When Ralph Waldo Emerson died over one hundred and twenty years ago from this day, the leader of the Transcendentalist Movement left behind a philosophy that continues to influence people around the world.
The poet, essayist, and philosopher was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Ruth Haskins and the Unitarian minister, Rev. William Emerson. Although Emerson first followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming ordained on March 11, 1829, he became disillusioned by the church after the death of his first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, in 1831. His diary note, dated June 1832: “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers”.
Emerson’s quest for new spiritual enlightenment led him to tour Europe that same year, where he met distinguished men such as: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. Upon returning to the United States in 1833, he married Lydia Jackson, and settled in Concord, MA, where he became one of the most prominant citizens.
On September 8, 1836, Emerson, Frederick Henry Hedge, George Ripley, and George Putnam met in Cambridge to discuss forming a new club. The first official meeting was held eleven days later at Ripley’s home in Boston. Members included: Bronson Alcott, William Henry Channing, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Peabody, Sophia Ripley, among others.
The Transcendentalist Club was born.
Members commenced to discuss their frustrations on American culture and the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and in the Unitarian Church. They published, The Dial, run by Elizabeth Peabody, until its demise in 1844. Their core belief was in an ideal spiritual state that transcended the physical, and could only be realized through an individual’s intuition, rather than through established doctrines.
Emerson’s essay, Nature, ignited Transcendentalism into a major cultural movement in 1836. In this tract, he defined nature as a divine entity known to humans in their innocence, rather than a component of a world ruled by a separate being.
On August 31, 1837, Emerson delivered his famous speech, “The American Scholar”, before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge. He urged Americans to create their own writing style, free from the influence of Europe.
Many essays and speeches followed, but it was 1842’s, Essays, which included, “Self Reliance”, that cemented Emerson’s international renown. Emerson said, “A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. ” He further declared, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”
Emerson’s belief that all things were divine, and thus, connected to God, along with his ardent support of abolitionism, made him a controversial figure in his own time. He is now remembered as a champion of individualism and free thought, influencing Henry Thoreau’s,”Walden; Or, Life in the Woods”, which many believe to be the most famous non-fiction American book ever written.
Emerson’s body long turned to dust- his words live on:
-“Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.”
-“Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.”
-“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.”