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Ralph Waldo Emerson
Philosopher, Essayist, Poet (18031882)
The son of a Unitarian minister, Emerson spent a sheltered childhood in Boston. During his youth the publications of the German Higher Critics and their progeny, as well as translations of Hindu and Buddhist poetry, were causing controversy in American academic circles. Emerson's class at Harvard Divinity School was affected by these influences; consequently, upon assuming the pastorate of a Boston church in 1829, Emerson experienced many doubts concerning traditional Christian belief. He resigned from his pulpit in 1832, moved to nearby Concord, and then spent the next few years studying and traveling in Europe. After visiting a Paris botanical exhibition, Emerson resolved to be, as he termed it, a "naturalist." Upon returning to the United States, he began his career as a lecturer in the country's new lyceum movement. During the late 1830s and early 1840s, Emerson published the works that present his thought at its most idealistic and optimistic. The lyrical essay Nature (1836), a pamphlet repudiating both materialism and conventional religion, declares nature the divine example for inspiration and the source of boundless possibilities for humanity's fulfillment. The American Scholar, an address delivered before Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837, attacks American dependence on European thought and urges the creation of a new literary heritage. Emerson's Divinity School Address, delivered at Harvard in 1838, caused tremendous controversy for renouncing the tenets of historical Christianity and defining Transcendental philosophy in terms of the "impersoneity" of God. The doctrines formulated in these three works were later expanded and elaborated upon in his Essays (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844), of which "Self-Reliance," "The Over-Soul," and "The Poet" are among the best-known.
Many American authors, including Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreau are indebted to Emerson's thought. While some critics find in him the eternal naif, a writer of pleasant-sounding but ultimately impractical essays, containing ideals that stale with the age of Emerson's works, others note his energizing influence on inquisitive minds as evidence of his lasting greatness.