Born on May 25, 1803 into a lineage of esteemed Boston clergymen, young Ralph Waldo Emerson initially aimed for a career as a Unitarian minister. He studied divinity at Harvard and became pastor of Boston’s Second Church (his father, William Emerson, had been the pastor at the First Church).
His sermons were well liked. But it didn’t take long for the parishioners, and for the young preacher himself, to realize that his teachings were straining at the boundaries of conventional religion. He would begin his sermons with words from the Bible, but would gradually find himself discussing the unfathomable ideals found in nature, or the irony that wealth made men unhappy, and he would have trouble finding his way back into the Bible to close the speeches. Some of the parishioners loved this — and the young man had early inklings that he was destined for wide acclaim and fame — but many of the parishioners did not.
His inability to serve as a traditional pastor caused him serious distress. Stumbling for appropriate words at the bedside of a dying veteran of the American Revolution, he was famously told by the irritable patient, “Young man, if you don’t know your business you had better go home.”
When his beloved wife Ellen died from tuberculosis (which was then called ‘consumption’), a full life crisis began and Emerson began stubbornly refusing to perform the prescribed rites of the Unitarian Church. It was agreed by all that he should resign. In 1832 he was 29 years old and needed to find a new path in life. He travelled to Europe to meet several liberal intellectuals he’d been corresponding with, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, John Stuart Mill and the historian Thomas Carlyle.
He returned to America energized with new ideas. Settling in Concord northwest of Boston, he remarried and began a family. In 1836 he began publishing his essays. Inspired by the literary Romantic movement that had already swept through Europe, he wrote freely of the great potential of the human spirit, and of the importance of breaking with tradition. One of his greatest essays, “Self-Reliance”, urges complete individual freedom as a moral necessity: “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.” Sarcasm and anger bubbled beneath the calm and dignified surface of his words as he exposed the cowardice and intellectual sloth that shielded the conventional wisdom of his time.
He co-founded a journal called the Dial, and gathered around him a group of like-minded men and women, including Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May). They became known as the New England Transcendentalists. Emerson’s two greatest literary discoveries, though, originated outside the original circle.
First was a young neighbor named Henry David Thoreau, who asked Emerson for a letter of recommendation to Harvard when Thoreau was eighteen and Emerson was thirty. Emerson would gradually come to understand the talent of this eccentric neighborhood schoolteacher, who lacked Emerson’s graceful personality but made up for it in sheer dynamism. Emerson was a family man and a famous public citizen who could take few risks, but Thoreau, fired with similar ideas, could put these ideas to the test by spending two years in a cabin observing the flow of nature, and allowing himself to go to jail to protest the institution of slavery.
Two decades after Emerson met Thoreau, he received a self-published book of poetry in the mail from an unknown admirer from Brooklyn, New York. Emerson immediately understood the odd genius of Walt Whitman and mailed a letter back to Brooklyn with a famous endorsement, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” (exactly a century later, Lawrence Ferlinghetti would echo the same words to Allen Ginsberg after hearing Ginsberg perform his new poem Howl).
Along with Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, Emerson fought vigorously against slavery and other forms of prejudice throughout his life. He was also one of the first Western intellectuals to treat Asian religions, such as Buddhism, with respect.
Ralph Waldo Emerson lived a long life devoid of scandal and high drama. He died of pneumonia on April 27, 1882.
It is unfortunate that Ralph Waldo Emerson is only vaguely known among those interested in today’s alternative culture. While his writings are universally acclaimed in literary circles, his name seems to induce boredom among everyday readers, who often confuse his refined-sounding name with those of other lofty Anglo-Saxon eminences like Wordsworth or Longfellow. These were all important writers. But Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” is to today’s indie scene what the Declaration of Independence is to modern-day political freedom.