Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. After a mediocre academic performance at Harvard, he prepared for a career in Unitarian ministry after graduation and was ordained in 1829. He was appointed to the Old Second Church of Boston, but after the death of his young wife and subsequent doubts in his faith, he retired from his post in 1832. Shortly thereafter, he traveled abroad where he met with poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and philosophical writer Thomas Carlyle, the latter of whom greatly shaped Emerson’s belief in the power of the individual. When Emerson returned home in 1835, he married Lydia Jackson, and the two moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where he became known as the originator of the Transcendentalist movement, a school of thought contending that spirituality cannot be attained through traditional religious practices, but rather through an individual’s intuition. The following year, Emerson published his first book, Nature, in which he developed his philosophy and laid the foundation for all of his future writing to come. He co-founded the transcendentalist journal, The Dial, in 1840, and served as its editor from 1842–1844.
Emerson became well known for his essays and addresses, though speeches like “The American Scholar” (1837) and “Address at Divinity College” (1838) were often considered shocking to the conservative listeners of the Harvard community at the time. His most famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” was featured in the first of two volumes entitled Essays, published in 1841 and 1844, and his controversial credo of the divinity of humanity made the writer internationally known. Emerson went on to publish two more volumes of poetry: Poems, in1847, and May-Day, in 1867. Though his views were contradictory to fellow contemporaries like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, like them, Emerson helped shape the landscape of American culture and literature. Emerson died of pneumonia April 27, 1882.