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Ralph Waldo Emerson. (1803–1882). Essays and English Traits.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

. Introductory Note

RALPH WALDO EMERSON was born in Boston, Mass., on May 25, 1803, the son of a prominent Unitarian minister. He was educated at the Boston Latin School and at Harvard College, from which he graduated at eighteen. On leaving college he taught school for some time, and in 1825 returned to Cambridge to study divinity. The next year he began to preach; and in 1829 he married Ellen Tucker, and was chosen colleague to the Rev. Henry Ware, minister of the historic church in Hanover Street, Boston. So far things seemed to be going well with him: but in 1831 his wife died, and in the next year scruples about administering the Lord’s Supper led him to give up his church. In sadness and poor health he set out in December on his first visit to Europe, passing through Italy, Switzerland, and France to Britain, and visiting Landor, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and, most important of all, Carlyle, with whom he laid the foundation of a life-long friendship. On his return to America he took up lecturing, and he continued for nearly forty years to use this form of expression for his ideas on religion, politics, literature, and philosophy. In 1835 he bought a house in Concord, and took there his second wife, Lidian Jackson. The history of the rest of his life is uneventful, as far as external incident is concerned. He traveled frequently giving lectures; took part in founding in 1840 the Dial, and in 1857 the Atlantic Monthly, to both of which he contributed freely, and the former of which he edited for a short time; introduced the writings of Carlyle to America, and published a succession of volumes of essays, addresses, and poems. He made two more visits to Europe, and on the earlier delivered lectures in the principal towns of England and Scotland. He died at Concord on April 27, 1882, after a few years of failing memory, during which his public activities were necessarily greatly reduced.

At the time of Emerson’s death, he was recognized as the foremost writer and thinker of his country; but this recognition had come only gradually. The candor and the vigor of his thinking had led him often to champion unpopular causes, and during his earlier years of authorship his departures from Unitarian orthodoxy were viewed with hostility and alarm. In the Abolitionist movement also he took a prominent part, which brought him the distinction of being mobbed in Boston and Cambridge. In these and other controversies, however, while frank in his opinions, and eloquent and vigorous in his expression of them, he showed a remarkable quality of tact and reasonableness, which prevented the opposition to him from taking the acutely personal turn which it assumed in relation to some of his associates, and which preserved to him a rare dignity.

Recognition of his eminence has not been confined to his countrymen. Carlyle in Britain and Hermann Grimm in Germany were only leaders of a large body of admirers in Europe, and it may be safely said that no American has exerted in the Old World an intellectual influence comparable to that of Emerson.