Study Guide

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson Introduction

 

In the age before the internet, TV, movies and Twilight novels, one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the lecture. Americans would pack auditoriums and lyceums to hear speakers hold forth on topics from science to religion. In the half century between the 1830s and the 1880s, no speaker was more popular than Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Sage of Concord.

Trained as a Unitarian minister, Emerson ultimately became America's top secular preacher and the father of the philosophical movement known as transcendentalism. Emerson believed that true spiritual revelation came from instinct, and encouraged people to slow down, listen up and trust the voice within. "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within," Emerson wrote in his essay Self-Reliance, "more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages." You can dislike Emerson, turn against him, toss his works aside and set out on your own path. Just the way he told you to.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Trivia

Though long attributed to him, the poem "Father We Thank Thee" ("For flowers that bloom about our feet,/ Father, We Thank Thee./ For tender grass so fresh, so sweet,/ Father, We Thank Thee") was not written by Emerson. No one knows who really wrote it.

After their wedding, The Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia moved into the Old Manse, a house owned by Emerson's uncle Samuel Ripley.

Emerson's emphasis on transcendence sometimes came at the cost of reality. When Emerson visited the dying Nathaniel Hawthorne and found him too frail to pull on his own boots, he lectured him about inner strength instead of just helping his sick friend put his shoes on.

Emerson read Walt Whitman's draft of Leaves of Grass and thought it was genius; however, he told Whitman to cut the parts Emerson thought were too sexy. Whitman refused.

Emerson has good company at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. His neighbors in the "Authors' Ridge" section of the cemetery include Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott.

At their first meeting, Emerson asked a young Harvard student named Henry David Thoreau if he kept a journal. From then on, Thoreau kept one for the rest of his life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Resources

Books

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Collected Essays
Emerson fans argue that he taught America how to think and write. Most of Emerson's key philosophies and ideas derive from his essays. Here you find the works that we most closely associated with Emerson: Self-Reliance, The Over-Soul, Nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Collected Poems and Translations
Emerson's essays appeal to the intellect; his poems appeal to the heart. He wrote poems about political issues like slavery and America, but also personal ones, like the loss of his first son. He also was an active translator, offering translations of Persian mystic poets like Hafiz.

Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995)
Many biographers have taken a crack at Emerson since his death in 1882, but Richardson's book stands as one of the best. Richardson looks at the differences between the personal Emerson and his public philosophies, and helps to humanize the cold-seeming "sage of Concord."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
Emerson's pal Henry David Thoreau might have starved to death out there in his cabin on Walden Pond if he hadn't taken frequent walks over to Emerson's house for dinner. The original edition of Thoreau's self-reliant classic contains a foreword by Emerson.

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001)
Harvard prof and New Yorker contributor Louis Menand wrote this incredible book that essentially outlines the history of American thought. Surprise, surprise, Emerson and his self-reliance play starring roles. It's a tiny bit on the heavy side, but hey - you're smart people. We know you can handle it.

Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury (2005)
Emerson is the Godfather of the transcendentalist movement. Cheever's book looks at the philosophical movement that sprung out of Concord and involved Emerson and many of his friends, such as Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Thomas Carlyle.

Music

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Hymn
We don't have music for it, but we do have the lyrics of this hymn that Emerson composed in honor of the completion of the Concord veterans' monument. It was sung at the dedication on 19 April 1836.

Libera, "Something Sings"
The British boys' chorale Libera sings an arrangement of Emerson's poem "Music": "But in the darkest, meanest things/ There alway, alway something sings." [ed. Note: 'alway' is as spelled.] It is on their Visions album and was arranged by Robert Prizeman.

Brady Seals, Play Time
Brady Seals is a country/indie singer/songwriter based in Nashville. Seals is a dad, and one of his favorite quotes is the Emerson line "A child reminds us that playtime is an essential part of our daily routine." He named his 2009 album Play Time with that in mind.

Tangerine Dream, "Solution of All Problems"
The German electronica group Tangerine Dream (and really, what else would you call a German electronica group?) was founded in 1967 (though we didn't know they had electronics then). All of the songs on their album Madcap's Flaming Duty are arrangements of American or English poems. "Solution of All Problems" is Emerson's turn.

Roger Powell, Fossil Poets
Keyboardist and electronic music artist Roger Powell named his 2006 album after the Emerson line, "Language is fossil poetry." The quotation comes from his essay "The Poet," in which he compares the words we choose to describe objects to the fossilized remains of creatures that once lived.

Images

Ralph Waldo Emerson
The poet and philosopher in an 1857 portrait.

Mature Emerson
A drawing of Emerson by Samuel Worcester, made around 1878.

Old Emerson
The philosopher in his later years.

Manuscript
A photo of Emerson next to the original manuscript of his poem "Monadnoc."

Emerson's House
Emerson's home in Concord, Massachusetts.

Study
A photograph of Emerson's personal office. Check out that library!

Grave
Emerson's grave in Concord, Massachusetts.

Movies & TV

Emerson: The Ideal in America (2007)
George Washington and his kin may have been America's Founding Fathers, but Emerson may have been our Founding Thinker. This hour-long documentary makes the case that Emerson's philosophies formed the basis of a uniquely American ideology that influences us today.

Little Women (1994)
Okay, so Emerson isn't actually in this movie. But if you want a sense of what transcendentalist life might have been like in 1860s Concord, then this movie is for you. It's based on the book by Louisa May Alcott, whose father Bronson was a major player in the Transcendentalist movement.

Marbles With Thoreau (2009)
In this short film set in 1847, two impoverished children from the Boston slums stumble upon a strange cabin in the woods near Walden Pond. Its enigmatic resident helps them to see that though they are poor in worldly goods, they are rich in the things that really matter. Guess who it is!

Websites

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson
This website offers exactly what it sounds like - everything Emerson wrote, online. It is run by the Ralph Waldo Emerson Institute. His essays, poems, lectures and other papers are neatly archived for your scholarly use. Think of it as a lighter, more portable anthology of Emerson's complete works.

Emerson Central
This Emerson-centric site has online versions of his works. By far the coolest feature is a tool that lets you search Emerson's texts for a specific word or phrase. Make sure Emerson actually said that pithy quote you found on the Internet before using it in your paper!

American Transcendentalism Web
This great site from Virginia Commonwealth University offers an overview of the Transcendentalist movement in America. It is a really helpful resource if you're trying to understand the broader context of how Transcendentalism came to be, and what it gave to America. A hyperlinked breakout page focuses on Emerson.

The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society
This is the official homepage of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in December 2009. As you can imagine, it contains a wealth of information on Emerson's life, plus writings by and about him. The list of Emerson souvenirs dating from his time is entertaining.

Paul P. Reuben's Emerson Page
Reuben, an English professor and Emerson scholar at California State University at Stanislaus, has compiled this interest page of Emerson-related links and miscellany. Some of the biographical information is student-written and should not be cited, but it's useful as a reference for Emerson works.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Emerson was nothing if not a philosopher. His ideas shaped American culture and the way we see ourselves. Emerson's entry in this online encyclopedia outlines his philosophies. It's an incredibly helpful summary of the intellectual themes of a man who could be expansive to a fault in his speeches and writings.

Video & Audio

Self-Reliance
Actor Wendell Refior performs an excerpt of Self-Reliance as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bless his heart.

The Ideal in America
A preview of the Emerson documentary.

Women in Emerson's Life
Jim Manley, the director of the Emerson documentary The Ideal in America, leads a short mini-documentary about the influence of intelligent women in Emerson's life.

"Forbearance"
A reading of Emerson's poem.

"Good-Bye"
A reading of Emerson's poem.

Primary Sources

Self-Reliance
Emerson's famed essay.

The Over-Soul
One of the key essays outlining Emerson's philosophies.

The American Scholar
Emerson's lecture before the Phi Beta Kappa society.

Nature
The introduction to Emerson's famous series.

Immortality
Emerson's essay on the subject of immortality.

Thoreau
Emerson's 1862 essay in The Atlantic eulogizing his late friend.

The President's Proclamation
Emerson's 1862 essay supporting Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

American Civilization
Emerson's 1862 essay in favor of emancipation.

Four Poems
Poems Emerson published in an 1857 issue of The Atlantic.

"Boston Hymn"
Emerson's poem, published 1863.