'Standing on the bare ground--my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space--all mean egotism vanishes,' Emerson wrote in Nature, his statement of the principles of transcendentalism. 'I become a transparent eyeball.' Nature, published in 1836 when Emerson was thirty-three, is collected here with his book of observations on the English people; a famous sermon against administering communion in church; a sketch of his step-grandfather; the eulogy he delivered at the funeral of his Concord friend and neighbor Henry David Thoreau; twenty-three poems; and addresses, lectures, and essays on such subjects as slavery, self-reliance, and organized Christianity's obsession with the person of Jesus. Emerson called transcendentalism another word for idealism--'hypothesis to account for nature by other principles than those of carpentry and chemistry.' Considered intensely radical at a time when materialism and a rigid form of Christianity were ascendant, he urged Americans to 'enjoy an original relation to the universe.' These selections span Emerson's career as author and traveling lecturer, and chart his evolving thought: the concepts of the 'over-soul,' individualism without egotism, and antimaterialism; a belief in intuition, independence, and 'the splendid labyrinth of one's own perceptions.'
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. At Harvard he won prizes for his oratory and essays. He studied briefly at Harvard Divinity School but was forced to interrupt his courses because of eye trouble. In 1826 he began a career as a minister, eventually becoming junior pastor of the Second Church of Boston. He married Ellen Tucker in 1829, despite the fact that she was already ill with tuberculosis; she died two years later at the age of nineteen.
After the death of his wife, Emerson went to Europe, where he met Landor, Mill, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and others. On his return he settled in Concord, Massachusetts, and a year later married Lydia Jackson. What would eventually be called the Transcendental Club had begun to form around him, its members including Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Orestes Brownson. The spiritual ferment of the Concord group found expression in Emerson's first significant work, the essay 'Nature' (1836), in which he sketched the ideas that his later writings were to elaborate: 'The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history: the use of the outer creation, to give us language for the beings and changes of the inward creation. . . . By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause.' This was followed by two profoundly influential orations, 'The American Scholar,' a powerful statement of individualism, and 'The Harvard Divinity School Address,' whose unorthodox religious views created a scandal: 'Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. . . . It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons.'
Around this time Emerson became closely associated with Henry David Thoreau and with the mystical poet Jones Very. He gave up preaching and collaborated with Margaret Fuller on the journal The Dial, in which he began to publish his essays. These appeared in book form as Essays: First Series (1841) and Essays: Second Series (1844). He became more involved in political issues, launching attacks on the Mexican War and slavery. His essays had made him an internationally known figure, and on a return trip to Europe in 1847 he met with a wide range of writers and thinkers, including Dickens, Tocqueville, and Tennyson. He published further collections of his essays and public addresses--Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (1849), Representative Men (1850), English Traits (1856), The Conduct of Life (1860)--while lecturing against slavery throughout the Northeast. Whitman's Leaves of Grass elicited an enthusiastic response from him, although he attempted to persuade the poet to tone down the poem's sexual imagery.
Following the Civil War, Emerson continued to lecture energetically, publishing Society and Solitude (1870) and the verse collection May-Day and Other Pieces (1867). In 1872 his health began to fail, and after a final trip to Europe he settled into a quieter routine as his memory gradually weakened. He died in Concord, of pneumonia, on April 27, 1882.