An Empowering Essayist: Encouraging Personal Growth and Individuality, Ralph Waldo Emerson Was a Thought Leader for 19th Century Americans

By Huso, Deborah R. | Success, December 2012 | Go to article overview

An Empowering Essayist: Encouraging Personal Growth and Individuality, Ralph Waldo Emerson Was a Thought Leader for 19th Century Americans


Huso, Deborah R., Success


By railing against conformity, Ralph Emerson taught a new way of life through his many essays and lectures on self-reliance, self-improvement and self-realization. He also was a leader of the Transcendentalist movement; its followers believed that many of society's institutions (including organized religion and political parties) corrupted the inherent goodness of man.

Emerson influenced generations of writers, and his beliefs about individualism are pillars of American culture. We caught up with Emerson's pensive spirit at his home in Concord, Mass.

Q: You were not a particularly gifted student as a boy and a young man. How do you explain your transformation into a respected writer?

A: "That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do: not that the nature of the thing itself has changed, hut that our power to do is increased."

Born in Boston in 1803 to a Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson began learning the lessons of hardship at age 8, when his father's death left the family dependent on the charity of the church. Nevertheless, Emerson's mother was a determined woman who wanted to send four sons to Harvard, so she maintained a boardinghouse to earn money. The Emersons lived in poverty, but Ralph and his brothers were inspired by an aunt who taught them to look upon deprivation as "ecstatic self-denial."

Emerson spent four years at Harvard, had a brief stint as a schoolmaster, and then followed the path of his ancestors, pursuing a career as a Unitarian minister. Emerson questioned conventional Christianity, however. His skepticism, a lifelong feature of his thinking and writing, was fueled initially by his readings of Buddhist and Hindu literature. As he educated himself, Emerson became increasingly passionate about developing a new worldview and resigned from his church position in 1832.

Q: You gave up a well-paying job as a minister to teach and inspire others with your ideas. Why?

A: "It was high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, Always do what you are afraid. to do.'"

Emerson used the inheritance from his first wife's death to pay for a move to Concord, Mass. There he led the life of a "poet," a term he used broadly to describe his whole career, even though he is largely known as an essayist.

After traveling extensively in Europe to broaden his perspective, Emerson returned to Concord and wrote Nature, published in 1836. The essay did not make Emerson famous, but it did begin to outline his values as a thinker who focused on the repudiation of materialism and the embrace of nature as the embodiment of divinity. His views influenced American contemporaries Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose works remain classic reading for U.S. high school and college students.

Nature, along with Emerson's 1838 "Divinity School Address" at Harvard, laid the foundation for Transcendentalism, a school of thought devoted to self-reliance and self-improvement. …

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