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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)


A major American poet, who worked first as an Unitarian priest. In his hometown, Concord, Emerson founded a literary circle called New England Transcendentalism, a hodgepodge of fashionable thoughts, in which participated among others Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Thoreau. During his travels in England he met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, with whom he maintained a lifelong correspondence from the 1830s and whose opinions of the importance of great historical figures influenced his own writings. Later Emerson became involved in the antislavery movement and worked for women's rights.

The sun set, but set not his hope:
Stars rose; his faith was earlier up:
Fixed on the emormous galaxy,
Deeper and older seemed his eye;
And matched his sufferance sublime
The taciturnity of time.
He spoke, and words more soft than rain
Brought the Age of Gold again:
His action won such reverance sweet
As hid all measure of the feat.
('Character,' Essays: Second Series, 1844)

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Most of his ancestors were clergymen as his father, who died when Emerson was eight. He was educated in Boston and Harvard, like his father, and graduated in 1821. While at Harvad, he began keeping a journal, which became a source of his later lectures, essays, and books. In 1825 he began to study at the Harvard Divinity School and next year he was licensed to preach by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. In 1829 Emerson married the seventeen-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker, who died in 1831 from tuberculosis. She had been young and pretty, and in March 1832, Emerson opened her coffin, a year and two months after her burial, just to see her. In his own journal he wrote: "I visited Ellen's tomb and opened the coffin."

Emerson's first and only settlement was at the important Second Unitarian Church of Boston, where he became sole pastor in 1830. Three years later he had a crisis of faith, finding that he "was not interested" in the rite of Communion. Her once remarked, that if his teachers had been aware of his true thoughts, they would not have allowed him to become a minister. Eventually Emerson's controversial views caused his resignation. However, he never ceased to be both teacher and preacher, although without the support of any concrete idea of God.

In 1832 Emerson sold his household furniture and traveled to Europe. While in England met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, whith whom he corresponded for half a century. During his Italian journey Emerson read Goethe's account of his trip, Italian Journey, and following Goethe's footsteps, he took in Italy's tourist attactions. In his journal he wrote: "Goethe says "he shall never again be wholly unhappy, for he has seen Naples." If he has said "happy," there would have been equal reason. You cannot go five yards in any direction without seeing saddest objects & hearing the most piteous wailings. Instead of the gayest of cities, you seem to walk in the wards of a hospital."

In 1835 Emerson married Lydia Jackson, who came from an old Plymouth family that went back to John Cotton. He settled with her at the east end of the village of Concord, Massachusetts, where he then spent the rest of his life. Lydia had a strong, brooding face, she was interested in poetry, and loved cats. Her mother and father had died when she was sixteen. Emerson's oldest son, Waldo, died at the age of five.

Emerson went on a lecture tour in Europe in 1848. A letter to a London newspaper requested lowering the admission price so that the poorer people could attend, for "to miss him is to lose an important part of the Nineteenth Century." The English writer Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) did not share the admiration which his countrymen had for Emerson – he called Emerson "a wrinkled baboon, a man first hoisted into notoriety on the shoulders of Carlyle, and who now spits and sputters on a filthier platform of his own finding and fouling." Upon his return to the United States, Emerson lectured on natural history, biology, and history.

Like Wordsworth, Emerson drew inspiration from Nature. His first book, Nature, a collection of essays, came out  when he was 33 and summoned up his ideas. Emerson emphasized individualism and rejected traditional authority. He invited to "enjoy an original relation to the universe," and emphasized "the infinitude of the private man." All creation is one, he believed – people should try to live a simple life in harmony with nature and with others. "... the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God," he wrote in Nature, the manifesto of American transcendentalism. His lectures 'The American Scholar' (1837), and 'Address at Divinity College' (1838) challenged the Harvard intelligentsia and warned about the formalism of the clergy of his time. He was ostracized by Harvad for many years, but his message attracted young disciples, who joined the informal Transcendental Club, organized in 1836 by the Unitarian clergyman F.H. Hedge.

"Nature's dice are always loaded."
"The corruption of man is followed by corruption of language."

In 1840 Emerson helped Margaret Fuller to launch The Dial (1840-44), an open forum for new ideas on the reformation of society. From his compensated lectures Emerson produced his various books and collections of essays. A selection of his earlier lectures and writings appeared in 1841 under the title Essays. It was followed by Essays: Second Series (1844), a collection of lectures annexed to a reprint of Nature (1849), and Representative Men (1850). In these works Emerson encouraged his readers to trust instinct, use their potential talents for authentic self-discovery as the great men have done, and perceive Nature as a source of inspiration and great truths. Many of his best poems Emerson write in 1834, a collection came out in 1840. When Emerson was courting Lydia, he said, "I am born a poet, of a low class without doubt yet a poet. This is my nature and vocation."

Emerson started to gain success as a lecturer in the 1850s and his books became a source of moderate income. His English Traits, a summary of English character and history, appeared in 1856. Other later works include Conduct of Life (1860), Society and Solitude  (1870), a selection of poems called Parnassus (1874), and Letters and Social Aims, edited by J.Elliot Cabot (1876). Emerson's heath started fail after the partial burning of his house in 1872. He made his last tour abroad in 1872-1873, and then withdrew more and more from public life. Emerson died on April 27, 1882, in Concord. In the 1880s appeared posthumously  Miscellanies (1884), a collection of political speeches, and Lectures and Biographical Sketches (1884).

As an essayist Emerson was a master of style. "Emerson is God," declared the literary theorist Harold Bloom once, and testified with this the importance of Emerson to American literature. Many of his phrases have long since passed into common English parlance: 'a minority of one', 'the devil's attorney', 'a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds'. His essays have speech like character and a prophetic tone, a sermon like quality, often linked to his practice as an Unitarian minister. Emerson's aim was not merely to charm his readers, but encourage them to cultivate 'self-trust' and to be open to the intuitive world of experience. Philosophy for Emerson was always entwined with the concrete reality of life.

In his essay 'Books' Emerson advised to avoid mediocrities: "Be sure, then to read no mean books. Shun the spawn of the press of the gossip of the hour. Do not read what you shall learn, without asking, in the street and the train. Dr. Johnson said, "he always went into stately shops" and good travellers stop at the best hotels; for, though they cost more, they do not cost much more, and there is the good company and the best information. In like manner, the scholar knows that the famed books contain, first and last, the vest thoughts and facts. Now and then, by rarest luck, in some foolish Grub Street in the gem we want. But in the best circles is the best information. If you should transfer the amount of your reading day by day from the newspapers to the standard authors  –  But who dare speak such a thing." Emerson encouraged American scholars to break free of European influences and create a new American culture. He had formulated this idea in his a Phi Beta Kappa address, 'The American Scholar,' which Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.) hailed as nothing less than the declaration of of independence of American letters. Emerson believed that the development of culture was a more worthy end of a government than the development of commerce.

For further reading: Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Ralph L. Rusk (1949); Freedom and Fate by Stephen E. Whicher (1953); Emerson on the Soul by Jonathan Bishop (1964); Waldo Emerson: A Biography by Gay Wilson Allen (1981); Emerson's Fall by B.L. Packer (1982); Apostle of Culture by David Robinson (1982); Emerson's Demanding Optimism by Reif Gertrude Hughes (1984); Emerson's Romantic Style by Julie Ellison (1984); The American Newness by Irving Howe (1986); Emerson and Scepticism by John Michael (1988); Poetry and Pragmatism by Richard Poirier (1992); Nietzsche and Emerson by George J. Stack (1992); Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson (1995); Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida by Stanley Cavell (1995); Emerson Among the Eccentries by Carlos Baker (1996); Self as World: The New Emerson by Heikki A. Kovalainen (2010) - See also: Walt Whitman

Selected works:

  • Nature, 1836
  • A Historical Discourse, Delivered Before the Citizens of Concord, 12th September, 1835, 1835
  • An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, 1838
  • An Oration, Delivered Before the Literary Societies of Dartmouth College, July 24, 1838, 1838
  • Poems, 1840
  • The Method of Nature: An Oration, Delivered Before the Society of the Adelphi, in Waterville College, in Maine, August 11, 1841, 1841
  • Essays, 1841 (includes 'Self-Reliance,' which made Emerson internationally famous) - Esseitä (suom. J. A. Hollo, 1958)
  • An Address Delivered in the Court-House in Concord, 1844
  • The Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies. An Address Delivered at Concord, Massachusetts, on 1st August, 1844, 1844
  • Essays: Second Series, 1844
  • Nature: An Essay; and, Lectures on the Times, 1844  
  • The Young American: A Lecture Read Before the Mercantile Library Association in Boston at the Odeon, Wednesday, February 7, 1844, 1844  
  • Orations, Lectures, and Addresses, 1845
  • Essays: First series, 1847 (new ed.)
  • Poems, 1847
  • Nature; Addresses, and Lectures, 1849
  • Representative Men: Seven Lectures, 1850 (contains biographies of Plato, Swedenborg, J.W. von Goethe, Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, Napoleon) - Ihmiskunnan edustajia (suom. Volter Kilpi, 1909) / Suuria miehiä (suom. J. A. Hollo, 1964)
  • English Traits, 1856
  • Miscellanies: Embracing Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, 1856
  • The Conduct of Life, 1860
  • Excursions, 1863
  • May-Day and Other Pieces, 1867
  • Remarks on the Character of George L. Stearns, at Medford, April 14, 1867, 1867
  • Society and Solitude: Twelve Chapters, 1870
  • Prose works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1870 (2 vols.)
  • Parnassus, 1874 (editor)
  • Letters and Social Aims, 1874
  • Culture, Behavior, Beauty, 1876
  • Emerson's Works, 1876
  • Selected Poems, 1876
  • Books, Art, Eloquence, 1877
  • Fortune of the Republic, 1878
  • The Preacher, 1880
  • The Emerson Birthday-Book, 1881
  • The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1834-1872, 1883 (2 vols.)
  • Boston, 1883
  • Emerson’s Complete Works, 1883-93 (12 vols., Riverside ed.)
  • Lectures and Biographical Sketches, 1884 (Riverside ed.)
  • Poems of R. W. Emerson, 1885 (with prefactory notice by Walter Lewin)
  • Selections from the Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Arranged Under the Days of the Year, and Accompanied by Memoranda of Aniversaries of Noted Events and of the Birth or Death of Famous Men and Women, 1888
  • The Fortune of the Republic, and Other American Addresses, 1889
  • Talks with Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1890
  • Lectures and Biographical Sketches, 1891
  • The Snow Storm. And Other Poems, 1892
  • The American Scholar, 1893
  • Emerson Year Book: Selections for Every Day in the Year from the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1893 (ed. by A. R. C.)
  • Character, 1896
  • Intellect, 1896
  • Love and Friendship, 1896
  • Manners, 1896
  • Spiritual Laws, 1896
  • Two Unpublished Essays: The Character of Socrates, The Present State of Ethical Philosophy, 1896 (with an introduction by Edward Everett Hale)
  • Poems and Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1897 (2 vols.)
  • The Early Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1899
  • The Letters from Ralph Waldo Emerson to a Friend, 1838-1853, 1899 (edited by Charles Eliot Norton)
  • Nature and Compensation, 1899 (with an introduction by Edward Waldo Emerson)
  • The Superlative, and Other Essays, 1899
  • Character and Heroism, 1900
  • Essays, 1900 (2 vols. in 1)
  • Swedenborg, 1900
  • Beautiful Thoughts from Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1901 (arranged by Margaret B. Shipp)
  • History, Self-Reliance, Nature, Spiritual Laws, The American Scholar, 1901
  • Shakespeare, 1902
  • So This Then is the Essay on Self-Reliance, 1902
  • Addresses and Essays, 1903 
  • The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1903-04 (12 vols., edited by E.W. Emerson)
  • Correspondence Between Raplph Waldo Emerson and Herman Grimm, 1903
  • Man the Reformer, 1903
  • Printed Copy of Sermon Preached by Ralph Waldo Emerson on the Death of George Adams Sampson, 1834, 1903
  • Tantalus, 1903 (with a memorial note by F.B. Sanborn) 
  • An Emerson Calendar, 1905 (edited by Huntington Smith)
  • Select Essays and Addresses, 1905 (ed., with notes and an introduction by Eugene D. Holmes)
  • A Spring Vision: From Emerson’s Poems, 1905
  • Emerson’s Essay on Compensation, 1906 (with an introduction by Lewis Nathaniel Chase)
  • Prudence, 1906 (decorations designed by Fred W. Goudy)
  • Essays and Addresses, 1907 (ed. for school use, by Benjamin A. Heydrick)
  • Essays, 1907 (selected and ed., with introduction and notes, by Edna H.L. Turpin)
  • Manners, Friendship, and Other Essays, 1907 (edited by Mary A. Jordan)
  • Select Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1907 (ed., with introduction and notes, by Henry Van Dyke)
  • Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson: With Annotations, 1909-14 (10 vols., edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes)
  • Emerson, 1910 (edited by George Herbert Perris) 
  • Records of a Lifelong Friendship, 1807-1882 / Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Henry Furness, 1910 (edited by H.H.F.)
  • Uncollected Writings: Essay, Addresses, Poems, Reviews and Letters, 1912
  • Abraham Lincoln, 1914
  • The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1914 (5 vols., introduction by Chester Noyes Greenough)
  • The Wisest Words Ever Written on War, 1916 (preface by Henry Ford)
  • Emerson’s Essays, 1920 (selected and ed., with an introduction, by Arthur Hobson Quinn)
  • The Heart of Emerson's Journals, 1926 (edited by Bliss Perry)
  • Emerson’s Representative Men and Other Wssays, 1929 (edited by Ezra Kempton Maxfield, assisted by Jane Crowe Maxfield)
  • Essays Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1930 (edited by Eugene D. Holmes, revised by H. Y. Moffett, illustrated by Homer W. Colby)
  • Uncollected Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1932 (edited by Clarence Gohdes)
  • The Heart of Emerson's Essays, 1933 (edited with an introduction and notes by Bliss Perry)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes, 1934
  • The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1939 (6 vols., edited by Ralph L. Rusk)
  • The Living Thoughts of Emerson, Presented by Edgar Lee Masters, 1940
  • The Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1945 (selected and edited with a comentary by Louis Untermeyer and illustrated with water colors by Richard & Doris Beer)
  • The Portable Emerson, 1946 (selected and arranged, with an introduction and notes, by Mark Van Doren)
  • Napoleon; or, The Man of the World, 1947  
  • Complete Essays and Other Writings, 1950 (edited, with a biographical introd., by Brooks Atkinson, foreword by Tremaine McDowell)
  • Selected Prose and Poetry, 1950 (edited with an introd. by Reginald L. Cook)
  • Emerson’s Early Reading List, 1819-1824, 1951 (transcribed with an introd. by Kenneth Walter Cameron)
  • Indian Superstition, 1954 (edited, with a dissertation on Emerson’s orientalism at Harvard, by Kenneth Walter Cameron)
  • Mr. Emerson Writes a Letter about Walden, 1954 (edited with brief notes by Herbert Faulkner West)
  • Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1957 (edited by Stephen E. Whicher)
  • Emerson: A Modern Anthology, 1958 (edited by Alfred Kazin and Daniel Aaron)
  • The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1959-72 (3 vols.)
  • Journals, 1960 (abridged and edited, with an introd. by Robert N. Linscott)
  • Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1960-83 (16 vols., edited by W.H. Gilman)
  • One First Love; The Letters of Ellen Louisa Tucker to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1962 (edited by Edith W. Gregg)
  • Emerson’s Theory of Poetry, 1965 (compiled from the Works and Journals by Charles Howell Foster, with an introduction by Hubert H. Hoeltje)
  • Selected Writings, 1965 (edited and with a foreword by William H. Gilman)
  • Emerson on Education: Selections, 1966 (edited with an introd. by Howard Mumford Jones)
  • Emerson-Clough Letters, 1968 (edited by Howard F. Lowry and Ralph Leslie Rusk)
  • Essays and Journals, 1968 (selected, and with an introd., by Lewis Mumford)
  • Young Emerson Speaks: Unpublished Discourses on Many Subjects, 1968 (edited by Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr.)
  • The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1971-2010 (8 vols., in progress, introductions and notes by Robert E. Spiller)
  • An Emerson Treasury, 1973 (edited by J. Pennells)
  • Emerson Literary Criticism, 1979 (edited by Eric W. Carlson)
  • The Portable Emerson, 1981 (rev. ed., edited by Carl Bode, in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley)
  • Selected Writings, 1981 (edited by Donald McQuade)
  • Emerson in his Journals, 1982 (selected and edited by Joel Porte)
  • Selected Essays, 1982 (edited with an introduction by Larzer Ziff)
  • The Vestry Lectures and a Rare Sermon, 1984 (edited by Kenneth Walter Cameron)
  • The Sage from Concord: The Essence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1985 (compiled by Virginia Hanson and Clarence Pedersen)
  • The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1986 (edited by Ralph H. Orth et al.)
  • The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1989-91 (4 vols., by Albert J. von Frank; introduction by David M. Robinson)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1990 (edited by Richard Poirier)
  • The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1990-1994 (3 vols., edited by Susan Sutton Smith)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1990 (Oxford Authors Series)
  • The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1992 (edited by Brooks Atkinson)
  • Collected Poems and Translations, 1994 (compiled by Harold Bloom and Paul Kane)
  • Natural and Other Writings, 1994 (edited by Peter Turner)
  • Emerson's Antislavery Writings, 1995 (edited by Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson)
  • Emerson’s Literary Criticism, 1995 (edited with a new introduction by Eric W. Carlson)
  • The Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1997 (edited by Joel Myerson)
  • The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2000 (edited by Brooks Atkinson; introduction by Mary Oliver)
  • Emerson’s Prose and Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism, 2001 (selected and edited by Joel Porte, Saundra Morris)
  • The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843-1871, 2001 (2 vols., edited by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson)
  • A Dream Too Wild: Emerson Meditations for Every Day of the Year, 2003 (edited by Barry M. Andrews)
  • Selected Works: Essays, Poems, and Dispatches with Introduction, 2003 (edited by John Carlos Rowe)
  • The spiritual Emerson: Essential Writings, 2003 (edited by David M. Robinson)
  • Emerson: Poems, 2004 (edited by Peter Washington)
  • The Political Emerson: Essential Writings on Politics and Social Reform, 2004 (edited by David M. Robinson)
  • The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Works, 2008 (introduction by Jacob Needleman)
  • The Laws of Nature: Excerpts from the Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2010 (edited by Walt McLaughlin)
  • Selected Journals 1841-1877, 2010 (edited by Lawrence Rosenwald)
  • Selected Writings, 2010 (supplementary materials written by Laura Baker; series edited by Cynthia Brantley Johnson)
  • The Annotated Emerson, 2012 (edited by David Mikics; with a foreword by Phillip Lopate)

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