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Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1803-1882)

Essayist, Lecturer, Poet

Boston-born Ralph Waldo Emerson lost his father, a Concord minister, when he was eight years old, leaving the family in difficult circumstances. Greatly influenced by his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, who was deeply committed to the Emerson children’s education, Emerson's interest in writing grew. He worked his way through Harvard, graduating as class poet in 1821. After college, Emerson taught at a young ladies’ finishing school and then entered divinity school. Following the death of his first wife, he resigned from the ministry over doctrinal differences and began pursuing a literary career. While visiting Europe, he met Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle (Van Doren).

A highly-regarded speaker, he began delivering lectures on nature and English literature in Boston in 1835. During that same year he remarried and relocated to Concord, where he became acquainted with many of the writers who would become followers of his transcendental ideals: Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, to whom he became well-known as a friend and mentor. A philosophy derived in part from European Romanticism, transcendentalism found its most well-known spokesperson in Emerson, especially after the publication of Nature (1836) and "The American Scholar." In the latter, he called for the production of new and distinctly American art and intellectual culture. He actively wrote essays, lectures, and poems during the period known as the American Renaissance (1835-65). In 1840, Emerson also helped to launch The Dial, a magazine for expressing transcendental philosophies and ideas that was edited by Margaret Fuller (Van Doren). The Dial was the result of the Transcendental Club, an informal group of kindred spirits, coming together toward the end of the 1830s and deciding that they needed an “organ” of their own (Boynton 195).

Emerson soon forged a relationship of mutual respect with Walt Whitman, which began when Whitman sent Emerson the form of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (Solitary 151). Frank Bellew recalls Emerson being “in raptures” over the unbound edition of poems, praising it as a “wonderful production” despite a few eyebrow raising passages. Emerson wrote a congratulatory letter to Whitman, whom he had never met, greeting him “at the beginning of a great career” and suggesting that they meet. While the two men did meet several months later, Whitman upset Emerson by printing the letter without his permission. Emerson writes that it “was merely a private letter of congratulation. Had I intended it for publication, I would have enlarged the but very much (Bellew 45-50).

Despite the affront, Emerson remained an influential figure in Whitman’s artistic life, to the extent that Whitman named reading his works and Italian opera as the “two greatest influences on his mind and poetry in 1860 (Allen 242). Whitman and Emerson met on several occasions in New York and Boston. On the occasion of Whatman’s meeting with Emerson’s Boston publishers, Emerson was unable to convince Whitman not to print his “Children of Adam” poems, but got him reading privileges at the famous Boston Athenaeum library in 1860 (236-238). Emerson would later distance himself from Whitman following the “racy second edition of Leaves of Grass” (Stansell 116).

Emerson writes of Whitman bringing him to “a noisy fire-engine society” following a nice dinner at a hotel, a destination which Albert Parry claims was Pfaff’s (Allen also suggests this) (Parry 38, Allen 206). While James L. Ford claims that all of the Pfafians disliked Emerson because “he had referred to their idol, Poe, as ‘the jingle man’” (1), Parry writes that, of Pfaffian-adopted hatred of Poe’s enemies, Emerson was the exception (9).  Emerson was also known to Clapp, and reportedly frequented a Boston bookstore where Clapp worked as a clerk as a young man (“Died in Bowery Lodgings”). However, there is no conclusive source which places Emerson at Pfaff’s.

Emerson had his own version of a literary community like that at Pfaff’s, albeit a considerably more sedate one. Emerson’s Boston-based Saturday Club included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Henry Dana, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Robert Lowell. Emerson also enjoyed being part of the Adirondack Club, whose members would go for walks through the mountains. While Emerson's membership in these clubs would suggest his sociability, he was somewhat aloof, possessing a calm, thoughtful demeanor which characterized the tranquil later years of his life. Being stricken with pneumonia, Emerson died a few weeks after Longfellow in 1882 and is buried near Thoreau (Van Doren).