On this day in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson met influential British writer Thomas Carlyle, with whom he would correspond for 38 years. Carlyle and the English romantic poets would have an important effect on Emerson’s work.
Ralph Waldo Emerson came from a long line of American ministers. He enjoyed a sheltered childhood in Boston, and attended Harvard Divinity School. Although Emerson accepted a position as pastor of a Boston Church in 1829, the death of his wife in 1831 deepened his existing religious doubts. He resigned two years later, explaining to his congregation that he had started to doubt the sacraments.
He moved to Concord, then set off for Europe where he met leading writers and thinkers of the day. During a visit to a Paris botanical garden, he decided to become a “naturalist.” In 1836, he published an anonymous booklet called Nature, that questioned traditional concepts of God and nature. Influenced by Hindu texts and English Romanticism, he argued that man can rise above the material world and discover a sense of transcendent spirituality. Nature defined the philosophy that would inform his future essays, lectures and poetry. He championed individual spirit, instinct and intellect over traditional religion, education and thought.
In the 1840s, he joined the Transcendentalist movement, and founded The Dial, a magazine of Transcendentalist thought edited at first by Margaret Fuller, then by Emerson. His two volumes of essays, published in 1841 and 1844, including essays like “Self Reliance,” made him world famous. His 1847 poetry collection, May-Day and Other Pieces included “Concord Hymn,” about the battle of Concord which included the famous line “the shot heard round the world.” In Representative Men (1850), he wrote sketches of his role models including Napoleon and Shakespeare.
Emerson’s later work became less idealistic and more pragmatic. In The Conduct of Life, considered by some critics to be his most mature work, he takes a compassionate, philosophic approach to human frailty. Enerson’s writings were extremely influential with American writers including Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman and many others. Emerson died in Concord in 1882, at the age of 78. He is buried in the same cemetery as Louisa May Alcott.