15 Facts about Ralph Waldo Emerson
Born in Boston in 1803, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a writer, lecturer, poet, and Transcendentalist thinker. Dubbed the "Sage of Concord," Emerson discussed his views on individualism and the divine in essays such as "Self-Reliance" and "Nature," and he emerged as one of the preeminent voices of his generation, both in his lifetime and in the annals of history.
1. HE LOST HIS FATHER AT AN EARLY AGE.
Emerson's father, Reverend William Emerson, was a prominent Boston resident who worked as a Unitarian minister. But he didn't focus solely on matters of God and religion. William Emerson also organized meetings of intellectuals, bringing together open-minded people from a variety of backgrounds to discuss philosophy, science, and books. Unfortunately, Emerson's father died of either stomach cancer or tuberculosis in 1811, when Emerson was just 7 years old. Emerson's mother, Ruth, and his aunts raised him and his five remaining siblings (a brother and sister had previously died young).
2. HE WAS HARVARD'S CLASS POET.
After studying at the Boston Latin School (which is now the oldest school in the U.S.), Emerson began college at 14, a common occurrence at the time. At Harvard College, he learned Latin, Greek, geometry, physics, history, and philosophy. In 1821, after four years of studying there, Emerson agreed to write and deliver a poem for Harvard's Class Day (then called Valedictorian Day), a pre-graduation event. Was he the best poet in the class? Not exactly. The faculty asked a few other students to be Class Poet, but they turned down the post, so Emerson got the gig.
3. HE RAN A SCHOOL FOR GIRLS.
After graduating from Harvard, Emerson went home to teach young women. His older brother, William, ran a school for girls in their mother's Boston home, and Emerson helped him teach students. Later, when William left to study in Germany, Emerson ran the school himself. He reportedly disliked teaching, though, so he moved on to plan B: grad school.
4. THEN HE SWITCHED GEARS AND BECAME A MINISTER.
In 1825, Emerson enrolled at Harvard Divinity School. He decided to become a minister, following in his father's (and grandfather's) footsteps. Despite struggling with vision problems and failing to graduate from his program, Emerson became licensed to preach in 1826. He then worked at a Unitarian church in Boston.
5. HE WAS FRIENDS WITH NAPOLEON BONAPARTE'S NEPHEW.
In late 1826, Emerson wasn't feeling well. He suffered from tuberculosis, joint pain, and vision problems, so he followed medical advice and went south for a warmer climate near the ocean. After spending time in Charleston, South Carolina, Emerson headed to St. Augustine, Florida, where he preached and wrote poetry. He also met and befriended Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of the former French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who had renounced his European titles (though his father had already been overthrown) and immigrated to the United States. Murat was also a writer, and the two young men reportedly discussed religion, politics, and philosophy.
6. HIS YOUNG WIFE DIED OF TUBERCULOSIS.
When Emerson was 26, he married 18-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker. The newlyweds lived happily in Boston, but Tucker was suffering from tuberculosis. Emerson's mother helped take care of her son's ailing wife, but in 1831, less than two years after getting married, Ellen passed away. Emerson dealt with his grief by writing in his journals ("Will the eye that was closed on Tuesday ever beam again in the fullness of love on me? Shall I ever be able to connect the face of outward nature, the mists of the morn, the star of eve, the flowers and all poetry with the heart and life of an enchanting friend? No. There is one birth and baptism and one first love and the affections cannot keep their youth any more than men."), traveling, and visiting her grave. The next year, after an extended period of soul-searching, he decided to leave the ministry to become a secular thinker.
7. HE GAVE MORE THAN 1500 LECTURES, WHICH MADE HIM RICH.
In 1833, Emerson turned his love of writing into a career as a frequent lecturer. He traveled around New England reading his essays and speaking to audiences about his views on nature, the role of religion, and his travels. In 1838, Emerson gave one of his most famous talks, a commencement speech to graduating students of the Harvard Divinity School. His "Divinity School Address" was radical and controversial at the time, since he expressed his Transcendentalist views of individual power over religious doctrine. He also argued that Jesus Christ was not God, a heretical idea at the time. In cities such as Boston, he paid his own money to rent a hall and advertise his speaking event. Emerson packaged some of his lectures into a series, speaking on a certain theme for several events. Ticket sales were high, and the "Sage of Concord" was able to support his family and buy land thanks to his lectures.
8. HE CRITICIZED JANE AUSTEN'S WRITING.
Although many readers love Jane Austen's novels, Emerson was not a fan. In his notebooks (published posthumously), he criticized her characters' single-minded focus on marriage in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. He also called Austen's writing vulgar in tone and sterile in creativity. "I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate," he wrote. "Never was life so pinched and so narrow … Suicide is more respectable."
9. HE NAMED HIS DAUGHTER AFTER HIS FIRST WIFE.
In 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson (nickname: Lidian), an abolitionist and animal rights activist. The couple had four children—Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward—and they named their first daughter Ellen Tucker to honor Emerson's first wife. Besides naming his daughter after her, Emerson also kept his first wife's rocking chair to remind himself of his love for her.
10. HE GREATLY INFLUENCED HENRY DAVID THOREAU.
No biography of writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau would be complete without mentioning Emerson's impact on the "Civil Disobedience" essayist. Emerson gave Thoreau housing and money, encouraged him to keep a journal, and let him have land to build a cabin on Walden Pond. The two friends often discussed Transcendentalism, and Thoreau thought of Emerson's wife Lidian as a sister. Although they had some intellectual disagreements, Emerson gave the eulogy at Thoreau's 1862 funeral.
11. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT HAD A CRUSH ON HIM.
Emerson was friends and neighbors with Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of the Little Women author. Louisa May Alcott grew up surrounded by Emerson, Thoreau, and other Transcendentalist thinkers, and their works greatly influenced her. Emerson lent her books from his library and taught her about the joys of nature. She apparently wrote about her crushes on the much-older Emerson and Thoreau in one of her earliest works, a novel called Moods, and she was known to leave wildflowers near the front door of Emerson's house.
12. MEETING ABRAHAM LINCOLN CHANGED HIS MIND ABOUT THE PRESIDENT.
Emerson wrote and lectured about the evils of slavery, and he frequently criticized President Lincoln for not doing enough to end it. In 1862, Emerson gave an anti-slavery lecture in Washington, D.C., and was invited to the White House to meet Lincoln. After the meeting, Emerson praised Lincoln's charisma and storytelling ability ("When he has made his remark, he looks up at you with a great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs"), saying that the president "impressed me more favorably than I had hoped." Emerson also called Lincoln a sincere, well-meaning man with a boyish cheerfulness and clarity in speech.
13. HE PRAISED WALT WHITMAN WHEN FEW OTHERS WOULD, BUT FELT BURNED WHEN WHITMAN PUBLISHED HIS PRIVATE LETTERS.
After reading one of Emerson's poems, Walt Whitman felt inspired. In 1855, he self-published Leaves of Grass and sent a copy to Emerson. The controversial collection of poems by the unknown poet got horrible reviews—it was routinely called obscene and profane, and one critic called it "a mass of stupid filth." Sales were dismal. But Emerson read the book and wrote a laudatory letter to Whitman, calling the work a "wonderful gift" and "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."
Thanks to Emerson's encouragement, Whitman published a second edition of Leaves of Grass. However, Whitman printed Emerson's words on the book's spine and in a newspaper article. Emerson was reportedly surprised and annoyed that his private letter was made public without his permission, and he remained silent on his thoughts regarding Whitman from then on.
14. HE SUFFERED FROM MEMORY PROBLEMS LATE IN LIFE.
In the early 1870s, Emerson began forgetting things. Given his symptoms, most historians think Emerson suffered from Alzheimer's, aphasia, or dementia. Although he had difficulty recalling certain words, he continued to lecture until a few years before his death. Despite forgetting his own name and the names of his friends, Emerson reportedly kept a positive attitude towards his declining mental faculties (much as his first wife did while she was dying of tuberculosis).
15. HE HELPED DESIGN THE CEMETERY HE'S BURIED IN.
When Emerson died of pneumonia in 1882, he was buried on "Author's Ridge" in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (not the same Sleepy Hollow as in the famed Washington Irving story)—a cemetery that was designed with Emerson's Transcendentalist, nature-loving aesthetics in mind. In 1855, as a member of the Concord Cemetery Committee, Emerson gave the dedication at the opening of the cemetery, calling it a "garden of the living" that would be a peaceful place for both visitors and permanent residents. "Author's Ridge" became a burial ground for many of the most famous American authors who called Concord home—Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson.