In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Handbooks and Encyclopedias
  • Indexes, Chronologies, and Documents
  • Collections of Essays
  • Primary Bibliographies
  • Secondary Bibliographies
  • Letters, Journals, and Notebooks
  • Lectures, Addresses, Sermons, Poetry, and Essays
  • Reception and Reputation
  • Emerson and Other Writers
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Social Reform
  • Philosophy
  • Friendship
  • Emerson Transcendentalized
  • Emerson De-Transcendentalized

American Literature Ralph Waldo Emerson
Robert Habich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0091


Ralph Waldo Emerson (b. 1803–d. 1882) was born in Boston to a family with deep roots in New England history. One of five brothers who survived childhood, he grew up in modest circumstances, and his mother was forced to take in boarders after the death of her husband in 1811. Following his graduation from Harvard in 1821, Waldo (as he preferred to be called) pursued careers as a teacher, divinity student, minister, and, finally, a writer and lecturer—a series of vocations all united by the power of words. He knew tragedy early, losing his first wife, Ellen, in 1831, two brothers in 1834 and 1836, and his firstborn son in 1842, and he struggled throughout his life with tuberculosis, vision problems, and aphasia; yet, his work is known for its hard-won optimism about the possibilities of “the first person singular,” as he called his particular brand of individualism. He married again in 1835, to Lydia Jackson of Plymouth (whom he called “Lidian”), returned to his ancestral hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, began a family, and settled into a role that he virtually invented, that of the public intellectual. His first major publication was the slim book Nature (1836), which laid out his view of an integrated universe with humanity and nature in an “original relation” dependent on the creative vision of each individual. His iconoclastic view of authority and institutions, expressed in such early public statements as “The American Scholar” and the “Divinity School” addresses in 1837 and 1838, gave him the unsought reputation as the leader of a loosely knit group of idealist thinkers called transcendentalists, a position solidified by the writings that followed: Essays: First Series (1841), Essays: Second Series (1844), Poems (1846), and Representative Men (1850). By the 1850s, his latent social conscience now fully engaged with antislavery and other reform movements, Emerson emerged as a respected voice for liberty and social justice. While continuing the lecturing that sustained him financially, he published English Traits (1856), The Conduct of Life (1860), Society and Solitude (1870), and Letters and Social Aims (1876), which seemed to some readers evidence of a more pragmatic turn in his thinking. His later lectures, however, reveal a bedrock belief in individualism that ties together his entire career. By the Civil War, Emerson seemed to embody the virtues of the emergent Union: balance, wisdom, decorum, morality, and domesticity. As the “Sage of Concord” and “The Wisest American,” Emerson in his last years became a national icon. He died, after a long mental decline, in 1882.

General Overviews

Although studies abound of discrete aspects of Emerson’s achievement—his politics, for instance, or his poetics—there are relatively few overviews of his works that are not primarily biographical, perhaps because Emersonian studies have always struggled with the integration of his life and his writing. A notable exception is LaRocca 2013, an exploration of science and metaphor throughout Emerson’s work, Buell 2003 is a challenging analysis of Emerson’s intellectual achievement that repays careful reading. Sacks 2003 presents “self-reliance” as the integrating idea of Emerson’s thinking and art, while Hughes 1984 addresses the central issue of Emersonian optimism. Collections such as Porte and Morris 1999 and Myerson 2000, both cited under Collections of Essays, offer insightful essays introducing individual aspects and works. Emerson and Gougeon 2010 is an outstanding resource written for nonscholarly readers seeking to apply Emersonian principles to their own lives. Mudge 2015 provides a solid introduction to Emerson’s life and revolutionary times, along with an insightful analysis of his reluctant championing of abolition and women’s rights. Mathiessen 1941 inaugurated a new attention to Emerson’s artistry, while Poirier 1987 returns to Emerson’s language in response to post-structuralist concerns with the cultural work of literature.

  • Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

    Analyzes six key topics—self-reliance, poetics, religion, philosophy, reform, and mentoring—as part of Emerson’s commitment to “reimagining the position of the scholar, or man of culture, in relation to a public sphere,” which he considers “obdurately philistine” (p. 104). A thought-provoking reevaluation by a major scholar of transcendentalism.

  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, and Len Gougeon. Emerson’s Truth, Emerson’s Wisdom: Transcendental Advice for Everyday Life. Hartford, CT: American Transcendental Books, 2010.

    An illuminating introduction to Emerson’s thinking for the general reader; couples a generous selection from the major essays and poems with commentary about Emerson’s life and the continuing relevance of Emersonian wisdom.

  • Hughes, Gertrude Reif. Emerson’s Demanding Optimism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

    Examines the major texts from Nature (1836) through The Conduct of Life (1860) for the interplay of affirmation and confirmation. Argues that experience and even suffering tended to strengthen Emerson’s optimism, not destroy it.

  • LaRocca, David. Emerson’s English Traits and the Natural History of Metaphor. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

    Ostensibly a study of science and metaphor in Emerson’s book, published in 1856, about the English “race,” but more broadly a meditation on the associations and affiliations—to other Emerson texts and to texts by others—that organize Emerson’s writing. Less an argument than a demonstration of Emersonian thinking.

  • Mathiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

    A landmark study of the ways Emerson struggled to create “a form that would express his deepest convictions” (p. 5), historically important for redirecting attention from Emerson’s philosophy to his aesthetics. Though limited by its selection of authors (no Dickinson, virtually no Poe), Mathiessen’s book redefined mid-19th-century American literature.

  • Mudge, Jean McClure, ed. Mr. Emerson’s Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Open Book, 2015.

    A richly illustrated biocritical study of Emerson’s development as a “pragmatic idealist” (p. 169). Examines “his dramatic metamorphosis from idealist philosopher to idealist-turned-activist for fundamental social change while simultaneously fighting his biases against blacks and women” (p. xiv).

  • Poirier, Richard. The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections. New York: Random House, 1987.

    Considers Emerson and his “associates” (Whitman, William James, Frost, and Stevens) in a manifesto that privileges language rather than culture as the essence of literature. Emerson’s genius is his ability to affirm the authority of language at the same time he calls it into doubt (p. 69).

  • Sacks, Kenneth S. Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.

    Taking as his starting point the position that Emerson’s “American Scholar” address of 1837 was “the fountainhead of his engagement with humanity” (p. 3), Sacks develops the historical context for the address, as well as Emerson’s own difficulty in overcoming his emotional dependence on relationships and the opinions of others.

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