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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Social Aims & Death

In 1844, Emerson published his second essay collection, Essays: Second Series. He also delivered his first anti-slavery lecture. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 - an act that made it illegal to assist an escaped slave - his abolitionist rhetoric stepped up. Emerson spoke against slavery even in places where such a position was controversial, and he endured boos and worse from unsympathetic crowds. (In 1861, pro-slavery protestors nearly mobbed him at one speech.) Emerson was deeply moved by the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the eventual end of slavery. He wrote the poem "Boston Hymn" to commemorate Lincoln's signing of the proclamation on New Year's Day 1863.

"God said,
I am tired of kings,
I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear the morning brings
The outrage of the poor. ...
Come, East, and West, and North,
By races, as snow-flakes,
And carry my purpose forth,
Which neither halts nor shakes."12

In his later decades, Emerson continued to write, edit, publish and lecture with a frequency that would exhaust younger men. After about 1870, however, friends and colleagues began to notice that the old sage's memory was not what it was. After the 1875 publication of his book Letters and Social Aims, Emerson began to retire from public intellectual life. His memory was noticeably slipping. He ended his habit of daily journal-writing. In 1880, in one of his final public speeches, he delivered his 100th lecture before the Concord Lyceum.

On 27 April 1882, a week after catching a cold, Ralph Waldo Emerson died at his home in Concord, Massachusetts. He was a month away from his 79th birthday. The sage was buried in a section of Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery known as Author's Ridge, where he shared a final resting place with friends like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott.

Emerson's popularity has waxed and waned in the years since his death, but it is generally agreed that he taught America how to think and write, and that our culture has not been the same since. Surely his career would not have been the same anywhere else. Like the nation he shaped, Emerson once said, he was "an endless seeker, with no past at my back."13

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