Ralph Waldo Emerson
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
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
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,
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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