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The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume I, Nature, Addresses, and LecturesSummary and Reviews of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume I, Nature, Addresses, and Lectures
The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume IV, Representative MenSummary and Reviews of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume IV, Representative Men
Essays, First and Second SeriesSummary and Reviews of Essays, First and Second Series
The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume V, English TraitsSummary and Reviews of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume V, English Traits
The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume VI, The Conduct of LifeSummary and Reviews of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume VI, The Conduct of Life
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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) can and has been called the "father" of American Literature.  Even before his death, his portrait hung on walls in schools and libraries just for its austere gaze.  His daughter remembered, "seeing all the world burn incense to Father" when she would travel with him from lecture to lecture.  Poets from Whitman to Frost tried to heed his call for an American scholar and poet by using purely American material.  The European literati recognized him as a great writer.  Thoreau and Whitman built on his ideas, and Hawthorne and Melville reacted to them.  He was the founder of Transcendentalism, if there was one, and all nineteenth century writers after him had to acknowledge their dependence on him for their public perception.  They were either following him or reacting against him. 

It is difficult to extract Emerson's written work from the man himself and his influence.  His life had many tragedies including the early deaths of his father, two brothers, his wife, and his first son.  On top of this, he battled lung disease and eyestrain.  Despite these problems, Emerson had a privileged life.  He split his primary and secondary school years between Boston Latin school and private lessons with his aunt.  He did well enough to earn a scholarship to Harvard where he struggled academically because the Harvard curriculum was meant for those headed for the teaching profession or the ministry, neither of which Emerson really wanted.  He eventually entered Harvard Divinity School but after six years in the ministry resigned because he believed that "organized Christianity" only looked back to tradition instead of forward to truth.

When Emerson left the ministry, he turned to traveling, buying books, and writing.  His wife had died, just sixteen months after their marriage, and he inherited enough money from her to afford this change in vocation.  His wife had died of tuberculosis, and he struggled with this disease also, which may have contributed to his struggle in the ministry.  Through all this hardship, he held on to his belief in reward for perseverance.  The death of his son, Waldo, again shook is faith in this ideal, but he continued to believe in the "practical power" of man to achieve through the misfortunes of life.  He continued as an "active soul" until his death in 1882 when he was buried near Thoreau and Hawthorne.

Emerson's career overlapped with several historically important movements, including women's rights and abolition, to which he contributed directly with his writing to a certain extent.  However, he was much more indirectly influential in these causes by encouraging and, in some cases, promoting particular writers who were the major players in these movements.  He financially helped the Alcott family, which included writers Bronson and his daughter Louisa May.  Writers from Jones Very to luminaries like Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau benefited from Emerson editorially, financially, or through his personal connections.  His house was a meeting place for literary lights, and many people used books from Emerson's library as their access to translations of the European writers and Eastern philosophers.

Emerson's greatest literary contribution was in his calls for a break from tradition and a new American literature and culture.  While this made him enemies in the religious establishment, it attracted to him the reformers of the day.  His writings always urged their readers to action.  Paradoxically, he wanted his readers to stop reading so much and get out and experience life.  In his famous speech entitled "The American Scholar," given to the Phi Beta Kappa society in Harvard, he set out his vision of a time when American intellectuals would "walk on our own feet...work with our own hands...speak our own minds."

Emerson wrote extensively in private journals that he used to develop his lectures and essays.  He viewed these journals as a "Savings Bank" for "deposit" and "earnings" that he could rework for public consumption later on.  He indexed and cross-referenced his journals so he could more efficiently accomplish this goal, and the titles of his journals, "The Wide World," "The Universe," etc., reflect the material in them and the works they produced.

Emerson's reputation as a writer has evolved over time.  At first, his writing shocked critics.  While his first book, Nature, generally considered the founding though not ultimately definitive manifesto of Transcendentalism, was praised as "original writings of an angel" and as the "forerunner of a new class of books, the harbinger of a new Literature."  However, its "coarse and blunt" language put off many critics.  Today, many readers find it difficult and in need of heavy footnoting because of its wide-ranging references ranging from Welsh bards to Eastern philosophers.  Through it all, though, his overarching philosophy comes through.  His rejection of the division between thinking and acting and between the intellectual and the laborer, and his constant search for truth because "no facts are sacred" are inspirational to all who persevere as he would have wanted from his readers in the first place.


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