Ralph Waldo Emerson (born May 25, 1803) was an American writer, poet, and lecturer. He was born in Boston, MA to Ruth Haskin and the Reverend William Emerson, a Unitarian minister. He attended the Boston Latin School until age 14, when he matriculated into Harvard College. He served as Class Poet and, per tradition, presented an original poem on Harvard’s Class Day, before his official graduation on August 29, 1821. He met wife Ellen Louise Tucker in 1827 in Concord, MA. She died in 1831 and Emerson was reportedly incredibly affected by her death, visiting her grave in Roxbury, MA daily.
Surprisingly Emerson’s first job was not as a lecturer but as a pastor for Boston’s Second Church. He was ordained on January 11, 1829. He resigned shortly after, in 1832, due to disagreements with other members of the clergy. He spent the next year touring Europe, where he met such literary greats as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. Upon his return he began lecturing and would come to give over 1,500 lectures in his lifetime.
Harvard Divinity School
In 1835 Emerson married his second wife, Lydia Jackson. With her he had four children: Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward. The family lived in Concord, Massachusetts with Emerson’s mother. Emerson is most well known for spearheading the Transcendentalist movement and on September 8, 1836 he held the first meeting of the Transcendental Club with Henry Hedge, George Putman, and George Ripley. One of the group’s key beliefs is that God does not need to directly reveal the truth, but that it can be experienced directly from nature. The group began publishing its literary journal, The Dial, in 1840. In 1838 he gave his famous address at Harvard’s Divinity Hall, where he proclaimed that Jesus was not a god but merely a great man. The address outraged Harvard Divinity School and Protestants in the area and led to Emerson declared an atheist. He was not invited back to speak on the campus for thirty years.
Emerson’s work awarded him great fame and he met and befriended many great figures. Emerson was wholeheartedly against slavery and most notably welcomed John Brown into his home when the man visited Concord. Emerson gave a number of lectures on anti-slavery and in 1862 visited Washington, D.C. to give a speech at the Smithsonian calling slavery “destitution.” The following day he met Abraham Lincoln, who was familiar with Emerson’s work. He also met Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the treasury, Gideon Wells, secretary of the navy, and William Seward, secretary of state. Emerson was a close friend and mentor to Henry David Thoreau, delivering his eulogy in 1862 and was a pallbearer for friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In 1867 Emerson’s health began declining. He began having mental problems, often forgetting his own name. By 1872 he was lecturing only on special occasions and by 1879 had stopped lecturing entirely. He was diagnosed with pneumonia on April 21, 1882 and died a few days later on April 27. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.