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Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is poetic justice that a man with so lyrical a name would become an icon in his own time, but that's exactly what happened to Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Besides having one of the most recognized names in the world, he is known worldwide for his essays and lectures on a wide range of subjects, from nature and religion to literature and self-reliance.

Born on May 25, 1803, Emerson was educated in Boston and Harvard, as his father had been, and was graduated in 1821.  While at Harvard, he kept a journal that became his primary source for his lectures, essays, and books.  In 1825, he entered the Harvard Divinity School and the following year received a license to preach by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. 

In 1829, Emerson married seventeen-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker, after which he began life as a Unitarian minister.  But when his wife died in 1831, he began to question the very strength of his own religion and eventually left his position in the church. 

Emerson missed giving sermons.  A persuasive public speaker, he began giving lectures in the Boston area.  He kept entries in his journal: "Why should we write dramas, & epics, & sonnets, & novels in two volumes?  Why not write as variously as we dress & think?  A lecture is a new literature, which leaves aside all tradition, time, place, circumstance, & addresses an assembly as mere human beings."

Public lectures were becoming increasingly common in New England in the middle of the nineteenth century, and Emerson was one of the first people to make a living from them.  Many of his early lectures were on natural history.  In November, 1833, he gave a lecture for the Natural History Society.  The Uses of Natural History proved so popular that Emerson was invited to give more lectures on science by many other organizations throughout the following winter.

In 1836, his first great essay, Nature, was published in Boston, where it was widely accepted.  In time, it caught the attention of the European press, and people began to view Emerson as the leader of the Transcendentalist movement, which had begun and was gaining popularity in New England.  That winter, Emerson was invited to give a series of twelve lectures in the Masonic Temple in Boston.  The subjects ranged from the Philosophy of History to Trades and Professions.

By this time, lecturing had become the main source of Emerson's income, which was very timely.  He needed the money to take care of his family.  In order to earn as much as he could from his lectures, he wrote his own advertising and oversaw ticket sales personally.  Tickets cost two dollars for twelve lectures, and they could be bought at Boston bookstores.

Emerson's lectures were a huge hit.  Each one drew around 350 people, which was a large crowd, considering that he was competing against many other lecturers in Boston at the time.  He ended up making about 350 dollars in the course of a month-and-a-half of lecturing, about 100 dollars more than he would have made as a minister during the same time period.

He often scheduled three or four lectures a week, each in a different city, so that he was forced to spend a great deal of time traveling.  Railroads were just beginning to be built in the eastern United States, and he rode trains from lecture to lecture whenever he had the opportunity.  He wrote in his journal, "Get into the railroad car and the Ideal Philosophy takes place at once....The very permanence of matter seems compromised & oaks, fields, hills...do absolutely dance by you." 

Emerson also traveled by carriage, steamboat, and sleigh.  Sometimes he traveled alone.  On other occasions, his second wife, Lidian--who was a deeply spiritual and intellectual woman--accompanied him, although on most occasions she stayed home to care for their son, Edward.  Whenever Emerson could, he liked to stay with friends and family, although often he had no choice but to stay in hotels.

Emerson's reputation as a speaker and a celebrity continued to grow.  By 1838, he had begun to decline almost as many invitations to lecture as he accepted.  In the winter of 1840, more people went to his lectures in New York than those of all other speakers combined.

In the early 1840s, Emerson began giving lectures outside of New England, as far west as St. Louis, as well as in England and France.  He found himself spending more and more time away from his family and complained to friends that the toll of traveling was bearing down heavily on him.  He wrote, "A man writes a lecture, & is carted round the Country at the tail of his lecture, for months, to read it."

As he grew older, his daughter began acting as his secretary, scheduling his talks and keeping records of how much money he made.  By the end of his life, he was earning nearly $100 a lecture and was famous throughout the world.

Emerson said, "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books."

Although Emerson's last decade was one of increasing debility, it was also one of international accolade and adulation.  When the Sage of Concord returned home from his last trip abroad, the town band turned out to greet him, the local school children sang in his honor, and the community had joined together to rebuild his recently burned-down home. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson died in Concord, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1882.



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