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).
Mrs. Aldrich recalls that Emerson spoke the night her engagement was announced at the dinner held in honor of Bryant at the Century Club (58).
Emerson was among the lunch party when Bret Harte dined with the Saturday Club in Boston. The party was comprised of the literary notables of Boston (135).[pages:58,135]
Allen writes that a series of lectures Emerson gave on March 7, 1842, in New York, included a lecture on "The Poetry of the Times" and it was reported in the Aurora that Emerson mentioned a piece that was "one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, both for its matter and style, we have heard anywhere, at any time." Allen feels that the Emerson's lecture was most likely commented upon by Whitman, as he later mentioned having heard Emerson lecture in New York at this time (52-53).
Allen mentions Emerson's acquisition of a first edition of Leaves of Grass (151). Allen reprints a section of Emerson's letter that expreses his congratulations to Whitman about Leaves of Grass and that also "greets" him "at the beginning of a great career" (152). Allen also engages in a discussion of what Emerson would have found admirable in Whitman's writing and the stylistic and thematic similarities between the two writers' works. Allen also addresses the significant differences between the two writers (153-156). On October 10, 1855, Whitman allowed Charles Dana to reprint Emerson's letter of endorsement of Leaves of Grass in the Tribune without Emerson's permission. This action was taken as a mildly rude affront by Emerson (173-174).
Allen claims that Emerson likely visited Brooklyn at least once, but Allen feels that the majority of Emerson's visits with Whitman took place in New York. Allen writes that Emerson once wrote of taking Whitman to dinner at a fancy New York hotel and then being escorted by Whitman to "a noisy fire-engine society." Allen claims that if Emerson was not shocked, he was annoyed by their destination. While there is no conclusive proof of where they went, Allen suggests that Whitman might have brought Emerson to Pfaff's (206).
In 1860, Emerson's Boston publishers contacted Whitman and proposed publishing an edition of his poems. Whitman arrived in Boston a month later. Allen claims that Whitman's meeting with Emerson on this visit was "apparently Whitman's first important experience in Boston" and during this conversation, Emerson attempted to peruade Whitman not to publish "Children of Adam." Emerson most likely read the poems in manuscript form and felt that their publication would be a bad idea for several reasons, mainly because they might damage the book's financial success. The two men debated the point for about two hours, and when Whitman refused to yeild, the two men went to dinner. Emerson introduced Whitman at the Boston Athenaeum, the famous library, and got him reading privileges on March 17, 1860. During this period, Whitman was almost invited to Emerson's, Thoreau's, and Alcott's Concord homes, but their wives and sisters objected to the idea (236-238).
Whitman mentioned reading Emerson and Italian opera as the "two greatest influences on his mind and poetry" in May, 1860 (242).
Extra page #s: 291, 311, 341, 347, 359, 405, 428, 442, 461-462, 483, 491, 502, 541, 562(n24), 567(n103), 586(n47)[pages:52-53, 62, 81, 83, 121, 126, 128-129, 130, 132, 135, 136, 141, 151, 152, 153-156, 169, 170, 172, 173-174, 176-177, 178, 179-180, 184, 188, 206, 207, 2]
Bellew discusses his knowledge of Emerson since their first meeting in 1855. Bellew talks about Emerson's life in New England and his friendships with other writers, especially Hawthorne and Thoreau (45-48).
Bellew also discusses Emerson's reactions to other works of literature and recalls the day Emerson "drew my attention to an unbound volume of poems he had just received from New York, over which he was in raptures. It was called 'Leaves of Grass,' by Walt Whitman. 'I have just written off post-haste to thank him,' he said, 'It is really a most wonderful production, and gives promise of the greatest things, and if, as he says, it is his first writing, seems almost incredible. He must have taken a long run to make such a jump at this'" (49). Bellew recalls that Emerson "read me some passages, raising his eyebrows here and there, remarking that it was hardly a book for the seminary or parlor table."
Bellew mentions that he took a leave of Emerson for two months, after which Emerson was "still enthusiastic over 'Leaves of Grass'" (49). It is during this visit that Bellew informed Emerson that Whitman had published his congratulatory letter in the "Tribune." This seems to have upset Emerson as it "was merely a private letter of congratulation. Had I intended it for publication, I would have enlarged the but very much -- enlarged the but" (49).[pages:45-50]
Boynton discusses the shifting literary centeres of the United States, noting: "With the passing of Irving, Cooper, and Bryant the leadership in American letters was lost to New York. Indeed, by 1850, while all this trio were living, four men in eastern Massachusetts were in full career,-Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier; and before the death of Irving, in 1859, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Homes came into their full powers" (190).
In regards to the careers of popular New England writers, Boynton states that "They matured slowly. Emerson was past middle life before America heeded him" (191).
"Centering about Concord, but by no means located within it, was a 'Transcendental Movement' of which Emerson is considered the chief exponent" (194).
Boynton provides a description of the activities of the writers associated with the Transcendental movement: "Two undertakings chiefly focused the group activity of the Transcendentalists. The first of these was the Dial, a quarterly publication which ran for sixteen numbers, 1840-1844. After much discussion the Transcendental Club undertook the publication of this journal of one hundred and twenty-eight pages to an issue. For the first two years it was under the editorship of Margaret Fuller. When her strength failed under this extra voluntary task, Emerson, with the help of Thoreau, took charge for the remaining two years. Its paid circulation was very small, never reaching two set of publishers, it had to be discontinued, Emerson personally meeting the final small deficit. It contained chiefly essays of a philosophical nature, but included in every issue a rather rare body of verse. The essays reflected and expounded German thought and literature and oriental thought, and discussed problems of art, literature, and philosophy. The section given to critical reviews is extremely interesting for its quick response to the new writings which later years have proved and accepted" (195).
"[...] and Emerson stayed in Concord with the comment: "I do not wish to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger.... I have not yet conquered my own house. It irks and repents me. Shall I raise the siege of this hen coop, and march baffled away to a pretended siege of Babylon?" (196).
Boynton provides an abridged bio of Emerson. He also provides a descriptions of Emerson's ideals on nature, beauty, living in the present, etc. (199-220).
Boynton also discusses Emerson's friendship with Thoreau (221-222). Boynton highlights that the between Thoreau and Emerson's ideas of independence was "that Emerson discharged his duties in the family and in the state and that Thoreau protested at his obligations to the group even while he was reaping the benefits of other men's industry."
Boyton notes, however, in his comparison of Emerson and Thoreau that the similarity between the two men was that "both were more social in their lives than in their writings."
Boynton writes of Concord: "What the town was by tradition and what it had become through Emerson's influence made it the most congenial spot in America for Hawthorne" (236).
"The philosophy of Gilder was the philosophy of his most enlightened contemporaries. There is in it much of Emerson, whom he called the 'shining soul' of the New World, and there is much of Whitman, though it is not clear whether their likeness does not lie in their common accord with Emerson rather than in direct influence from 'the good gray poet' to Gilder. The immanence of God in nature and in heart of man (see 'The Voice of the Pine'); the unity of all natural law (see 'Destiny'); the conflict between religion and theology (see 'Credo'); and a faith in the essentials of democractic life,- these are the wholesome fundamentals of modern thinking shared alike by Emerson and Whitman and Gilder" (339-340).
"Emerson was the single man of influence to 'greet [Whitman] at the beginning of a great career'" (364).
"Emerson wrote of self-reliance in general, 'Adhere to your act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.' Yet he remonstrated with Whitman, and in the attempt to modify his extravagance used arguments which were unanswerable. Nevertheless, said the younger poet, 'I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way'; in doing which he bettered Emerson's instructions by disregarding his advice. Hostile or brutal criticism left him quite unruffled. It reenforced him in his conclusions and cheered him with the thought that they were receiving serious attention" (375).[pages:60, 136, 190, 191, 194 195, 196, 199-220, 221, 222, 223, 225, 227, 229, 230, 232, 236, 252, 279, 287, 288, 293, 311, 339, 340, 364, 369, 375, 453]
R. W. Emerson is listed by Books as an example of how several Americans are referred to by their first initials (1).[pages:1]
Clapp laments, somewhat half-heartedly, that Whitman did not take Emerson's advice to edit out the more sexually charged "Children of Adam" poems from the 1860 Leaves of Grass.
Emerson gave "a characteristic address" at the gathering to celebrate Bryant at the Century Club (158).
Derby also notes that at this time Houghton, Mifflin & Co. were the publishers of Emerson's works, along with other "celebrated writers of prose and poetry" (277).
Emerson included Stedman's "How old Brown took Harper's Ferry" in his "Parnassus" (535).[pages:89,158,277,280,283,286,289,313,328,339,519,535,582,591,624]
Mentioned as having frequented a Boston bookstore where Clapp worked as a clerk when he was a young man. Clapp's stories seem to indicate that the two men were somewhat friendly.[pages:3]
Figaro quotes Emerson in describing how "glad" he feels (5).[pages:5]
Emerson is mentioned in a poem of Figaro's published in the Times (4).[pages:4]
Ford describes Emerson as the author the Pfaffians all disliked because "he had referred to their idol, Poe, as 'the jingle man'" (1).[pages:1]
Emerson is listed as one of the "quiet," "retired" men among literary talkers (2).[pages:2]
Aldrich discusses in a Oct. 31, 1893 letter from Ponkapog to Laurence Hutton how Emerson and Whittier were the only members of their group not thinking solely of themselves: "They were too simple to pose, or to be intentionally brilliant. Emerson shed his silver like the moon, without knowing it. However, we can't all be great and modest at the same moment!" (176).
Aldrich mentions in a letter to Stedman how much he enjoys Emerson's "Bacchus" (197).[pages:176,197]
Was attracted to the Fourierist community, Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Mass., that was founded as an offshoot of Transcendentalism. The community was founded in 1841 and converted to Fourierism in 1844 (2).[pages:2]
Lalor cites Frederik Schyberg's citation of Emerson that he "had great hopes of Whitman until he became a Bohemian" (133).
Lalor quotes Emily Hahn: "if it hadn't been for Emerson's warm praise and Clapp's stubborn faith, even Whitman's self-confidence might have suffered. As it was, the staff of the Saturday Press made him a cause, publishing his work and declaring his genius" (138).[pages:133,138]
Emerson and his transcendentalist colleagues met Henry Clapp willingly, despite the rumors of the "rowdiness of the crowd at Pffaf's (78).[pages:78, 85, 119]
Levin discusses the similarities and differences in Emerson's and Clapp's writing and ideological stances (34,35).[pages:34,35,74,89,95n10]
A note reporting in the club composed of regular contributors to the Atlantic Monthly that meets monthly at Parker's lists Emerson as a member of the group (2).[pages:2]
A note on the Atlantic lists R.W. Emerson among the contributors (3).[pages:3]
A note reports that Grozelier has been "engaged" to do a "lithographic portrait" of Emerson (3).[pages:3]
Lectured at the (Brooklyn) Athenaeum in the 1865-66 season in December on "Social Aims," "Resources," and "Books and Culture" (113). Emerson repeated these lectures at the New England Congregational Church and added "Classes of Men" and "Success and Clubs." The audiences for these lectures were not large; interest in Emerson seems to have been low that winter (118). During the 1867-68 season Emerson lectured at Packer Institute on "Eloquence," "The Man and the World," and "The Relation of Intellect and Morals" (398).[pages:113,118,398]
Appeared at the Lyceum at Williamsburgh. Lectured Feb. 19,1852 (the advertisement for this engagement seems to have been a surprise discovery by Odell in the Gazette); the subject of Emerson's talk is unknown (195).
Emerson is also mentioned in a list of lecturers for a special fall and winter series at the Athenaeum during the 1855-56 season (507).[pages:195,507]
Lectured in Brooklyn Jan. 11, 1859, at the Mercantile Library on "Country Life" (197).[pages:197]
Parry wties that "The imbibers at Pfaff's of the 'Fifties took up Poe's fight against the smugness and prosperity of Boston, making an exception, from among all the butts of Poe's hatred, of Emerson only" (9).
Parry mentions that Whitman once brought Emerson to Pfaff's, where Emerson called them "noisy and rowdy firemen and could not understand what bonds they claimed with Walt." Parry also writes that Emerson did not know that Whitman felt himself superior to the Pfaffians and loved the adulation that came from frequenting the bar (38).[pages:9,38]
Stansell notes that the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 brought Whitman some literary and critical acclaim from Emerson and others. She notes, however, that by 1858, when Whitman seemed to be returning back to the ranks of the "swarm" of writers in New York, his "great patron" Emerson was at a remove both by distance (in Boston) and in social class (116).[pages:116]
Starr quotes Emerson's description of Greeley: "His entrance into a tavern, much more into a lecture hall, raises gratulating shouts...and I could scarcely keep the people quiet to hear my abstractions they were so furious to should Greeley! Greeley! Greeley! Catch me carrying Greeley into my lecture again!...I had as lief travel with Barnum" (17-18).
Starr writes that during the debates over the "right to report," there was still uneasiness over the presence of reporters. "As late as 1859, Emerson was perturbed by the thought of reporters attending his lectures" (40).
Starr lists Emerson as one of Smalley's friends (139).[pages:17-18,40,139]
On Emerson as a Lecturer: "[...] Emerson's voice is up to his reputation. It has a curious contradiction, which we tried in vain to analyze satisfactorily,-an outwardly repellent and inwardly reverential mingling of qualities which a musical composer would despair of blending into one. It bespeaks a life that is half contempt, half adoring recognition, and very little between" (86-87).
Miss Bremer about her Visits to Emerson: "[...] He is a very peculiar character, but too cold and hypercritical to please me entirely; a strong clear eye, always looking out for an ideal which he never finds realized on earth; discovering wants, shortcomings, imperfections; and too strong and healthy himself to understand other people's weaknesses and sufferings, for he even despises suffering as a weakness unworthy of higher natures" (90).
Also from Miss Bremer: "Pantheistic as Emerson is in his philosophy, in the moral view with which he regards the world and life he is in a high degree pure, noble, and severe, demanding as much from himself as he demands from others. His words are severe, his judgment often keen and merciless, but his demeanor is alike noble and pleasing, and his voice beautiful. One may quarrel with Emerson's thoughts, with his judgment, but not with himself" (92),
Hawthorne's Description of Emerson: "Uncertain, troubled, earnest wanderers through the midnight of the moral world beheld his intellectual fire as a beacon burning on a hill-top, and climbing the difficult ascent, looked forth into the surrounding obscurity more hopefully than hitherto" (95).
Also from Hawthorne: "I felt that there were no questions to be put, and therefore admired Emerson as a poet of deep beauty and austere tenderness, but sought nothing from him as a philosopher" (96).[pages:86-97]
Whitman relates that Emerson called upon him immediately after he arrived in Boston, showed him around the city, and took excellent care of him.[pages:49]
The letter is addressed to Emerson.[pages:68-70]
Whitman notes that his third edition of Leaves of Grass will not contain any notes to or from Emerson.[pages:44]
In chronicling Emerson's career between the years of 1855-1865, Appleton cites his efforts for various social issues, such as women's rights and the abolitionist movement: for example, his campaigning for John G. Palfrey as the free-soil candidate for the governorship of Mass.[pages:343-348]
Winter notes that "the august luminaries of literature,--Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, Emerson, Whittier, Whipple, etc.,--clustered around" "The Atlantic Monthly," started in 1857 and edited by Frank Underwood. Winter states that "The Atlantic Monthly" "speedily led the field, in literary authority" during this early period. This group was also know to frequent and old bookstore at the corner of Washington and School streets in Boston, where James T. Fields was the "presiding genius" (55).
Winter remembers Emerson as one of the literary authorities during his early days as a poet and writer in Boston and Cambridge (107).
Winter says of Taylor: "He was in no way ascetic. He loved the pleasures of life. No man could more completely obey than he did the Emersonian injunction to 'Hear what wine and roses say!'" (177).
Of Curtis's influences, Winter states: "The benign and potent but utterly dispassionate influence of Emerson touched his responsive spirit, at the beginning of his career, and beneath that mystic and wonderful spell of Oriental contemplation and bland and sweet composure, his destiny was fulfilled" (235). Curtis later cited Emerson's Darthmouth College oration as an example of his idea of "a supreme specimen of eloquence" for Senator Roscoe Conkling. Conkling's opinion differed from Curtis's, however, and the senator found no "peculiar force" in the oration. Winter reprints the passage Curtis cited, p. 250-250, and states that Emerson's words were Curtis's doctrine (250-251).
Winter states: "The poetic voice of Emerson was not of the human heart, but the panthesitic spirit" (236).
Winter includes Emerson's remarks on poetry in a discussion on what the "masters" have said: "Emerson has told us that the sexton, ringing his church bell, knows not that the great Napoleon, far off among the Alps, has reined his horse and paused to listen" (304).
Winter reprints a letter Curtis wrote him dated March 29, 1882, from Staten Island, that discusses Longfellow's death. After describing the funeral and other matters, Curtis writes: "I do not forget that it was at Longfellow's we met, and our mutual regard has the benediction of his gracious memory. The fathers are departing. I saw Emerson stand by the coffin and look at the dead face. But, in his broken state, the dead looked happier than the living" (347-348).
When discussing differences of opinion among writers as to who has talent, Winter remarks, "Emerson, usually centered in himself, was able to perceive poetry in Whitman" (154).[pages:55,107,154,177,235,236,250-251,265,302,304,347-348]
Wolle quotes his description of Bohemians as "persons open to the suspicion of irregular and immoral living" (98).[pages:98]
Ralph Waldo Emerson
SOURCE: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Thoughts from Emerson. Boston: J.H. Earle & Co., 1902.
The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015