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Mr. Emerson's Revolution

Jean McClure Mudge

The making of a Protester

1.2 Becoming an American “Adam,” 1822-1835

Wesley T. Mott

Texte intégral

I have sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers. Were not a Socratic paganism better than an effete superannuated Christianity?
Journal, 2 June 1832

  • 59 When visiting Boston from his home in Quincy, John Adams occasionally worshipped at William Emerson (...)

1Emerson, still an uncertain eighteen-year-old when he graduated from Harvard College in 1821, in the next decade and a half would discover his purpose, his calling and his identity as a more clearly defined American. That sharper self-image, combined with his nascent Transcendentalist ideas, would define the pivotal reform role he would soon play in the country’s mid-century era of enormous social change. The United States, only forty years old in 1821, was also in its adolescence, still forming its cultural and political identity at home and abroad. Both the country and Emerson shared high hopes and ambitions. Just the year before, the Missouri Compromise had attempted to settle sectional frictions arising from slavery, and the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 would soon announce the American hemisphere inviolate to further foreign claim. Many Americans, including Emerson, saw the hand of Providence at work when two great former presidents and earlier arch-rivals, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams — a sometime parishioner of Emerson’s father whom Emerson also knew — both died on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after they had signed the Declaration of Independence.59

  • 60 Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, vol. 2, The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (New York: Harp (...)
  • 61 The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 4 vols., eds. Albert J. von Frank, et al. (Columbia, M (...)

2Not that the event sealed a cultural unity between the states or even a sense of true nationhood. Only two years later, the election of Andrew Jackson ushered in momentous changes. Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, became the country’s first president from the West, and also the first whose electors were chosen by popular vote, except in Delaware and South Carolina.60 Democracy seemed to be in the ascendant. But political professionals — the boss system — increasingly manipulated these new voters. Jackson’s two terms also saw increasing sectionalism in disputes over protective tariffs and arguments over the nature of the Union. However, the nation could hardly be totally self-occupied. European labor unrest, trade demands, and the international spread of epidemics such as cholera proved that the young United States could not insulate itself from the world simply by political proclamation.61 More importantly, the Old World remained a cultural beacon. Romantic writers from Britain and the Continent deeply appealed to Americans, and exciting textual, cultural, even scientific study of texts, especially the Bible, in Germany drew bright graduate students in the arts and theology.

3Yet a homegrown New World culture was taking shape, building on, even as it transformed, its colonial and Puritan past. The number of literate post-Revolutionary Americans was increasing, a product of both new public and private schools: Education reformer Bronson Alcott opened his experiment in childhood pedagogy in 1834, called the Temple School, located in Boston’s Masonic Temple. The Second Great Awakening’s evangelical churches and more liberal Christian denominations were also stimulating literacy, hoping to gain more educated followers. In Boston, the Unitarian Universalist Association was organized in 1825, and its great pastor-theologian William Ellery Channing was preaching the liberating doctrine of “Likeness to God,” a theme destined to be more popular in this new Garden of Eden than Adam’s fall. The highly popular lyceum movement of public lectures — the forerunner of adult education — began at Millbury, Massachusetts, in 1826. Codifying an emerging national vocabulary was Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828).

  • 62 Courage and Conscience: Black & White Abolitionists in Boston, ed. Donald M. Jacobs (Bloomington, I (...)

4Material changes in the country quickly developed along with ongoing social friction. The burgeoning population had been rapidly pushing westward. The Erie Canal’s completion in 1825, giving inland access East and West, brought new wealth to the country, and epitomized both efficient transportation and regional cohesion. But this expansion included the forced relocation of Native Americans from historic tribal lands to lesser territories. North-South economic and racial tensions, moreover, had already begun to erupt. Nat Turner’s unsuccessful slave rebellion in 1831 seized the attention of Americans everywhere. Only months before, abolitionist sentiment had started to take tangible shape: William Lloyd Garrison first published the Liberator in Boston in January 1831. Then exactly a year later, he founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1833, he led in organizing the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia.62 Channing published his powerful, theologically grounded Slavery (1835), and in the South, parallel movements started, especially among members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Closely observing the witness of certain Quaker leaders in New England, who were often protesters, Emerson was affected by their theology in action. He would be immediately touched by all these developments.

Seeking the Right Career to Suit His Temperament and Talents

5As the United States aggressively expanded geographically and commercially, politicians and entrepreneurs often sounded a note of supreme confidence in the nation’s prospects. Emerson was caught up in this same “can do”— or in 1830s terminology, “go-ahead”— spirit. But beneath the country’s outward bravado, he also noted a moral crisis. As a Christian steeped in classical Stoicism at home and school, Emerson’s sense of the centrality of ethics in personal or public life had developed early and been sealed at Harvard. This felt philosophical position might have been at odds with the materialistic spirit of the times. Yet his ambition — a continuous theme in his journals of the 1820s — combined with his aunt Mary Moody Emerson’s high hopes that he might become a great poet-prophet, gave him two linked imperatives: He must achieve both artistic and spiritual prominence as well as embody the good. This imperative to action soon forced him, though reluctantly at first, to enter America’s array of social reform.

1.19 Title page, Emerson’s Wideworld 2, 11 July 1822.

6Alongside these lofty goals, however, arose familiar self-doubts that now fed his vocational uncertainty. Like most young adults, he focused on fundamentally unanswerable questions about the purpose and meaning of life, sounding now self-indulgent, now on the verge of despair. Throughout the 1820s, his journals are filled with musings about available life choices and his sometime worry that, were he to die at this age, the world would never remember that he had lived. In an impermanent, insecure world, he wondered what avenues might be open to a young man of his interests whose reserved temperament seemed to conflict with family and social expectations.

  • 63 The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M. Tilton (New York: C (...)

7After Harvard, Waldo began teaching school, a route that his father had taken before settling on the ministry. Older brother William’s school for girls in Boston was a natural place to begin, but Waldo soon became frustrated. In a letter profiling his life to a college classmate in early 1823, he wrote with wry self-effacement, “My sole answer & apology to those who inquire about my studies is — I keep school. — I study neither law, medicine, or divinity, and write neither poetry nor prose.”63 He went on to discuss academic studies, literature, and theology, revealing how deeply he missed the life of the mind. Then in December, William, preparing for the ministry, left for Germany to study “higher criticism” at the University of Göttingen. This emerging field of textual studies examined the Bible not as the inspired Word of God but as a cultural artifact whose meanings emerged in the contexts of history, literature, and anthropology. The religiously orthodox recoiled from such study, deeming it heretical. But the brightest young American divinity students welcomed the exciting scrutiny of scriptural texts for a spiritual reason: it was the soundest means of answering skeptical critiques of religion. Emerson, already familiar with this approach at Harvard and fascinated by William’s first-hand reports, increasingly felt that he was wasting his time and talents.

8For all his curiosity and avid reading, Emerson knew how to pace himself. Perhaps from early childhood, when his father expected him to read before he was even three, he had begun to develop a strategy of self-defense. If too much were asked of him, he would not do it, relieving himself of the demand. At Boston Public Latin School, Waldo did not earn the same high grades later achieved by his younger brothers Edward and Charles. And as we have seen, Waldo’s Harvard record, though he had been a runner-up for essay and public speaking prizes, put him only in the middle of his class. In contrast, his brothers would both be first in theirs. No less able than they, Waldo read widely outside the required curriculum, a habit that meant he might put assignments second. It also reflected his independent streak. Following his own bent was evidently more important than achieving the highest class standing.

  • 64 JMN 3: 137.
  • 65 JMN 7: 6.

9Besides, Waldo grew to be conscious of the benefit of relief from rigorous work. In July 1828, after Edward — overly assiduous in his high ambitions — had a temporary break-down, Waldo thought himself unlikely to follow suit: “I have so much mixture of silliness in my intellectual frame that I think Providence has tempered me against this... Edward had always great power of face. I have none. I laugh; I blush; I look ill tempered; against my will & against my interest. But all this imperfection as it appears to me... is a ballast — as things go — is a defence.”64 In short, not measuring up to others’ high standards, and openly showing it, protected him against trying to meet the world’s demands, whether of his father long ago, his aunt Mary, his college, the institutional church, or eventually of society’s unexamined dictums. In 1838, Emerson repeated the human need for diversion from daily work: “A man must have aunts & cousins, must buy carrots & turnips, must have barn & woodshed, must go to market & to the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter & sleep & be inferior & silly.”65 Edward, and possibly Charles, under equal pressure to achieve, apparently did not find Waldo’s path toward self-saving release.

  • 66 JMN 2: 237-41.

10Silliness aside, however, Emerson, approaching twenty-one, knew he needed to make a career choice. By mid-April 1824, he was finally able to lay out his plans and the reasoning behind them. Through independent reading, he would begin his “professional studies” for the ministry: “I deliberately dedicate my time, my talents, & my hopes to the Church.” Waldo also knew that his lack of a competitive spirit kept him from careers in business, law, or medicine. “But in Divinity,” he wrote, “I hope to thrive.” Seven generations of his ancestors had been ministers, and Emerson felt a “passionate love for the strains of eloquence” that he attributed to traits inherited from his father and grandfather. He put it powerfully, “I burn after the ‘aliquid immensum infinitumque’[something great and limitless] which Cicero desired.” He specifically noted, “My understanding venerates & my heart loves that Cause which is dear to God & man — the laws of Morals, the Revelations which sanction, & the blood of martyrs & triumphant suffering of the saints which seal them.” Still, painful self-consciousness plagued him. He felt timid and clumsy, and as so often before, he berated himself at his core: “What is called a warm heart, I have not.”66

11Despite the probable mismatch between pastoral duties and his distant, socially awkward personality, other aspects of the Unitarian pulpit enticed Emerson. Ever since the religious liberal Henry Ware, Sr. had been named Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard in 1805, New England ministers had begun to subordinate scriptural and doctrinal exposition in favor of enhancing their own and their parishioners’ “self-culture.” An accomplished “liberal Christian” minister was expected to have broad cultural interests — to pursue scholarship and also to serve local institutions. Many prided themselves on their literary attainments; the Reverend Joseph Stevens Buckminster, known for his elegant sermons, was asked to preach the funeral sermon for Waldo’s father in 1811. This new model of ministry appealed to Emerson. He might continue to explore his wide intellectual interests while aiming for uplifting literary performance.

12William Ellery Channing, pastor of Federal Street Church, excelled all other Boston ministers as a model of the new preaching.

1.20 William Ellery Channing, 1857.

  • 67 JMN 2: 161.

13Emerson, hearing his sermon on revelation in October 1823, had admiringly noted his clear language and ability to convey “the pictures in his mind to the minds of his hearers.” But he thought Channing’s most valuable service was to properly relate nature and divine power. Creation might offer evidence of its creator, but the material world alone was unable “to kindle our piety & urge our faith.” Though not ready to define nature as miraculous, Channing declared the experience of revelation, of sensing the presence of God, a natural happening. As Waldo carefully recorded, “Dr C. regarded Revelation as much a part of the order of things as any other event.”67

  • 68 JMN 3: 29.

14Eloquence in the pulpit and on the public lecture platform loomed large in Emerson’s imagination as a means to enhance his ambitions for influence, fame, and power. Political rhetoric had been crucial in defining the principles of the new nation, and in the 1820s lengthy speeches on commemorative occasions had become benchmarks of oratorical greatness. Inspired at Harvard by his classics professor Edward Everett, Emerson continued to admire the heroic content and impressive style of his public addresses on historical topics. Daniel Webster, elected to Congress in 1822, held Emerson spellbound with his eulogy to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in early August 1826. “Never,” Emerson wrote, “were the awful charms of person, manners, & voice outdone.... [I] n what was truly grand he fully realized the boldest conception of eloquence.”68 Though no politician and without ambition to become one, Emerson had done well in public speaking. The ministry not only suited his temperament and talents, it also allowed him to make widely known his ethical and moral concerns, with observations from a wide range of other fields.

15Four years after graduating from Harvard College, in February 1825, Emerson entered its Divinity School as a middle student.

1.21 Divinity School, Harvard, 1840.

  • 69 JMN 2: 332.
  • 70 L 1: 184.
  • 71 See Evelyn Barish, “The Moonless Night: Emerson’s Crisis of Health, 1825-1827,” in Emerson Centenar (...)
  • 72 JMN 3: 15.

16On and off since 1818, Emerson had continued to teach, including at his brother William’s School for Young Ladies in Boston, which Waldo closed in late 1824 while William was studying in Germany; at a short-lived school that he himself opened in Chelmsford in September 1825; and for a time, at his brother Edward’s school in Roxbury. Emerson’s habit of reading what he pleased continued: “My cardinal vice of intellectual dissipation — sinful strolling from book to book, from care to idleness, is my cardinal vice still; is a malady that belongs to the Chapter of Incurables.”69 At the same time, however, he faced a series of serious health problems. An eye ailment, making it impossible to read, first forced him to withdraw from formal study. Then he suffered from a painful hip condition, followed by an “aching” in the chest brought on by “exertion.”70 His physical complaints were not merely psychosomatic. Recent scholarship has confirmed what Emerson privately suspected: he was suffering from tuberculosis (or “consumption” in his day), a rampant nineteenth-century disease that became his family’s curse.71 Longstanding needs of his mother and of his ailing, mentally-challenged brother Bulkeley also pressed upon him: “My years are passing away,” he wrote in his journal in March 1826. “Infirmities are already stealing on me that may be the deadly enemies that are to dissolve me to dirt and little is yet done to establish my consideration among my contemporaries & less to get a memory when I am gone.”72

  • 73 JMN 3: 21.
  • 74 JMN 3: 25.

17Yet Emerson’s recurring sense of unworthiness and mortality could be swept aside by stunning flashes of insight, breeding confidence in his latent power. Paradoxically, he sensed this power as something beyond him, rooted in the “immortality of moral truth.” It was an ethical lodestone, attracting his whole being, not merely his thought. In true Romantic fashion, he had tapped into a living force that transcended him and others as well as time and place. At the same time, it connected him and every sensitive person to the great minds of history. For Emerson, moral truth had become no abstraction or “vague name,” but a passion and a real principle of personal strength.73 Buoyed by these reflections, in late May, he ecstatically declared, “I feel that the affections of the soul are sublimer than the faculties of the intellect. I feel immortal. And the evidence of immortality comes better from consciousness than from reason.”74 Such trust in intuition — in the heart rather than the head — and in the inherent worth of the individual attuned to a universal morality lay behind Emerson’s later emphasis on self-reliance, more fully celebrated in his lectures of the next ten to fifteen years.

Determining and Unsettling Influences

  • 75 See Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (New Yo (...)

18Throughout his twenties, Emerson’s two conflicting sides — the ambitious and the self-judgmental — continued to blend from their complex origins in his childhood. They were heightened by his habit of eclectic reading and by his continuing reliance on Mary’s ideas and her interpretations of classical and contemporary authors. Waldo’s early practice of copying Mary’s letters and diaries into his journals gave him a permanent source of her thoughts. They were on tap to use in early sermons, and later, in lectures and essays. Sometimes he might give Mary direct or indirect credit. But other times, he might simply neglect to indicate that her very words were not his own. Emerson always held that “originality” was a misnomer, arguing that a mind recognizes wisdom in the works of others and rightly appropriates it. However one judges Emerson’s use of Mary’s texts, his thought was the product not of isolated genius but of collaboration, as will be seen more fully in Chapter 2.75

  • 76 John Quincy Adams, 24 February 1820, The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794-1845, ed. Allan Nevins (N (...)

19By temperament and education, Emerson put character and integrity first, so not surprisingly, social worth was at the heart of his boyhood exploration of personal identity as well as his later philosophical debates. Such sensitivity naturally remained at the forefront of his late teenage attitude toward the nation’s festering social issue, slavery. Even though the Missouri Compromise of 1820, equally dividing the country into free and slave states, had sought to put a lid on constant sectional tensions over this issue, for decades they simmered nationally and, for Emerson, personally. Just days before the Compromise passed, his friend John Quincy Adams, then the country’s Secretary of State, presciently noted in his diary, “Slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union... A dissolution, at least temporary, of the Union, as now constituted, would be certainly necessary... The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation.”76

  • 77 JMN 2: 43, 49, 57, 58.

20Slavery especially pressed on Emerson, who found the practice abhorrent but who shared many of the racial biases held by even the most educated northerners. For example, he mused about whether the races were created with “different degrees of intellect,” which seemed “an indication of the design of Providence that some should lead, and some should serve.” In the early weeks of November 1822, nineteen-year-old Emerson launched a lengthy, private pro-and-con debate with himself about slavery. He questioned whether this apparently natural human arrangement “can ever be pushed to the extent of total possession, and that, without the will of the slave?” After first giving his best arguments “in behalf of slavery,” as he put it, he went on “to knock down the hydra.” For now, he concluded that human inequality eluded rational explanation. But he had no doubt that slavery was “the worst institution on earth,” insisting that “No ingenious sophistry can ever reconcile the unperverted mind to the pardon of Slavery.” Indeed, he found it stunningly inconsistent that one could hold both religious beliefs and slaves. “A creature who is bound by his hopes of salvation to imitate the benevolence of better beings, and to do all the kindness in his power, fastens manacles on his fellow with an ill grace.”77 Although he would continue to explore the capabilities of different races and of women for some time to come, in the next few years Emerson’s disgust with slavery per se would become more intense, and more public.

Emerson’s Idiosyncratic Uses of Romanticism

  • 78 See Gustaaf Van Cromphout, Emerson’s Modernity and the Example of Goethe (Columbia, MO: University (...)
  • 79 L 1: 174.

21In a Romantic era, Emerson and his generation were impatient with all types of rationalism and ripe for accepting felt knowledge about nature and human potential. On his own and through Mary, he had long been attracted to leading British and European Romantic writers. William Wordsworth’s poetry, such as The Excursion (1815), had already appealed to Emerson by its emotional engagement with nature and its use of common everyday language. Then in 1829, James Marsh, president of the University of Vermont, published an American edition of English poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection (1825). Coleridge described an enormously influential new model of the mind itself: For him, all humanity possessed both “Understanding” and “Reason” (both capitalized). “Understanding” was a lower faculty that engaged with material experience, and “Reason” a higher faculty that might intuit divinity. (Contrary to the usual use of these terms, Coleridge gave “Reason” the ability to imagine and feel in contrast to the observing, logical faculties of “Understanding.”) Finally, for Emerson and many of his circle, a deeply influential, anonymous Romantic voice appeared between 1827 and 1831 in a series of articles in the Edinburgh Review and Foreign Review. It spoke powerful — to some, merely bombastic — moral criticism, decrying the materialism of the age and calling for individual and social reform. This author also introduced the liberating insights of several Kant-inspired German idealists and Romantics, including Schiller and Goethe, as well as the Paris-born Mme. de Staël. Not until October 1832 would Emerson identify this bold essayist as the Scottish philosopher-historian Thomas Carlyle. In his own reading, now also endorsed by Carlyle, Emerson was most affected by the great humanist Goethe, who espoused an engaging pantheism, but above all stressed the authority of the individual.78 The other German writers Emerson found in Carlyle variously advanced a more organic concept of human nature and the universe. Their common, dominant metaphor for the mind — a growing plant — would resonate with many American reform movements that, in varying degrees, Emerson came to support. For Emerson, Romanticism’s assertion that “feelings” take precedence over “[b] are reason, cold as cucumber” was supremely attractive to him, as he wrote to Mary.79 She had long encouraged such thinking, also supported by one aspect of the Scottish School of Common Sense taught at Harvard with which Waldo could agree: that moral law might be intuited.

  • 80 JMN 3: 45.
  • 81 “Observations on the Growth of the Mind,” Sampson Reed: Primary Source Material for Emerson Studies(...)

22At Harvard, too, Emerson had found a friend of similar spirit, Sampson Reed, who was three years older. In 1821, Emerson heard Sampson give his master’s address, “Oration on Genius,” and five years later extolled Reed’s little book Observations on the Growth of the Mind as “a revelation.... It is remarkable for the unity into which it has resolved the various powers, feelings & vocations of men, suggesting to the mind that harmony which it has always a propensity to seek of action & design in the order of Providence in the world.”80 Reed, elaborating on the neo-Platonic notion of nature’s correspondence with spirit, argued that God was not a distant creator but an immediate presence that unifies and sustains perception and consciousness. “The mind must grow,” Reed wrote, “not from external accretion, but from an internal principle.”81

  • 82 Sermon CXI, CS 3: 127.

23Reed also introduced Emerson to Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Swedish engineer turned religious mystic. Swedenborg had been the source of Reed’s views of the physical world as a symbol of the spiritual — the nature-spirit interconnection that so appealed to Emerson. In turn, Reed’s many articles for the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Magazine, published in Boston from 1827, were additional sources from which Emerson came to know Swedenborg’s views. As in all of his reading, however, Emerson took what he needed and discarded the rest. And he eventually came to regard Swedenborg, despite his reputation for mysticism, as too literal and mechanical in his interpretation of symbols. He began to think that the small Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in Boston was similarly reducing metaphor to doctrine, a process that he thought simply converted — and corrupted — insight into new theological dogma. No sect, Emerson later preached in 1831, had an exclusive claim to truth; no doctrine was “truth itself, but only as proceeding from truth.”82 This sort of critical thinking would underlie his steady questioning not only of theology and philosophy but of all institutional and social assumptions.

Six Years of Pastoring

  • 83 JMN 3: 63-64.
  • 84 JMN 3: 72.
  • 85 JMN 3: 117.

24Emerson’s bouts with ill health during his time at Harvard Divinity School meant that he never formally graduated. But on October 10, 1826, his combined class work and independent theological study qualified him to be officially licensed, or “approbated,” to preach. First, however, he followed a prescribed remedy for recovering from tuberculosis: prolonged exposure to sea air and sunshine. With funds from his Uncle Samuel Ripley, Emerson sailed south in late November. The distance and solitude of this first long trip away from his native New England proved creatively unsettling. True to form, personal and professional questions constantly preyed upon him, but in searching for answers, his sense of self and an idiosyncratic Romantic faith were taking shape. In Charleston, South Carolina, in early January, he pondered the nature of Jesus in journal notes that would become the seeds of a later sermon. Humanity’s “moral depravity” mocked the crucified Christ; nevertheless, Emerson felt that one may “enter into a sublime sympathy with him.”83 Emerson still felt his own inadequacy as a “moral agent,” noting that a life of virtuous purpose seemed to be slipping away, and he frankly questioned his ability as a “young pilot” to guide others through the “shoals” of life.84 Also unsettling was his ironic experience of participating in a Bible Society meeting in St. Augustine, Florida, while just outside the window he heard the shouts of a slave auctioneer. Emerson noted: “One ear... heard the glad tidings of great joy whilst the other was regaled with ‘Going gentlemen, Going!’”85 This cultural disconnection of morality from the market trading of blacks clearly remained alive in his consciousness before he publicly joined his ethical concerns with the cause of emancipation.

  • 86 JMN 3: 77. On Emerson and Murat, see also Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berk (...)

25Despite these doubts about himself and his role in the church, Emerson’s first exposure to Southern culture helped strengthen his self-confidence. At home, he wondered whether he could meet leadership challenges. In strange locales, thrown upon his own resources, he found it cathartic to meet others quite different from himself. On the first leg of his return voyage in late March, Emerson traveled with Achille Murat — a nephew of Napoleon, “a consistent Atheist,” a man who owned a plantation outside Tallahassee and thus an experienced slaveholder.86

1.22 Achille Murat (1801-1847).

26Despite heavy weather during the trip, the unlikely friends challenged each other in long conversations. Murat, the non-believer, responded to Emerson’s ideas of liberal religion; and Emerson, hardly the intimidated provincial, gained confidence as he held his own and also quizzically admired this sophisticated companion who, shunning any faith, was yet evidently an ethical man, although he owned slaves.

  • 87 The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Alfred R. Ferguson, et al. (Cambridge, M (...)
  • 88 JMN 3: 82.

27In a famous phrase in “Self-Reliance” fourteen years later, he would call traveling “a fool’s paradise.”87 But this trip was arguably life-saving; it improved his health, exposed him to a new world of believers and non-believers beyond Boston, and began to free him from certain self-doubts. Preaching at St. Augustine, Charleston, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, he returned home with a stronger self-estimate, theological conviction, and renewed vocational purpose. Borrowing imagery from the psychological and maritime turbulence he had recently undergone, he now told his journal, “When the Sea was stormy the disciples awoke Christ. Let us do so.—”88

  • 89 CS 1: 85-92. See Mott, “‘Christ Crucified’: Christology, Identity, and Emerson’s Sermon No. 5,” in (...)
  • 90 L 7: 159-60.

28The Jesus awakening within Emerson, however, was not the conventional Christ, a mere mediator between God and humanity. This was clear when, once back in Boston and starting his career as a supply minister — substitutes for pastors on the odd Sunday — he gave a sermon in late June 1827 based on the Pauline text, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Omitting the issue of Christ’s divinity, he praised him for restoring humanity to God. He portrayed Jesus as a complete, exemplary man, who despite enduring agonies of persecution and suffering, accepted God’s will and thus became history’s great spiritual hero.89 Emerson’s focus on the combination of Stoic and God-directed courage in Jesus was a goad to himself and a criterion for his later biographical subjects. With conviction, Emerson now preached a feeling of impregnable spiritual centeredness. Already in March, writing from St. Augustine to Mary, he had hinted of such a sense: “[W] e can conceive of one so united to God in his affections that he surveys from the vantage ground of his own virtues the two worlds with equal eye & knowing the true value of the love & praise of men challenges rather the suffrages [support] of immortal souls.”90 By the very act of discerning eternal truth, he believed, the hero overcomes the world’s hypocrisy, pride, and viciousness.

  • 91 Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, (...)

29Churches throughout eastern Massachusetts — including his father’s former congregation, Boston’s First Church — and into New Hampshire often called on Emerson to be their supply pastor. On Christmas Day 1827, in Concord, New Hampshire, he met the sixteen-year-old Ellen Tucker. She was beautiful, religious, poetically-inclined, vivacious, and fun-loving, but frail. Ellen was already clearly showing signs of consumption, a family malady, when they were engaged the following December. Within months, on March 11, 1829, the Second Church (Unitarian) in Boston’s North End ordained Emerson its junior pastor to serve under the popular and eloquent Henry Ware, Jr. But the ailing Ware had to retire in July, the next year becoming a professor at Harvard Divinity School.91 Emerson now became the sole minister of a venerable church that was once led by Increase and Cotton Mather and counted Paul Revere among its former members. On September 30, Waldo and Ellen were married in New Hampshire, and then took rooms near the church on Chardon Street.

1.23 Ellen Louisa Tucker at 18, 1829.

1.24 Emerson at about 26, c. 1829.

  • 92 See David Robinson, Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer (Philadelphia, PA: Univers (...)
  • 93 JMN 4: 263-64, and Richardson, 157-63.

30Emerson’s ministry in the late 1820s and early 1830s — long overshadowed by the emphasis on his more famous lectures and essays of a decade later — profoundly shaped him as a thinker and writer.92 Although he based each sermon conventionally on a biblical text, Emerson admired Jesus as a deeply human prophet and was never rigidly dogmatic. Incorporating secular themes and allusions in his preaching, he made the most of the expressive freedom encouraged in the Unitarian pulpit and began to articulate themes he would revisit throughout his career: the importance of self-reliant character based on moral law, the dynamic quality of individual life within a limitless cosmos, the relationship of the citizen to the nation, and the ultimate value of discerning the truth for oneself. Above all, he was exploring the reality of the “God within,” a concept he derived from widely diverse sources: Marcus Aurelius, the Pauline epistles, the French cleric Fenelon, and the Romantics, as well as from Mary and the Society of Friends’ founder George Fox. As a supply minister in New Bedford in 1833-1834, he would be greatly impressed by the principle of “acquiescence,” expressed by Quaker Mary Rotch, which would help him to clarify the God-dependence, or deep selfless quality of “self-reliance.”93 Later, mystic writers in the Islamic, Hindu, and Confucian traditions would strengthen his sense of the omnipresence of a World Soul, another curb to excessive individualism.

31Except for a few sermons prepared for purely ceremonial occasions, Emerson was preaching on topics that deeply mattered to him.

1.25 New Brick, or Second Church, Boston, 1843.

32He was also learning to address a live, intellectually demanding audience, tending to the congregation’s pastoral needs, serving on several church committees, and generally becoming a public leader in a manner he had previously thought impossible. He also took on community responsibilities, acting as both chaplain of the State Senate and an elected member of the Boston School Committee. He extended his contacts and made friends, among them Abel Adams and George Adams Sampson, both merchants, parishioners at Second Church, and confidants whose decency persuaded Emerson that virtue and success in commerce were not necessarily incompatible.

  • 94 JMN 3: 93.
  • 95 CS 2: 20-21.

33The range of topics on which Emerson preached at Second Church and throughout the Northeast testifies to the flexibility allowed in the Unitarian pulpit. It also reflected Emerson’s passionate quest to discover the unity of all knowledge, linking both heart and head, and thus blending belief with intellect. Never merely focused on theological matters, Emerson was fascinated by any subject vital, or even tangential to, right living: history, biography, the arts, or science. In Boston in 1827, he saw “a skilful experimenter lay a magnet among filings of steel & the force of that subtle fluid entering into each fragment arranged them all in mathematical lines & each metallic atom became in its turn a magnet communicating all the force it received of the loadstone.”94 In another sermon in mid-July 1829, he drew a spiritual analogy to this experiment: “If you introduce a magnet into a heap of steel-filings the rubbish becomes instantly instinct with life and order... The mind is that mass of rubbish... until its hidden virtue is called forth when God is revealed.” Nature, “full of symbols of its Author,” mirrors God’s laws. Emerson is already moving beyond rigid Swedenborgian correspondences to a dynamic, organic concept of mind. Any sign, he insists, is “but a faint type of the power of this idea upon the soul of man.” Reading nature symbolically is only a preliminary stage of revelation, for God “manifests himself in the material world... in the history of man... in our own experience.”95 In short, until we directly experience God, we are dead to other divine manifestations.

34In this sermon Emerson makes an important break from traditional Unitarian norms for establishing authentic religious belief. Since ancient times, several spiritual traditions had sought laws in nature as evidence of God’s handiwork. English philosopher William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) had been in wide currency for a quarter century as the standard work of “natural religion.” Paley had presented an “argument from design.” Invoking an old metaphor, he had concluded that the world, like a watch, implies a maker. Close study of such disciplines as anatomy and physiology, he reasoned, enabled one to draw inferences about God’s nature and plan. This book and other works by Paley remained basic texts for Harvard undergraduates into the 1830s. Emerson, however, had come to regard Paley’s kind of evidence as unconvincingly secondhand: it separated the laws of God from God’s living power.

  • 96 Commentary on this sermon includes Mott, “From Natural Religion to Transcendentalism: An Edition of (...)
  • 97 Sermon CLVII, CS 4: 158.

35Emerson wrote his 1829 sermon on natural religion in a logical, reasoned way, carefully numbering his main points.96 In style, his vision of intuitive personal experience as the best evidence of God differs from the scintillating, poetic, demandingly impressionistic manner of his later essays; nevertheless, it anticipates the primary thesis of his first book, Nature (1836). There he would argue that immediate, private perception itself could be divine revelation. In a later sermon with a more cosmic perspective, he reasoned that the vast scope of astronomy, far from undercutting religious belief, provides a corrective to narrow, idolatrous views of our place in the universe and of God’s scope. Just as Copernicus had shown that the earth plays a subordinate, satellite role to the sun, so our world’s microcosmic size in relation to an infinite universe should discourage spiritual and moral arrogance. Such a change in perspective does not threaten belief, Emerson argued, but rather stimulates a grander sense of God, not as a mere “governor,” but as “an Infinite Mind.”97

1.26 View of Boston from the South Boston Bridge, c. 1820-1829.

  • 98 CS 4: 115.

36Whether preaching on the nature of Jesus or on scientific and moral law, Emerson tried to cultivate in his audiences an inner sense of the divine. But such awareness did not lead him to argue for passive introspection. Spiritual insight, he felt, must translate into daily, public activity. Their connection formed the bridge between ideals and reality that prompted him, even at this early date, to support abolition in principle, although he did not yet join that nascent movement. Emerson welcomed the radical antislavery minister Samuel J. May, later the father-in-law of his future friend Bronson Alcott, to speak from his Second Church pulpit. And in April 1832 — fifteen months after William Lloyd Garrison founded the Boston abolitionist newspaper the Liberator — Emerson preached a Fast Day sermon insisting on the moral obligation to resist government-sanctioned injustice. “Let every man say then to himself — the cause of the Indian, it is mine; the cause of the slave, it is mine; the cause of the union, it is mine; the cause of public honesty, of education, of religion, they are mine; and speak and act thereupon as a freeman and a Christian.”98

  • 99 JMN 3: 226, CS 4: 302.
  • 100 JMN 3: 226; Sermon CVII, CS 3: 101-05.
  • 101 JMN 3: 242. On Emerson and the problem of Christian “evidences,” see Mott, “Strains,” 53-78.
  • 102 JMN 3: 318, 320.

37Emerson’s burst of directed energy and his growing confidence as a preacher developed alongside severe crisis and eventual tragedy. Throughout 1830, Ellen continued to suffer from lung hemorrhages. (Emerson’s younger brother Edward, now in New York practicing law with William, was also showing tubercular symptoms.) On February 8, 1831, a numb Emerson recorded in both his journal and church records the death of his beloved wife.99 On the 20th, crushed by “miserable debility,” as he described his state, he groped for words to express his loss in a sermon on grief.100 The loss of Ellen intensified his search for new, less doctrinal grounds for faith. “All is miracle,” he asserted in his journal the month after her death, “& the mind revolts at representations of 2 kinds of miracle.”101 For a time, he mechanically carried on with his preaching and pastoral tasks, while every day walking the two miles to Ellen’s tomb in Roxbury. After a year of this practice, in January 1832, he privately noted, “It is the best part of the man, I sometimes think, that revolts most against his being the minister.” Eleven days later he challenged himself, “Write on personal independance [sic].”102 Mary understood such deep malaise, yet anxious that the family’s clerical tradition not be broken, she encouraged him to hold on to his noble profession.

  • 103 JMN 4: 7.
  • 104 See Richardson, 3-5, and Ralph H. Orth, “Emerson’s Visit to the Tomb of His First Wife,” Emerson So (...)
  • 105 Richardson states that “The loss that darkened his life also freed him. Ellen’s death cut Emerson l (...)
  • 106 JMN 4: 27; 40-41.

38But the depth of Emerson’s torment is suggested by a stark journal entry of late March, well over a year after Ellen’s death: “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin.”103 The act of viewing a deceased’s remains, while not a common custom, was not particularly ghoulish or bizarre in New England.104 Emerson described nothing more about the incident, either what he saw or felt. But he had been meditating and preaching on mortality. Confronting once and for all the finality of Ellen’s death, while simultaneously remembering her fervent belief in their reunion in an afterlife, Emerson asserted a belief in life here and now.105 That summer, while thinking of what he might preach the next Sunday, he noted that true religion lies neither with church doctrines nor sacramental practices. Rather he strongly affirmed, “It is a life... a new life of those faculties you have. It is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.” In mid-September 1832, he was even more explicit on this theme, jotting down a motto, “‘Think of living.’ Don’t tell me to get ready to die. I know not what shall be. The only preparation I can make is by fulfilling my present duties. This is the everlasting life.” By opening up a new path beyond grief, this focus on the present could temporarily eclipse doubts about an afterlife.106 The question of immortality, however, would be an unresolved issue about which he would speculate for the rest of his life.

  • 107 JMN 4: 27.

39Emerson now came to realize that except for the pleasure of writing sermons, pastoral duties no longer appealed to him. He filled his journal with fundamental doubts about his profession: “I have sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers. Were not a Socratic paganism better than an effete superannuated Christianity?”107 Emerson’s concept of being “a good minister” shows both his insistence on integrity and a continuing appreciation of the prophetic role of preaching. But in the wake of losing Ellen, he now associated the ministerial vocation with an equally corrosive kind of death.

  • 108 CS 4: 292-95.
  • 109 JMN 4: 29. See also Cole, Mary Moody Emerson, 218.
  • 110 JMN 2: 316.

40In early June, only two months after viewing Ellen’s remains, Emerson invited leading members of the congregation to his house. He wished to explain his objections to administering the sacrament of Communion, and he took the opportunity to announce a radical idea: Why not simply dispense with the rite? On the 21st, a church committee sent him their report. It recognized that people of conscience differed over the nature of the Lord’s Supper but stated that the church would not change its custom.108 On the very same day, carrying William Sewel’s The History of the... Quakers and the second volume of Thomas Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism, Emerson left with Charles to visit his oracle, Mary, on her farm in Waterford, Maine, with its inspiring mountain views. After going on to New Hampshire’s impressive White Mountains with Waldo, Charles returned to Boston; Mary joined Waldo at Crawford Notch but departed abruptly. Left alone to ponder his literal and personal prospects, Waldo noted, “The good of going into the mountains is that life is reconsidered.”109 He was reconsidering nothing less than the painful and complex intersection of private, professional, and doctrinal issues. In this self-reexamination, Emerson must have found strength from the Quaker profiles he had in hand. Their idea of a divine “inner light” within every soul had fed his recent sermons on the “God Within,” along with a favorite scriptural verse, Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is within you.” Since at least 1825, his own inner light had made him look critically at Mary’s repeated adulation of their common ministerial ancestors. He had then admitted, “It is my own humor to despise pedigree,” declaring that “the dead sleep in their moonless night; my business is with the living.”110 Still, now that he was a responsible pastor, historical encouragement from leading Quakers who embodied moral independence and courage could only strengthen him in his inner debate over leaving the practice of his fathers.

Leaving His Pastorate

  • 111 Cole, Mary Moody Emerson, 219.

41Under great stress and on the road that summer of 1832, Emerson developed a severe case of diarrhea that lasted on and off for months. Nevertheless, from this period of physical suffering and conflicted reflection, he emerged with new resolution. His journal entries make it clear that by mid-July, he was set on the course of leaving the ministry, breaking with Mary’s ardent dreams for him to carry on the family tradition. Yet now, fondness overruled her earlier objections: She could only understand his decision and wish him well. She wrote to Charles, hoping that Waldo, “free from ties to forms & instruction may find the Angel who can best unite him to the Infinite.” By his imagination alone, she thought he might experience a heartfelt infusion of Coleridge’s “Reason,” might, in short, intuit divinity.111 In a sermon on September 9, 1832, now known as “The Lord’s Supper,” Emerson publicly stated the message he had given the church committee three months before: For scriptural, theological, and historical reasons, he could not in good conscience administer the sacrament of communion. In his view, Jesus did not intend this meal to be a perpetual observance. Once made so, Emerson argued, the rite shifts attention away from a direct experience of God’s spirit to an exaggerated focus on the person of his mediator, Jesus. Furthermore, Emerson located the event as peculiar to a specific culture in a past time and place, and therefore inappropriate to modern Boston. Carefully researched and logical, the sermon was a forceful statement of Emerson’s sense of the priority of spirit over a now meaningless ritual.

  • 112 CS 4: 194.

42Beyond one church practice, however, Emerson’s argument for his action arose from eighteen months of struggle with loss, grief, and his entire relationship with organized religion. Ending the sermon, he capped his long rationale with this forthright statement: “It is my desire, in the office of a Christian minister, to do nothing which I cannot do with my whole heart. Having said this, I have said all... That is the end of my opposition [to administering Communion], that I am not interested in it.”112 Two days later he wrote to the congregation formally requesting to be relieved of his pastoral charge.

  • 113 CS 4: 296-97; L 1: 356n.
  • 114 James Elliot Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2 vols. (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1887 (...)

43Emerson had long chided himself for being cold and aloof. But his congregation had grown to love him, and seeking a compromise concerning communion, it entreated him to reconsider and stay. Even when Emerson stood firm, the vote to dismiss him (30 Yeas, 20 Nays, 4 Blanks) in late October expressed his congregation’s reluctance to let him go, and they “Voted unanimously that the Salary of the Rev Mr Emerson be continued for the present.” In fact, they even paid his last quarterly salary a few days early, on December 21.113 Waldo, still ill and depressed, had talked of going to the West Indies to restore his health, but in early December, learning of a ship headed for Naples, suddenly decided to go to Italy on a trip that would eventually take him farther north in Europe, and finally to England and Scotland. When Waldo rapidly broke up his household on Chardon Street to sail for Europe, Charles wrote Mary, “[T]hings seem flying to pieces, and I don’t know when they will again be put together and he [Waldo] harnessed in (what I think he requires) the labors of a daily calling.”114 On Christmas Day 1832, an ailing Emerson boarded the brig Jasper and set sail for Malta.

1.27 Emerson in Europe and Great Britain, 1832-1833.

Recovery and Renewal in Europe

  • 115 JMN 4: 141.

44With this dramatic exodus from Boston, Emerson started on his second life-altering journey, a nine-month tour of Europe. Like his shorter trip South six years before, this one strengthened him in body and mind, opening new intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional horizons. In Italy he visited ancient temples, catacombs, churches, monasteries, and museums. His New England eyes, used to the Puritan plain style, were overwhelmed by the Continent’s centuries of monumental classic sculpture, painting, and architecture. After touring Syracuse, he proceeded to Naples, where he responded to its glories but also rejected certain “contemptible particulars.” To a hotel’s overdone splendors and the concern with proper dress, he challenged, “Who cares? Here’s for the plain old Adam, the simple genuine Self against the whole world.”115

1.28 Journal entry: “Here’s for the plain old Adam, the simple genuine Self against the whole world.” 12 March 1833.

45Emerson, approaching his thirtieth birthday and proud to stand for the uncomplicated integrity of New World values and tastes, would not be intimidated by the Old World’s surface show.

  • 116 JMN 4: 152, 155-56.

46Heading north, he visited Pompeii, before finally arriving in Rome, where for a month his aesthetic side luxuriated in views of the city’s commanding architecture, art, and historic sites such as the Coliseum. At the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, he witnessed Pope Gregory XVI “bless the palms.” “[W]hat a temple!” he declared of St. Peter’s, whose incense-laden aromas pleased him and whose “immensity” awed him. Going out by moonlight to see Bernini’s splendid piazza and fountain, his enthusiasm spilled into his journal: “how faery beautiful! An Arabian night’s tale —.”116

1.29 Roman ruins, Emerson sepia watercolor, 1833.

47He continued on to Florence, Milan, and Switzerland, then after five months arrived in Paris where he would stay for almost four weeks.

  • 117 JMN 4: 196, 197.
  • 118 JMN 4: 200.

48At first, Emerson was impressed with this “vast, rich, old capital.” But after wandering about, he missed Italy’s antiquities and was less impressed, remarking that Paris was “a loud modern New York of a place.”117 Yet the city’s street scenes charmed him enough to record their details. And he absorbed certain antique riches at the Louvre while also bringing himself up-to-date on the latest European science by attending lectures at the Sorbonne. Then on July 13, a defining moment of the trip occurred on one of his visits to the Jardin des Plantes, or Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden), also the site of the Museum of Natural History. Its vast arrangements of plants and array of animal skeletons by genus and species gave Emerson a sudden revelation: All nature was organically unified! He was so excited that he jubilantly wrote in his journal: “I feel the centipede in me — cayman, carp, eagle, & fox. I am moved by strange sympathies, I say continually ‘I will be a naturalist.’”118

1.30 Jardin du Roi, Paris, 1820, North-South view.

1.31 Jardin des Plantes, National Museum of Natural History, Paris, 2010, South-North view.

  • 119 JMN 4: 204-05, 413-14.

49A week afterward in late July, having reached England, Emerson steamed up the Thames, finding “nothing surprizing” [sic] in a London familiar from “books & pictures & maps & traditions.” After checking into his room at Russell Square, he stopped in St. Paul’s Cathedral during a service. In his journal he jotted, “Immense city. Very dull city,” but he admitted “an extreme pleasure to hear English spoken in the streets.” He was also an eager tourist at Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons, Regent’s Park, and the British Museum.119

  • 120 JMN 4: 408-11.

50Most importantly, Emerson paid visits to the great British writers whose ideas and works had been so influential in the United States. In early August, he met Coleridge (who was still in bed when Emerson arrived)—“a short thick old man” who “soiled” his neat clothing with snuff and declaimed against Unitarianism. Emerson found his conversation as difficult to follow as his writings.120 He visited Warwick Castle en route to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and in late August, he arrived at the remote home of Thomas and Jane Carlyle in the hamlet of Craigenputtock.

1.32 Thomas Carlyle in his early 40s, late 1830s.

  • 121 JMN 4: 219, 220.

51An elated Emerson called this a “white day in my years,” signifying at once a climactic moment of perfection, startling clarity, and excitement. Carlyle’s enthusiasm for Emerson was equally high, and he invited his new friend to stay the night. The Scot was a garrulous storyteller and opinionated, but Emerson liked the Carlyles from the start: “Truth & peace & faith dwell with them & beautify them. I never saw more amiableness than is in his countenance.”121 Despite increasing political and philosophical differences, their friendship managed to last for their lifetimes.

  • 122 JMN 4: 222, 225.

52Two days later, Emerson visited the elderly Wordsworth, who lamented society’s lack of “moral Culture.” Commenting on the American scene, the aging poet surprised him with a paradox: For social cohesiveness, he thought that the United States needed a civil war. When they turned to assess leading writers, Emerson defended both Carlyle and Goethe. But on favorite examples in Wordsworth’s own work, he apparently agreed with the old man’s preference for poems that moved the heart. Wordsworth took his young visitor to see his garden, and they walked for a mile. Emerson saw “nothing very striking about his appearance,” but thought him kind: “I spoke as I felt with great respect of his genius.”122

  • 123 JMN 4: 78, 79.
  • 124 JMN 4: 81.
  • 125 JMN 4: 236.

53Meeting these great men face-to-face, Emerson had been both impressed and sobered: They were quite human after all. He foresaw that “I shall judge more justly, less timidly, of wise men forevermore.” Emerson especially thought that all of them lacked “insight into religious truth. They have no idea of that species of moral truth which I call the first philosophy.”123 The day after noting this, while waiting for the right weather before sailing home, Emerson added, “Glad I bid adieu to England, the old, the rich, the strong nation, full of arts & men & memories; nor can I feel any regret in the presence of the best of its sons that I was not born here. I am thankful that I am an American as I am thankful that I am a man.”124 When his ship left Liverpool for New York on September 4, 1833, Emerson had learned two priceless lessons. In Naples he had announced himself an American “Adam,” dismissing European trumperies to represent, if imperfectly, a new set of ethics. Now he felt completely independent, freed from slavish adulation of even the leading minds of England.125

  • 126 JMN 4: 237.

54Two days later at sea Emerson wrote, “I like my book about nature & wish I knew where & how I ought to live. God will show me.”126 He was referring to nature as a world of facts for pursuing reality comparable to his similar search for truth in theological texts. Emerson’s lengthy European tour had only strengthened his focus on that familiar Romantic trinity — Nature, Self, and God. The trip had not marked so much a turning, as a firming point. The arts and history of ancient cities had widened his perspective, and only strengthened, not shaken, his Yankee identity. Science in Paris had not sparked but rather rekindled his awareness of nature as a world for pursuing truth comparable to theology. And visiting the great literary figures of Britain had given him a strangely empowering revelation. Far from being in awe of these men as inaccessible titans, Emerson was measuring their biases and foibles as well as their virtues. Though he might learn from such geniuses, he recognized that they were, after all, men, and that his ideals and abilities were as fresh as theirs once had been. In his journal, safely letting slip more than a touch of youthful arrogance and native pride, Emerson allowed that he, the young American, had found these exemplars of European culture less sensitive than he to the ethical life.

Beginning a New Career in Boston, then Concord

55Within days of his return to Boston in October, Emerson was invited by the Natural History Society to lecture on “The Uses of Natural History.” In this first lecture of early November 1833 at the city’s Masonic Temple, he drew on his Paris experience to argue that humans are “designed” to be natural historians.

  • 127 The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 3 vols., eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Mass (...)

56Emerson pictured the benefits of studying nature as an upward spiral: Good health and practicality circled up to the inherent pleasures of knowledge, then turned higher to the ability of nature “to explain man to himself.” He celebrated “that correspondence of the outward world to the inward world of thoughts and emotions, by which it is suited to represent what we think.”127 Emerson thus launched himself on a new career as a lecturer, gradually achieving fame in the United States and, later, abroad.

57At the same time, although he had resigned his pastorate, Emerson never formally withdrew from the ministry, and was in demand once again as a supply pastor. For six years, until 1839, he preached frequently in Boston (including at Second Church), throughout Massachusetts, Maine, and even in New York City. From 1835 to 1838, he was virtually the regular minister for a rural parish in East Lexington. In fact, congregations in Waltham and New Bedford courted him with offers of full-time positions.

1.33 Masonic Temple, Boston, 1832.

  • 128 The Boston Daily Times, January 30, 1846, for example, reported that “Rev. Ralph W. Emerson and Cha (...)

58In various guises, his major themes continued to be moral self-culture and the God within. Indeed, well into the 1840s, certain individuals and even some newspapers still addressed him as “the Rev. Mr. Emerson.” By 1839, however, his preaching days were over, his transition from the pulpit to the lectern having been natural and seamless.128

  • 129 Henry F. Pommer, Emerson’s First Marriage (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967 (...)

59In May 1834, Emerson’s life was made at least somewhat easier when he received the first half of an inheritance from his wife’s estate: $ 11,600, the equivalent in 2013 dollars of about $ 326,000. But Charles wrote William that the annual interest from this sum, $ 1,200 (about $ 33,700 in 2013), was insufficient for three (his mother, Waldo, and himself), especially since “Waldo does without a Profession.” (He had only begun to lecture the previous fall.) Even after 1837, when Emerson received the second half of Ellen’s inheritance, increasing his estate to about $ 653,000 in current dollars, he had to count on income from lecturing to fully provide for himself and his family.129

  • 130 CLXVIII, CS 4: 221-28.
  • 131 L 1: 417n. 42.

60In 1834, however, Emerson was again beset by close personal loss. That summer, his close friend from Second Church, businessman George Adams Sampson, collapsed and died on his way to Bangor to join Emerson for a vacation. Emerson poured his grief into a memorial sermon for “our brother” at Second Church.130 In attendance were Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who wrote that Emerson’s preaching was so moving that she felt she knew Sampson as if she had been “his acquaintance on earth.”131 Then word came that on October 1, Waldo’s brother Edward had died of consumption in Puerto Rico. His death, again a caution to Waldo about excessive work, combined with concern for his own health and a desire to leave fast-growing Boston for a place close to nature, led him a week later to move to the house in Concord, Massachusetts that his grandfather, the Reverend William Emerson, had built in 1770. It was known as the “Old Manse.” Waldo had briefly stayed here as a child, as recounted earlier, and had fond memories of this family manse. After enduring yet another family tragedy, he was emerging again from a period of crippling mourning with a determined will to live.

1.34 Concord Center, 1839.

  • 132 CW 9: 79.
  • 133 See Merton M. Sealts Jr., and Alfred R. Ferguson, Emerson’s Nature: Origin, Growth, Meaning, 2nd ed (...)
  • 134 CW 9: 90.

61Grief itself seemed to unlock a deep vein of creativity within Emerson. A dabbler in verse since childhood, he was now seriously writing poetry. While visiting Newton, Massachusetts, in early 1834, he composed an ode to the wild rhododendron, “The Rhodora,” epitomizing spring. Unlike Keats’s adulation of a man-made object to praise beauty in his classic “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” Emerson’s subject for the same purpose arises organically from nature, a rarely glimpsed wild shrub in Concord’s swamplands with startlingly vivid, reddish-purple flowers. Its creator, he sees, is the same as his own, linking the flower — and its hidden potential — with himself: “Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!/I never thought to ask, I never knew;/But, in my simple ignorance, suppose/The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.”132 At his ancestral home, within a stone’s throw of the Old North Bridge, where the Revolution began, he made progress on his revolutionary “little book” on Nature.133 Along with this poetically philosophical manifesto, which would soon galvanize the attention of his own (rising) generation of restless idealists, came frequent walks in Concord’s woods. With its longstanding family and patriotic associations, the village became home almost overnight, and Emerson’s philosophical and daily delight with nature expressed itself in poetry. In the winter of 1834-1835, he composed “The Snow-Storm,” its impressionistic style making it one of his more enduring poems. It captures the tumult of a blizzard by using the metaphor of a Romantic Creator —“the fierce artificer”— and of art itself —“the mad wind’s night-work,/The frolic architecture of the snow.”134

  • 135 EL 1: 165.

62In late January 1835, Boston’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge engaged Emerson to present a six-part series on biography, starting with a now-lost introductory lecture on the subject. It must have been like its successors on Michelangelo, Luther, and Milton, treating the lives of men of exceptional qualities “who had the advantage of rare cultivation.”135 His next lecture, on George Fox, focused on the Quaker’s moral example as well as on his common humanity. Emerson’s final figure was Edmund Burke, the Irish-born, eighteenth-century British politician and writer, a secular master of statesmanship and eloquence. Studying great lives, Emerson believed, was a means of understanding history and of challenging oneself.

63In his private life, Emerson seemed to be moving toward conventional stability. In January, after having preached in Plymouth, where he met Lydia Jackson, orphaned daughter of a prominent businessman and a leading Sunday school teacher, he wrote to her, proposing marriage.

  • 136 McAleer, 201, and Richardson, 193.

64Though she frankly admitted that she was no housekeeper, Lydia — a year older than Emerson — promptly accepted. Intelligent and devout, she was known among family and friends as a fervent champion of animals and of the underprivileged, especially blacks and women. She was also given to visions. Though sometime earlier she had heard Emerson preach, Lydia had hardly met him when she imagined the two of them descending her family’s staircase as husband and wife.136

1.35 Lydian Jackson Emerson at 56, 1858.

  • 137 Richardson, 207-08, and McAleer, 207-08.

65In early July 1835, for $ 3,500 (or on a national average, about $ 95,500 in 2013) Emerson purchased a large, handsome house on the Cambridge Turnpike. As far out of town as his grandfather’s manse on the opposite side of Concord, the “Coolidge Castle,” or “Bush,” as he came to call it, was enlarged to accommodate not only his prospective wife and mother but also Charles, who had been practicing law in Concord, and Charles’s betrothed, Elizabeth Hoar.137

  • 138 A Historical Discourse, Delivered Before the Citizens of Concord, 12th September, 1835, On the Seco (...)
  • 139 CW 10: 27, 43.

66Meanwhile, Emerson, proud of the role his ancestor the Reverend Peter Bulkeley had played in founding Concord in 1635, was glad to be asked to deliver an historical address on the occasion of its bicentennial. On September 12, 1835, he gave a carefully researched lecture, which eventually became his first noteworthy publication, A Historical Discourse.138 His address celebrated “the ideal social compact,” one that had united the strong-willed Puritans and endured during the Revolution, when, Emerson noted, a “deep religious sentiment sanctified the thirst for liberty.”139

1.36 Emerson’s house, “Bush,” Concord, 1875, surrounded by pine trees he planted in 1836.

  • 140 Richardson, 192, 611.
  • 141 Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. Delores B. Carpenter (East Lansing: M (...)

67Two days after this address, Waldo and Lydia Jackson were married in Plymouth. She would have preferred to set up housekeeping in her family’s historic seaside town, but he persuaded her of the virtues and charms of Concord. Emerson also asked her to add an “n” to “Lydia,” making it “Lidian,” possibly hoping to avoid the common New England pronunciation “Lydier Emerson,” that typically inserted an “r” between two words that ended and began with vowels.140 Lidian immediately devoted herself to a life of caring for her husband, increasing social concerns — particularly, at this moment, abolition — and a demanding household. In fact, on the first night the Emersons moved in, Waldo, exuberant over his purchase, invited a couple from Plymouth to spend the night. Lidian, initially aghast, nevertheless dutifully managed.141 Emerson’s home for the rest of his long productive life, “Bush” would remain a constant center of high hospitality with constant comings and goings of family and a growing number of old and new friends.

  • 142 EL 1: 230, 231.

68In early November 1835, again in Boston, Emerson started a new ten-part lecture series on English literature. Great writers, he stated, express “the truths and sentiments in common circulation among us,” and we approach them not as mere talented entertainers but as geniuses who were “obedient to the spirit that was in them.”142 With new confidence, Emerson was also offering a hopeful vision for himself: as someone who, like these classic figures, might express ideas about humanity’s most central topics to a wide audience. Such a sentiment would raise expectations among his family, friends, and audiences — many still thought of him as a pastor — to use his lectures for reform matters. These anticipations would only increase as his reputation steadily grew alongside mounting unrest over slavery and women’s rights. At thirty-two, he had minimized recurring self-doubt, boldly left his pastorate for lecturing, and was well on his way toward addressing the world as a compelling spokesman for a “new philosophy.” Inspired by being resident on Concord’s ancestral rebellious ground, Emerson would finish his testament to this fresh thinking — the manuscript that he would entitle Nature — in the coming months. Its basic ideas and their elaboration in landmark speeches that followed soon after would stir up the most sacrosanct traditions of Boston and eventually all of America. The next chapter explores the effect of these intellectual fireworks both on Emerson and on his increasingly turbulent country.


59 When visiting Boston from his home in Quincy, John Adams occasionally worshipped at William Emerson’s First Church. His son, John Quincy Adams, was a member of the church. Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson: A Biography (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 6-7. Waldo and his brother Edward visited Adams in Quincy in February 1825 to congratulate him on the election of John Quincy to the presidency. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982), 3: 29, 35. Hereafter JMN.

60 Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson, vol. 2, The Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 145-47.

61 The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 4 vols., eds. Albert J. von Frank, et al. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1989-1992), 4: 42, notes 1-3. Hereafter CS.

62 Courage and Conscience: Black & White Abolitionists in Boston, ed. Donald M. Jacobs (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), 10, 17, 30, 80.

63 The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor M. Tilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, 1990-1995), 1: 127. Hereafter L.

64 JMN 3: 137.

65 JMN 7: 6.

66 JMN 2: 237-41.

67 JMN 2: 161.

68 JMN 3: 29.

69 JMN 2: 332.

70 L 1: 184.

71 See Evelyn Barish, “The Moonless Night: Emerson’s Crisis of Health, 1825-1827,” in Emerson Centenary Essays, ed. Joel Myerson (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 1-16; incorporated in her Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

72 JMN 3: 15.

73 JMN 3: 21.

74 JMN 3: 25.

75 See Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), esp. chaps. 7 and 8.

76 John Quincy Adams, 24 February 1820, The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794-1845, ed. Allan Nevins (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), 228-29.

77 JMN 2: 43, 49, 57, 58.

78 See Gustaaf Van Cromphout, Emerson’s Modernity and the Example of Goethe (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1990).

79 L 1: 174.

80 JMN 3: 45.

81 “Observations on the Growth of the Mind,” Sampson Reed: Primary Source Material for Emerson Studies, compiler George F. Dole (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1992), 28.

82 Sermon CXI, CS 3: 127.

83 JMN 3: 63-64.

84 JMN 3: 72.

85 JMN 3: 117.

86 JMN 3: 77. On Emerson and Murat, see also Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 74-77, 225.

87 The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Alfred R. Ferguson, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971-2013), 2: 46. Hereafter CW.

88 JMN 3: 82.

89 CS 1: 85-92. See Mott, “‘Christ Crucified’: Christology, Identity, and Emerson’s Sermon No. 5,” in Emerson Centenary Essays, ed. Joel Myerson (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 17-40; incorporated in Mott, “The Strains of Eloquence”: Emerson and his Sermons (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989), 9-33.

90 L 7: 159-60.

91 Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), 398, and William R. Hutchison, The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 12.

92 See David Robinson, Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982); Mott, “Strains”; and Susan L. Roberson, Emerson in His Sermons: A Man-Made Self (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1995).

93 JMN 4: 263-64, and Richardson, 157-63.

94 JMN 3: 93.

95 CS 2: 20-21.

96 Commentary on this sermon includes Mott, “From Natural Religion to Transcendentalism: An Edition of Emerson’s Sermon No. 43,” in Studies in the American Renaissance 1985, ed. Joel Myerson (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1985), 14-26 (revised in chap. 3 of “Strains”) and Laura Dassow Walls, Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 159. For an extensive discussion of Emerson’s interest in electromagnetism, see Eric Wilson, Emerson’s Sublime Science (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999).

97 Sermon CLVII, CS 4: 158.

98 CS 4: 115.

99 JMN 3: 226, CS 4: 302.

100 JMN 3: 226; Sermon CVII, CS 3: 101-05.

101 JMN 3: 242. On Emerson and the problem of Christian “evidences,” see Mott, “Strains,” 53-78.

102 JMN 3: 318, 320.

103 JMN 4: 7.

104 See Richardson, 3-5, and Ralph H. Orth, “Emerson’s Visit to the Tomb of His First Wife,” Emerson Society Paper 11 (Spring 2000), 3, 8.

105 Richardson states that “The loss that darkened his life also freed him. Ellen’s death cut Emerson loose” (Richardson, 118).

106 JMN 4: 27; 40-41.

107 JMN 4: 27.

108 CS 4: 292-95.

109 JMN 4: 29. See also Cole, Mary Moody Emerson, 218.

110 JMN 2: 316.

111 Cole, Mary Moody Emerson, 219.

112 CS 4: 194.

113 CS 4: 296-97; L 1: 356n.

114 James Elliot Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2 vols. (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1887), 1: 174. See also John McAleer, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1984), 125-26, and Richardson, 127.

115 JMN 4: 141.

116 JMN 4: 152, 155-56.

117 JMN 4: 196, 197.

118 JMN 4: 200.

119 JMN 4: 204-05, 413-14.

120 JMN 4: 408-11.

121 JMN 4: 219, 220.

122 JMN 4: 222, 225.

123 JMN 4: 78, 79.

124 JMN 4: 81.

125 JMN 4: 236.

126 JMN 4: 237.

127 The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 3 vols., eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959-1972), 1: 6, 23, 24. Hereafter EL.

128 The Boston Daily Times, January 30, 1846, for example, reported that “Rev. Ralph W. Emerson and Charles Sumner, Esq.” were praised by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society for boycotting the New Bedford Lyceum when it refused to admit blacks (2). For daily details of Emerson’s preaching and lecturing engagements, see Albert J. von Frank, An Emerson Chronology (New York: G. K. Hall, 1994).

129 Henry F. Pommer, Emerson’s First Marriage (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 65. For monetary equivalencies, the latest figures available are for 2013; see Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Measures of Worth”; and The Calculators: Relative Values U. S. $ at

130 CLXVIII, CS 4: 221-28.

131 L 1: 417n. 42.

132 CW 9: 79.

133 See Merton M. Sealts Jr., and Alfred R. Ferguson, Emerson’s Nature: Origin, Growth, Meaning, 2nd ed., enlarged (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979).

134 CW 9: 90.

135 EL 1: 165.

136 McAleer, 201, and Richardson, 193.

137 Richardson, 207-08, and McAleer, 207-08.

138 A Historical Discourse, Delivered Before the Citizens of Concord, 12th September, 1835, On the Second Centennial Anniversary of the Incorporation of the Town (Concord: G. F. Bemis, 1835). See CW 10: 17-54.

139 CW 10: 27, 43.

140 Richardson, 192, 611.

141 Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. Delores B. Carpenter (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1992), 62.

142 EL 1: 230, 231.

Table des illustrations

Légende 1.19 Title page, Emerson’s Wideworld 2, 11 July 1822.
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Légende 1.20 William Ellery Channing, 1857.
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Légende 1.21 Divinity School, Harvard, 1840.
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Légende 1.22 Achille Murat (1801-1847).
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Légende 1.23 Ellen Louisa Tucker at 18, 1829.
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Légende 1.24 Emerson at about 26, c. 1829.
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Légende 1.25 New Brick, or Second Church, Boston, 1843.
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Légende 1.26 View of Boston from the South Boston Bridge, c. 1820-1829.
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Légende 1.27 Emerson in Europe and Great Britain, 1832-1833.
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Légende 1.28 Journal entry: “Here’s for the plain old Adam, the simple genuine Self against the whole world.” 12 March 1833.
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Légende 1.29 Roman ruins, Emerson sepia watercolor, 1833.
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Légende 1.30 Jardin du Roi, Paris, 1820, North-South view.
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Légende 1.31 Jardin des Plantes, National Museum of Natural History, Paris, 2010, South-North view.
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Légende 1.32 Thomas Carlyle in his early 40s, late 1830s.
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Légende 1.33 Masonic Temple, Boston, 1832.
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Légende 1.34 Concord Center, 1839.
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Légende 1.35 Lydian Jackson Emerson at 56, 1858.
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Légende 1.36 Emerson’s house, “Bush,” Concord, 1875, surrounded by pine trees he planted in 1836.
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