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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson is often positioned as the “father” of American literature. As a poet, preacher, orator, and essayist, he articulated the new nation’s prospects and needs and became a weighty exemplum of the American artist. Throughout the 19th century, Emerson’s portrait gazed down from schoolhouse and library walls, where he was enshrined as one of America’s great poets. His daughter Ellen, accompanying her father on one of his frequent lecture tours, reported the fun of “seeing all the world burn incense to Father.” His calls for a scholar and a poet who would exploit the untapped materials of the nation served as literary credos for subsequent generations of writers, from Rebecca Harding Davis, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass, to Hart Crane, Robert Frost, and A.R. Ammons. He was known for his critique of conventional values of property and ambition, yet his formulation of the self-reliant American was used to authorize the laissez-faire individualism of Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie. He was one of the first American writers to be recognized by the British and European literary establishments, read enthusiastically by Carlyle and Nietzche. To Matthew Arnold, he is the “voice oracular” who challenges the “bitter knowledge” of his “monstrous, dead, unprofitable world.” To Irving Howe, Emerson is the dominant spirit of his age, the proponent of “the American newness.” In F.O. Matthiessen’s formulation of the “American Renaissance,” Emerson is the initiating force “on which Thoreau built, to which Whitman gave extension, and to which Hawthorne and Melville were indebted by being forced to react against its philosophical assumptions.” To Whitman and, subsequently, to Alfred Kazin, Emerson is the “founder” of the “procession of American literature.”

The eminence of his public position made Emerson’s approval a valued commodity, as Whitman showed when he printed a congratulatory letter from Emerson with the second edition of Leaves of Grass. It also made him a formidable predecessor with whom younger writers had to contend. Writers as diverse as Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps describe their emergence onto the literary scene in relationship to Emerson, to his influence as a teacher or writer, a speaker or austere presence. Yet even such acknowledgments as Whitman’s famous remark—“I was simmering, simmering, simmering, and Emerson brought me to a boil”—position Emerson primarily as a precursor, important for his influence on others, rather than for his own work. As Joel Porte has argued, “Emerson’s fate, somewhat like Shakespeare’s, was that he came to be treated as an almost purely allegorical personage whose real character and work got submerged in his function as a touchstone of critical opinion.” He becomes the founder of “Transcendentalism” or the spokesman for “Nature,” the “optimist” who does not understand the world’s evil or pain. He is thus removed from the march of time, idealized as a “primordial” figure whose vision isolates him from the political and social struggles of his age.

But Emerson was never simply a distant patriarchal figure sheltered from the material problems of his age. He constructed his “optative” exuberance despite the early deaths of his father, two of his brothers, his beloved young wife, and his first son, and despite his own serious bouts with lung disease and eye strain. He was a child both of privilege and penury, of family position and dependence. As he wrote early on in his journal: “It is my own humor to despise pedigree. I was educated to prize it.” His father, the minister William Emerson, died when he was eight, and his mother, Ruth Haskins Emerson, supported the five children (three others died young) by taking in boarders and by periodically living with relatives in Concord. Emerson’s education vacillated between Boston Latin school and private tutoring by his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. At Harvard, which he attended on scholarship, Emerson struggled with the academic curriculum and with his expected future as either a teacher or minister. But he also conducted a more satisfying private education of reading and journal-writing that would prepare him to be a writer, an American scholar, and poet. Those aims had to wait, however, while Emerson helped support his family by teaching school. In 1825, he entered Harvard Divinity School, following nine generations of his family into the ministry. Yet six years after his ordination, he resigned the ministry, concerned that the “dogmatic theology” of “formal Christianity” looked only to past traditions and the words of the dead. “My business is with the living,” he wrote in his journal. “I have sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry.”

These years were full of personal tumult as well. In 1829, Emerson married Ellen Tucker, only to lose her sixteen months later to the tuberculosis that also threatened him. The pain of her death and his own sense of vulnerability may have hastened Emerson’s decision to leave the ministry. With the substantial inheritance she left him, he had the means to make such a change, to travel on the continent, to buy books, and to write them. The inheritance, with the earnings he received from his lecture tours and his publications and with a lifetime of frugality and fiscal planning, made him financially secure. He supported an extended family, caring for his retarded brother for twenty years. In 1835, he married Lidian Jackson, and moved to Concord, where they had four children—Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward Waldo, who later edited his father’s works and journals. The death from scarlet fever of five-year-old Waldo was a blow to Emerson’s faith in compensation. In his 1844 essay “Experience,” he wrote from this loss, and from his urgent desire to regain the “practical power” that could persist despite personal and public griefs. “Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy,” he argued. His subsequent career and personal life reflect a determined affirmation to be “an active soul.” “I am Defeated all the time,” he acknowledged, “yet to Victory I am born.” Emerson continued his work into his seventies, relying on his daughter Ellen to help organize his last lectures and essays. He died in 1882, from pneumonia, and was buried in Concord, near Thoreau and Hawthorne.

Emerson’s long career, and his financial and social security, allowed him to intervene decisively in the formation of American culture and letters. Although he generally resisted the call to public advocacy, he was sought after to support various social causes: he was urged to join the experimental commune of Brook Farm, prodded to take a leading role in the abolitionist movement and in the lobbying for women’s rights. Emerson’s efforts on behalf of his fellow writers were of material importance, addressing the social impediments to publication and reputation. Through financial support, personal connections, or editorial efforts, he made possible publication of work by Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller and Jones Very. He loaned Thoreau the property at Walden Pond for his celebrated retreat and raised money to support the impoverished Alcott family, despite his own belief that a philosopher should earn his keep. He oversaw American printings of Carlyle’s books and wrote prefaces for translations of Persian poets and of Plutarch. With Margaret Fuller, he edited The Dial, a short-lived but influential periodical.

Emerson’s initial fame came from his critique of the literary, religious, and educational establishments of his day. He was known as an experimenter who urged Americans to reject their deference to old modes and values, to continental traditions. His chiding lectures about Harvard’s religious and literary training, and his resignation from the clergy, made him a spokesman for reformist positions, although it also aroused harsh criticism of him as a religious infidel, “a sort of mad dog,” and a “dangerous man.” At the first meeting of the Transcendental Club, Emerson decried the “tame” genius of the times that did not match the grandeur of “this Titanic continent,” and he transformed Harvard’s traditional Phi Beta Kappa oration on “The American Scholar” into a critique of the “meek young men” and “sluggard intellect of this continent” and a call for a new age when “we will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”

Emerson’s work is characterized by a combination of homely metaphors and grandiose goals, by his insistence on the present and his expectations for the future. His outpouring of “private” writings reflects a practical economy of writing, in which journals serve as a “Savings Bank” for “deposit” of “earnings” to be reworked into lectures and essays. They demonstrate his incredible energy and discipline (he kept 182 journals and notebooks over his career, which he carefully reread, indexed, and cross-referenced for use in preparing his more “public” work); and they reflect an astounding ambition, evident in the titles of his college journals, “The Wide World” and “The Universe,” and in such notebooks as “XO” (“Inexorable; Reality and Illusion”).

Emerson’s literary practices have always been provocative. A critic of his first book, Nature, was offended by language that is sometimes “coarse and blunt.” He also protested that “the effort of perusal is often painful, the thoughts excited are frequently bewildering, and the results to which they lead us, uncertain and obscure. The reader feels as in a disturbed dream.” Although modern readers are unlikely to be upset by Emerson’s diction or references to sex and madness, he remains disturbing, seen as a “difficult” writer requiring vast annotation and philosophic glossing. Emerson was indeed an allusive writer, but his use of cultural materials provokes with a purpose. The context he constructs is adamantly untraditional, mixing quotations from classics and British poetry with Asian literature and Welsh bards. One metaphor will emerge from his interest in scientific or engineering experiments, another from local politics, and yet another from what his son Waldo said that morning. The problem in reading Emerson—as well as the pleasure—is in seeing how such eclecticism undermines conventions of authority and reference and challenges established modes of reading.

For himself, and for the American public, he advocated “creative reading as well as creative writing,” rejecting traditional oppositions between thinking and acting, between the scholar and the worker, between the speculative and the practical. “Words are also actions,” he wrote, “and actions are a kind of words.” For despite the hopeful tone of much of the writing, Emerson’s brand of self-reliance and his exuberant nationalism were an aspiration, to be achieved only through constant work, constant critique.  Emerson’s aim as a writer was less to originate a tradition than to produce active readers, who would then refashion themselves and their culture: “Let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.”
Jean Ferguson Carr
University of Pittsburgh

In the Heath Anthology
Nature (1836)  [n.b., 1849]
Concord Hymn (1837)
The American Scholar (1837)  [n.b., 1849]
The Rhodora (1839)
Compensation (1841)
Self-Reliance (1841)  [n.b., 1847]
The Snow-Storm (1841)
Experience (1844)  [n.b., 1847]
The Poet (1844)  [n.b., 1847]
Hamatreya (1847)
Merlin (1847)
Brahma (1857)
Days (1857)
Terminus (1867)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image fileA Caricature of Ralph Waldo Emerson
IMAGE fileThe Hudon River School, Romanticism, and American Painting

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A View on Ralph Waldo Emerson
Analytical essays on Emerson's work.

American Author, Poet & Philosopher
A brief biography, links, and a bibliography of primary and secondary texts.

An Overview of American Transcendentalism
Short, dense essay discussing the roots of Transcendentalism and Emerson's philosophies.

Poetry Exhibits
A biography, links, and a few of Emerson's works.

The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Comprehensive site offering many of Emerson's works for online browsing.

Secondary Sources

Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson: A Biography, 1981

Harold Bloom, ed., Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1985

Robert E. Burkholder and Joel Myerson, eds., Critical Essays on Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1983

Julie Ellison, Emerson's Romantic Style, 1984

Charles E. Mitchell, Individualism and Its Discontents: Appropriations of Emerson, 1880-1950, 1997

Christopher Newfield, The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America, 1996

Sherman Paul, Emerson's Angle of Vision: Man and Nature in American Experience, 1952

Joel Porte, Emerson, Prospect and Retrospect, 1982

David T. Porter, Emerson and Literary Change, 1978

Robert D. Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire: A Biography, 1995

John Carlos Rowe, At Emerson's Tomb: The Politics of Classic American Literature, 1997

Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1949

Hyatt H. Waggoner, Emerson as Poet, 1974Donald Yannella, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1982