Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882), who went by his middle name Waldo, was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, abolitionist, and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century.
He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and his ideology was disseminated through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.
Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay “Nature”.
Following this work, he gave a speech entitled “The American Scholar” in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. considered to be America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence.”
Emerson wrote most of his important essays as lectures first and then revised them for print. His first two collections of essays, Essays: First Series (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844), represent the core of his thinking. They include the well-known essays “Self-Reliance”, “The Over-Soul”, “Circles”, “The Poet”, and “Experience.” Together with “Nature”, these essays made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson’s most fertile period.
Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but developing certain ideas such as individuality, freedom, the ability for mankind to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world.
Emerson’s “nature” was more philosophical than naturalistic: “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.”
Emerson is one of several figures who “took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting views of God as separate from the world.”
He remains among the linchpins of the American romantic movement, and his work has greatly influenced the thinkers, writers and poets that followed him.
“In all my lectures,” he wrote, “I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man.” Emerson is also well known as a mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau, a fellow transcendentalist.
As a lecturer and orator, Emerson—nicknamed the Sage of Concord — became the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States.
James Russell Lowell, editor of the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review, commented in his book My Study Windows (1871), that Emerson was not only the “most steadily attractive lecturer in America,” but also “one of the pioneers of the lecturing system.”
Herman Melville, who had met Emerson in 1849, originally thought he had “a defect in the region of the heart” and a “self-conceit so intensely intellectual that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name”, though he later admitted Emerson was “a great man”.
Theodore Parker, a minister and transcendentalist, noted Emerson’s ability to influence and inspire others: “the brilliant genius of Emerson rose in the winter nights, and hung over Boston, drawing the eyes of ingenuous young people to look up to that great new star, a beauty and a mystery, which charmed for the moment, while it gave also perennial inspiration, as it led them forward along new paths, and towards new hopes”.
Emerson’s work not only influenced his contemporaries, such as Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, but would continue to influence thinkers and writers in the United States and around the world down to the present.
Notable thinkers who recognize Emerson’s influence include Nietzsche and William James, Emerson’s godson. There is little disagreement that Emerson was the most influential writer of 19th-century America, though these days he is largely the concern of scholars.
Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and William James were all positive Emersonians, while Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James were Emersonians in denial—while they set themselves in opposition to the sage, there was no escaping his influence.
To T. S. Eliot, Emerson’s essays were an “encumbrance”. Waldo the Sage was eclipsed from 1914 until 1965, when he returned to shine, after surviving in the work of major American poets like Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane.
In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom repeatedly refers to Emerson as “The prophet of the American Religion”, which in the context of the book refers to indigenously American religions such as Mormonism and Christian Science, which arose largely in Emerson’s lifetime, but also to mainline Protestant churches that Bloom says have become in the United States more gnostic than their European counterparts.
In The Western Canon, Bloom compares Emerson to Michel de Montaigne: “The only equivalent reading experience that I know is to reread endlessly in the notebooks and journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American version of Montaigne.”
Several of Emerson’s poems were included in Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language, although he wrote that none of the poems are as outstanding as the best of Emerson’s essays, which Bloom listed as “Self-Reliance”, “Circles”, “Experience”, and “nearly all of Conduct of Life”.
In his belief that line lengths, rhythms, and phrases are determined by breath, Emerson’s poetry foreshadowed the theories of Charles Olson.
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