Ralph Waldo Emerson

Work

During the early 1830s Emerson began an active career as writer and lecturer. In 1836 he published anonymously his essay Nature, based on his early lectures. It is in that piece that he first set forth the main principles of transcendentalism, expressing a firm belief in the mystical unity of nature. He attracted wide attention with "The American Scholar," his Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard in 1837, in which he called for independence from European cultural leadership. In his lecture at the Harvard divinity school in 1838, his admonition that one could find redemption only in one's own soul was taken to mean that he repudiated Christianity. This caused such indignation that he was not invited to Harvard again until 1866, when the college granted him an honorary degree.

In 1840 Emerson joined with others in publishing The Dial, a magazine intended to promulgate transcendental thought. One of the younger contributors to The Dial was Henry David Thoreau, who lived in the Emerson household from 1841 to 1843 and became Emerson's most famous disciple. The first collection of Emerson's poems appeared in 1847. In spite of his difficulty in writing structurally correct verse, he always regarded himself essentially as a poet. Among his best-known poems are "Threnody,""Brahma,""The Problem,""The Rhodora," and "The Concord Hymn."

It was his winter lecture tours, however, which dominated the American lecture circuit in the 1830s and first made Emerson famous among his contemporaries. These lectures received their final form in his series of Essays (1841; second series, 1844). The most notable among them are "The Over-Soul,""Compensation," and "Self-Reliance." From 1845–47 he delivered a series of lectures published as Representative Men (1850). After a second trip to England, in 1847, he gave another series of lectures later published as English Traits (1856). During the 1850s he became strongly interested in abolitionism, and he actively supported war with the South after the attack on Fort Sumter. His late lecture tours are contained in The Conduct of Life (1860) and Society and Solitude (1870). Though his last years were marked by a decline in his mental powers, his literary reputation continued to spread. Probably no writer has so profoundly influenced American thought as Emerson.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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