first wife's estate; he married Lydia ["Lidian"] Jackson in 1835) was Emerson's sole source of income, as he realized no profit from his books until after 1850.

It was during his lecture on "The Times" in New York City in March of 1842 that Emerson first came in contact with Whitman, who heard him deliver "Nature and the Powers of the Poet." As editor of the New York Aurora, Whitman wrote that Emerson's lecture was one of the richest and most beautiful compositions he had ever heard anywhere, at any time. By this time Emerson had published his major lectures of the 1830s as well as Essays (1841), which Whitman no doubt read, especially the essay entitled "Spiritual Laws," mentioned in one of the poet's editorials in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1847. "The Poet" would open Essays: Second Series (1844), as the final version of the lecture Whitman had heard in 1842. There Emerson writes that he has looked "in vain" (465) for the poet he had described, one who would in "a meter-making argument" (450) sing of "our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boasts and our repudiations" (465). He would soon find that poet (though he had thought he had discovered that talent before and was subsequently disappointed) as the author of Leaves of Grass in 1855.

Emerson greeted Whitman at the beginning of a "great career" in his letter of 21 July 1855. He promised to visit his "benefactor" and did just that on 11 December, when he sought out the poet in his Brooklyn neighborhood and took him to dinner at the Astor House in Manhattan. Whitman had published without permission Emerson's encomium in the press that fall, but Emerson overlooked the indiscretion to meet the person who had transformed transcendentalist ideas of divinity into democracy. He also apparently overlooked Whitman's second publication of some words from the letter on the spine of the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass (in gold letters) and the full text of the letter in an appendix. When Whitman came to Boston in 1860 in connection with the publication of his third edition, Emerson, who had apparently been given a chance to read the manuscript's new poems, urged him to excise "Enfans d'Adam" ("Children of Adam") because of its perceived obscenity. Whitman listened carefully to Emerson's argument, as the two walked on Boston Common, but he thought that such an excision would be like cutting out a person's virility and kept to his course with the book. The result, in the Boston press at least, was the consensus that Emerson, who had championed an earlier edition of Leaves of Grass, and Whitman, who had authored it, had one thing in common: temporary insanity.

This was essentially their last meeting (though Whitman visited Emerson in his senility shortly before his death). Emerson wrote in behalf of Whitman's efforts to secure government employment during the Civil War and in praise of his hospital work, but he began to lose interest in the later editions of Leaves of Grass because of their long catalogues and the poet's "religious" tendency to be too consciously transcendental. Yet Whitman may have been inspired by Emerson in part for his crisis poems as he was for those, such as "Song of Myself," that celebrated absolute freedom in nature. Emerson's "Fate" in The Conduct of Life (known earlier as a lecture) seems a spiritual blueprint for Whitman's realization in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" that Transcendentalist Reason (poetical or mystical intuition) could not always calm the Understanding (the senses for empirical reasoning) out of its fear of death. The relationship between these two writers is one of the most important in American literary history, and both kept up their respect for the other until the end. After Emerson's death, Whitman ("At Emerson's Grave") tried to understate his debt to Emerson by aligning him with the traditional literature Leaves of Grass had challenged, but he was otherwise always loyal to the man he called "Master" in his open letter in the 1856 edition.

Jerome Loving


Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson. New York: Viking, 1981.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet." Essays and Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983. 445-468.

Loving, Jerome. Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1982.

Mott, Wesley T. "The Strains of Eloquence": Emerson and His Sermons. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1989.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Rusk, Ralph D. Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Scribner's, 1949.

von Frank, Albert J. An Emerson Chronology. New York: Hall, 1994.

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