Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Making of a Protester

Photograph of Emerson in later life / Wikimedia Commons


By Dr. Phyllis Cole and Dr. Wesley T. Mott / 09.15.2015
Cole: Professor of English, Women’s Studies and American Studies / Penn State Brandywine
Mott: Professor of English / Worcester Polytechnic Institute

A Legacy of Revolt, 1803-1821

By Dr. Phyllis Cole

I find myself often idle, vagrant, stupid, & hollow. This is somewhat appalling & if I do not discipline myself with diligent care I shall suffer severely from remorse & the sense of inferiority hereafter. All around me are industrious & will be great, I am indolent & shall be insignificant. Avert it heaven! avert it virtue! I need excitement. – Emerson, Journal, 25 October 1820


At sixteen, while a junior at Harvard College, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his first entry in a new journal. It would become the personal record of his trajectory toward vision and revolution. Many students kept journals, commonplace books, or diaries, but Emerson’s title for this one―“The Wide World”―measured his unusually ambitious compass. Since the year before, he had been accumulating notebooks for college themes, lists of books read, course notes, and commonplace books with quotations from his reading. But now in January 1820, he wrote of uniting his “new thoughts” with the “old ideas” of other writers. Imagination would be their ordering principal, the “generalissimo” of “all the luckless ragamuffin Ideas” gathered here, he announced. Only that faculty, he felt, gave form to the “thousand pursuits & passions & objects of the world”.[1]

Emerson’s wealth of growing entries richly displayed this power in romantic fantasies, vivid and often critical self-portraits, poems, watercolors and drawings, ironic asides, and philosophical musings. Though the particulars would change, this journal and its allegiance to imagination would ground his career as a writer and reformer for the next five decades. Of course, he had been prepared for such a boldly active philosophical beginning. Emerson’s boyhood had allowed him to find resources within himself, required him to muster strength against loss and difficulty, and embedded a strong habit of questioning the status quo. Furthermore, he had started life in a time and place that made a wide, and ever wider, world available to his curious mind. His immediate surroundings beckoned with incentives to create, out of his forefathers’ protesting past and participation in the Revolution, his own call to citizens of the nation and world.

At a Leading Center of American Culture and Change

When Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803, American horizons were rapidly expanding at home and abroad. The United States, fourteen years after the enactment of its Constitution, was newly enlarged and confident. Less than a month before, President Thomas Jefferson had seized the unexpected opportunity of purchasing the Louisiana territory from France. That act extended the nation, and its constitutionally legal shadow of slavery, to the western reaches of the plains, the Rockies, and the Spanish Southwest. Yet Boston remained arguably the most cultured city in all of the seventeen states. Nearby in Cambridge, Harvard College continued to lead the region’s two hundred year old tradition of close intellectual ties to England and Europe. Boston itself, though long a major East Coast port, was rapidly enlarging from the size of a town, growing from 25,000 in 1800 to more than 90,000 forty years later.[2]

Among its residents at the turn of the nineteenth century was a small community of blacks, free since Massachusetts outlawed slavery in 1790. By 1830, they numbered 1,875, or three percent of the city’s total population, the majority living in the West End, just over the hill from Boston’s State House and Emerson’s boyhood home. In the three decades that Emerson would call Boston home, the people in its streets always included black seamen, barbers, waiters, and even rising shop-owners.[3]

1.1 View of Boston, 1810.

Like its population, Boston’s contacts abroad were growing exponentially. Just a few minutes’ walk from the Emerson home on Chauncy Place, wharves and ships ringed the city, displaying New England’s role in the country’s newly independent trade with China. Since the mid-1780s, Boston and Salem’s venture capitalists, veteran leaders in colonial coastwise shipping, had been among the first Americans in China. They led the United States in the Far East, a trade forced by Britain’s post-Revolutionary embargo of the West Indies and England. The adventure to China meant sending ships around the world with the high-risk goal of safely reaching Canton, the single port of exchange. En route, like all Westerners for the two previous centuries, sea-going Americans touched multiple ports in both the Atlantic and Pacific; the round trip often took a matter of years. Like their predecessors as well, New Englanders braved the long and dangerous voyage for the promise of 100 to 300 per cent profit on their cargoes. The most successful of them were among the nation’s first millionaires.[4]

Emerson’s parents, William and Ruth Haskins Emerson, were connected with this global enterprise through Ruth’s brother, Ralph Haskins, a business agent or supercargo in the trade, for whom they named their third son in 1803. Haskins returned that June from a voyage to China of nearly three years on the ship Atahualpa. Sailing by way of Cape Horn to the northwest coast of Canada, his company had exchanged muskets and West India goods for otter skins with the Indians, then proceeded across the Pacific to Canton for a second trade that brought the ship home, after circling the globe, laden with Asian imports.[5] Boston households like the Emersons’ grew elegant with mahogany furniture, silks, spices, teas, and blue-and-white Canton and Nanking porcelain. This far-flung trade exposed Boston’s intellectual circles to new foreign literatures as well as exotic objects. Privileged at the outset, Ralph grew up keenly aware of his expanding nation and fascinated by distant lands. No wonder he titled his first journals “The Wide World”.

Two Different Parental Influences

If Boston’s trade lay not far from the Emerson house, the family’s essential mission in these changing times was the city’s religion.

1.2 First Congregational Church, 1843.

William Emerson served as minister of First Church, Boston’s most prominent assembly in a Congregational order that had direct theological roots in seventeenth-century Puritanism. Through ministerial and civic leadership, he aspired to create an intellectual culture out of the raw materials of a new prosperity. Four years before, William and Ruth had arrived from the country parish of Harvard, twenty-five miles to the west. Six generations of his ancestors had ministered to New England towns, but none before had claimed the liberal theology that would soon be called Unitarian, and none had achieved the leadership of a Boston church. Now William aimed for influence even beyond his prominent congregation, which included former President John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. On the cultural and social front, William helped to found several Boston institutions: the city’s first library (the Boston Athenaeum), its first literary magazine (the Monthly Anthology), and the Massachusetts Historical Society (publishing Ralph Haskins’ travel journal in its proceedings). He also observed the stars with a Society for the Study of Natural Philosophy. In the realm of social action, he supported the Female Asylum and the new school for black children in Smith Court.

1.3 Ruth Haskins and William Emerson, Emerson’s parents.

William’s liberal religious doctrines emphasized reason and active virtue in improving society. But, along with the ruling class of Federalist Massachusetts, he was politically conservative, opposing the extreme democracy of President Jefferson and what he considered worse, the possible contagion of French anarchy. On Independence Day in 1802, William’s official oration at Boston’s Faneuil Hall had asked citizens to preserve the American Revolution by recalling the recent eras of Washington and Adams, with their greater social order and deference to authority.[6]Elegant in dress and gregarious in style, William lived for the public. The day Ralph was born — Election Day in Massachusetts, a holiday — William dined with the governor, listened to the day’s official sermon, and spent the evening at his club. But he was far from indifferent to his growing brood of children, with Ralph the fourth of eventually eight siblings. Instead, he took on childrearing as if it were another project for public improvement, with the fervor of something personal to prove. Yet for all his prominence and dedication, William was undisciplined, especially in money matters. And insecurity led to his habit of putting on courtly airs and an elevated speech that encouraged some parishioners, first in Harvard and then in Boston, to hold him in contempt. He privately blamed his inadequacies on a lack of guidance from his father, who had died in the Revolution when he was five. This felt deprivation motivated his insistence that his children become “intelligent as well as moral beings … to take rank with professional characters and the upper classes of society”.[7]

William’s discipline, enforced primarily by verbal injunction rather than physical punishment, sought to imbue his offspring with these values. “It will grieve me exceedingly to have you a blockhead”, he wrote to eldest son John at six. “I hope you will be as bright as silver”. By Ralph’s second birthday, his father was offering rewards and imposing conditions: “Papa will bring home cake for little boys who behave well at the dinner table”, he reminded the toddler. When Ralph’s instruction in a dame school began not many months later, William confided to John that his little brother was “rather a dull scholar”; and as the child neared three, his father wrote a friend, “[He] does not read very well yet”. William’s negative attention took aim at Ralph’s behavior as well as his pace of learning. Away on a trip in April 1810, William wrote his wife that he hoped his third son “regards his words, does not eat his dinner too fast, and is gradually resigning his impetuosity to younger boys”.[8] At almost seven, Ralph showed a certain headstrong, impulsive nature that would later blossom into full revolt.

Emerson’s adult career as one of America’s first public intellectuals owed a considerable debt to his father, but he rarely acknowledged it. Instead, he disparaged William’s era, represented by his Monthly Anthology, as an “early ignorant & transitional Month-of-March” in American culture. In general, he recalled childhood as “unpleasing”, beginning with his fear of this godlike parent. “Twice or thrice he put me in mortal terror by forcing me into the salt water off some wharf or bathing house”, Emerson later wrote, “and I still recall the fright with which, after some of this salt experience, I heard his voice one day (as Adam that of the Lord God in the garden), summoning us to a new bath, and I vainly endeavouring to hide myself”.[9] William believed in cold-water bathing as a strategy for health. But to Ralph — who recalled the day with grim humor — his father’s words were divine thunder.

William’s regimen, however, strengthened the bonds among these bright young Emerson children. Sadly, their group soon narrowed to four boys. John, receiver of his father’s strongest guidance, died of tuberculosis at the age of eight, and two girls fell victim to illness in infancy. Meanwhile, younger brother Bulkeley proved to be mentally disabled, part of the family circle but not up to its ambition. Ralph’s chief partners and competitors would be elder brother William and younger brothers Edward and Charles. When small, they were restricted to the yellow, gambrel-roofed parsonage on Chauncy Place and its enclosed half-acre yard, three blocks from the gold-domed State House. From an early age Ralph was looking beyond its bounds. When father William had traveled to Waterford, Maine to visit family members, Ruth reported the make-believe play of two-year-old Ralph and his brother, “riding to Waterford to carry and bring intelligence to you”. Emerson later described himself as a small boy sitting on the brick wall around his yard, coveting the pears in his neighbor’s orchard. His school friend William Henry Furness once claimed that Emerson’s childhood had been without play, but personal recollections tell a different story. As an adult Emerson remembered “trundling a hoop in Chauncy Place” and could call before his mind’s eye “the old school-entry where … we spun tops and snapped marbles”.[10]

Ruth’s maternal affection was the rock supporting young Ralph’s childhood, but her native reserve and pressing household duties left little time to show it. Though the daughter of a prosperous brewer and businessman, Ruth rather than William modeled the life of prayer in their family. Each morning she dedicated an hour to solitary devotions, following the traditional ways of the Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Not brought up a Congregationalist, she nevertheless dutifully supported her husband’s ministerial position, serving dinner to his Boston colleagues every Thursday as well as wine to the deacons on Sunday evenings. The Emerson parsonage was a perpetual open house: Ruth’s surviving recipe book tells how to make a “plumb cake” with twenty-eight pounds of flour, sixteen of currents, and seven dozen eggs. As a young woman who lived in the household later recalled, Ruth raised her children with firm discipline and gentle restraint. But one of Emerson’s memories suggests he wished for more. When Ralph and his brother William spent an entire Election Day holiday enjoying the town’s festivities, they were surprised that Ruth met their return with relief: “My sons, I have been in an agony for you!” “I went to bed”, Emerson remembered, “in bliss at the interest she showed”.[11]

Still, Ruth and her son Ralph shared unspoken bonds, as well as physical, temperamental, and spiritual traits. Many saw the strong physical likeness of son to mother, and her calm exterior became his own. Most of all, Emerson’s alienation from his father did not extend to his mother; in fact, he willingly provided her with a home throughout her elder years. Near the end of her life, having fallen out of bed and broken her hip, Ruth remained silent until morning so as not to disturb others. Her son reproved such extreme self-discipline but could be equally stoical himself. It was another sign of the intense emotional reserve, the “native frost” he once noted as common to New Englanders.[12]

The Rebellious Example of Mary Moody Emerson

The influence of a more headstrong blend of love and piety than Ruth’s, with the addition of considerable barbed wit, came from William’s sister Mary Moody Emerson.

1.4 Mary Moody Emerson, silhouette, [n.d].

So did she model the value of reading and intelligence in a different manner from William. This strong-willed aunt, contemptuous of many social conventions, joined Ralph’s more conservative mother as a primary first mentor. Thus Emerson came early to appreciate female mental capabilities and emotional sensibilities. In their separate ways, these two women set Emerson on a path toward eventual adoption of social causes that female friends as well as family held dear: abolition and their own legal rights. Though less than five feet in height, Mary carved out larger space for herself as a self-taught spiritual seeker and a feisty, even rudely memorable debater. From the start, she served as a vital catalytic figure for the whole family. It had been Mary who proposed her exemplary friend Ruth as a wife for William. He and Mary had been born shortly before the American Revolution in the Concord parsonage later made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne as the “Old Manse”. Their father, also named William, had served as chaplain to Concord’s Minutemen; and their mother, Phebe, was daughter of the zealous pastor Daniel Bliss, who had led Concord during the disruptive, spirit-filled revivals of the First Great Awakening. Later, Mary would celebrate these spiritual heroes to her nephews, urging them to make an equal mark. However, after her father’s death when Mary was two, she had grown up under different circumstances from her siblings. She was “exiled” (as she later recounted) to the household of kinswomen in nearby Malden and formed by their Calvinist piety rather than by the religion of reason and social order that her ministerial step-father, Ezra Ripley, brought to Concord.[13]

In Mary’s lifelong search for religious power, however, she became a self-educated reader of both new and traditional books. After reuniting as young adults, William and Mary, only three years apart, often supported each other. His Monthly Anthology in 1804 and 1805 carried her essays on nature and imagination as avenues to God. But they agreed about almost nothing, including the subjects of Mary’s essays. He charged that her “imagination, all fascinating and balloon-like as it is”, had carried her away from correct judgment. In turn, she criticized his worldliness and urged him to retire from Boston, “commune with nature sublime and tranquil … and take leave of the earth”.[14]

1.5 Old Manse, Concord, c. 1890–1895.

In a generation still energized by the Revolution’s spirit of change, William and Mary, each an innovator of sorts, argued for fundamentally different worldviews. William believed that his position at First Church would begin to fulfill his father’s goal of a new American order. Earlier, he had even dreamed of founding a national, nondenominational church in Washington, D.C.; human reason was reliable enough to make it succeed. Mary, raised by Calvinists, doubted his faith in reason. She believed that humanity was born in sin and needed Christ’s salvation. However, she had experienced that salvation on her own, not through the agency of church ritual or authority. Thus she valued “enthusiasm” — the direct influence of divine spirit — as shown in both her father’s Revolutionary heroism and in her own solitary devotion. Going further, she was even able to forget Christ as “mediator”, perceiving God’s truth directly in natural landscapes and in lines of poetry. Though all her life she would reflect a Calvinist upbringing and sense of human depravity, the adult Mary began reading books popular with the most daring liberals — becoming familiar with a wide variety of thinkers across time and space, from England and France to ancient Greece and even India. Her endorsement of imagination and nature in 1804, when Ralph was still an infant, shows that she was absorbing the leading ideas of European Romanticism into her own individualistic faith.[15]

Mary passed on a revolution of the spirit to all her nephews, especially Ralph. Though she influenced him through long and intimate involvement, at first she did not focus on him as a special charge. A single woman, Mary lived at the beck and call of relatives, stretching herself across the distances between Concord, Malden, Boston and her new and preferred home, “Elm Vale”, near the White Mountains in the frontier town of Waterford, Maine, where two sisters and their families had settled. From adolescence, she had cared for relatives’ children; the Emerson boys in Boston were not her sole focus. But their potential stimulated her best efforts and opinions. More than either of their parents, Mary could both play with children and exhort them to religious devotion. When little John was sent to Maine in an attempt to cure his tuberculosis, she coaxed him into trying to swing. To Ruth, she wrote about the value of music in harmonizing the minds of children, and to nine-year-old William, appreciation for his letter and advice to “reflect on your condition”. “Give my love to R. Waldo”, she added. “I shall write to him very soon”.[16] Already Mary was emphasizing seven-year-old Ralph’s ancestral middle name (from her great-grandmother) that recalled to her the family’s devout origins. Giving him that name in 1810 was an early signal of their nascent special relationship.[17]

William especially asked for Mary’s assistance with the family because of his fragile health. The tuberculosis that cut short little John’s life also plagued the father. In 1799, William had taken up the call to preach at First Church despite feeling “alarmed about my health” and “sore at my lungs”. A few years later, following medical advice of the day to ride rough roads in order to clear the lungs, he rode several times to Waterford, Maine, both to see young John and to regain his strength. His journal, along with self-accusations for failing to achieve more, often included the terse note, “quite unwell”. But William kept his illness private until 1808, when he was felled by a massive hemorrhage of the lungs, a sure sign of the disease in its acute phase. Through his months of recuperation, Mary stayed in Boston to help Ruth in sickroom and nursery.[18]

That July, William rose from bed to preach in the splendid neoclassical church that First Church had built at Summer Street and Chauncy Place, along with a spacious new parsonage nearby. Since the country was enduring an economic depression brought on by Jefferson’s anti-British shipping embargo, many in the congregation thought these new structures extravagant. Simultaneously, William’s excessive spending put him permanently in debt. When Mary returned to Maine a year later, William pleaded with her to “come home … and help to alleviate the burdens of a minister of religion weighed down to the earth by a consciousness of incompetence to his awful function … The boys’ minds and hearts afford a fine field for the display of talents such as their aunt possesses”.[19]

William died in May 1811 not from tuberculosis but, surprisingly, from stomach cancer. Mary was present and afterward stayed with the family for months at a time. Witnessing the pomp and ceremony of his father’s funeral, Ralph, almost eight, felt more awe than sorrow. He and William walked behind the hearse in a parade to King’s Chapel Burial Ground led by the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. “As we went up School Street and saw them sweep round the corner into Tremont Street”, he later told his daughter, “it seemed to me a grand sight”. Other than that, he could remember little of William except certain moments of discipline. This largely negative feeling about his father reflected the trauma of pain, stress, and death buried within his terse description of his childhood as “unpleasing”.[20]

Furthermore, William’s name was not often mentioned afterward. “I have never heard sentence or sentiment of his repeated by Mother or Aunt”, the adult Emerson asserted. As these two women worked to keep the family together — a goal they had shared with William before his death — silence rather than fond recollection led them forward. Although Ruth was bent with grief at her loss, she might also have felt shame and resentment at William’s failure to leave an estate for his young family. Mary would always recall the anniversary of William’s death, but her differences with him on fundamental theological and philosophical matters now led her to assert her own voice. She would raise the boys her way and fulfill a potential greatness lost to two successive male generations in the Emerson family. As Ralph once joked, Mary now became “Father Mum” to the boys.[21]

Hard Times and High Objectives

The family’s reduced means following William’s death cut short all expectation of ease for the growing sons. William left behind only the mahogany furniture, China tea sets, a telescope, and 452 books that supported his stylish urban ministry. He also left debts of $2,458, or $42,100 today, well above his entire assets and nearly twice his annual salary. For the first three years after William’s death, the family stayed in the First Church parsonage, taking boarders and selling the books to pay debts. Afterward, they shared the Haskins’ house on Rainsford Lane and moved on to a succession of rented quarters, where Ruth continued boarding guests to supplement her widow’s stipend. The family’s position among Boston’s elite became fragile. Living on Beacon Street among the highest class, they rarely saw their affluent neighbors, as Mary wrote to a friend: “Ladies do not like to visit where [there] are boarders”. From this humiliation and loss of face, Ralph learned an early lesson in compensation: the value of family solidarity. In his later essay “Domestic Life”, Emerson pictured boys collaborating in chores and, as Ruth and Mary had taught them, entertaining each other with the treasure of their day’s reading. “What is the hoop that holds them staunch? It is the iron band of poverty, of necessity, of austerity, which, excluding them from the sensual enjoyments which make other boys too early old, has directed their activity into safe and right channels”.[22] His father had provided a model of elite generosity to the poor by supporting the Female Asylum and school for black children, but Emerson’s later sympathy for the marginalized grew also from direct experience of poverty’s “iron band”.

In 1812, at age nine, Ralph entered Boston Public Latin School, although the cost of tuition and suitable clothing added to the family’s financial burden.

1.6 Boston Public Boys’ Latin School, 1812–1844.

He never forgot the anxiety of searching for the dollar he had lost while on his way to buy shoes. One winter, he and Edward had to share an overcoat on alternate days, enduring schoolmates’ taunts about whose turn it was to wear it. Nonetheless, Boston Latin gave Ralph a strong social and intellectual foundation over the next five years. Here he grew in the company of boys such as William Henry Furness and Samuel Bradford, who would become lifelong friends. Here, too, after one reputedly drunken master was dismissed, the kind and invigorating young Benjamin Gould replaced him. Gould taught geography not only from the textbook, but with a globe, atlas, and stories of Napoleon’s recent campaigns in the African desert. Gould’s Greek lessons came alive with enough clarity and force that for life Emerson could repeat the lines he learned. Most of all, this teacher passed on his love of writing and oratory. Ralph responded by composing his first serious essays, reciting passages from literature each week, and presenting his poem “Eloquence” to a visiting expert on the subject.[23]

He later recalled, however, that his best education had come from “some idle books under the bench at Latin School”. His own choice of reading always led to his most important learning. Ruth had kept the family’s membership in the Boston Athenaeum, so that mother, aunt, and sons could all borrow volumes freely. Whether or not he read these on the sly at Latin School, he enjoyed bookish conversations at home. Mary provided constant challenges out of her own knowledge of poetry and philosophy, seeking to “unfold … powers” that, in her view, each child already possessed. Ralph believed that his aunt had read every known book, and he afterwards remembered the sentences of Milton, Shakespeare, and Antoninus as she had quoted them. Mary’s faith that the boys were “born to be educated” anticipated their achieving greatness from within, a goal far different from the academic rank and social station to which her brother might have driven them.[24]

Each evening, she led the family in hymns and prayers, after which they took turns reading Rollin’s Ancient History. Rollin’s Athenian heroes affected Ralph so deeply that he wrote verses extolling their bravery. He showed his lines to Mary’s intellectually gifted friend, Sarah Alden Bradford, who often visited in the evenings and, as Mary put it, “animate[d] the boys to study”.

1.7 Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley.

Sarah’s conversations with Ralph continued after she became his aunt by marrying his half-uncle Samuel Ripley, and along with Samuel taught school in Waltham to prepare boys for Harvard. “As to her knowledge”, Ralph later wrote to brother William, “talk on what you will, she can always give you a new idea”.25

An early Emerson biographer noted his unusual, female-influenced education, referring to Ruth, Mary, and Sarah Ripley as the “three Fates” who had set the direction of young Ralph’s life. His adult friend Bronson Alcott more boldly declared the result: “The best of Emerson’s intellect comes out of its feminine traits”. Neither observer was disparaging the grown man as effeminate, but instead was praising Emerson’s intuition and receptivity, traits that their culture associated with women. Free of father-son struggles for control, the impressionable Ralph readily made this collective female mind part of his own psyche. Later, in a journal entry of 1842, Emerson realized the value of a bisexual sensibility in the revolutionary consciousness he was proposing: “The finest people marry the two sexes in their own person. Hermaphrodite is then the symbol of the finished soul”.[26] This later openness to women and to the womanly side of himself grew naturally from his early formation. The encouragement of his kinswomen directly affected Ralph’s reading and creativity, his love of language and composing poetry. Ruth asked the boys every Sunday to learn a hymn. At nine, Ralph wrote one instead, which Edward read for Ruth’s approval before triumphantly revealing the author. His poem “The Sabbath” also survives from that same age. Two years later, during idle moments at Rufus Webb’s noontime writing school, he collaborated as writer with his friend William Furness, who drew the pictures, for the bloody and adventurous “History of Fortus”. Whether or not he had formal drawing lessons, Ralph also liked to sketch, as his elaborate rebus-letter to brother William in November 1814 and later watercolors show.[27]


[LEFT]: 1.8 Rebus letter, 1814, p. 1.
[RIGHT]: 1.9 Rebus letter, 1814, p. 2.

Since his mother was preoccupied with boarders and Aunt Mary often away in Concord or Waterford, Ralph now felt both the loneliness and the advantage of independence. This freedom allowed him to explore Boston neighborhoods of both the rich and the poor. On the Election Day, when he and William were reprimanded for being gone so long, they must have taken full advantage of the festivities for this major state holiday. After school and even while truant from it, they skated and played ball on the nearby Boston Common, explored the city’s docks and ropewalks on Charles Street, and soaked up the sights and sounds of street-criers and fire engines. The Common, a large public space in the city’s center, was a playground he shared with its black community from the nearby West End. Down by the docks, Ralph first encountered even more races and classes. Sailors disembarking from ships were black as well as white, and they also included the natives of far-flung ports. Once he and Edward ventured over the bridge to Charlestown and were bullied by street boys — their race unmentioned — on the way back; later he declared he could have used more such education. From these wanderings, along with observing all types of humanity, Emerson’s intellectual curiosity grew: “When a boy I used to go to the wharves”, he later wrote, “and pick up shells out of the sand which vessels had brought as ballast, and also plenty of stones, gypsum, which I discovered would be luminous when I rubbed two bits together in a dark closet, to my great wonder”.[28] Such wonder fed both his poetic mind and his lifelong interest in science.

The War of 1812 brought new excitements to Boston, martial music in the streets and warships in the harbor. Ralph was especially proud of Uncle Ralph Haskins’ “manly beauty” as a member of the Boston Hussars, a troop of fifty leading citizens who paraded in showy green uniforms trimmed with red, ready to defend the city if the British attacked.[29] Though the die-hard Federalists of New England still opposed war with the British, by the end of 1812 new national pride rallied, especially after the Boston-built Constitution summarily destroyed the Guerrière not far off-shore. Two years later, after Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British on Lake Erie, eleven-year-old Ralph’s verses on “Perry’s Victory” both celebrated America’s military might and displayed a naive love of rhyming: “When late Columbia’s patriot brave/ Sail’d forth on Erie[’]s tranquil wave/ No hero yet had found a grave — / Within her watery cemetery./ But soon that wave was stained with gore/ And soon on every concave shore/ Reechoed with the dreadful roar/ Of thundering artillery”. Ralph had his own moment of patriotic service the same year, when the students of Boston Latin were enlisted to help build fortifications against British attack on Noddle’s Island at the harbor’s mouth. Later, he fondly mocked their boyish efforts, noting that Great Britain had probably made peace as a direct result.[30] But now, on the cusp of his impressionable teens, Ralph’s enthusiasm for his revolutionary heritage and the promise of extending independence in America was only strengthened by the war.

Such proud rebellious stirrings were also encouraged by a temporary move to Concord. Inflation and a serious threat of invasion to Boston during the war led Ruth and Mary temporarily to evacuate the boys to that ancestral home. Eleven-year-old Ralph had often visited his grandmother and step-grandfather Ezra Ripley’s manse on the Concord River. Now, from November 1814 through the spring of 1815, he actually lived in the house built by his blood grandfather, William Emerson. Just behind it in 1775, as Mary loved to tell her nephews, William had invoked divine blessing on the Minutemen as they fought the British at Old North Bridge. When grandfather Ripley took him on ministerial rounds, Ralph heard stories about parishioners that also helped make Concord’s rich pre-Revolutionary and wartime history his own. Meanwhile, to add to his positive memories of the place, the village schoolmaster frequently invited him to recite his poems in class. Once he even spoke his lines for a larger public while standing on top of a sugar barrel at the village store, a future performing orator enjoying his first public audience.[31]

Equally delightful to Ralph was the town’s natural landscape. As he recalled, “this place was … all ‘the Country’ which we knew”. It was a far different playing field from Boston’s streets, Common, and shore. William had already gone to college, so Ralph spent his after-school hours with Edward and Charles, now nine and six, in the woods and hills. As his memorial to these brothers later recalled, “They took this valley for their toy,/ They played with it in every mood;/ A cell for prayer, a hall for joy,—/ They treated nature as they would”. At the time, Ralph expressed no hint of interest in Concord as a one-day home. But Emerson’s son Edward later remarked that its fields “bound him unconsciously with ties which drew him back before many years to live and dream and prophesy and die in them”.[32]

Once peace was declared in 1815, Ruth brought the family back to Boston, where Ralph continued to grow under Mary’s influence. Throughout the war years she had told and retold her nephews stories of ancestors, not only recent family heroes but a long line of Protestant pastors whose charity and power rose from the Holy Spirit at work in them. Ralph heard these “with awe”. Every day he also read aloud her prayers for family devotions, their “prophetic & apocalyptic ejaculations” still sounding in his ear years later. Now, as he reached his teens, his direct give and take of ideas and jokes with Mary also intensified. In 1813, at age ten, he had written her about his daily schedule in stiff, schoolboy prose. Three years later, he shared his learning while also revealing a new ability to mimic his aunt’s satirical style, poking fun at her insistence that morning should make one “feel inspired”. The same year, Ralph parodied Mary’s literary advice in substance and style when he advised Edward that a letter “fill’d by ‘sentiment’ and taste/ On common stuff should, no black fluid waste”. Such slight sarcasm was allowable, because by now he knew that he and Charles had become Mary’s favorites among the Emerson brothers. While she hoped that Charles, whom she had taken to Maine for a time to care for alone, would eventually rise to political power, she hailed Ralph as the most creative of the brothers with language and ideas. When he was about fourteen, she both complimented his growing talent and added a characteristic barb: “I remember no hour of our solitude so pleasantly as the last sab.[bath] eve. The Justice of your theological views was noticeable for your age and non-application — that is there are some books you have not read. But some serious questions were inferred which I did not put. You will. To know one’s duty is a great step”.[33]

Independence at Harvard with Mary Emerson as Continuing Mentor

Both aunt and nephew took major life steps in the fall of 1817. Ralph followed family tradition and entered Harvard College in nearby Cambridge.

1.10 Harvard College, Old Quad, North Side, 1828.

In contrast, Mary left Boston to live at her farm, Elm Vale, in western Maine, doing what she had once advised her brother William: to retire from society and commune with nature. Though in 1817 Ralph had not yet visited Mary’s farm, he already idealized this sublime natural landscape, a place he later described as “within sight of the White Mountains”, with a lake, neighboring mountain, a brook running over granite, “and noble forests all around”. At college, he began receiving Mary’s letters reflecting on such scenes — as well as on the new, defining texts of European Romanticism that she associated with them. Having affirmed French novelist and essayist Germaine de Staël’s dictum, “Enthusiasm is God within us”, and William Wordsworth’s admission that a humble flower creates thoughts that “lie too deep for tears”, she was now urging a life of similar natural inspiration upon her nephew.[34]

In their exchange of learned, playful letters, both Mary and Ralph benefited. As a woman in her forties, lacking formal education or means to publish her ideas, Mary was attempting to make this promising nephew her literary surrogate by transferring her wealth of insights and hopes. In mock humility, she pictured the supposed cultural divide between them: “What dull Prosaic Muse would venture from the humble dell of an unlettered district to address a son of Harvard?” she asked that November. But Mary’s serious vision for Ralph as a poet went well beyond Harvard. Her incomplete phrases left open an unlimited future: “Son of — — — of poetry — — of genius — ah were it so — and I destined to stand in near consanguinity to this magical possession”.[35] If her nephew had the “genius” to write original works, it would be enough that she had served as his mentor.

Mary’s compliments offered the gangly, six-foot, fourteen-year-old Ralph — superior by heritage and education but shy by nature and poverty — an invaluable sense of self-worth. He needed confidence as the youngest in his class.

1.11 Emerson at 14 (painted 1845).

Also, as President John T. Kirkland’s freshman messenger in exchange for room and board, he was living alone at the rear of the president’s house, while fellow students were readily making new friends in the dormitories. Kirkland’s nephew Samuel Lothrop, whom Ralph helped prepare for college, recalled that his tutor had “a wall of reserve around him which he would not let anybody penetrate”. Yet at times he relaxed enough to share his poems with Lothrop and give “comic views of persons” at Harvard. Classmate John Gardner also noted that Ralph, though rarely speaking, had “a certain flash when he uttered anything”. When brother William began college three years before, Mary had advised him to avoid the look of “dependance [sic]”. Instead he should act “generous and great” so as to begin giving society benefit rather than receiving it.[36] For Ralph, satirical skills and verbal “flash” were his form of pride and gift to society at this moment. Later, he would use them as a bridge from literature and philosophy to the world of reform.

A seemingly slight incident at college was already a harbinger of social action to come. By his second year, Ralph, now living in Hollis Hall with other classmates, worked in the college commons to help his mother and brother put him through college. This employment gave him a catbird seat to witness a small class rebellion there, a food fight on All Hallows Eve in 1818. When President Kirkland suspended its ring-leaders, the sophomores arose in collective protest at Harvard’s Rebellion Tree, revered since the Revolution. Ralph had not participated in the riot, whether from personal reserve or desire to keep his job at the commons, but he joined his peers at the tree.

1.12 Hollis Hall with Rebellion Tree, 1875.

Afterward, he wrote what brother William in amusement called a “history of your very praiseworthy resistance to lawful authority”. In similar spirit and around the same time, Ralph joined several student societies fostering reading and debate. Sometimes he composed drinking songs for them and sampled “a great deal of wine (for me)”, though instead of loosening up, he grew “graver with every glass”.[37]

A deeper and longer-lasting conflict near the end of Ralph’s sophomore year was the mounting battle between conservative and liberal clergy, centered at Harvard and long brewing within New England’s dominant Congregationalism. It would both win his commitments and prompt his acts of resistance.

1.13 Room 15, Hollis Hall, 1822, Emerson watercolor.

The controversy had begun in 1805, when Henry Ware Sr. was elected Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard over objections from the orthodox clergy. Ralph’s father William had sided with Ware and the liberals: that year he devoted pages of the Monthly Anthology to defending Ware. His sister Mary, though raised orthodox, showed her liberal bent by contributing a letter portraying Christ as a divinely human “hero”, rather than part of the three-person God. Even more at issue for the opposing heirs of New England Puritanism than a single or tri-part God was the question of how redemption would occur: by humanity’s own will to goodness or through the undeserved gift of God’s grace? The stakes were high. A host of new spiritual competitors caught up in the fervor of the Second Great Awakening — Baptists, Methodists, Shakers — were offering the populace emotional conversion in a way that undermined all the old churches. William Ellery Channing of Boston’s Federal Street Church emerged as chief leader of the liberals, and soon thereafter the energetic, far-sighted Kirkland began reforming Harvard in this light. By 1816, the year before Ralph arrived, Ware had begun a new Divinity School to train liberal clergy.[38]

In May of 1819, Channing preached a sermon in Baltimore that named and defined a new denomination, “Unitarian Christianity”. For Ralph, family history placed his initial allegiance to Unitarianism beyond doubt. His father had been Channing’s Boston colleague and Kirkland’s close friend. Mary had followed Channing’s career closely over the years, mixing her occasional dissents from his views with wishes for “the youth … to imbibe his spirit”. Her ideas of Christ as God’s “mediator”, but not himself divine, paralleled Channing’s theology as it had developed to this point. Two years earlier, Ralph had won Mary’s praise for his theological questions, indicating his ability to follow these debates. By 1821, when Channing gave his definitions of natural and revealed religion in the Dudleian lecture at Harvard, young Emerson praised him for showing the highest form of “moral imagination”.[39] But sectarian distinctions never deeply mattered to him. Less than a decade later, he quoted Augustine, “‘Let others wrangle, I will wonder’,” adding, “It shall be my speech to the Calvinist & the Unitarian”. Such independence, built from his deep curiosity, sense of wonder and Mary’s model in childhood, also helped distance him from the 1819 divide in Congregationalism. That year Ralph adopted his middle name, “Waldo”, and signed himself “R. Waldo Emerson”, as Mary had addressed him nine years before.

Here was a new identity more interesting, and a voice more commanding, than the larger religious claims to authority that whirled about him.[30]

Yet his journal also reveals a young man whose maturity and self-confidence came only in fits and starts. Waldo’s reserve persisted in his junior year. Rarely mentioning social occasions or fellow students in his journal, instead he drew heroic classical figures and male faces in profile as if they were imagined selves or ideal friends.

In fact, he was deep into puberty, what he later called “a passage from the sleep of the passions to their rage”. Waldo’s overt passion at seventeen took the form of longing for a true friend, guardedly confessed in his journal. “There is a strange face in the Freshman class whom I should like to know very much”, he wrote in August, 1820. “He has a great deal of character in his features & should be a fast friend or a bitter enemy. His name is [Martin] Gay”.


[LEFT]: 1.14 Early Emerson signature as “Waldo”, 1821.
[CENTER]: 1.15 “Roman Phantasies of imagination and bad dreams”, 1820, Emerson watercolor.
[RIGHT]: 1.16 Martin Gay, 1820, Emerson sketch.

For months — often with the name left blank — he recorded exchanging glances with Gay. Gay’s “cold blue eye” entered Waldo’s thoughts a dozen times a day, leading him to speculate in verse about their different ambitions and destiny: “Perhaps thy lot in life is higher / Than the fates assign to me”. This assumption reflected Waldo’s insecurity about himself, registered in his simultaneous self-disparagement: “I find myself often idle, vagrant, hollow, and stupid”. Such a lack of confidence evidently won out over his attraction to Gay, and the two never met. Despite chastising himself, Waldo still added to his self-profile, “I need excitement”.[41]

Biographers differ in their interpretation of this apparently homoerotic declaration of love. Perhaps it was only the momentary crush of a teenage boy. Or perhaps his own awakening included acknowledgement of a homosexual inclination, otherwise kept silent amid his lifelong praise for the soul’s bisexuality. Beyond dispute, however, was his unsuccessful struggle to bring admiration of Gay to any test for over two years, even after graduation from college. “Baby play” was Waldo’s self-disparaging name for this unfulfilled flirtation. It was evidence of a profound inner hesitation. Nearing nineteen, in mock address to a higher-ranking self, he described his heart as “[a] blank, my lord”. “I have not the kind affections of a pigeon. Ungenerous and selfish, cautious & cold, I yet wish to be romantic”. Waldo felt compelled to probe such an important matter to its emotional core. Even when his attraction to Gay was waning in 1822, he nevertheless found this “curious incident in the history of so cold a being … well worth a second thought”. The explanation now seemed obvious to him: “From the first, I preferred to preserve the terms which kept alive so much sentiment rather than a more familiar intercourse which I feared would end in indifference”.[42]

1.17 “Unfruitful land” of “Loggle”, 1820, Emerson watercolor.

Expectation, for the vulnerable Waldo, was infinitely better than rejection. From now on, with a few notable exceptions, Emerson would shield his deepest feelings within a cold exterior. For this, he would regularly berate himself. Emotionally, he would remain timid and defensive and for a lifetime be reserved. This pronounced psychological trait was one reason, among others, for his slow pace in entering the social and political fray of coming decades. But intellectually, he was steadily building in confidence and self-assurance.

Becoming a True Philosopher

Waldo’s intellectual courage took wing in his last two years at Harvard. Unremarkable before as a scholar, he began a new era in his junior year, by both using and ignoring Harvard’s official course of study. He had hated and nearly failed mathematics, found no mentor comparable to Boston Latin’s Gould, and performed without distinction in classrooms stressing recitation and rote learning. Increasingly, however, courses in philosophy confirmed the inward power that he had sought and Mary had encouraged. Until junior year, under Professor Levi Hedge, students had progressed from only logic to the seventeenth-century philosophy of John Locke, who saw knowledge as a system of ideas constructed from sense impressions of the outer world. But then Waldo’s class began reading the newer views of the Scottish Common Sense School, especially Dugald Stewart, who affirmed a more intuitive morality and reasoning power in the mind itself. For Stewart, uniting sensory experience and prior mental power provided a new — indeed commonsensical — grounding in the world. By senior year, now under professor Levi Frisbie, Waldo took yet another step toward future beliefs by reading the English moral philosopher Richard Price. Mary had long sworn by Price and now quoted to the college senior lines that he was also hearing in class: “Right and wrong have had claims prior to all rites — immutable & eternal in their nature”.[43] Moral principles did not simply arise from variable human experience but were written into the universe, directly empowering the mind. Such ethical thinking would become the backbone of Emerson’s later reform work.

Not only was the young man maturing; times were also swiftly changing during his college years. In 1820, as Emerson later recalled, a “Movement” started to replace the “Establishment” at Harvard, exposing him to new ways of thinking that he made his own for life. While Frisbie instructed the students in philosophy, two young professors — Edward Everett in Greek and George Ticknor in French — introduced Germany’s revolutionary “higher criticism” from their recent studies abroad. They also honored students by lecturing at an adult level in the style of European professors. In response, Emerson recalled, he and his classmates developed critical “knives in their brain”. This new scholarly method required examining literary texts, especially the Bible, through the lenses of historical context, multiple authorship, and linguistic study. Everett and Ticknor questioned traditional ideas, especially dogmatic, authoritative statements. Such a perspective also stimulated the imagination, and it was bound to appeal to Waldo’s curiosity and creativity. His journal and college theme books began recording responses to lectures and elaborate notes for Harvard’s prize essay contests, toward which Waldo was encouraged by lessons in rhetoric by another new professor, Edward Tyrell Channing, a brother of William Ellery Channing.[44]

Everett, Ticknor, and Channing were all commanding lecturers. As Waldo’s friend William Furness recalled, “Rhetoric was all the rage in college … A finely turned sentence, a happy figure of speech, threw us into a spasm of enthusiasm. Edward Everett was a master in that line”. Waldo, whose verbal “flash” was his forte, chiefly admired Everett at first, but then increasingly adopted Channing’s new simplicity of style. Now was the moment when he might unite his formal education with informal reading “under the bench” and produce new writing of his own at home. The journal — his greatest feat of composition to date as well as a ready store of ideas for college essay contests — was begun not at Harvard but in his mother’s parlor during a vacation. Mary was sitting nearby, doubtless the “witch … in the chamber” that his first pages invoked for aid.[45]

Referring to his pious aunt as a “witch” was no insult. Rather, Waldo was crediting her with supernatural gifts and alluding to their now serious, now light conversation about romantic poetry and the power of the imagination. Mary’s self-education framed and gave meaning to his new learning at Harvard. In fact, for Waldo, she was not only “witch” but all-in-one “muse”, “oracle”, “Cassandra”, and “weird woman”, each title revealing nuances of her power to foretell his destiny and inspire him toward it. By 1821, transcribing her letters into his “Wide World” journals and college theme books, he attributed them primarily to “Tnamurya”. The name, suggesting a figure of Eastern mystery, was Waldo’s anagram for “Aunt Mary”, perhaps to disguise her influence even from himself.

1.18 “Tnamurya”, Emerson’s anagram for “Aunt Mary”, 1821.

“Tnamurya” not only encouraged him to become a “son of poetry” but also suggested how to begin. “If I were a Poet this night would inspire me”, Mary wrote, then sketched out what she would describe. Or she urged his imagination to fly to her secluded mountain home in Maine, where “you might … hear the songs of the grove echoed by the little Tritons of Neptune … [or] people a sylvan scene with nymphs or fairies”. As such fancies grew ridiculous, she shifted to higher purpose, urging withdrawal into nature and discovery of God’s greatness through it.[46] Years ago, brother William had resisted such advice. Now her young protégé not only listened to, but also recorded, her wryly humorous and exalted words alongside his own.

In copying “Tnamurya’s” letters, Waldo was immersing himself in ideas that explored a new philosophy. As a senior, writing on “The Present State of Ethical Philosophy” for the Bowdoin Prize, he asked Mary questions about both pre-Christian natural religion and the history of philosophical ideas. In dense, only partially decipherable responses, she laid claim to both idealism and a romantic theory of correspondence between soul and universe, quoting Richard Price and Mme. de Staël. Fearing the contemporary love of “sensation rather than sentiment”, she also urged Waldo toward a celestial poetry based on Plato and Plotinus, then ended her letter with the Hindu “Hymn to Narayena”: “My soul absorbed one only Being knows / Of all perceptions one abundant source”. She cited her beloved poets Milton, Byron, and Wordsworth as examples, defending solitude as the best way to resist mediocrity, “to form the eagle wings wh[ich] will bear one farther than suns and stars”.[47] “Tnamurya’s” words ranked so highly with Waldo that he included them in his journal’s table of contents, at hand early and late, to draw upon for inspiration and re-quotation. He echoed the lines from Price and Staël in his senior Bowdoin essay, and those on solitude as late as The Conduct of Life (1860).[48]

Mary, a devout force for “ancestral religion” in Waldo’s life, also paradoxically opened the way for his heresies. Throughout his career he consistently and publicly acknowledged her first role, but her second, only privately. Two years after graduating from Harvard, Waldo described his aunt to a classmate as “an idolater of Nature”, anxious to have him share her sublime landscape “as the temple where God & the Mind are to be studied & adored & where the fiery soul can begin a premature communication with other worlds”. This devout idolatry pervaded Mary’s letters and journals and foreshadowed themes that Waldo would develop thirteen years later in Nature. Also in 1823, he wrote her with an early concern about slavery, posing the “curious question” of why slaves suffered in a moral universe. She responded that the “tormentors” of slaves presented an even greater enigma, perhaps an “evil in the nature of things”, echoing her Calvinist upbringing with its emphasis on original sin. This exchange, implying earlier conversations on such subjects as well, is the first surviving sign in Waldo of later abolitionist convictions, passionately shared with his aunt. Their Price-based affirmation of right and wrong as “immutable” universal principles demanded such justice. In 1836, as the antislavery cause was mounting in Massachusetts and among Concord women, Mary wrote to Waldo’s wife Lidian, knowing that her abolitionist conversion would continue to influence him: “[T]hink that the revolutions of only half a century concentrate the great idea of man’s greatness as a man … [M]an shall not thrive on the miseries of his brother!”[49] Waldo’s internal drive to act would grow through more than a dozen years of family conversation.

In politics as in metaphysics, dialogue with Mary Moody Emerson enabled the emergence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s revolutionary views. After his star began to rise, he was asked what difference it would have made if Aunt Mary had not influenced his education. He answered, “Ah, that would have been a loss! I could better have spared Greece and Rome”. On another occasion, he added, “I have no hour of poetry or philosophy, since I knew these things, into which she does not enter as a genius”. He valued this obscure woman equally with the nation’s famous men, but expressed such feelings only to his journal. In 1868, commenting on remarks made by his friend, the Boston critic Charles Eliot Norton, he asked, “What could Norton mean in saying that the only great men of the American past were Franklin & Edwards? We have had Adams & Channing, Washington, & the prophetic authors of the Federalist, Madison & Hamilton, and if he had known it, Aunt Mary”.[50]

Around his quotation of Mary’s ideas lay the “variety shop” of Waldo’s journal. Turbulent with adolescent trials, it revealed an independent center of creativity, a theater for all his private musings, hopes, and literary experiments. Seemingly with an eye to a future biographer, he observed, “Thirty or forty years hence, if I should live so long, this book will serve as a nucleus for the association of ideas and may recall very vividly all the interest which attached to the projects and fancies of a young writer”.[51] He lamented that his college studies, “however unsuccessful”, kept him from plunging into the lore of chivalry and magic as he wished, except for the occasional watercolor of a Romantic landscape on one page and an assortment of towers, orbs, and unicorns on another. He would also jot down a song exhorting fellow students to empty their wine glasses, since “the tutors are near and the daylight’s past”, or compose a poem about a hog which “drank swill from Pleasure’s brimming cup / And grunted grunts of ecstasy”.[52]

But Waldo’s intellectual seriousness, increasing as he turned eighteen, was evident side by side with whimsy in his journal. Poems might appear with drafts of essays for college prizes. Here he quoted widely from Byron, Scott, Shakespeare, and dozens of other authors from his independent reading list. Two moral philosophers, French essayist Michel de Montaigne and the English writer-statesman Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method, especially won his respect. Three years later, Waldo would single out their essays, along with Alexander Pope’s poetry, as models of the collected “wisdom of their times” that he hoped to emulate.[53] Such a framework of French and English realism, along with Mary’s idealism, became part of his thinking for a lifetime.

Now two of his own attempts — his junior-year essay “Socrates” and senior-year “Dissertation on the Present State of Ethical Philosophy”, both winners of second prizes in the Bowdoin competitions of 1820 and 1821 — were pregnant with his developing core beliefs. At this early date, Waldo’s ethical study affirmed a theme repeated in his future work: that philosophers from Plato to Bacon had shown the mind’s ability to penetrate the universe and create a “SCIENCE of morality”. Meanwhile, his fictional romances also hinted at lofty ambitions and explored the mysteries of inspiration, often in terms of a young man’s relationship with an older woman. “The Magician” imagined a young hero encountering a witchlike woman of the forest. Another described how the prophetic mother of a fantasized New England founder, Foxcroft by name, instructed him to lay the foundation of nothing less than America’s empire.[54]

Two poems Waldo wrote as a senior show his nationalistic pride and imaginative range as he moved thoughts from the private space of his journal to public performance. For the first, “Indian Superstition”, he studied Robert Southey’s “Curse of Kehama” among other works, noting to himself that “enlightened morality was taught in India” in the pre-Christian era of Manu, a semi-legendary Hindu lawgiver. A glimpse of both future reform and international interests lay in this comment. But his finished poem, read at the College Exhibition in April 1821, found no wisdom in Eastern religion. Rather, it conventionally faulted India’s present “thralldom” to superstition and expressed relief that “No Indra thunders in Columbian sky”.[55] The poem’s major interest was to point to the triumphal progress of culture through its migration westward to America.

A similar vision of greatness for America underlay his “Valedictory Poem”, delivered as Class Day poet in July. This poem’s deep personal and intellectual investment contrasted with his poem about India and made these lines his most resonant of any from his college years. Here Waldo mythologized his classmates as he likened their hopes to the “rapture” of young Columbus on first beholding the new world. His class of 1821 might achieve greatness by also listening, as did the Italian explorer, to the “oracles of Fate”. He saw divine blessings falling on his generation as they had on Columbus and his men: “Earth, air, and heaven, which smiled benignant then / On those far travelers from the haunts of men, / With equal luster now look calmly on / This youthful band, — this goal which they have won; / Perhaps bear with them, in their counsels high, / The near fulfilment of old prophecy; / And we, perchance, may claim with joy to be/ The Ministers of Fate, the priests of Destiny”. Consciously or not, Waldo was grandly projecting his own hopes to rank among America’s “Ministers of Fate” and “priests of Destiny”. Along with such lofty prophecies, however, his irrepressible humor emerged as the poem also recalled the ability of his class “to cheer, and to rebel” in the famous sophomore food fight.[56]

Yet Waldo did not cover himself with glory at Harvard, socially or intellectually. He stood dead center of his graduating class, thirtieth out of fifty-nine students in academic rank. He had been asked to be Class Day poet only after seven other seniors declined. Worse, the poem on which he had worked so hard apparently met with little enthusiasm. After its performance, he had to settle for a disappointing “conference part” at Commencement — a “stupid thing”, as he wrote Sarah Bradford Ripley, all the more since the event was a popular state holiday, bringing crowds to the college. Affluent classmates like Josiah Quincy, whose father would be mayor of Boston and president of Harvard, celebrated with extended families at grand dinners and parties. But Waldo had only a small circle of his mother, his aunts Mary and Sarah, and brothers to meet him for the ceremony, with no festive dinner afterward. Apart from the question of academic honors, there was no money for grandeur.[57]

Leaving Cambridge in 1821, Emerson lacked self-trust and sure prospects, but his well-furnished imagination, grounding in academic learning, and maturing self-estimation offered a broad platform from which his revolutionary words would develop. Not until the early 1830s did he look back at Harvard and realize that, like Columbus heading toward America, he had been right to follow his own lead. “I was the true philosopher in college”, he wrote, “and Mr. Farrar and Mr. Hedge and Dr. Ware the false, yet what seemed then to me less probable?”[58] The insight that these words expressed would be hard won over the next dozen years. Through such thoughts, however, Waldo would emerge a stronger prophet and prophet-in-action than anyone, except Aunt Mary, might have predicted.

Becoming an American “Adam”, 1822-1835

By Dr. Wesley T. Mott

I have sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers. Were not a Socratic paganism better than an effete superannuated Christianity? – Emerson, Journal, 2 June 1832

Emerson, still an uncertain eighteen-year-old when he graduated from Harvard College in 1821, in the next decade and a half would discover his purpose, his calling and his identity as a more clearly defined American. That sharper self-image, combined with his nascent Transcendentalist ideas, would define the pivotal reform role he would soon play in the country’s mid-century era of enormous social change. The United States, only forty years old in 1821, was also in its adolescence, still forming its cultural and political identity at home and abroad. Both the country and Emerson shared high hopes and ambitions. Just the year before, the Missouri Compromise had attempted to settle sectional frictions arising from slavery, and the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 would soon announce the American hemisphere inviolate to further foreign claim. Many Americans, including Emerson, saw the hand of Providence at work when two great former presidents and earlier arch-rivals, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams — a sometime parishioner of Emerson’s father whom Emerson also knew — both died on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after they had signed the Declaration of Independence.[59]

Not that the event sealed a cultural unity between the states or even a sense of true nationhood. Only two years later, the election of Andrew Jackson ushered in momentous changes. Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, became the country’s first president from the West, and also the first whose electors were chosen by popular vote, except in Delaware and South Carolina.[60] Democracy seemed to be in the ascendant. But political professionals — the boss system — increasingly manipulated these new voters. Jackson’s two terms also saw increasing sectionalism in disputes over protective tariffs and arguments over the nature of the Union. However, the nation could hardly be totally self-occupied. European labor unrest, trade demands, and the international spread of epidemics such as cholera proved that the young United States could not insulate itself from the world simply by political proclamation.[61] More importantly, the Old World remained a cultural beacon. Romantic writers from Britain and the Continent deeply appealed to Americans, and exciting textual, cultural, even scientific study of texts, especially the Bible, in Germany drew bright graduate students in the arts and theology.

Yet a homegrown New World culture was taking shape, building on, even as it transformed, its colonial and Puritan past. The number of literate post-Revolutionary Americans was increasing, a product of both new public and private schools: education reformer Bronson Alcott opened his experiment in childhood pedagogy in 1834, called the Temple School, located in Boston’s Masonic Temple. The Second Great Awakening’s evangelical churches and more liberal Christian denominations were also stimulating literacy, hoping to gain more educated followers. In Boston, the Unitarian Universalist Association was organized in 1825, and its great pastor-theologian William Ellery Channing was preaching the liberating doctrine of “Likeness to God”, a theme destined to be more popular in this new Garden of Eden than Adam’s fall. The highly popular lyceum movement of public lectures — the forerunner of adult education — began at Millbury, Massachusetts, in 1826. Codifying an emerging national vocabulary was Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).

Material changes in the country quickly developed along with ongoing social friction. The burgeoning population had been rapidly pushing westward. The Erie Canal’s completion in 1825, giving inland access East and West, brought new wealth to the country, and epitomized both efficient transportation and regional cohesion. But this expansion included the forced relocation of Native Americans from historic tribal lands to lesser territories. North-South economic and racial tensions, moreover, had already begun to erupt. Nat Turner’s unsuccessful slave rebellion in 1831 seized the attention of Americans everywhere. Only months before, abolitionist sentiment had started to take tangible shape: William Lloyd Garrison first published the Liberator in Boston in January 1831. Then exactly a year later, he founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1833, he led in organizing the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia.[62] Channing published his powerful, theologically grounded Slavery (1835), and in the South, parallel movements started, especially among members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Closely observing the witness of certain Quaker leaders in New England, who were often protesters, Emerson was affected by their theology in action. He would be immediately touched by all these developments.

Seeking the Right Career to Suit His Temperament and Talents

As the United States aggressively expanded geographically and commercially, politicians and entrepreneurs often sounded a note of supreme confidence in the nation’s prospects. Emerson was caught up in this same “can do” — or in 1830s terminology, “go-ahead” — spirit. But beneath the country’s outward bravado, he also noted a moral crisis. As a Christian steeped in classical Stoicism at home and school, Emerson’s sense of the centrality of ethics in personal or public life had developed early and been sealed at Harvard. This felt philosophical position might have been at odds with the materialistic spirit of the times. Yet his ambition — a continuous theme in his journals of the 1820s — combined with his aunt Mary Moody Emerson’s high hopes that he might become a great poet-prophet, gave him two linked imperatives: he must achieve both artistic and spiritual prominence as well as embody the good. This imperative to action soon forced him, though reluctantly at first, to enter America’s array of social reform.

1.19 Title page, Emerson’s Wideworld 2, 11 July 1822.

Alongside these lofty goals, however, arose familiar self-doubts that now fed his vocational uncertainty. Like most young adults, he focused on fundamentally unanswerable questions about the purpose and meaning of life, sounding now self-indulgent, now on the verge of despair. Throughout the 1820s, his journals are filled with musings about available life choices and his recurring worry that, were he to die at this age, the world would never remember that he had lived. In an impermanent, insecure world, he wondered what avenues might be open to a young man of his interests whose reserved temperament seemed to conflict with family and social expectations.

After Harvard, Waldo began teaching school, a route that his father had taken before settling on the ministry. Older brother William’s school for girls in Boston was a natural place to begin, but Waldo soon became frustrated. In a letter profiling his life to a college classmate in early 1823, he wrote with wry self-effacement, “My sole answer & apology to those who inquire about my studies is — I keep school. —I study neither law, medicine, or divinity, and write neither poetry nor prose”.[63] He went on to discuss academic studies, literature, and theology, revealing how deeply he missed the life of the mind. Then in December, William, preparing for the ministry, left for Germany to study “higher criticism” at the University of Göttingen. This emerging field of textual studies examined the Bible not as the inspired Word of God but as a cultural artifact whose meanings emerged in the contexts of history, literature, and anthropology. The religiously orthodox recoiled from such study, deeming it heretical. But the brightest young American divinity students welcomed the exciting scrutiny of scriptural texts for a spiritual reason: it was the soundest means of answering skeptical critiques of religion. Emerson, already familiar with this approach at Harvard and fascinated by William’s firsthand reports, increasingly felt that he was wasting his time and talents.

For all his curiosity and avid reading, Emerson knew how to pace himself. Perhaps from early childhood, when his father expected him to read before he was even three, he had begun to develop a strategy of self-defense. If too much were asked of him, he would not do it, relieving himself of the demand. At Boston Public Latin School, Waldo did not earn the same high grades later achieved by his younger brothers Edward and Charles. And as we have seen, Waldo’s Harvard record, though he had been a runner-up for essay and public speaking prizes, put him only in the middle of his class. In contrast, his brothers would both be first in theirs. No less able than they, Waldo read widely outside the required curriculum, a habit that meant he might put assignments second. It also reflected his independent streak. Following his own bent was evidently more important than achieving the highest class standing.

Besides, Waldo grew to be conscious of the benefit of relief from rigorous work. In July 1828, after Edward — overly assiduous in his high ambitions — had a temporary breakdown, Waldo thought himself unlikely to follow suit: “I have so much mixture of silliness in my intellectual frame that I think Providence has tempered me against this … Edward had always great power of face. I have none. I laugh; I blush; I look ill tempered; against my will & against my interest. But all this imperfection as it appears to me … is a ballast — as things go — is a defence”.[64] In short, not measuring up to others’ high standards, and openly showing it, protected him against trying to meet the world’s demands, whether of his father long ago, his aunt Mary, his college, the institutional church, or eventually of society’s unexamined dictums. In 1838, Emerson repeated the human need for diversion from daily work: “A man must have aunts & cousins, must buy carrots & turnips, must have barn & woodshed, must go to market & to the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter & sleep & be inferior & silly”.[65] Edward, and possibly Charles, under equal pressure to achieve, apparently did not find Waldo’s path toward self-saving release.

Silliness aside, however, Emerson, approaching twenty-one, knew he needed to make a career choice. By mid-April 1824, he was finally able to lay out his plans and the reasoning behind them. Through independent reading, he would begin his “professional studies” for the ministry: “I deliberately dedicate my time, my talents, & my hopes to the Church”. Waldo also knew that his lack of a competitive spirit kept him from careers in business, law, or medicine. “But in Divinity”, he wrote, “I hope to thrive”. Seven generations of his ancestors had been ministers, and Emerson felt a “passionate love for the strains of eloquence” that he attributed to traits inherited from his father and grandfather. He put it powerfully, “I burn after the ‘aliquid immensum infinitumque’ [something great and limitless] which Cicero desired”. He specifically noted, “My understanding venerates & my heart loves that Cause which is dear to God & man — the laws of Morals, the Revelations which sanction, & the blood of martyrs & triumphant suffering of the saints which seal them”. Still, painful self-consciousness plagued him. He felt timid and clumsy, and as so often before, he berated himself at his core: “What is called a warm heart, I have not”.[66]

Despite the probable mismatch between pastoral duties and his distant, socially awkward personality, other aspects of the Unitarian pulpit enticed Emerson. Ever since the religious liberal Henry Ware Sr. had been named Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard in 1805, New England ministers had begun to subordinate scriptural and doctrinal exposition in favor of enhancing their own and their parishioners’ “self-culture”. An accomplished “liberal Christian” minister was expected to have broad cultural interests — to pursue scholarship and also to serve local institutions. Many prided themselves on their literary attainments; the Reverend Joseph Stevens Buckminster, known for his elegant sermons, was asked to preach the funeral sermon for Waldo’s father in 1811. This new model of ministry appealed to Emerson. He might continue to explore his wide intellectual interests while aiming for uplifting literary performance.

William Ellery Channing, pastor of Federal Street Church, surpassed all other Boston ministers as a model of the new preaching.

1.20 William Ellery Channing, 1857.

Emerson, hearing his sermon on revelation in October 1823, had admiringly noted his clear language and ability to convey “the pictures in his mind to the minds of his hearers”. But he thought Channing’s most valuable service was to properly relate nature and divine power. Creation might offer evidence of its creator, but the material world alone was unable “to kindle our piety & urge our faith”. Though not ready to define nature as miraculous, Channing declared the experience of revelation, of sensing the presence of God, a natural happening. As Waldo carefully recorded, “Dr C. regarded Revelation as much a part of the order of things as any other event”.[67]

Eloquence in the pulpit and on the public lecture platform loomed large in Emerson’s imagination as a means to enhance his ambitions for influence, fame, and power. Political rhetoric had been crucial in defining the principles of the new nation, and in the 1820s lengthy speeches on commemorative occasions had become benchmarks of oratorical greatness. Inspired at Harvard by his classics professor Edward Everett, Emerson continued to admire the heroic content and impressive style of his public addresses on historical topics. Daniel Webster, elected to Congress in 1822, held Emerson spellbound with his eulogy to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in early August 1826. “Never”, Emerson wrote, “were the awful charms of person, manners, & voice outdone … [I]n what was truly grand he fully realized the boldest conception of eloquence”.[68] Though no politician and without ambition to become one, Emerson had done well in public speaking. The ministry not only suited his temperament and talents, it also allowed him to make widely known his ethical and moral concerns, with observations from a wide range of other fields.

Four years after graduating from Harvard College, in February 1825, Emerson entered its Divinity School as a middle student.

1.21 Divinity School, Harvard, 1840.

On and off since 1818, Emerson had continued to teach, including at his brother William’s School for Young Ladies in Boston, which Waldo closed in late 1824 while William was studying in Germany; at a short-lived school that he himself opened in Chelmsford in September 1825; and for a time, at his brother Edward’s school in Roxbury. Emerson’s habit of reading what he pleased continued: “My cardinal vice of intellectual dissipation — sinful strolling from book to book, from care to idleness, is my cardinal vice still; is a malady that belongs to the Chapter of Incurables”.[69] At the same time, however, he faced a series of serious health problems. An eye ailment, making it impossible to read, first forced him to withdraw from formal study. Then he suffered from a painful hip condition, followed by an “aching” in the chest brought on by “exertion”.[70] His physical complaints were not merely psychosomatic. Recent scholarship has confirmed what Emerson privately suspected: he was suffering from tuberculosis (or “consumption” in his day), a rampant nineteenth-century disease that became his family’s curse.[71] Longstanding needs of his mother and of his ailing, mentally challenged brother Bulkeley also pressed upon him: “My years are passing away”, he wrote in his journal in March 1826. “Infirmities are already stealing on me that may be the deadly enemies that are to dissolve me to dirt and little is yet done to establish my consideration among my contemporaries & less to get a memory when I am gone”.[72]

Yet Emerson’s recurring sense of unworthiness and mortality could be swept aside by stunning flashes of insight, breeding confidence in his latent power. Paradoxically, he sensed this power as something beyond him, rooted in the “immortality of moral truth”. It was an ethical lodestone, attracting his whole being, not merely his thought. In true Romantic fashion, he had tapped into a living force that transcended him and others as well as time and place. At the same time, it connected him and every sensitive person to the great minds of history. For Emerson, moral truth had become no abstraction or “vague name”, but a passion and a real principle of personal strength.[73] Buoyed by these reflections, in late May, he ecstatically declared, “I feel that the affections of the soul are sublimer than the faculties of the intellect. I feel immortal. And the evidence of immortality comes better from consciousness than from reason”.[74] Such trust in intuition — in the heart rather than the head — and in the inherent worth of the individual attuned to a universal morality lay behind Emerson’s later emphasis on self-reliance, more fully celebrated in his lectures of the next ten to fifteen years.

Determining and Unsettling Influences

Throughout his twenties, Emerson’s two conflicting sides — the ambitious and the self-judgmental — continued to blend from their complex origins in his childhood. They were heightened by his habit of eclectic reading and by his continuing reliance on Mary’s ideas and her interpretations of classical and contemporary authors. Waldo’s early practice of copying Mary’s letters and diaries into his journals gave him a permanent source of her thoughts. They were on tap to use in early sermons, and later, in lectures and essays. Sometimes he might give Mary direct or indirect credit. But other times, he might simply neglect to indicate that her very words were not his own. Emerson always held that “originality” was a misnomer, arguing that a mind recognizes wisdom in the works of others and rightly appropriates it. However one judges Emerson’s use of Mary’s texts, his thought was the product not of isolated genius but of collaboration, as will be seen more fully in Chapter 2.[75]

By temperament and education, Emerson put character and integrity first, so not surprisingly, social worth was at the heart of his boyhood exploration of personal identity as well as his later philosophical debates. Such sensitivity naturally remained at the forefront of his late teenage attitude toward the nation’s festering social issue, slavery. Even though the Missouri Compromise of 1820, equally dividing the country into free and slave states, had sought to put a lid on constant sectional tensions over this issue, for decades they simmered nationally and, for Emerson, personally. Just days before the Compromise passed, his friend John Quincy Adams, then the country’s Secretary of State, presciently noted in his diary, “Slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union … A dissolution, at least temporary, of the Union, as now constituted, would be certainly necessary … The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation”.[76]

Slavery especially pressed on Emerson, who found the practice abhorrent but who shared many of the racial biases held by even the most educated northerners. For example, he mused about whether the races were created with “different degrees of intellect”, which seemed “an indication of the design of Providence that some should lead, and some should serve”. In the early weeks of November 1822, nineteen-year-old Emerson launched a lengthy, private pro-and-con debate with himself about slavery. He questioned whether this apparently natural human arrangement “can ever be pushed to the extent of total possession, and that, without the will of the slave?” After first giving his best arguments “in behalf of slavery”, as he put it, he went on “to knock down the hydra”. For now, he concluded that human inequality eluded rational explanation. But he had no doubt that slavery was “the worst institution on earth”, insisting that “No ingenious sophistry can ever reconcile the unperverted mind to the pardon of Slavery”. Indeed, he found it stunningly inconsistent that one could hold both religious beliefs and slaves. “A creature who is bound by his hopes of salvation to imitate the benevolence of better beings, and to do all the kindness in his power, fastens manacles on his fellow with an ill grace”.[77] Although he would continue to explore the capabilities of different races and of women for some time to come, in the next few years Emerson’s disgust with slavery per se would become more intense, and more public.

Emerson’s Idiosyncratic Uses of Romanticism

In a Romantic era, Emerson and his generation were impatient with all types of rationalism and ripe for accepting felt knowledge about nature and human potential. On his own and through Mary, he had long been attracted to leading British and European Romantic writers. William Wordsworth’s poetry, such as The Excursion (1815), had already appealed to Emerson by its emotional engagement with nature and its use of common everyday language. Then in 1829, James Marsh, president of the University of Vermont, published an American edition of English poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection (1825). Coleridge described an enormously influential new model of the mind itself: for him, all humanity possessed both “Understanding” and “Reason” (both capitalized). “Understanding” was a lower faculty that engaged with material experience, and “Reason” a higher faculty that might intuit divinity. (Contrary to the usual use of these terms, Coleridge gave “Reason” the ability to imagine and feel in contrast to the observing, logical faculties of “Understanding”.)

Finally, for Emerson and many of his circle, a deeply influential, anonymous Romantic voice appeared between 1827 and 1831 in a series of articles in the Edinburgh Review and Foreign Review. It spoke powerful — to some, merely bombastic — moral criticism, decrying the materialism of the age and calling for individual and social reform. This author also introduced the liberating insights of several Kant-inspired German idealists and Romantics, including Schiller and Goethe, as well as the Paris-born Mme. de Staël. Not until October 1832 would Emerson identify this bold essayist as the Scottish philosopher-historian Thomas Carlyle. In his own reading, now also endorsed by Carlyle, Emerson was most affected by the great humanist Goethe, who espoused an engaging pantheism, but above all stressed the authority of the individual.[78] The other German writers Emerson found in Carlyle variously advanced a more organic concept of human nature and the universe. Their common, dominant metaphor for the mind — a growing plant — would resonate with many American reform movements that, in varying degrees, Emerson came to support. For Emerson, Romanticism’s assertion that “feelings” take precedence over “[b]are reason, cold as cucumber” was supremely attractive to him, as he wrote to Mary.[79] She had long encouraged such thinking, also supported by one aspect of the Scottish School of Common Sense taught at Harvard with which Waldo could agree: that moral law might be intuited.

At Harvard, too, Emerson had found a friend of similar spirit, Sampson Reed, who was three years older. In 1821, Emerson heard Sampson give his master’s address, “Oration on Genius”, and five years later extolled Reed’s little book Observations on the Growth of the Mind as “a revelation …  It is remarkable for the unity into which it has resolved the various powers, feelings & vocations of men, suggesting to the mind that harmony which it has always a propensity to seek of action & design in the order of Providence in the world”.[80] Reed, elaborating on the neo-Platonic notion of nature’s correspondence with spirit, argued that God was not a distant creator but an immediate presence that unifies and sustains perception and consciousness. “The mind must grow”, Reed wrote, “not from external accretion, but from an internal principle”.[81]

Reed also introduced Emerson to Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Swedish engineer turned religious mystic. Swedenborg had been the source of Reed’s views of the physical world as a symbol of the spiritual — the nature-spirit interconnection that so appealed to Emerson. In turn, Reed’s many articles for the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Magazine, published in Boston from 1827, were additional sources from which Emerson came to know Swedenborg’s views. As in all of his reading, however, Emerson took what he needed and discarded the rest. And he eventually came to regard Swedenborg, despite his reputation for mysticism, as too literal and mechanical in his interpretation of symbols. He began to think that the small Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in Boston was similarly reducing metaphor to doctrine, a process that he thought simply converted — and corrupted — insight into new theological dogma. No sect, Emerson later preached in 1831, had an exclusive claim to truth; no doctrine was “truth itself, but only as proceeding from truth”.[82] This sort of critical thinking would underlie his steady questioning not only of theology and philosophy but of all institutional and social assumptions.

Six Years of Pastoring

Emerson’s bouts with ill health during his time at Harvard Divinity School meant that he never formally graduated. But on October 10, 1826, his combined class work and independent theological study qualified him to be officially licensed, or “approbated”, to preach. First, however, he followed a prescribed remedy for recovering from tuberculosis: prolonged exposure to sea air and sunshine. With funds from his Uncle Samuel Ripley, Emerson sailed south in late November. The distance and solitude of this first long trip away from his native New England proved creatively unsettling. True to form, personal and professional questions constantly preyed upon him, but as he searched for answers, his sense of self and an idiosyncratic Romantic faith were taking shape. In Charleston, South Carolina, in early January, he pondered the nature of Jesus in journal notes that would become the seeds of a later sermon. Humanity’s “moral depravity” mocked the crucified Christ; nevertheless, Emerson felt that one may “enter into a sublime sympathy with him”.[83] Emerson still felt his own inadequacy as a “moral agent”, noting that a life of virtuous purpose seemed to be slipping away, and he frankly questioned his ability as a “young pilot” to guide others through the “shoals” of life.[84] Also unsettling was his ironic experience of participating in a Bible Society meeting in St. Augustine, Florida, while just outside the window he heard the shouts of a slave auctioneer. Emerson noted: “One ear … heard the glad tidings of great joy whilst the other was regaled with ‘Going gentlemen, Going!’”[85] This cultural disconnection of morality from the market trading of blacks clearly remained alive in his consciousness before he publicly joined his ethical concerns with the cause of emancipation.

Despite these doubts about himself and his role in the church, Emerson’s first exposure to Southern culture helped strengthen his self-confidence. At home, he wondered whether he could meet leadership challenges. In strange locales, thrown upon his own resources, he found it cathartic to meet others quite different from himself. On the first leg of his return voyage in late March, Emerson traveled with Achille Murat — a nephew of Napoleon, “a consistent Atheist”, a man who owned a plantation outside Tallahassee and thus an experienced slaveholder.[86]

1.22 Achille Murat (1801–1847).

Despite heavy weather during the trip, the unlikely friends challenged each other in long conversations. Murat, the non-believer, responded to Emerson’s ideas of liberal religion; and Emerson, hardly the intimidated provincial, gained confidence as he held his own and also quizzically admired this sophisticated companion who, shunning any faith, was yet evidently an ethical man, although he owned slaves.

In a famous phrase in “Self-Reliance” fourteen years later, he would call traveling “a fool’s paradise”.[87] But this trip was arguably life-saving; it improved his health, exposed him to a new world of believers and non-believers beyond Boston, and began to free him from certain self-doubts. Preaching at St. Augustine, Charleston, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, he returned home with a stronger self-estimate, theological conviction, and renewed vocational purpose. Borrowing imagery from the psychological and maritime turbulence he had recently undergone, he now told his journal, “When the Sea was stormy the disciples awoke Christ. Let us do so.—”[88]

The Jesus awakening within Emerson, however, was not the conventional Christ, a mere mediator between God and humanity. This was clear when, once back in Boston and starting his career as a supply minister — substitutes for pastors on the odd Sunday — he gave a sermon in late June 1827 based on the Pauline text “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Omitting the issue of Christ’s divinity, he praised him for restoring humanity to God. He portrayed Jesus as a complete, exemplary man, who despite enduring agonies of persecution and suffering, accepted God’s will and thus became history’s great spiritual hero.[89] Emerson’s focus on the combination of Stoic and God-directed courage in Jesus was a goad to himself and a criterion for his later biographical subjects. With conviction, Emerson now preached a feeling of impregnable spiritual centeredness. Already in March, writing from St. Augustine to Mary, he had hinted of such a sense: “[W]e can conceive of one so united to God in his affections that he surveys from the vantage ground of his own virtues the two worlds with equal eye & knowing the true value of the love & praise of men challenges rather the suffrages [support] of immortal souls”.[90] By the very act of discerning eternal truth, he believed, the hero overcomes the world’s hypocrisy, pride, and viciousness.

Churches throughout eastern Massachusetts — including his father’s former congregation, Boston’s First Church — and into New Hampshire often called on Emerson to be their supply pastor. On Christmas Day 1827, in Concord, New Hampshire, he met the sixteen-year-old Ellen Tucker. She was beautiful, religious, poetically inclined, vivacious, and fun-loving, but frail. Ellen was already clearly showing signs of consumption, a family malady, when they were engaged the following December. Within months, on March 11, 1829, the Second Church (Unitarian) in Boston’s North End ordained Emerson its junior pastor to serve under the popular and eloquent Henry Ware Jr. But the ailing Ware had to retire in July, the next year becoming a professor at Harvard Divinity School.[91] Emerson now became the sole minister of a venerable church that was once led by Increase and Cotton Mather and counted Paul Revere among its former members. On September 30, Waldo and Ellen were married in New Hampshire, and then took rooms near the church on Chardon Street.


[LEFT]: 1.23 Ellen Louisa Tucker at 18, 1829.
[RIGHT]: 1.24 Emerson at about 26, c. 1829.

Emerson’s ministry in the late 1820s and early 1830s — long overshadowed by the emphasis on his more famous lectures and essays of a decade later — profoundly shaped him as a thinker and writer.[92] Although he based each sermon conventionally on a biblical text, Emerson admired Jesus as a deeply human prophet and was never rigidly dogmatic. Incorporating secular themes and allusions in his preaching, he made the most of the expressive freedom encouraged in the Unitarian pulpit and began to articulate themes he would revisit throughout his career: the importance of self-reliant character based on moral law, the dynamic quality of individual life within a limitless cosmos, the relationship of the citizen to the nation, and the ultimate value of discerning the truth for oneself. Above all, he was exploring the reality of the “God within”, a concept he derived from widely diverse sources: Marcus Aurelius, the Pauline epistles, the French cleric Fenelon, and the Romantics, as well as from Mary and the Society of Friends’ founder George Fox. As a supply minister in New Bedford in 1833–1834, he would be greatly impressed by the principle of “acquiescence”, expressed by Quaker Mary Rotch, which would help him to clarify the God-dependence, or deep selfless quality of “self-reliance”.[93] Later, mystic writers in the Islamic, Hindu, and Confucian traditions would strengthen his sense of the omnipresence of a World Soul, another curb to excessive individualism.

Except for a few sermons prepared for purely ceremonial occasions, Emerson was preaching on topics that deeply mattered to him.

1.25 New Brick, or Second Church, Boston, 1843.

He was also learning to address a live, intellectually demanding audience, tending to the congregation’s pastoral needs, serving on several church committees, and generally becoming a public leader in a manner he had previously thought impossible. He also took on community responsibilities, acting as both chaplain of the State Senate and an elected member of the Boston School Committee. He extended his contacts and made friends, among them Abel Adams and George Adams Sampson, both merchants, parishioners at Second Church, and confidants whose decency persuaded Emerson that virtue and success in commerce were not necessarily incompatible.

The range of topics on which Emerson preached at Second Church and throughout the Northeast testifies to the flexibility allowed in the Unitarian pulpit. It also reflected Emerson’s passionate quest to discover the unity of all knowledge, linking both heart and head, and thus blending belief with intellect. Never merely focused on theological matters, Emerson was fascinated by any subject vital, or even tangential to, right living: history, biography, the arts, or science. In Boston in 1827, he saw “a skilful experimenter lay a magnet among filings of steel & the force of that subtle fluid entering into each fragment arranged them all in mathematical lines & each metallic atom became in its turn a magnet communicating all the force it received of the loadstone”.[94] In another sermon in mid-July 1829, he drew a spiritual analogy to this experiment: “If you introduce a magnet into a heap of steel-filings the rubbish becomes instantly instinct with life and order … The mind is that mass of rubbish … until its hidden virtue is called forth when God is revealed”. Nature, “full of symbols of its Author”, mirrors God’s laws. Emerson is already moving beyond rigid Swedenborgian correspondences to a dynamic, organic concept of mind. Any sign, he insists, is “but a faint type of the power of this idea upon the soul of man”. Reading nature symbolically is only a preliminary stage of revelation, for God “manifests himself in the material world … in the history of man … in our own experience”.[95] In short, until we directly experience God, we are dead to other divine manifestations.

In this sermon Emerson makes an important break from traditional Unitarian norms for establishing authentic religious belief. Since ancient times, several spiritual traditions had sought laws in nature as evidence of God’s handiwork. English philosopher William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) had been in wide currency for a quarter century as the standard work of “natural religion”. Paley had presented an “argument from design”. Invoking an old metaphor, he had concluded that the world, like a watch, implies a maker. Close study of such disciplines as anatomy and physiology, he reasoned, enabled one to draw inferences about God’s nature and plan. This book and other works by Paley remained basic texts for Harvard undergraduates into the 1830s. Emerson, however, had come to regard Paley’s kind of evidence as unconvincingly secondhand: it separated the laws of God from God’s living power.

Emerson wrote his 1829 sermon on natural religion in a logical, reasoned way, carefully numbering his main points.[96] In style, his vision of intuitive personal experience as the best evidence of God differs from the scintillating, poetic, demandingly impressionistic manner of his later essays; nevertheless, it anticipates the primary thesis of his first book, Nature (1836). There he would argue that immediate, private perception itself could be divine revelation. In a later sermon with a more cosmic perspective, he reasoned that the vast scope of astronomy, far from undercutting religious belief, provides a corrective to narrow, idolatrous views of our place in the universe and of God’s scope. Just as Copernicus had shown that the earth plays a subordinate, satellite role to the sun, so our world’s microcosmic size in relation to an infinite universe should discourage spiritual and moral arrogance. Such a change in perspective does not threaten belief, Emerson argued, but rather stimulates a grander sense of God, not as a mere “governor”, but as “an Infinite Mind”.[97]

1.26 View of Boston from the South Boston Bridge, c. 1820–1829.

Whether preaching on the nature of Jesus or on scientific and moral law, Emerson tried to cultivate in his audiences an inner sense of the divine. But such awareness did not lead him to argue for passive introspection. Spiritual insight, he felt, must translate into daily, public activity. Their connection formed the bridge between ideals and reality that prompted him, even at this early date, to support abolition in principle, although he did not yet join that nascent movement. Emerson welcomed the radical antislavery minister Samuel J. May, later the father-in-law of his future friend Bronson Alcott, to speak from his Second Church pulpit. And in April 1832 — fifteen months after William Lloyd Garrison founded the Boston abolitionist newspaper the Liberator — Emerson preached a Fast Day sermon insisting on the moral obligation to resist government-sanctioned injustice. “Let every man say then to himself — the cause of the Indian, it is mine; the cause of the slave, it is mine; the cause of the union, it is mine; the cause of public honesty, of education, of religion, they are mine; and speak and act thereupon as a freeman and a Christian”.[98]

Emerson’s burst of directed energy and his growing confidence as a preacher developed alongside severe crisis and eventual tragedy. Throughout 1830, Ellen continued to suffer from lung hemorrhages. (Emerson’s younger brother Edward, now in New York practicing law with William, was also showing tubercular symptoms.) On February 8, 1831, a numb Emerson recorded in both his journal and church records the death of his beloved wife.[99] On the 20th, crushed by “miserable debility”, as he described his state, he groped for words to express his loss in a sermon on grief.[100] The loss of Ellen intensified his search for new, less doctrinal grounds for faith. “All is miracle”, he asserted in his journal the month after her death, “& the mind revolts at representations of 2 kinds of miracle”.[101] For a time, he mechanically carried on with his preaching and pastoral tasks, while every day walking the two miles to Ellen’s tomb in Roxbury. After a year of this practice, in January 1832, he privately noted, “It is the best part of the man, I sometimes think, that revolts most against his being the minister”. Eleven days later he challenged himself, “Write on personal independance [sic]”.[102] Mary understood such deep malaise, yet anxious that the family’s clerical tradition not be broken, she encouraged him to hold on to his noble profession.

But the depth of Emerson’s torment is suggested by a stark journal entry of late March, well over a year after Ellen’s death: “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin”.[103] The act of viewing a deceased’s remains, while not a common custom, was not particularly ghoulish or bizarre in New England.[104] Emerson described nothing more about the incident, either what he saw or felt. But he had been meditating and preaching on mortality. Confronting once and for all the finality of Ellen’s death, while simultaneously remembering her fervent belief in their reunion in an afterlife, Emerson asserted a belief in life here and now.[105] That summer, while thinking of what he might preach the next Sunday, he noted that true religion lies neither with church doctrines nor sacramental practices. Rather he strongly affirmed, “It is a life … a new life of those faculties you have. It is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble”. In mid-September 1832, he was even more explicit on this theme, jotting down a motto: “‘Think of living’. Don’t tell me to get ready to die. I know not what shall be. The only preparation I can make is by fulfilling my present duties. This is the everlasting life”. By opening up a new path beyond grief, this focus on the present could temporarily eclipse doubts about an afterlife.[106] The question of immortality, however, would be an unresolved issue about which he would speculate for the rest of his life.

Emerson now came to realize that except for the pleasure of writing sermons, pastoral duties no longer appealed to him. He filled his journal with fundamental doubts about his profession: “I have sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers. Were not a Socratic paganism better than an effete superannuated Christianity?”[107] Emerson’s concept of being “a good minister” shows both his insistence on integrity and a continuing appreciation of the prophetic role of preaching. But in the wake of losing Ellen, he now associated the ministerial vocation with an equally corrosive kind of death.

In early June, only two months after viewing Ellen’s remains, Emerson invited leading members of the congregation to his house. He wished to explain his objections to administering the sacrament of Communion, and he took the opportunity to announce a radical idea: why not simply dispense with the rite? On the 21st, a church committee sent him their report. It recognized that people of conscience differed over the nature of the Lord’s Supper but stated that the church would not change its custom.[108] On the very same day, carrying William Sewel’s The History of the … Quakers and the second volume of Thomas Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism, Emerson left with Charles to visit his oracle, Mary, on her farm in Waterford, Maine, with its inspiring mountain views. After going on to New Hampshire’s impressive White Mountains with Waldo, Charles returned to Boston; Mary joined Waldo at Crawford Notch but departed abruptly. Left alone to ponder his literal and personal prospects, Waldo noted, “The good of going into the mountains is that life is reconsidered”.[109] He was reconsidering nothing less than the painful and complex intersection of private, professional, and doctrinal issues. In this self-reexamination, Emerson must have found strength from the Quaker profiles he had in hand. Their idea of a divine “inner light” within every soul had fed his recent sermons on the “God Within”, along with a favorite scriptural verse, Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is within you”. Since at least 1825, his own inner light had made him look critically at Mary’s repeated adulation of their common ministerial ancestors. He had then admitted, “It is my own humor to despise pedigree”, declaring that “the dead sleep in their moonless night; my business is with the living”.[110] Still, now that he was a responsible pastor, historical encouragement from leading Quakers who embodied moral independence and courage could only strengthen him in his inner debate over leaving the practice of his fathers.

Leaving His Pastorate

Under great stress and on the road that summer of 1832, Emerson developed a severe case of diarrhea that lasted on and off for months. Nevertheless, from this period of physical suffering and conflicted reflection, he emerged with new resolution. His journal entries make it clear that by mid-July, he was set on the course of leaving the ministry, breaking with Mary’s ardent dreams for him to carry on the family tradition. Yet now, fondness overruled her earlier objections: she could only understand his decision and wish him well. She wrote to Charles, hoping that Waldo, “free from ties to forms & instruction may find the Angel who can best unite him to the Infinite”. By his imagination alone, she thought he might experience a heartfelt infusion of Coleridge’s “Reason”, might, in short, intuit divinity.[111] In a sermon on September 9, 1832, now known as “The Lord’s Supper”, Emerson publicly stated the message he had given the church committee three months before: for scriptural, theological, and historical reasons, he could not in good conscience administer the sacrament of communion. In his view, Jesus did not intend this meal to be a perpetual observance. Once made so, Emerson argued, the rite shifts attention away from a direct experience of God’s spirit to an exaggerated focus on the person of his mediator, Jesus. Furthermore, Emerson located the event as peculiar to a specific culture in a past time and place, and therefore inappropriate to modern Boston. Carefully researched and logical, the sermon was a forceful statement of Emerson’s sense of the priority of spirit over a now meaningless ritual.

Beyond one church practice, however, Emerson’s argument for his action arose from eighteen months of struggle with loss, grief, and his entire relationship with organized religion. Ending the sermon, he capped his long rationale with this forthright statement: “It is my desire, in the office of a Christian minister, to do nothing which I cannot do with my whole heart. Having said this, I have said all … That is the end of my opposition [to administering Communion], that I am not interested in it”.[112] Two days later he wrote to the congregation formally requesting to be relieved of his pastoral charge.

Emerson had long chided himself for being cold and aloof. But his congregation had grown to love him, and seeking a compromise concerning communion, it entreated him to reconsider and stay. Even when Emerson stood firm, the vote to dismiss him (30 Yeas, 20 Nays, 4 Blanks) in late October expressed his congregation’s reluctance to let him go, and they “Voted unanimously that the Salary of the Rev Mr Emerson be continued for the present”. In fact, they even paid his last quarterly salary a few days early, on December 21.[113] Waldo, still ill and depressed, had talked of going to the West Indies to restore his health, but in early December, learning of a ship headed for Naples, suddenly decided to go to Italy on a trip that would eventually take him farther north in Europe, and finally to England and Scotland. When Waldo rapidly broke up his household on Chardon Street to sail for Europe, Charles wrote Mary, “[T]hings seem flying to pieces, and I don’t know when they will again be put together and he [Waldo] harnessed in (what I think he requires) the labors of a daily calling”.[114] On Christmas Day 1832, an ailing Emerson boarded the brig Jasper and set sail for Malta.

1.27 Emerson in Europe and Great Britain, 1832–1833.

Recovery and Renewal in Europe

With this dramatic exodus from Boston, Emerson started on his second life-altering journey, a nine-month tour of Europe. Like his shorter trip South six years before, this one strengthened him in body and mind, opening new intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional horizons. In Italy he visited ancient temples, catacombs, churches, monasteries, and museums. His New England eyes, used to the Puritan plain style, were overwhelmed by the Continent’s centuries of monumental classic sculpture, painting, and architecture. After touring Syracuse, he proceeded to Naples, where he responded to its glories but also rejected certain “contemptible particulars”. To a hotel’s overdone splendors and the concern with proper dress, he challenged, “Who cares? Here’s for the plain old Adam, the simple genuine Self against the whole world”.[115]

1.28 Journal entry: “Here’s for the plain old Adam, the simple genuine Self against the whole world”. 12 March 1833.

Emerson, approaching his thirtieth birthday and proud to stand for the uncomplicated integrity of New World values and tastes, would not be intimidated by the Old World’s surface show.

Heading north, he visited Pompeii, before finally arriving in Rome, where for a month his aesthetic side luxuriated in views of the city’s commanding architecture, art, and historic sites such as the Coliseum. At the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, he witnessed Pope Gregory XVI “bless the palms”. “[W]hat a temple!” he declared of St. Peter’s, whose incense-laden aromas pleased him and whose “immensity” awed him. Going out by moonlight Emerson saw Bernini’s splendid piazza and fountain, and his enthusiasm spilled into his journal: “how faery beautiful! An Arabian night’s tale — ”.[116]

1.29 Roman ruins, Emerson sepia watercolor, 1833.

He continued on to Florence, Milan, and Switzerland, then after five months arrived in Paris where he would stay for almost four weeks. At first, Emerson was impressed with this “vast, rich, old capital”. But after wandering about, he missed Italy’s antiquities and was less impressed, remarking that Paris was “a loud modern New York of a place”.[117] Yet the city’s street scenes charmed him enough to record their details. And he absorbed certain antique riches at the Louvre while also bringing himself up-to-date on the latest European science by attending lectures at the Sorbonne. Then on July 13, a defining moment of the trip occurred on one of his visits to the Jardin des Plantes, or Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden), also the site of the Museum of Natural History. Its vast arrangements of plants and array of animal skeletons by genus and species gave Emerson a sudden revelation: all nature was organically unified! He was so excited that he jubilantly wrote in his journal: “I feel the centipede in me — cayman, carp, eagle, & fox. I am moved by strange sympathies, I say continually ‘I will be a naturalist’.”[118]


[LEFT]: 1.30 Jardin du Roi, Paris, 1820, North-South view.
[RIGHT]: 1.31 Jardin des Plantes, National Museum of Natural History, Paris, 2010, South-North view.

A week afterward in late July, having reached England, Emerson steamed up the Thames, finding “nothing surprizing” [sic] in a London familiar from “books & pictures & maps & traditions”. After checking into his room at Russell Square, he stopped in St. Paul’s Cathedral during a service. In his journal he jotted, “Immense city. Very dull city”, but he admitted “an extreme pleasure to hear English spoken in the streets”. He was also an eager tourist at Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons, Regent’s Park, and the British Museum.[119]

Most importantly, Emerson paid visits to the great British writers whose ideas and works had been so influential in the United States. In early August, he met Coleridge (who was still in bed when Emerson arrived)—“a short thick old man” who “soiled” his neat clothing with snuff and declaimed against Unitarianism. Emerson found his conversation as difficult to follow as his writings.[120] He visited Warwick Castle en route to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and in late August, he arrived at the remote home of Thomas and Jane Carlyle in the hamlet of Craigenputtock.

1.32 Thomas Carlyle in his early 40s, late 1830s.

An elated Emerson called this a “white day in my years”, signifying at once a climactic moment of perfection, startling clarity, and excitement. Carlyle’s enthusiasm for Emerson was equally high, and he invited his new friend to stay the night. The Scot was a garrulous storyteller and opinionated, but Emerson liked the Carlyles from the start: “Truth & peace & faith dwell with them & beautify them. I never saw more amiableness than is in his countenance”.[121] Despite increasing political and philosophical differences, their friendship managed to last for their lifetimes.

Two days later, Emerson visited the elderly Wordsworth, who lamented society’s lack of “moral Culture”. Commenting on the American scene, the aging poet surprised him with a paradox: for social cohesiveness, he thought that the United States needed a civil war. When they turned to assess leading writers, Emerson defended both Carlyle and Goethe. But on favorite examples in Wordsworth’s own work, he apparently agreed with the old man’s preference for poems that moved the heart. Wordsworth took his young visitor to see his garden, and they walked for a mile. Emerson saw “nothing very striking about his appearance”, but thought him kind: “I spoke as I felt with great respect of his genius”.[122]

Meeting these great men face-to-face, Emerson had been both impressed and sobered: they were quite human after all. He foresaw that “I shall judge more justly, less timidly, of wise men forevermore”. Emerson especially thought that all of them lacked “insight into religious truth. They have no idea of that species of moral truth which I call the first philosophy”.[123] The day after noting this, while waiting for the right weather before sailing home, Emerson added, “Glad I bid adieu to England, the old, the rich, the strong nation, full of arts & men & memories; nor can I feel any regret in the presence of the best of its sons that I was not born here. I am thankful that I am an American as I am thankful that I am a man”.[124] When his ship left Liverpool for New York on September 4, 1833, Emerson had learned two priceless lessons. In Naples he had announced himself an American “Adam”, dismissing European trumperies to represent, if imperfectly, a new set of ethics. Now he felt completely independent, freed from slavish adulation of even the leading minds of England.[125]

Two days later at sea Emerson wrote, “I like my book about nature & wish I knew where & how I ought to live. God will show me”.[126] He was referring to nature as a world of facts for pursuing reality comparable to his similar search for truth in theological texts. Emerson’s lengthy European tour had only strengthened his focus on that familiar Romantic trinity — Nature, Self, and God. The trip had not marked so much a turning, as a firming point. The arts and history of ancient cities had widened his perspective, and only strengthened, not shaken, his Yankee identity. Science in Paris had not sparked but rather rekindled his awareness of nature as a world for pursuing truth comparable to theology. And visiting the great literary figures of Britain had given him a strangely empowering revelation. Far from being in awe of these men as inaccessible titans, Emerson was measuring their biases and foibles as well as their virtues. Though he might learn from such geniuses, he recognized that they were, after all, men, and that his ideals and abilities were as fresh as theirs once had been. In his journal, safely letting slip more than a touch of youthful arrogance and native pride, Emerson allowed that he, the young American, had found these exemplars of European culture less sensitive than he to the ethical life.

Beginning a New Career in Boston, then Concord

Within days of his return to Boston in October, Emerson was invited by the Natural History Society to lecture on “The Uses of Natural History”. In this first lecture of early November 1833 at the city’s Masonic Temple, he drew on his Paris experience to argue that humans are “designed” to be natural historians.

Emerson pictured the benefits of studying nature as an upward spiral: good health and practicality circled up to the inherent pleasures of knowledge, then turned higher to the ability of nature “to explain man to himself”. He celebrated “that correspondence of the outward world to the inward world of thoughts and emotions, by which it is suited to represent what we think”.[127] Emerson thus launched himself on a new career as a lecturer, gradually achieving fame in the United States and, later, abroad.

At the same time, although he had resigned his pastorate, Emerson never formally withdrew from the ministry, and was in demand once again as a supply pastor. For six years, until 1839, he preached frequently in Boston (including at Second Church), throughout Massachusetts, Maine, and even in New York City. From 1835 to 1838, he was virtually the regular minister for a rural parish in East Lexington. In fact, congregations in Waltham and New Bedford courted him with offers of full-time positions.

1.33 Masonic Temple, Boston, 1832.

In various guises, his major themes continued to be moral self-culture and the God within. Indeed, well into the 1840s, certain individuals and even some newspapers still addressed him as “the Rev. Mr. Emerson”. By 1839, however, his preaching days were over, his transition from the pulpit to the lectern having been natural and seamless.[128]

In May 1834, Emerson’s life was made at least somewhat easier when he received the first half of an inheritance from his wife’s estate: $11,600, the equivalent in 2013 dollars of about $326,000. But Charles wrote William that the annual interest from this sum, $1,200 (about $33,700 in 2013), was insufficient for three (his mother, Waldo, and himself), especially since “Waldo does without a Profession”. (He had only begun to lecture the previous fall.) Even after 1837, when Emerson received the second half of Ellen’s inheritance, increasing his estate to about $653,000 in current dollars, he had to count on income from lecturing to fully provide for himself and his family.[129]

In 1834, however, Emerson was again beset by close personal loss. That summer, his close friend from Second Church, businessman George Adams Sampson, collapsed and died on his way to Bangor to join Emerson for a vacation. Emerson poured his grief into a memorial sermon for “our brother” at Second Church.[130] In attendance were Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who wrote that Emerson’s preaching was so moving that she felt she knew Sampson as if she had been “his acquaintance on earth”.[131] Then word came that on October 1, Waldo’s brother Edward had died of consumption in Puerto Rico. His death, again a caution to Waldo about excessive work, combined with concern for his own health and a desire to leave fast-growing Boston for a place close to nature, led him a week later to move to the house in Concord, Massachusetts, that his grandfather, the Reverend William Emerson, had built in 1770. It was known as the “Old Manse”. Waldo had briefly stayed here as a child, as recounted earlier, and had fond memories of this family manse. After enduring yet another family tragedy, he was emerging again from a period of crippling mourning with a determined will to live.

1.34 Concord Center, 1839.

Grief itself seemed to unlock a deep vein of creativity within Emerson. A dabbler in verse since childhood, he was now seriously writing poetry. While visiting Newton, Massachusetts, in early 1834, he composed an ode to the wild rhododendron, “The Rhodora”, epitomizing spring. Unlike Keats’s adulation of a man-made object to praise beauty in his classic “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, Emerson’s subject for the same purpose arises organically from nature, a rarely glimpsed wild shrub in Concord’s swamplands with startlingly vivid, reddish-purple flowers. Its creator, he sees, is the same as his own, linking the flower — and its hidden potential — with himself: “Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!/ I never thought to ask, I never knew;/ But, in my simple ignorance, suppose/ The self-same Power that brought me there brought you”.[132] At his ancestral home, within a stone’s throw of the Old North Bridge, where the Revolution began, he made progress on his revolutionary “little book” on Nature.[133] Along with this poetically philosophical manifesto, which would soon galvanize the attention of his own (rising) generation of restless idealists, came frequent walks in Concord’s woods. With its longstanding family and patriotic associations, the village became home almost overnight, and Emerson’s philosophical and daily delight with nature expressed itself in poetry. In the winter of 1834–1835, he composed “The Snow-Storm”, its impressionistic style making it one of his more enduring poems. It captures the tumult of a blizzard by using the metaphor of a Romantic Creator — “the fierce artificer” — and of art itself — “the mad wind’s night-work,/ The frolic architecture of the snow”.[134]

In late January 1835, Boston’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge engaged Emerson to present a six-part series on biography, starting with a now-lost introductory lecture on the subject. It must have been like its successors on Michelangelo, Luther, and Milton, treating the lives of men of exceptional qualities “who had the advantage of rare cultivation”.[135] His next lecture, on George Fox, focused on the Quaker’s moral example as well as on his common humanity. Emerson’s final figure was Edmund Burke, the Irish-born, eighteenth-century British politician and writer, a secular master of statesmanship and eloquence. Studying great lives, Emerson believed, was a means of understanding history and of challenging oneself.

In his private life, Emerson seemed to be moving toward conventional stability. In January, after having preached in Plymouth, where he met Lydia Jackson, orphaned daughter of a prominent businessman and a leading Sunday school teacher, he wrote to her, proposing marriage.

Though she frankly admitted that she was no housekeeper, Lydia — a year older than Emerson — promptly accepted. Intelligent and devout, she was known among family and friends as a fervent champion of animals and of the underprivileged, especially blacks and women. She was also given to visions. Though sometime earlier she had heard Emerson preach, Lydia had hardly met him when she imagined the two of them descending her family’s staircase as husband and wife.[136]

1.35 Lidian Jackson Emerson at 56, 1858.

In early July 1835, for $3,500 (or on a national average, about $95,500 in 2013) Emerson purchased a large, handsome house on the Cambridge Turnpike. As far out of town as his grandfather’s manse on the opposite side of Concord, the “Coolidge Castle”, or “Bush”, as he came to call it, was enlarged to accommodate not only his prospective wife and mother but also Charles, who had been practicing law in Concord, and Charles’s betrothed, Elizabeth Hoar.[137]

Meanwhile, Emerson, proud of the role his ancestor the Reverend Peter Bulkeley had played in founding Concord in 1635, was glad to be asked to deliver an historical address on the occasion of its bicentennial. On September 12, 1835, he gave a carefully researched lecture, which eventually became his first noteworthy publication, A Historical Discourse.[138] His address celebrated “the ideal social compact”, one that had united the strong-willed Puritans and endured during the Revolution, when, Emerson noted, a “deep religious sentiment sanctified the thirst for liberty”.[139]

1.36 Emerson’s house, “Bush”, Concord, 1875, surrounded by pine trees he planted in 1836.

Two days after this address, Waldo and Lydia Jackson were married in Plymouth. She would have preferred to set up housekeeping in her family’s historic seaside town, but he persuaded her of the virtues and charms of Concord. Emerson also asked her to add an “n” to “Lydia”, making it “Lidian”, possibly hoping to avoid the common New England pronunciation “Lydier Emerson”, that typically inserted an “r” between two words that ended and began with vowels.[140] Lidian immediately devoted herself to a life of caring for her husband, increasing social concerns — particularly, at this moment, abolition — and a demanding household. In fact, on the first night the Emersons moved in, Waldo, exuberant over his purchase, invited a couple from Plymouth to spend the night. Lidian, initially aghast, nevertheless dutifully managed.[141] Emerson’s home for the rest of his long productive life, “Bush” would remain a constant center of high hospitality with constant comings and goings of family and a growing number of old and new friends.

In early November 1835, again in Boston, Emerson started a new ten-part lecture series on English literature. Great writers, he stated, express “the truths and sentiments in common circulation among us”, and we approach them not as mere talented entertainers but as geniuses who were “obedient to the spirit that was in them”.[142] With new confidence, Emerson was also offering a hopeful vision for himself: as someone who, like these classic figures, might express ideas about humanity’s most central topics to a wide audience. Such a sentiment would raise expectations among his family, friends, and audiences — many still thought of him as a pastor — to use his lectures for reform matters. These anticipations would only increase as his reputation steadily grew alongside mounting unrest over slavery and women’s rights. At thirty-two, he had minimized recurring self-doubt, boldly left his pastorate for lecturing, and was well on his way toward addressing the world as a compelling spokesman for a “new philosophy”. Inspired by being resident on Concord’s ancestral rebellious ground, Emerson would finish his testament to this fresh thinking — the manuscript that he would entitle Nature — in the coming months. Its basic ideas and their elaboration in landmark speeches that followed soon after would stir up the most sacrosanct traditions of Boston and eventually all of America. The next chapter explores the effect of these intellectual fireworks both on Emerson and on his increasingly turbulent country.


1    The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–1982), 1: 3–4. Hereafter JMN. For Emerson’s journal as literary expression, see Lawrence Rosenwald, Emerson and the Art of the Diary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

2    Statistics in Lawrence W. Kennedy, Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630 (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992). See also http://www.iboston.org

3    Adelaide M. Cromwell, “The Black Presence in the West End of Boston, 1800–1864: A Demographic Map”, in Courage and Conscience: Black & White Abolitionists in Boston (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 156–57.

4    Jean McClure Mudge, Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, 1785–1835, 2nd ed., revised (East Brunswick, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1981), ch. 2; and Chinese Export Porcelain in North America (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986; 2nd ed. (New York: Riverside Book Company, Inc., 2000), ch. 6.

5    David Greene Haskins, Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Maternal Ancestors (Boston, Mass.: Cupples, Upham & Co., 1887), 83–84; David Greene Haskins, “Ralph Haskins”, in Memorial Biographies of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (Boston, Mass.: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1880), 1: 467–70.

6    Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 103, 121, 127. Hereafter MME. D. G. Haskins, “Ralph Haskins”, 470; William Emerson, An Oration Pronounced July 5, 1802… in Commemoration of the Anniversary of American Independence (Boston, Mass.: Manning and Loring, 1802), 23.

7    William Emerson, Journal and Commonplace Book No. 1, May 25, 1803, Sept. 6, 1803, Houghton Library bMS Am 1280H (150); John McAleer, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1984), 17; William Emerson to Phebe Bliss Emerson Ripley, Jan. 11, 1810, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2925).

8    William Emerson to John Clarke Emerson, May 17, 1806; William Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, May 25, 1805; William Emerson to John Clarke Emerson, Dec. 13, 1805; William Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, April 14, 1810, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2839, 2864, 2837, 2877). James Elliot Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1887), 1: 41.

9    JMN 2: 309; The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 6 vols., ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), 4: 179. Hereafter L.

10    Ruth Haskins Emerson to William Emerson, Oct. 3 and 5, 1805, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2764); Franklin B. Sanborn, Transcendental and Literary New England, ed. Kenneth W. Camerson (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1975), 198; Records of a Lifelong Friendship: Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Henry Furness, ed. Horace H. Furness (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), 88, 159; JMN 8: 258; L 2: 255.

11    Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 7; D. G. Haskins, Emerson, 53–54, 59–60; William and Ruth Haskins Emerson, “Receipts”, 27, Houghton bMS Am 1280.235 (445); Cabot, Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1: 35.

12    McAleer, 21, 23, 27; JMN 7: 395.

13    For this family history in detail, see Cole, MME, ch. 1–4.

14    Monthly Anthology 1 (July 1804), 456–57; 1 (December 1804), 646. William Emerson to Mary Moody Emerson, April 10, 1806, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2841); Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson, ed. Nancy Craig Simmons (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 55. Hereafter Letters of MME.

15    Cole, MME, 103, 120–29.

16    Letters of MME, 36; Mary Moody Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, Dec. 30, [1805], Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (974); Letters of MME, 57.

17    Rebecca Waldo, daughter of Deacon Cornelius Waldo of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, married Deacon Edward Emerson in 1697. Her epitaph in the Malden cemetery, which Mary would have grown up knowing, declares in devoutly Puritan terms, “Prudent and pious, meek and kind/Virtue and Grace Adorned her Mind./ This stone may crumble into Dust;/ But her Dear Name continue must”. Benjamin Kendall Emerson, The Ipswich Emersons (Boston, Mass.: D. Clapp, 1900), 50–51.

18    William Emerson, Journal and Commonplace Book No. 1, Sept. 22 and 23, 1799, March 2, 1802 etc., Houghton bMS Am 1280H (150); Cole, MME, 130.

19    Cole, MME, 130–31; William Emerson to Mary Moody Emerson, Oct. 23, 1809, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2847).

20    Ellen Emerson, “What I Can Remember about Father”, 7, Houghton bMS Am 1280.227. For Emerson’s childhood grief and its impact on his development, see Evelyn Barish, Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), chs. 1 and 4.

21    L 4: 179, 1: 197.

22    William Emerson Inventory, List of Debts (Suffolk Probate No. 23771); http://www.measuringworth.com/ppowerus/; Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 30; Letters of MME, 93; The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition, 12 vols., ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1903–1904), 2: 133. Hereafter W.

23    Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 55, 57–59.

24    W 2: 133. Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 60; Cole, MME, 146–49.

25    Letters of MME, 82; L 1: 4–6, 75.

26    Moncure Daniel Conway, Emerson at Home and Abroad (Boston, Mass.: James Osgood, 1882), 41; The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1938), 221; JMN 8: 380.

27    Albert J. von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse: Unpublished and New Texts Edited from Manuscript”, Studies in the American Renaissance, 1983, ed. Joel Myerson (Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1983), 2–3, 5; L 1: frontispiece.

28    Cabot, Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1: 35; Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 33–34; JMN 16: 263.

29    D. G. Haskins, Emerson, 84; Haskins, “Ralph Haskins”, 471–72.

30    Von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse”, 4–5, 24–25; Edward Waldo Emerson, Emerson in Concord: A Memoir (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1888), 17.

31    Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 50–53; W 10: 385; Allen, 33.

32    Furness, Records of a Lifelong Friendship, 31; E. W. Emerson, Emerson in Concord, 18–19.

33    JMN 5: 323; L 7: 102–04; L 1: 42; postscript to Ralph in Mary Moody Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, Aug. 7, [1817?], Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (1015) (dated by Nancy Craig Simmons, “A Calendar of the Letters of Mary Moody Emerson”, Studies in the American Renaissance 1993, 15). For fuller discussion of Mary’s different hopes for Charles and Ralph, see Cole, MME, especially 139–43, 147–50, and 184–86.

34    W 10: 401; Cole, MME, 151.

35    Letters of MME, 104.

36    Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 62, 65–67, 69; McAleer, 53; Letters of MME, 85.

37    Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 71–74.

38    David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), 4, 30; Cole, MME, 124–25; Monthly Anthology 2 (March 1805), 152 ff., 141; Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 387, 393–96.

39    Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists, 30; Letters of MME, 445; JMN 2: 237.

40    JMN 3: 193; Allen, 47.

41    JMN 1: 22, 39, 40; 4: 348.

42    For differing interpretations of the incident, see Allen, 53–54, and Caleb Crain, American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), ch. 4. JMN 1: 54, 134; 2: 59.

43    Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 75–77, 79; Allen, 54–55; Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 355–56. Mary’s dictum, Letters of MME, 139; identified as a quotation from Price and evidence of her continuing interest in him, Cole, MME, 167 (cf. 11, 124–25).

44    W 10: 326, 329; Allen, 49–51.

45    Furness, “Random Reminiscences of Emerson”, in Emerson in His Own Time, eds. Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003), 186; McAleer, 55; JMN 1: 4. For the family group in Boston, see L 1: 89–91.

46    JMN 1: 333–34.

47    JMN 1: 334–35, 153–54; 2: 373–76; 2: 380–81 (cf. Letters of MME, 139–41, 143–44, 155–57, 182).

48    JMN 1: 251; Kenneth Cameron, Transcendental Climate (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1963), 1: 12; W 6: 155–56; Cole, MME, 9–10, 164–70.

49    Letters of RWE 1: 137; Letters of MME, 176–77. On the longer development of Mary Moody Emerson’s antislavery allegiance, first hinted at in 1805, see Cole, MME, 221; ibid., 237.

50    Letters of RWE 1: 133; Sanborn, Transcendental and Literary New England, 342–43; Cabot, Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1: 30; JMN 16: 90. In 1869, Emerson did pay public tribute to his aunt in a lecture to the New England Women’s Club, published as “Mary Moody Emerson” in the Atlantic Monthly 52 (1883): 733–45; in W 10: 397–433, he claimed she was a “representative life” of her age (399), leaving to his journal entries his much bolder historical and personal references to her.

51    JMN 1: 47, 184.

52    JMN 1: 10–11; 28; 1: 20 No. 35; 246–47; 274–75.

53    JMN 1: 395–99; 2: 265.

54    Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 78, 80–83. JMN 1: 332–33; 1: 266–68; 337–39.

55    JMN 1: 340; Cameron, “Young Emerson’s Orientalism at Harvard”, in Indian Superstition (Hanover: Friends of the Dartmouth Library, 1954), 13–14; von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse”, 46–47.

56    Von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse”, 49, 50, 56.

57    Ibid., 55; E. W. Emerson, Emerson in Concord, 27; L 1: 101; McAleer, 61–64.

58    JMN 4: 293.

59    When visiting Boston from his home in Quincy, John Adams occasionally worshipped at William Emerson’s First Church. His son, John Quincy Adams, was a member of the church. Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson: A Biography (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 6–7. Waldo and his brother Edward visited Adams in Quincy in February 1825 to congratulate him on the election of John Quincy to the presidency. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–1982), 3: 29, 35. Hereafter JMN.

60    Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, vol. 2, The Course of American Freedom, 1822–1832 (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 145–47.

61    The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 4 vols., eds. Albert J. von Frank, et al. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989–1992), 4: 42, notes 1–3. Hereafter CS.

62    Courage and Conscience: Black & White Abolitionists in Boston, ed. Donald M. Jacobs (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 10, 17, 30, 80.

63    The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M. Tilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, 1990–1995), 1: 127. Hereafter L.

64    JMN 3: 137.

65    JMN 7: 6.

66    JMN 2: 237–41.

67    JMN 2: 161.

68    JMN 3: 29.

69    JMN 2: 332.

70    L 1: 184.

71    See Evelyn Barish, “The Moonless Night: Emerson’s Crisis of Health, 1825–1827”, in Emerson Centenary Essays, ed. Joel Myerson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 1–16; incorporated in her Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

72    JMN 3: 15.

73    JMN 3: 21.

74    JMN 3: 25.

75    See Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), esp. chaps. 7 and 8.

76    John Quincy Adams, 24 February 1820, The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794–1845, ed. Allan Nevins (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), 228–29.

77    JMN 2: 43, 49, 57, 58.

78    See Gustaaf Van Cromphout, Emerson’s Modernity and the Example of Goethe (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990).

79    L 1: 174.

80    JMN 3: 45.

81    “Observations on the Growth of the Mind”, Sampson Reed: Primary Source Material for Emerson Studies, compiler George F. Dole (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1992), 28.

82    Sermon CXI, CS 3: 127.

83    JMN 3: 63–64.

84    JMN 3: 72.

85    JMN 3: 117.

86    JMN 3: 77. On Emerson and Murat, see also Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 74–77, 225.

87    The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Alfred R. Ferguson, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971–2013), 2: 46. Hereafter CW.

88    JMN 3: 82.

89    CS 1: 85–92. See Mott, “‘Christ Crucified’: Christology, Identity, and Emerson’s Sermon No. 5”, in Emerson Centenary Essays, ed. Joel Myerson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 17–40; incorporated in Mott, “The Strains of Eloquence”: Emerson and His Sermons (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989), 9–33.

90    L 7: 159–60.

91    Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 398, and William R. Hutchison, The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 12.

92    See David Robinson, Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982); Mott, “Strains”; and Susan L. Roberson, Emerson in His Sermons: A Man-Made Self (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995).

93    JMN 4: 263–64, and Richardson, 157–63.

94    JMN 3: 93.

95    CS 2: 20–21.

96    Commentary on this sermon includes Mott, “From Natural Religion to Transcendentalism: An Edition of Emerson’s Sermon No. 43”, in Studies in the American Renaissance 1985, ed. Joel Myerson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 14–26 (revised in chap. 3 of “Strains”) and Laura Dassow Walls, Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 159. For an extensive discussion of Emerson’s interest in electromagnetism, see Eric Wilson, Emerson’s Sublime Science (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999).

97    Sermon CLVII, CS 4: 158.

98    CS 4: 115.

99    JMN 3: 226, CS 4: 302.

100    JMN 3: 226; Sermon CVII, CS 3: 101–05.

101    JMN 3: 242. On Emerson and the problem of Christian “evidences”, see Mott, “Strains”, 53–78.

102    JMN 3: 318, 320.

103    JMN 4: 7.

104    See Richardson, 3–5, and Ralph H. Orth, “Emerson’s Visit to the Tomb of His First Wife”, Emerson Society Paper 11 (Spring 2000), 3, 8.

105    Richardson states that “The loss that darkened his life also freed him. Ellen’s death cut Emerson loose” (Richardson, 118).

106    JMN 4: 27; 40–41.

107    JMN 4: 27.

108    CS 4: 292–95.

109    JMN 4: 29. See also Cole, Mary Moody Emerson, 218.

110    JMN 2: 316.

111    Cole, Mary Moody Emerson, 219.

112    CS 4: 194.

113    CS 4: 296–97; L 1: 356n.

114    James Elliot Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2 vols. (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1887), 1: 174. See also John McAleer, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1984), 125–26, and Richardson, 127.

115    JMN 4: 141.

116    JMN 4: 152, 155–56.

117    JMN 4: 196, 197.

118    JMN 4: 200.

119    JMN 4: 204–05, 413–14.

120    JMN 4: 408–11.

121    JMN 4: 219, 220.

122    JMN 4: 222, 225.

123    JMN 4: 78, 79.

124    JMN 4: 81.

125    JMN 4: 236.

126    JMN 4: 237.

127    The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 3 vols., eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959–1972), 1: 6, 23, 24. Hereafter EL.

128    The Boston Daily Times, January 30, 1846, for example, reported that “Rev. Ralph W. Emerson and Charles Sumner, Esq”. were praised by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society for boycotting the New Bedford Lyceum when it refused to admit blacks (2). For daily details of Emerson’s preaching and lecturing engagements, see Albert J. von Frank, An Emerson Chronology (New York: G. K. Hall, 1994).

129    Henry F. Pommer, Emerson’s First Marriage (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 65. For monetary equivalencies, the latest figures available are for 2013; see Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Measures of Worth”; and The Calculators: Relative Values U.S. $ at http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/

130    CLXVIII, CS 4: 221–28.

131    L 1: 417n.42.

132    CW 9: 79.

133    See Merton M. Sealts Jr., and Alfred R. Ferguson, Emerson’s Nature: Origin, Growth, Meaning, 2nd ed., enlarged (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979).

134    CW 9: 90.

135    EL 1: 165.

136    McAleer, 201, and Richardson, 193.

137    Richardson, 207–08, and McAleer, 207–08.

138    A Historical Discourse, Delivered Before the Citizens of Concord, 12th September, 1835, On the Second Centennial Anniversary of the Incorporation of the Town (Concord: G. F. Bemis, 1835). See CW 10: 17–54.

139    CW 10: 27, 43.

140    Richardson, 192, 611.

141    Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. Delores B. Carpenter (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1992), 62.

142    EL 1: 230, 231.

From Mr. Emerson’s Revolution, edited by Jean McClure Mudge