From The Library of America’s edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. Copyright © 2009 Literary Classics of the U.S. Reprinted with permission.
Born May 25, Election Day, in Boston, Massachusetts, the fourth child of William (pastor of Boston’s First Church) and Ruth Haskins Emerson, both of English descent. Described by father at age two as “rather a dull scholar.” From age three attends nursery and then grammar school.
Father dies May 12 of stomach tumor at age 42, leaving children to be raised by his widow with help from his sister, Mary Moody Emerson, whose idiosyncratic religious orthodoxy and acute critical intelligence were a lifelong influence. Of eight children, only Ralph Waldo and four brothers survive childhood: William (b. 1801), Ed- ward Bliss (b. 1805), Charles Chauncy (b. 1808), and the mentally retarded Robert Bulkeley (b. 1807), named for illustrious ancestor Peter Bulkeley, first-generation Puritan minister and a founder of Concord, Massachusetts.
Enters Boston Public Latin School; begins writing poetry.
Attends Harvard College and lives in President Kirkland’s lodgings as his “freshman” or orderly; waits on table and teaches during vacations to pay costs. Begins keeping a journal to record his “luckless ragamuffin ideas.” By junior year prefers the name Waldo. Wins prizes for oratory and for essays on Socrates and ethical philosophy; graduates 30th in a class of 59 and delivers class poem at graduation after six others decline the honor. Following graduation teaches in brother William’s school for young ladies in Boston.
Continues to teach. Dedicates his seventh “Wideworld” journal to “the Spirit of America.” Publishes essay on “The Religion of the Middle Ages” in The Christian Disciple, a leading Unitarian religious review.
Takes walking trip to the Connecticut Valley. Runs school alone when William departs to study theology in Germany. Childhood dreams, he complains, “are all fading away & giving place to some very sober & very disgusting views of a quiet mediocrity of talents and condition.”
Dedicates himself to the study of divinity; complains in journal of his lack of warmth and self-confidence, but hopes “to put on eloquence as a robe.”
Closes school. Notes in journal that his “unpleasing boyhood is past” and enters middle class at Harvard Divinity School. When studies are interrupted by eye trouble, resumes teaching, this time in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Edward sails for Europe for his health; William, back from Germany, decides against ministerial career because of religious doubts.
Begins year with “mended eyes,” but afflicted by rheumatism of the hip. Teaches in Roxbury, then opens school in Cambridge (a student later describes him as “not inclined to win boys by a surface amiability, but kindly in explanation or advice”). William and Edward study law, the former on Wall Street and the latter in Daniel Webster’s office. Impressed by Sampson Reed’s Observations on the Growth of the Mind, a treatise that discusses “correspondences” between nature and spirit. Approbated to preach in October, but with onset of lung trouble, voyages to Charleston, South Carolina, financed by uncle Samuel Ripley.
“I am not sick; I am not well; but luke-sick,” he writes William in January, complaining of “a certain stricture” in his lungs. Sails for St. Augustine, Florida; establishes friendship with Napoleon’s nephew Achille Murat, and is intrigued by this “consistent Atheist.” Returns to Boston in spring and continues to preach. In December, while preaching in Concord, New Hampshire, meets Ellen Louisa Tucker.
Edward becomes deranged; Waldo links this collapse to his brother’s “preternatural energy” and assures himself that he is protected from a similar fate by the “mixture of silliness” in his character. Made honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa. Engaged to Ellen Tucker in December.
Invited in January to become junior pastor of Boston’s Second Church—the church of the Mathers. Becomes chaplain of state senate, as his late father had been. Although Ellen is ill with tuberculosis, they marry in September. Elected to Boston School Committee in December. In November 1830, Edward, his health failing, sails for Puerto Rico.
Ellen dies on February 8 at age 19. Waldo notes the religious resignation of her last hours and writes, “My angel is gone to heaven this morning & I am alone in the world & strangely happy”; five days later he prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner & repair this miserable debility in which her death has left my soul.” Begins walking to her tomb every morning. Charles’ health begins to fail, and he sails for Puerto Rico where Edward is employed at the American consulate.
Uneasy with role as minister; feels “the profession is antiquated” and “in an altered age we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers.” Writes Second Church governing board requesting changes in communion service and, when denied, decides to resign. Suffers from persistent diarrhea. In September delivers sermon “The Lord’s Supper” explaining his objections to the rite and concludes he is “not interested in it.” In poor health, sails for Europe on December 25.
Lands in Malta in February much improved in health. Enthusiastically travels north through Italy, spending Easter week in Rome and meeting Walter Savage Landor in Florence; describes religious pomp at Sistine Chapel as “millinery & imbecility,” but finds Pope’s Easter benediction at St. Peter’s “a sublime spectacle.” Arrives in Paris in June. Complains it is “a loud modern New York of a place” but enjoys cafés and liveliness; visits Jardin des Plantes and decides to become “a naturalist.” In London in July; meets John Stuart Mill, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and begins lifelong friendship with Carlyle, whom he visits in Craigenputtock, Scotland. Sails for home in September and notes, “I like my book about nature & wish I knew where & how I ought to live.” Preaches at Boston Second Church in October and in November lectures on “The Uses of Natural History.”
Lectures in Boston on natural history and continues to preach nearly every Sunday; begins to correspond with Carlyle. In spring receives first half of Ellen’s estate (about $11,600). In October moves with mother to Emerson family home in Concord (later named by Hawthorne the Old Manse). Decides “not to utter any speech, poem, or book that is not entirely & peculiarly my work.” Edward dies in Puerto Rico on October 1.
Lectures in Boston on lives of great men. In January feels “very sober joy” on being engaged to Lydia Jackson of Plymouth; buys house in Concord for $3,500 and then marries Lydia (whom he calls “Lidian”) in September. Declines pastorate in East Lexington, Massachusetts, but agrees to preach there every Sunday or procure a substitute. Delivers address on Concord history for the town’s second centennial; begins winter lecture series on “English Literature” in Boston.
Pronounces it a “gloomy epoch” when Charles dies of tuberculosis on May 9. Margaret Fuller visits the Emerson home for three weeks in July. Informal group (later dubbed Transcendental Club)—including Fuller, Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, among others—organized for discussions and continues to meet until 1843. His “little azure-coloured Nature” published anonymously, a common practice, in September. Sees American edition of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus through press at own expense. (Although advances for this and future American editions of Carlyle’s works are a financial hardship, Emerson will eventually recover his investment and send Carlyle nearly $3,000 in profits.) Son Waldo born October 30. Gives lecture series on “Philosophy of History” in winter.
Notes in journal that “the land stinks with suicide” as American economy slides into severe depression. Receives final portion of Ellen’s estate, bringing total to about $23,000, yielding an annual income of some $1,200. “Concord Hymn” sung July 4 at unveiling of monument to Revolutionar y soldiers. Delivers “The American Scholar” as Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa oration in August and is toasted as “the Spirit of Concord” who “makes us all of One Mind.” Lectures in winter on “Human Culture,” defined as “educating the eye to the true harmony of the unshorn landscape.”
Finding the pulpit a constraint, asks East Lexington church committee to relieve him of responsibilities in February. In April writes open letter to President Van Buren protesting displacement of Cherokee Indians from their ancestral lands. Delivers address at Harvard Divinity School (July 15), subsequently attacked as “the latest form of infidelity.” Though defended by George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, J. F. Clarke, and Theodore Parker, he is not invited back to Harvard for nearly 30 years. Dartmouth Oration (“Literary Ethics”) delivered July 24. Meets Jones Very and develops close friendship with Thoreau, with whom he takes walks in the woods. Winter lecture series on “Human Life” includes such topics as “Head,” “Home,” “Love,” “Duty,” “Genius,” “Demonology,” and “Animal Magnetism.”
Preaches his last sermon in January. Daughter Ellen born February 24, with Thoreau’s mother serving as midwife. Visits from Very, Fuller, Alcott, and Carolyn Sturgis lead Emerson to note his “porcupine impossibility of contact with men,” although of Alcott and Fuller he writes, “Cold as I am, they are almost dear.” Edits and finds publisher for Very’s poems and essays. Lectures on “The Present Age” in winter on a widening circuit.
With Margaret Fuller, brings out first issue of The Dial in July, hoping it will be “one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics.” Strives to write “with some pains Essays on various matters as a sort of apology to my country for my apparent idleness.” Attends reformers’ Chardon Street Convention, but when invited to join Brook Farm community declines “to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger.”
First series of Essays published in March, and aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, pronounces it a “strange medly of atheism and false independence”; favorable reviews in London and Paris lay basis for international reputation. Invites Thoreau to join household in spring, offering room and board in exchange for gardening and household chores. In summer delivers “The Method of Nature” at Waterville College in Maine. Daughter Edith born November 22. Lectures on “The Times” in winter.
Devastated by death of five-year-old Waldo from scarlet fever on January 27, avers that he comprehends “nothing of this fact but its bitterness.” Succeeds Margaret Fuller as editor of The Dial when she resigns. Raises money to send Bronson Alcott to England. Takes walking trip in September with Hawthorne, now living at the Old Manse, to visit Shaker community in village of Harvard, Massachusetts. On lecture tour in New York City—the lecture “Poetry of the Times” is reviewed by young editor Walter Whitman—dines with Horace Greeley and Albert Brisbane and visits between lectures at home of Henry James, Sr.
In spring, finds Thoreau employment in Staten Island as tutor to children of his brother William, now a New York State district judge. Completes a translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova. Summer, entertains Daniel Webster at his home and pronounces him “no saint . . . but according to his lights a very true & admirable man.”
Last issue of The Dial appears in April. Son Edward Waldo born July 10. Purchases land on shore of Walden Pond. Contributes $500 toward land for the Alcott family when they purchase a house in Concord (later Hawthorne’s Wayside). Opposes annexation of Texas and war with Mexico: “Mexico will poison us.” Delivers address attacking slavery in the West Indies. Essays: Second Series published in October.
Gives Thoreau permission to build hut on Walden property. His discourse at Middlebury College provokes a local minister to ask God “to deliver us from ever hearing any more such transcendental nonsense.” Refuses to lecture at the New Bedford Lyceum when informed that Negroes are excluded from membership. In winter delivers “Representative Men” lecture series.
April, hears Edward Everett’s inaugural discourse as president of Harvard and decries “the corpse-cold Unitarianism & Immortality of Brattle street & Boston.” In July feels limited sympathy for Thoreau’s night in jail (“this prison is one step to suicide”). Poems published in December, including “Threnody,” an elegy for his son Waldo.
Sails for Liverpool in October, having been invited to lecture in various British industrial cities; Thoreau leaves Walden Pond to take charge of the Emerson household. November to February, lectures extensively on various topics, including “Natural Aristocracy,” in an England and Scotland disturbed by political unrest. Sees Carlyle, Wordsworth, Harriet Martineau, Dickens, and Tennyson. May, visits Paris during attempted revolution, where he meets Alexis de Tocqueville. Returns to England in June, dines with Chopin, and visits Stonehenge with Carlyle. Disembarks in Boston in late July.
Offers winter lecture series on “Mind and Manners in the Nineteenth Century,” drawing on English experiences, and a spring series on “Laws of the Intellect.” Begins smoking cigars. Nature; Addresses, and Lectures published in September.
January, Representative Men published. Winter–spring, extensive lecturing in New England, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. July, mourns death of Margaret Fuller Ossoli in shipwreck (“I have lost in her my audience”) and sends Thoreau to Fire Island beach to search for her effects. Winter, lectures on “The Conduct of Life.”
Outraged by Webster’s March 7 speech defending Fugitive Slave Law, fills journal with passionate condemnation of this former hero (“all the drops of his blood have eyes that look downward”) and speaks against the law.
Contributes to Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Praises Uncle Tom’s Cabin. During winter, 1852–53, lectures to enthusiastic crowds from Boston to St. Louis, Philadelphia to Maine and Montreal.
Mother dies on November 16 at age 84; she had lived with Waldo and Lidian since their marriage in 1835.
Demanding lecture schedule throughout country includes attack on Fugitive Slave Law in New York City.
Anti-slavery lectures in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Writes Whitman praising Leaves of Grass (“I give you joy of your free & brave thought. . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career”). Helps F. B. Sanborn establish the Concord Academy, whose pupils will include the children of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr. Saturday Club founded, with Emerson as a charter member, for informal literary discussions. Addresses Woman’s Rights Convention in Boston.
Lecture schedule ranges from New England to the Middle West. English Traits published in August. Speaks in favor of Kansas Relief, a fund raised to help Kansans impoverished by marauding pro-slavery advocates.
Listens approvingly to Captain John Brown’s speech in Concord. Moves remains of mother and Waldo (“I ventured to look into the coffin”) to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
Declares himself an abolitionist “of the most absolute abolition.” Spends two weeks in August camping in the Adirondacks with Louis Agassiz, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others. Calculates his income for the year at $4,162.11.
Brother Bulkeley dies at age 52. Records in journal his fear that he has “no new thoughts, and that [his] life is quite at an end.” Much agitated by capture and execution of John Brown, and predicts that his hanging will make the gallows “sacred as the cross.”
Lectures throughout New York, New England, the Middle West, and at Toronto. Walks on Boston Common with Whitman for two hours on a March day trying to persuade him to tone down the “sex element” in Leaves of Grass. William Dean Howells visits in August as part of the itinerary of his literary pilgrimage. Declares in November that news of Lincoln’s election is “sublime.” Conduct of Life published in December.
Told to “dry up” by unruly pro-Union crowd while attempting to speak at Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society (“the mob roared . . . and after several beginnings, I withdrew”). Roused by unity and patriotism of New England following attack on Fort Sumter, visits Charlestown Navy Yard and declares “sometimes gunpowder smells good.” Says of war that “amputation is better than cancer.”
Lectures on “American Civilization” in Washington and meets Lincoln. Reads address at Thoreau’s funeral averring that “the country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost.” Celebrates Emancipation Proclamation in an address printed in the Atlantic Monthly.
Aunt Mary dies at age 89 on October 3. Appointed to committee to review standards of U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lectures throughout Midwest.
Attends Hawthorne’s funeral and laments “the painful solitude of the man—which, I suppose, could not longer be endured, & he died of it.” Lectures on “American Life” and the “Fortune of the Republic,” exhorting Americans to “wake” and correct the injustices of the political system “with energy”; declares “this country, the last found, is the great charity of God to the human race.” Elected to newly formed American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Eulogizes martyred Lincoln as “the true representative of this continent.” Thinks Grant’s terms for Lee’s surrender too lenient. Daughter Edith engaged to Col. William Forbes, later president of Bell Telephone Co., son of railroad magnate John Murray Forbes. Lectures 77 times.
Receives honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Harvard. Reads to son Edward Waldo his poem “Terminus” (“It is time to be old, / To take in sail.”).
May-Day and Other Pieces published in April. Delivers Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard, ending 29-year exile. Named an overseer of Harvard College. Lectures 80 times, the peak of his platform career, traveling west twice as far as Minnesota and Iowa.
William dies in New York on September 13.
Society and Solitude published in March; writes preface for edition of Plutarch’s Morals. Lectures at Harvard on “Natural History of Intellect” and is much occupied with university affairs.
Repetition of Harvard course cut short due to fatigue; April–May, travels to West Coast, in a private Pullman car leased by John Forbes, for relaxation and relief with family and friends. Meets naturalist John Muir and notes that California “has better days, & more of them” than any other place. Back in Concord, visited by Bret Harte.
Health declines; suffers lapses of memory while lecturing. House in Concord badly damaged by fire on July 24; James Russell Lowell and other friends raise $17,000 to repair house and send Emerson abroad for a vacation. Travels to Egypt and Europe with daughter Ellen in October. In Paris, Henry James, Jr., guides them through the Louvre; sees Carlyle for last time. Meets Hermann Grimm, Hippolyte Taine, Ivan Turgenev, Robert Browning, Friedrich Max Müller, Benjamin Jowett, and John Ruskin.
Returns in May to cheering crowd in Concord and discovers house has been restored by friends.
Publishes Parnassus, an anthology of his favorite poetry (Whitman and Poe are not included).
Ceases writing new entries in his private journals, but rereads and comments on old ones; Letters and Social Aims published in December with editorial assistance of Ellen and James Elliot Cabot.
Emma Lazarus visits, and this “real unconverted Jew” creates much interest in household. Selected Poems published.
Lives last years serenely in mental twilight (at Longfellow’s funeral in his own last year, Emerson is reported to have said, “That gentleman was a sweet, beautiful soul, but I have entirely forgotten his name”). Dies of pneumonia on April 27, 1882, in Concord.