Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher, speaker and essayist, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, died 130 years ago today. Despite his many published collections of essays, and some of poetry, it is his voluminous diaries - full of philosophical musings and thoughts about communing with nature - that are now considered by some to be his most remarkable literary creation.
Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1803, but his father, a Unitarian minister, died when he was only 8. Aged but 14, Emerson entered Harvard University, paying his way partly through a scholarship and partly by tutoring. He went on to study at Harvard Divinity School. In 1829, he married Ellen Tucker, but she died less than two years later. His grief led him to reconsider his religious beliefs.
Thereafter, Emerson moved to Concord, and spent the next few years studying and traveling in Europe. He married Lydia Jackson in 1835, and they would have four children, though the oldest, Waldo, died young. The following year, Emerson published his first book, Nature, which laid out his belief in Transcendentalism, whereby individuals have knowledge of themselves, through intuition and imagination, that transcends, or goes beyond, what they can see, taste, touch or feel. The publication of Nature is generally considered to be a key moment in the emergence of transcendentalism which then went on to become a major cultural and philosophical movement.
Emerson became a well-known lecturer not only in the US, but also in Europe (he is said to have given more than 1,500 public lectures); and many of his speeches were published. In 1840 Emerson joined with others in launching The Dial, which, for a few years, was the chief publication of the Transcendentalists (and then continued to be published intermittently until the late 1920s). One of the younger early contributors was Henry David Thoreau, another diarist, who lived with Emerson in the early 1840s, and was his most well-known disciple, though he died aged only 44. During the 1850s, Emerson became strongly interested in the anti-slavery movement, and he actively supported war against the South.
By 1867, Emerson’s health was starting to decline, and in 1872, a fire partly destroyed his Concord house, and signalled the end of his busy lecturing schedule. While the house was being rebuilt, he visited Continental Europe and Egypt with his wife and daughter Ellen. By the end of the 1870s, Emerson’s health, and particularly problems with his memory, led him to stop all public appearances. He died on 27 April 1882. Further information is available from RWE, the Transcendentalists’ website, or Wikipedia.
Emerson was a very committed diary writer. However, most of what he jotted down in his journals was intellectual and had a philosophical tone, there is little about his daily practical life. Though a collected edition of his works came out earlier, the diaries had to wait until 1909-1914 when they were published in ten volumes by Houghton Mifflin as Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. They were edited by Emerson’s son, Dr Edward Waldo Emerson, and grandson, Waldo Emerson Forbes, and are freely available at Internet Archive. Between 1960 and 1982, Harvard University Press brought out a definitive edition - The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson - in 16 volumes.
Much more recently Library of America has abridged Emerson’s diaries into two volumes: Selected Journals 1820–1842 and Selected Journals 1841–1877. This, the publisher says, is the most ample and comprehensive nonspecialist edition of Emerson’s great work ever published - ‘one that retains the original order in which he composed his thoughts and preserves the dramatic range of his unique style in long, uninterrupted passages, but without the daunting critical apparatus of the 16-volume scholarly edition.’ It also calls Emerson’s journals, his ‘most remarkable literary creation.’
Quotations from Emerson’s diaries are widely available on the internet, whether at Wikiquote, the Wisdom Portal (‘where every link leads to learning’), or the Reading Emerson website. Here, though, are a few extracts from the out-of-copyright 1909-1914 Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
17 February 1838
‘My good Henry Thoreau made this else solitary afternoon sunny with his simplicity and clear perception. How comic is simplicity in this double-dealing, quacking world. Everything that boy says makes merry with society, though nothing can be graver than his meaning. I told him he should write out the history of his college life, as Carlyle has his tutoring. We agreed that the seeing the stars through a telescope would be worth all the astronomical lectures. Then he described Mr Quimby’s electrical lecture here, and the experiment of the shock, and added that “college corporations are very blind to the fact that that twinge in the elbow is worth all the lecturing.”
To-night, I walked under the stars through the snow, and stopped and looked at my far sparklers and heard the voice of the wind, so slight and pure and deep, as if it were the sound of the stars themselves revolving.
How much self-reliance it implies to write a true description of any thing, for example, Wordsworth’s picture of skating; that leaning back on your heels and stopping in mid-career. So simple a fact no common man would have trusted himself to detach as a thought.’
19 September 1838.
‘I found in the wood this afternoon the drollest mushroom, tall, stately, pretending, uprearing its vast dome as if to say, “Well I am some thing! Burst, ye beholders! thou luck-beholder! with wonder.” Its dome was a deep yellow ground with fantastic, starlike ornaments richly overwrought; so shabby genteel, so negrofine, the St Peter’s of the beetles and pismires. Such ostentation in petto I never did see. I touched the white column with my stick, it nodded like old Troy, and so eagerly recovered the perpendicular as seemed to plead piteously with me not to burst the fabric of its pride. Shall I confess it? I could almost hear my little Waldo at home begging me, as when I have menaced his little block-house, and the little puff-ball seemed to say, “Don’t, Papa, pull it down!” So, after due admiration of this blister, this cupola of midges, I left the little scaramouch alone in its glory. Good-bye, Vanity, good bye, Nothing! Certainly there is comedy in the Divine Mind when these little vegetable self-conceits front the day as well as Newton or Goethe, with such impressive emptiness.
The greater is the man, the less are books to him. Day by day he lessens the distance between him and his authors, and soon finds very few to whom he can pay so high a compliment as to read them.’
1 January 1839.
‘Adjourned the promised lecture on Genius until Wednesday week, on account of my unaccountable vigils now for four or five nights, which destroy all power of concentration by day for me.’
17 October 1840.
‘A newspaper in a grave and candid tone censures the Dial as having disappointed the good expectation of our lovers of literature. I read the paragraph with much pleasure; for the moment we come to sense and candor I know the success of the Dial is sure. The Dial is poor and low and all unequal to its promise: but that is not for you to say, O Daily Advertiser! but for me. It is now better after your manner than anything else you have; and you do not yet see that it is, and will soon see and extol it. I see with regret that it is still after your manner, and not after mine, and that it is something which you can praise.’
1 January 1841.
‘I begin the year by sending my little book of Essays to the press. What remains to be done to its imperfect chapters I will seek to do justly. I see no reason why we may not write with as much grandeur of spirit as we can serve or suffer. Let the page be filled with the character, not with the skill of the writer.’
18 July 1852
‘Henry Thoreau makes himself characteristically the admirer of the common weeds which have been hoed at by a million farmers all spring and summer and yet have prevailed, and just now come out triumphant over all lands, lanes, pastures, fields, and gardens, such is their pluck and vigor. We have insulted them with low names, too, pig-weed, smart-weed, red-root, lousewort, chickweed. He says that they have fine names, amaranth, ambrosia.’
‘I suppose the war does not recommend Slavery to anybody. If it cost ten years of war, and ten to recover the general prosperity, the destruction of Slavery is worth so much. But it does not cost so much time to get well again. How many times France has been a warfield! Every one of her towns has been sacked; the harvest has been a hundred times trampled down by armies. And yet, when you suppose, as after the first Napoleon’s time, that the country must be desolate, a year’s labour, a new harvest, almost the hours of one perfect summer day create prodigious wealth, and repair the damage of ten years of war.
I read with entire complacency that part of the history of art when the new spiritualism set the painters on painting the saints as ugly and inferior men, to hint the indifferency of all circumstance to the divine exuberance, and I remember this with great satisfaction at the photographist s shop.’
24 June 1863
‘In reading Henry Thoreau’s Journal, I am very sensible of the vigor of his constitution. That oaken strength which I noted whenever he walked or worked or surveyed wood lots, the same unhesitating hand with which a field-laborer accosts a piece of work which I should shun as a waste of strength. Henry shows in his literary task. He has muscle, and ventures on and performs feats which I am forced to decline. In reading him, I find the same thought, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond, and illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generality. ‘Tis as if I went into a gymnasium, and saw youths leap, climb, & swing with a force unapproachable, though their feats are only continuations of my initial grapplings and jumps.’