Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

v    Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he was a teacher, pastor, essayist, lecturer, and poet. Some call him the father of American literature, but it’s debatable.

v    He created the Transcendental movement in America, a philosophy that describes people as good, but corrupted by society, especially by traditions, politics, and organized religion. Emerson believed that everyone could be important, and that people could reach their full potential by appreciating nature, and using nature as an example.

v    To Emerson, nature wasn’t simply trees, animals, and rivers. It was the world of science, and that people are a part and product of nature. He also believed in pantheism, the idea that all natural things together created a Universal Soul or God.

v    Transcendentalism rejected the Puritan belief in predestination – the idea that God chooses who will go to heaven and who won’t, before a person is even born.

v    Emerson is famous for his essay, Nature, where he first presented Transcendentalism.

v    Emerson’s work inspired people to build two utopian communities. The first was called Brook Farm, and was started in 1841. It was a socialist experiment where everyone shared the work and the profits. It had a school, and raised money from farming, teaching, and craft making. It lasted till 1847, when a fire destroyed the main building.

v    The second was called Fruitlands, starting in 1842. The farm used no animals. People did all the work, and they were all vegetarian, and they bathed in ice-cold water. Emerson was skeptical of it, and it only lasted seven months.

Personal Life:

Emerson’s life was filled with tragedy. His father, a minister, died when he was eight. He was one of eight children, five of whom had died by the time he finished Harvard University, where he studied to be a minister (kazateľ). He married young, and his first wife died of tuberculosis, after only two years together. He loved her dearly, and even opened her crypt in the cemetery to hold her hand.

Upon her death, Emerson took a trip to Europe, where he was impressed with the beauty of nature in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. He also met the two great romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and was surprised by how ordinary they appeared. He wondered, if great, important people can be ordinary, why can’t ordinary people also be great?

Returning to America, Emerson returned to his church, but he didn’t like being a minister. “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry.” He resigned, at age 29, and began a career as a lecturer, discussing his philosophy of nature in schools around New England. He also remarried and had children.

Emerson was a bit of a rebel. Gaining a good reputation as a speaker, he was asked to give a speech to the Harvard Divinity School. He said there that Jesus was a great man, but not a god, making the faculty angry. They called him an atheist, and wouldn’t let him back for thirty years.


“History is an impertinence and an injury; our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us.”

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”

“I unsettle all things. No facts are, to me, sacred—all are profane (svetský). I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no past at my back.”

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