Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism

Ralph Waldo Emerson

© Paul P. Reuben
June 22, 2014

Outside Links: | Search the Emerson Texts | The Works of RWE | Sermons of RWE |

Page Links: | "Success" | Major Essays and Lectures | Emerson's Poetry |

| Selected Bibliography 2000-2005 | Selected Bibliography 2006-Present |

| A Brief Biography |

| Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

Site Links: | Chap 4: Index | Authors Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents Home Page |

Unitarian . . .: RWE
Please Note: The poem "Success" ("To laugh often and much . . .") was not written by Emerson; for details, logon to RWE Quotes or read Joel Myerson's "Emerson's 'Success'--Actually, It Is Not," Emerson Society Papers 11. 1 (Spring 2000): 1, 8.

Major Essays and Lectures

Bosco, Ronald A. ed. The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843-1854, 2: 1855-1871. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2001.

- - -. ed. Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City, IA: U of Iowa P, 2003.

- - -. ed. The Selected Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2005.

Nature (1836)

This essay is considered the "gospel" of American Transcendentalism. It has an Introduction and eight chapters: 1. Nature 2. Commodity 3. Beauty 4. Language 5. Discipline 6. Idealism 7. Spirit 8. Prospects. The major thesis of the essay, in Emerson's words, is that we should now "enjoy an original relation to the universe," and not become dependent on past experiences of others and on holy books, creeds and dogma.

Contemporary Comments on Nature

1. "I have just finished reading Nature by R. W. Emerson. It is a beautiful work. Mr. E. attempts to show the meaning of Nature to the minds of men. It is the production of a spiritualist, subordinating the visible and outward to the inward and invisible. Nature becomes the transparent emblem of the soul. Psyche animates and fills the earth and external things." - A. Bronson Alcott, 1836

2. "We find beautiful writing and sound philosophy in the little work, but the effect is injured by occasional vagueness of expression, and by a vein of mysticism that pervades the writer's whole course of thought. The highest praises that could be accorded to it is that it is a suggestive book for one who can read it without tasking his faculties to the utmost, and relapsing into severe fits of meditation." - Frances Bowen, 1837

3. "Your little azur-coloured Nature gave me true satisfaction. I read it, and then lent it about to all my acquaintances that had a sense for such things, from whom a similar verdict always came back. You say it is the first chapter of something greater. I call it rather the Foundation and Groundplan on which you may build whatsoever of great and true has been given you to build," - Thomas Carlyle, February 13, 1837

4. "... we would call all those together who have feared that the spirit of poetry was dead, to rejoice that such a poem as Nature is written. It grows upon us as we reperuse it. It proves to us, that the only true and perfect mind is the poetic." - Anonymous, 1838

Twentieth Century Comments on Nature

1. "Emerson was not a mystic in the usual 'visionary' sense of the word. He was not seeking in the angle of vision an escape from the world; as it formed, the angle of vision was to make 'use' of the world. But the mystical union, for him, was an epistemological necessity. Vision, he said of the inner seeing of the mind, is not like the vision of the eye, but is union with the things known." - Sherman Paul, The Angle of Vision, 1952

2. "The essay itself seems like a stepping-stone than a stumbling block in Emerson's career; the last of his apprentice exercises rather than the first of his mature works; a thing that had to be done before he could do something better, to be put behind him before he could go ahead." - Richard P. Adams, 1954

3. "Nature is the gospel of the new faith rather than, like Thoreau's Walden, a record of an experience of earth. Lifted by the excitement of recognition to the plane of prose-poetry, it is nevertheless a concise statement of the 'First Philosophy'. The primary assumption of this essay is that man, whether regarded individually or generically, is the starting point of all philosophic speculation. His functions, his relations, and his destiny are its only concerns." - Robert E. Spiller, 1949

"The American Scholar" (1837)

Delivered as a lecture to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Harvard College, on August 31, 1837, "The American Scholar" is popular and important in expressing the practical aspects of Transcendentalism. Emerson prods the students to become more confident in their abilities and to take pride in native Americanism: "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. ... We will walk on our own feet, we will work with our own hands, we will speak our own minds."

"The Divinity School Address" (1838)

A lecture addressed to the senior class at the Harvard Divinity College on July 15, 1838. The important theme of this lecture is that truth cannot be presented as doctrines or creeds. Emerson says, "It (the truth) cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul." He goes on to tell the graduating class to be original and not imitative.

"Self-Reliance" (1841)

This essay elaborates further on the familiar Emersonian thesis - trust yourself. This is also a very popular essay written in forceful and memorable language. "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide ... " "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."

Top Emerson's Poetry

"I am born a poet, of a low class without doubt, yet a poet. That is my nature and vocation." - RWE in a letter to Lydia Jackson, February 1835

Comments from RWE's famous essay "The Poet" 1844:

"The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the centre. For the world is not painted, or adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe. Therefore the poet is not any permissive potentate, but is emperor in his own right. …

For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word, or a verse, and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem. … For nature is as truly beautiful as it is good, or as it is reasonable, and must as much appear, as it must be done, or be known. Words and deeds are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy. Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.

The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor (teacher); he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas, and an utterer of the necessary and causal. For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. …

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,&endash;a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form. The poet has a new thought: he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet."

At Harvard, Emerson was selected as the class poet of 1821. His many poems can be grouped together in broad categories (with few examples) like:

The popular ten:

"Each and All," "The Problem," "Hamatreya," "The Rhodora," "The Snow-Storm," "Ode Inscribed to W. H. Channing," "Brahma," "Concord Hymn," "Days," and "Terminus."

The less popular ten:

"Uriel," "The Sphinx," "The Humble-Bee," "Woodnotes," "Give All to Love," "Merlin," "Bacchus," "Threnody," "Grace," and "Two Rivers."

Top Selected Bibliography 2000-2005  

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2003.

Cavell, Stanley, and David J. Hodge. Emerson's Transcendental Etudes. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003.

Crain, Caleb. American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2001.

Fresonke, Kris. West of Emerson: The Design of Manifest Destiny. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 2003.

Garvey, T. Gregory. ed. The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2000.

Gougeon, Len. Emerson and Eros: The Making of a Cultural Hero. Albany: State U of New York P, 2007.

Grossman, Jay. Reconstituting the American Renaissance: Emerson, Whitman, and the Politics of Representation. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003.

Guthrie, James R.. Above Time: Emerson's and Thoreau's Temporal Revolutions. Columbia, MO: U of Missouri P, 2001.

Keane, Patrick J. Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic "Light of All Our Day." Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2005.

Lundin, Roger. From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Authority. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

McMillin, T. S. Our Preposterous Use of Literature: Emerson and the Nature of Reading. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000.

McMurry, Andrew. Environmental Renaissance: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Systems of Nature. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2003.

Maibor, Carolyn R. Labor Pains: Emerson, Hawthorne, and Alcott on Work and the Woman Question. NY: Routledge, 2004.

Myerson, Joel. Transcendentalism: A Reader. NY: Oxford UP, 2000.

Newman, Lance. Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris. eds. Emerson's Prose and Poetry: A Norton Critical Edition. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.

Robinson, David M. ed. The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Writings. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2003.

Rudy, John G., and Robert D. Richardson Jr. Emerson and Zen Buddhism. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 2001.

Sacks, Kenneth S. Understanding Emerson: 'The American Scholar' and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003.

Stiles, Bradley J. Emerson's Contemporaries and Kerouac's Crowd: A Problem of Self-Location. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2003.

Vásquez, Mark G. Authority and Reform: Religious and Educational Discourses in Nineteenth-Century New England Literature. Knoxville, TN: U of Tennessee P, 2003.

Walls, Laura D. Emerson's Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2003.

Wider, Sarah A. The Critical Reception of Emerson: Unsettling All Things. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000.

Wittenberg, David. Philosophy, Revision, Critique: Rereading Practices in Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Emerson. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2001.

Worley, Sam M. Emerson, Thoreau, and the Role of the Cultural Critic. Albany: State U of New York P, 2001.

Top Selected Bibliography 2006-Present

Arsic, Branka. On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010.

Beck, Janet K. Creating the John Brown Legend: Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, Child and Higginson in Defense of the Raid on Harpers Ferry. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

Bosco, Ronald A. ed. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Documentary Volume. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2010.

Corrigan, John. American Metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry. NY: Fordham UP, 2012.

Deming, Richard.  Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading. Stanford UP, 2008.

Edmundson, Mark. Towards Reading Freud: Self-Creation in Milton, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Sigmund Freud. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

Fuller, Randall. Emerson's Ghosts: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists. NY: Oxford UP, 2007.

Goto, Shoji, and Phyllis Cole. The Philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau: Orientals Meet Occidentals. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 2007.

Greenham, David. Emerson's Transatlantic Romanticism. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Habich, Robert D. Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson's First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2011.

Hardack, Richard. Not Altogether Human: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2012.

Johnson, Rochelle L. Passions for Nature: Nineteenth-Century America's Aesthetics of Alienation. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2009.

Kevorkian, Martin. Writing beyond Prophecy: Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville after the American Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2012.

Kirchoff, B. K. Emerson's Sciecne of the Spirit: A Visual Interpretation of Emerson's Natual History of the Intellect. Tellus Books, 2009.

LaRocca, David. Emerson's English Traits and the Natural History of Metaphor. NY: Bloomsbury, 2013.

LaRocca, David. ed. Estimating Emerson: An Anthology of Criticism from Carlyle to Cavell. NY: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Lysaker, John T. Emerson and Self-Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008.

Marchi, Dudley M. Baudelaire, Emerson, and the French-American Connection: Contrary Affinities. NY: Peter Lang, 2011.

Meehan, Sean R. Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2008.

Paryz, Marek. The Postcolonial and Imperial Experience in American Transcendentalism. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Petrulionis, Sandra H. To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau's Concord. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2006.

Richardson, Robert D. First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2009.

Schneider, Ryan. The Public Intellectualism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and W. E. B. Du Bois: Emotional Dimensions of Race and Reform. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Sitney, P. Adams.  Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson. Oxford UP, 2008.

Windolph, Christopher J. Emerson's Nonlinear Nature. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2007.

| Top | Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Cindy Youngquist 

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 in the parsonage of the First Church on Summer Street in Boston. He was one of eight children born into the Emerson family but sadly Ralph was the only one to live till maturity. His father, William Emerson, was a Church Minister who was able to trace his family tree back to the first generation of Americans. His mother, Ruth Emerson, whose maiden name was Haskins; her family became prominent through trading in west India. (Myerson, 10)

     When Ralph was only eight, his father died; to pay for the family finances, his mother had to take in boarders. Emerson entered Harvard University at age fourteen. Although he was quite bright, there was no hint that he would ever make the contributions to American thought and writing. While attending Harvard, Emerson took quite a liking to writing and Latin but performed merely “no better than satisfactory” in the subjects of mathematics and philosophy. (Myerson, 11)

     Between the years 1821 and 1825 and upon graduating, Emerson took a job teaching in a Boston school. Although he found little pleasure in his work as a teacher, he did enjoy walking tours and attempts at writing poetry. As he came from a long line of ministers Emerson felt inclined to join the ministry himself. In 1825 Emerson studied at the Harvard divinity school but did graduate. However he was approbated in 1827 by the American Unitarian Association so he could preach. Over the next few months he preached at his father’s old church in Boston until he began to experience problems with his eyes and joints which he knew to be signs of tuberculosis; he sought the advice of a physician who recommended that he spend some time in the warm south. (Myerson, 11)

     Emerson returned to Boston in mid 1827. While traveling home Emerson stopped in Washington D.C. to deliver a sermon. Not interested in a church of his own, Emerson continued to preach around the Boston area until he made the acquaintance of Ellen Louise Tucker. When Emerson met Ellen he decided to keep preaching for a little while longer; they were wed on September 30, 1829. Unfortunately, their marriage was quite short as she died of tuberculosis on February 8, 1831. (Myerson, 13)

     In 1832 Emerson ventured on a trip to Europe. While in Italy he tried to absorb the literary atmosphere by visiting the tombs of literary greats and attending operas. In England, however, he was more interested in trying to get a feel for how the Anglo Saxon culture started. A lifelong friendship also formed for Emerson on his trip to Europe when he made the acquaintance of Thomas Carlyle. Emerson later said that Carlyle had “invited him back into the world of the living.” (Myerson, 16)

     When Emerson returned to the States in 1833, he abandoned the pulpit and began a new career as a public speaker. The area in which Emerson gained most of his notoriety was in the area of philosophy. In 1835 Emerson met Lydia Jackson but didn’t love her the way he had loved his previous wife Ellen and their marriage ended up being one more of respect for each other than one created out of love.

| Top |      In 1836 while mourning the death of his brother Charles, Emerson kept working on one of his most important works “Nature”. Around the time Emerson was writing “Nature” he became a member of a transcendental club and founded the “Dial” (a literary paper) which was first published in 1840 with co-members such as Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Henry David Thoreau. (Rusk, 276)

     In 1837 Emerson wrote one of his most popular essays “The American Scholar” which included the now famous quote “Insist on yourself; never imitate”(Rusk,279) to challenge future writers to not just imitate classic European writing but to create their own individual creative thoughts and work. Another one of Emerson’s primary works that was written around this time and delivered to a group of graduates was entitled “The Divinity School Address.” (Myerson, 25 Rusk, 279-280)

     Nearing the end of the 1840s, Emerson took his second trip to Europe with his friend Thomas Carlyle. While touring Europe, Emerson not only toured literary venues but also delivered around 64 lectures during 1847 and 1848, in a series of lectures named “Mind and Matters of the Nineteenth Century.” While not lecturing, Emerson along with Carlyle visited many scientists and naturalists. Upon returning Emerson has journals full of his insights on art, history, and manors. It was also around this time in 1841 when Emerson wrote one of his most notable works ”Self Reliance.” (Myerson, 31-32)

     In 1855 Walt Whitman published “Leaves of Grass” and Emerson “hailed him to be a genius” but questioned whether or not Whitman should have used all the sexual passages in the book. (Rusk, 403)

     In 1862 Emerson met president Abraham Lincoln. Later Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 inspired Emerson to write another essay named “Culture.” This essay was later included in a book entitled “The Conduct of Life.” Later in 1862 Emerson's friend Thoreau sadly died and Emerson recited a collection of his poems, called “May-day and other pieces” (published in 1867) at his friend's funeral.

     Emerson traveled to California in mid 1871 to lecture in San Francisco and Oakland. Even before he “saw the marvels of the state he had fallen in love with it.” Visits to Yosemite and Mariposa, "left him aghast with admiration, there was no lack of Californians willing to encourage him to remain in that mood." John Muir encouraged Emerson to remain in the area and tried to convince him to take up the “religion of an outdoor life.” (Rusk, 447)

     “The church bells tolled seventy-nine times” to announce Ralph Waldo Emerson’s death on April 27, 1882 at the age of 78. He would have turned 79 if he had only lived for one month longer. Close to one thousand people came to Concord to remember and honor Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, among others, spoke at his service in the Unitarian church. Emerson was laid to rest on a hill in Sleepy Hallow.

Works Cited:

Rusk, Ralph. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Charles Scribner's, 1949.

Myerson, Joel. A Historical Guide To Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Bode, Carl. Ralph Waldo Emerson A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.

Top Study Questions

1. What elements of Transcendentalism are evident in the short poem at the beginning of Nature?

2. How does Emerson characterize his age? How does he characterize its relation to the past?

3. What is the distinction Emerson makes between Nature and the Soul?

4. How accurate is Oliver Wendell Holmes's description of "The American Scholar" as "our intellectual Declaration of Independence." In particular, discuss the three influences on the scholar and Emerson's views about them.

5. In his "Divinity School Address," Emerson deplores the defects of historical Christianity. Discuss these defects and Emerson's solutions.

6. In what ways was Emerson a radical? Discuss his break with the Puritan faith and his disagreement with Channing's Unitarianism.

7. Consider the anecdote in "Self-Reliance" of a valued advisor who was "wont to importune" Emerson "with the dear old doctrines of the church." What is going on in this exchange? What does it mean to say that the impulses may be "from below"? How adequate a moral position is the statement, "No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature"?

8. Consider Emerson's argument, in "The Poet," that it is "not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem, ... a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own ..."

9. Robert Frost said that it took him thirty years to grasp the meaning of Emerson's "Brahma." What is most puzzling and difficult about the poem? What similar difficulties exist in Emerson's essays? Compare the voice of "Brahma" with the voice of the "Earth-Song" in Emerson's "Hamatreya." Note Mark Twain's parody of Emerson and "Brahma" in his "Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech."

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page:

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). " PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide page date or date of your login).