Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Quintessential American Philosopher

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  -Ralph Waldo Emerson- (May 25, 1803- April 27, 1882)

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.”

-“ God enters by a private door into every individual.”
-“Insist on yourself, never imitate…Every great man is unique.”

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31 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Lovely post. Emerson was a big influence in my teen years.

    & the second of four quotes at the end here is definitely one all writers should keep in mind! 🙂

  2. I love Emerson’s work, it’s long past time I re-read him. Thanks for reminding me. “Finish each day…” is great!

  3. Thanks, Amy.

    I’ve always loved Transcendentalism.

    Emerson’s words are so inspiring. I also thought those quotes (especially the one you pointed out) are really great to keep in mind while writing.

  4. Hi Edward,

    I’d love to sit down and reread his essays, too. Of course, my real dream would be to go back in time for a day and hear him speak in person. And then gather at the club for a night of intoxicating discussion.

  5. Thankyou so much for posting this, gypsyscarlett. Emerson makes me emotional and I fell in love with him and then Robert Frost. Some people resonate with you and their writing is timeless. I have your first quote on my desk next to me. Some day I hope to visit New England where I imagine I am from, sometime, somewhere. This Aussie girl loves to read your blog. Blessings and thanks. Kateri x

  6. Hey Kateri!

    What timing- I just commented on your blog.

    His writing really touches my heart, too.

    I think you’d love New England. Some places I’d suggest if you ever get there:

    1. Walden Pond
    2. Salem, MA (home of the infamous witch trials, now a pagan paradise)
    – totally overpriced tourist trap, but tons of fun
    3. Maine- the whole state is just breathtaking. Ever notice how many writers live there?
    4. Boston- of course! Hub of the universe. 😉

    And I’m glad you like my blog. The feeling is mutual. 🙂

  7. Oh, I have a book called Beautiful New England and I pore over Maine. I have it for many years and I love it more than any other book. I call it my book from “home”. I was told I was murdered in Salem by my Naturopath when I went straight into a past life regression as he did polarity therapy. It was extraordinary. Boston is my dream place and I thank you for telling me about thses places. I have tears in my eyes. How strange it is to love somewhere you’ve never seen, so much. Serendipitous you were writing as I was! x

  8. Kateri,

    That’s so interesting about the past life regression. I know what you mean. No matter where I am, New England is in my soul. So, if you did live there in a past life, that could certainly explain your pull towards it.

    There is a saying: “New Englanders always come back.”

    I love the serendipity, too. 🙂

  9. Emerson, Frost and Thoreau must be read together. The perfect way to understand the heady times they lived in.

  10. Hey Ralfast,

    And they’re all perfect to read outside on a beautiful day.

  11. I’d like to second Salem as a place to visit. I bought an “official” witch outfit there. I put offical in quotes cuz I’m sure that’s a line the salesperson gave me. But I love the outfit anyway.

  12. Hey AC,

    Glad you liked Salem. That’s funny about the salesperson. It’s so true of the town. You know you’re being had, but you don’t care because you’re having too much fun.

    I’ve been there several times. My favorite was when I went there on Samhain.

    Oh, before I forget- anyone who goes there *must* tour the House of Seven Gables. Truly.

  13. Excellent post thank you! I love Emerson. I don’t run into too many people in my area that have read Emerson’s works. So, it is a warm welcome to find your blog!

  14. What an incredible post Gypsy. Thank you for writing this. Emerson was a big influence on me growing up along with Thoreau and Frost, and the opening quote in particular is one that stayed with me for a long time after I first read it. I love your articles on writers and influencers. This was brilliant as always!!

  15. I simply devoured Emerson as a teen. Thanks for the inspiration!

  16. I love the one about the day being done– if only I could live by that. I torture myself with thinking about what I should have done too many days!

  17. Hi MaLanie,

    Very nice to meet you; and I’m glad you liked the post.

    I think once someone reads Emerson, his words always remain with them. 🙂

  18. Thank you so much, Venus for your kind words.

    I loved reading Emerson, too- because he beautifully said the things I’ve always felt in my heart.

  19. Heya Mary B,

    So glad to hear there are so many Emerson fans out there. 🙂

  20. Colby,

    I think most people are like that, which is why the quote is such a good reminder not to stress about it. Now, when I get into bed, I think of all the big or little things I did that day which made me happy. Falling asleep on an optimistic note definitely helps when your alarm clock sounds. 😉

  21. I hope I’m not too late to the R.W.E. love fest! : )

    I love reading anything by this man. One of my all-time favorite quotes is by him, “Hitch your wagon to a star.”

    Strange, psychic sis, because I have an open file on my computer with a quote copied to it, that I just found yesterday by — you guessed it — R.W.E. It’s like he’s talking to writers:

    “Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be
    enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    So true. Great post. : )

    Em : )

  22. ”Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.”

    I need to print that and post it over my desk.

    So true!

  23. Hey Em!

    Love the psychic bit!

    The “hitch your wagon to a star”- quote is so beautiful it gives me goosebumps.

    I’d heard the other quote but had forgotten it. Thank you for mentioning it. Those are words to live by.

    And thank you! Glad you liked the post. 🙂

  24. Hey Jenna,

    Isn’t it? I’m really trying to learn to just deal with what is. Not things that can’t be changed, or things which might or might not occur…It makes life a lot less tiring.

    On that note, I’m reading Agatha Christie’s biography. Little Agatha sobbed an entire day because her bird was missing and she thought he was gone for good. Then they discovered he’d been hiding in her bedroom the whole time. Her mother said, “See how silly you have been? What a waste all that crying was? Never cry about things until you are sure.”

  25. What a lovely and informative post (I should point my students here next time I teach Am Lit I)!

    Here’s my favorite RWE quote: “I have heard with admiring submission the experience of the lady who declared that the sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility which religion is powerless to bestow.” (from Letters and Social Aims)

  26. Thanks Ink! Glad you liked the post.

    I’d never heard that quote from RWE. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂

  27. Tasha, you always come out with the best stuff! I also love Emerson – what a wise man he was. The quote that struck me the most is this one: “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”” Wow. That is certainly my daily challenge, both in living and in writing. Thanks for the inspiration.

  28. Thanks, Uppington!

    I love that quote too; and can relate to it very much. Anytime you start worrying over what silly little society may think of you- just repeat it in your head like a mantra. 🙂

  29. I am looking for a quote and am not having any luck.
    It is the one about sitting in a quiet church – or coming into a church and finding it is quiet.

    Can you help me?

  30. Hi Suzanne,

    Found it. (or at least I think this is the one you are thinking of)

    “I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

    You can send me brownies as payment. 😉

  31. I’ve got a DVD class about the Transcendentalists that I’ve been meaning to get back to and finish watching. Fascinating group of people…and so many great books and essays from them!
    Great quotes from Emerson you included, too. Thanks for the little dose of inspiration this morning 🙂

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