The Bibliophile's Adventurers Club

Exemplars of bookish delight

Ralph Waldo Emerson: a bio

I would just like to say definitively that I do not love Emerson. I think him a bit snooty, slightly self-righteous, and a hard-hearted harbinger of callousness. I would like to turn his transparent eyeball onto him and say, “Stop speaking out of both sides of your mouth, you hoser!” That being said, he spawned Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman who give me all kinds of warm fuzzies so I also find I have no other recourse but to love Emerson, thus speaking out of both sides of my hoser mouth.

Life & Times – Otherwise known as “The Dry Stuff”:

1803: Ralph (Where’s) Waldo Emerson born on May 25th to Reverend William Emerson and his wife Ruth.

1811: Father dies of stomach cancer.

1817-21: Attends Harvard where he does not excel in the world of academia. (Maybe it’s because it was Harvard and Harvard is hard, unless you’re Rory Gilmore.)

1821: Becomes “a hopeless Schoolmaster” (his words, not mine).

1825: Enrolls in Harvard Divinity School to be a reverend but drops out because he was a slacker, I mean had eyeball issues. Goes back to teaching.

1826: Hired to preach anyway.

1827: Younger brother Edward becomes deranged due to TB and enters an asylum. He got better.

1829: Ordained into the Second Church of Boston; marries Ellen Tucker, a wealthy 18-year old who dies of TB 16 months later.

1832: Resigns from the church because he believes the Last Supper is a lot of rigmarole. Goes on a tour of Europe instead where he meets famous people such as William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle.

1833: Preaches occasionally but more importantly, begins to lecture.

1834: Settles in Concord, MA where he lives on the inheritance he had to fight his first wife’s family for providing him the opportunity to continue lecturing and writing. Brother Edward dies.

1835: Marries Lydia Jackson. They have four children together. This union lasts until his death.

1836: Anonymously publishes Nature. Younger brother Charles dies.

1837: “The American Scholar” lecture and essay.

1838: “The Divinity School” lecture and essay, the result of which he pisses off a lot of people, especially HDS.

1840: Helps found transcendentalist magazine The Dial.

1841: Essays published.

1842: First son Waldo dies of scarlet fever.

1844: Publication of The Dial ceases. Begins lecturing on abolitionism but got on that bandwagon a little late so lesser known for his abolition essays. Essays: Second Series published.

1845: Provides the land Thoreau would live on and write about in Walden.

1847: Poems published.

1847-48: Goes on a lecture tour in England. Meets Charles Dickens and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

1849: Representative Men published.

1850: Margaret Fuller dies.

1852: Helps edit a (not entirely accurate) biography about Margaret Fuller which became a best-seller.

1855: Receives Leaves of Grass from Walt Whitman which he thinks rocks and says as much in a five page letter to him, but when Whitman makes the letter public Emerson decides he doesn’t like him very much anymore.

1860: Conduct of Life and May-Day and Other Poems published.

1862: BFF Thoreau dies and he delivers eulogy.

1864: Nathanial Hawthorne dies and he serves as pallbearer.

1866: Harvard forgives and offers him an honorary degree.

1867: Health starts declining.

1871-72: Memory problems begin.

1872: His house burns down. It’s rebuilt with funds his friends collected on his behalf.

1879: Ceases lecturing.

1882: Dies April 27th.

The Goods –The Innuendo & Intrigue:

Emerson makes me sad. And tired. In fact, he makes me so tired that any time I’ve read one of his essays, I have curled up in a blanket on the couch and taken a nice, long nap. That being said, let’s get down to the business of why he makes me sad and tired, which is surely better than being made to feel sick and tired.

Emerson’s entire life is marked by death. In brief: three siblings and his father by the time he was eight, and as an adult, his first wife Ellen after just 16 months of marriage, two more of his brothers, young friends and fellow writers Henry David Thoreau, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller, his first son Waldo, and I’m sure more. Many of the deaths were due to tuberculosis or complications of tuberculosis which Emerson himself suffered from throughout his life.

Emerson did not come from a wealthy family although he had an eccentric aunt, Mary Moody Emerson (yes, that’s her real name and it’s AWESOME!), who helped the family after the death of his father. Emerson himself had a comfortable existence due to the inheritance he received upon the death of his first wife. His books were only moderately successful. He was actually better known for his lectures which he gave throughout Europe and New England and provided him a very good living. Apparently, he was quite the captivating speaker.

Emerson hit the scene with Nature which essentially became the Transcendental Club’s manifesto and touched on themes he would come back to again and again. It’s basic premise is that we don’t have to accept the doctrines of those who came before us, but rather we can think and determine for ourselves our own opinions, and that all the answers we’re looking for can be found in nature. There is a universal spirituality present in everything, and if we check our egos at the door we too can experience it. He explains that by losing your individual self, you can become one with nature and simply experience it with your fantabulous transparent eyeball, not available in stores.

In “The American Scholar,” he calls for men to rise up with their own ideas as opposed to depending on the authorities of the past. He says we can do this by knowing nature, that to know nature is to know thyself, so go outside and have yourself a big ol’ cup of nature!

But don’t read about it, you dolt. Reading about nature is not the same thing. Books are only partial truths based on the society’s standards in which they were written so you best read and/or write your own society’s standards to perpetuate the partial truths. Book worms! Book worms are the worst scum of the earth because they stop thinking entirely (in which case, he and I have a mutual dislike I can rest comfortable in). The only kind of reading that should be done is that of science and history and the like so stop it with your chick lit, your Harry Potter, and your mystery novels already, you losers. Read yourself some science books about nature, go out and experience yourself some nature, and you’ll be closer to your divine self because the soul and nature parallel one another, it’s just one big circle, people. A parallel circle. Think about it.

But! If you suffer some creative blockage (or a horrible intestinal illness), it’s okay to go ahead and read yourself some books. I mean come on! Reading is pleasurable and the ancient authors are like the people of today so books actually defeat time. They take time down. They take time downtown and beat the royal crappola out of it; leaving it clutching its wounds and gasping for air and in that case, you can never underestimate books. They kick time’s ass, and the great thinkers of the world have been fed by books, but remember, it takes an exceptional being to remain critical while reading them. Evil books, full of trickery and hocus-pocus.

With the “Divinity School Address,” Emerson set the Christians afire. Delivered to a class of graduating ministers and teachers at the Harvard Divinity School, one can understand why when he lets them know Biblical miracles are a bunch of rubbish and that while Jesus was certainly a nice guy, he was no God. Emerson was easily labeled an atheist although in reality he was far from it. In fact he had some excellent points, including that there is no middle man to God and that as opposed to being virtuous, we should act it. Regardless, it took HDS 30 long years to let go of that blow.

Although there are many other Emersonian things to cover, I’m going to end with the “Self Reliance” essay in which he repeatedly stresses the importance of the individual. No matter who you are, be that person and trust in that person. A society that demands conformity is stupid so don’t be like that. If you’re a regular Dr. Evil, go ahead and be Dr. Evil because it is more important to be who you are as opposed to conforming to the standards imposed by dumb society. If you give in to your true nature and act from the spontaneous bits found there, you can experience true intuition, otherwise you’re simply acting within the confines of society.

Also, don’t give money to charity; give it directly to the individual. If you’re providing acts of charity from guilt or society’s expectations, it’s not coming from your true self but rather a part of you which wants recognition from your charitable acts.

Emerson is best known for giving birth to the American Renaissance in literature. Prior to him, we low brow Americans revered the great European super powers as opposed to creating our own art and literature. But more than that, he spurred on others to write poetry and prose that shapes the way we think and feel. Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to find nature, aka God. Women like Margaret Fuller were given a voice and a venue to make that voice heard with their own essays. Walt Whitman lifted his pen and changed the face of poetry. Without Emerson, American literature would not be what it is today, so let’s all thank him and his transparent eyeball.

The Groundwork– Wherein you make up your own mind:

Harvard Square Library: The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. haha i love this

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