Produced by Paul Murray and PG Distributed Proofreaders
American Men of Letters
CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER.
"_Thou wert the morning star among the living,
Ere thy fair light had fled:
Now, having died, thou art as Hesperus, giving
New splendor to the dead._"
American Men of Letters
* * * * *
RALPH WALDO EMERSON.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES.
My thanks are due to the members of Mr. Emerson's family, and the other
friends who kindly assisted me by lending interesting letters and
furnishing valuable information.
The Index, carefully made by Mr. J.H. Wiggin, was revised and somewhat
abridged by myself.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES.
BOSTON, November 25, 1884.
* * * * *
1803-1823. To AET. 20.
Birthplace. - Boyhood. - College Life.
elseif (getClientWidth() > 430)
1823-1828. AET. 20-25.
Extract from a Letter to a Classmate. - School-Teaching. - Study of
Divinity. - "Approbated" to Preach. - Visit to the South. - Preaching in
1828-1833. AET. 25-30.
Settled as Colleague of Rev. Henry Ware. - Married to Ellen Louisa
Tucker. - Sermon at the Ordination of Rev. H.B. Goodwin. - His Pastoral
and Other Labors. - Emerson and Father Taylor. - Death of Mrs.
Emerson. - Difference of Opinion with some of his Parishioners. - Sermon
Explaining his Views. - Resignation of his Pastorate.
1833-1838. AET. 30-35.
Section I. Visit to Europe. - On his Return preaches in Different
Places. - Emerson in the Pulpit. - At Newton. - Fixes his Residence at
Concord. - The Old Manse. - Lectures in Boston. - Lectures on
Michael Angelo and on Milton published in the "North American
Review." - Beginning of the Correspondence with Carlyle. - Letters to the
Rev. James Freeman Clarke. - Republication of "Sartor Resartus."
Section 2. Emerson's Second Marriage. - His New Residence in
Concord. - Historical Address. - Course of Ten Lectures on English
Literature delivered in Boston. - The Concord Battle Hymn. - Preaching
in Concord and East Lexington. - Accounts of his Preaching by
Several Hearers. - A Course of Lectures on the Nature and Ends of
History. - Address on War. - Death of Edward Bliss Emerson. - Death of
Charles Chauncy Emerson.
Section 3. Publication of "Nature." - Outline of this Essay. - Its
Reception. - Address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society
1838-1843. AET. 35-40.
Section 1. Divinity School Address. - Correspondence. - Lectures on Human
Life. - Letters to James Freeman Clarke. - Dartmouth College Address:
Literary Ethics. - Waterville College Address: The Method of
Nature. - Other Addresses: Man the Reformer. - Lecture on the Times. - The
Conservative. - The Transcendentalist. - Boston "Transcendentalism." - "The
Dial." - Brook Farm.
Section 2. First Series of Essays published. - Contents: History,
Self-Reliance, Compensation, Spiritual Laws, Love, Friendship, Prudence,
Heroism, The Over-Soul, Circles, Intellect, Art. - Emerson's Account
of his Mode of Life in a Letter to Carlyle. - Death of Emerson's
Son. - Threnody
1843-1848. AET. 40-45.
"The Young American." - Address on the Anniversary of the Emancipation
of the Negroes in the British West Indies. - Publication of the
Second Series of Essays. - Contents: The Poet. - Experience.
- Character. - Manners. - Gifts. - Nature. - Politics. - Nominalist
and Realist. - New England Reformers. - Publication of Poems. - Second
Visit to England
1848-1853. AET. 45-50.
The "Massachusetts Quarterly Review." - Visit to
Europe. - England. - Scotland. - France. - "Representative Men" published.
I. Lives of Great Men. II. Plato; or, the Philosopher; Plato; New
Readings. III. Swedenborg; or, the Mystic. IV. Montaigne; or, the
Skeptic. V. Shakespeare; or, the Poet. VI. Napoleon; or, the Man of the
World. VII. Goethe; or, the Writer. - Contribution to the "Memoirs of
Margaret Fuller Ossoli"
1853-1858. AET. 50-55.
Lectures in various Places. - Anti-Slavery Addresses. - Woman. A Lecture
read before the Woman's Rights Convention. - Samuel Hoar. Speech at
Concord. - Publication of "English Traits." - The "Atlantic Monthly." - The
1858-1863. AET. 55-60.
Essay on Persian Poetry. - Speech at the Burns Centennial
Festival. - Letter from Emerson to a Lady. - Tributes to Theodore Parker
and to Thoreau. - Address on the Emancipation Proclamation. - Publication
of "The Conduct of Life." Contents: Fate; Power; Wealth; Culture;
Behavior; Considerations by the Way; Beauty; Illusions
1863-1868. AET. 60-65.
"Boston Hymn." - "Voluntaries." - Other Poems. - "May-Day and other
Pieces." - "Remarks at the Funeral Services of President Lincoln." - Essay
on Persian Poetry. - Address at a Meeting of the Free Religious
Association. - "Progress of Culture." Address before the Phi Beta
Kappa Society of Harvard University. - Course of Lectures in
Philadelphia. - The Degree of LL.D. conferred upon Emerson by Harvard
University. - "Terminus".
1868-1873. AET. 65-70.
Lectures on the Natural History of the Intellect. - Publication of
"Society and Solitude." Contents: Society and Solitude.
- Civilization. - Art. - Eloquence. - Domestic Life. - Farming.
- Works and Days. - Books. - Clubs. - Courage. - Success. - Old Age. - Other
Literary Labors. - Visit to California. - Burning of his House, and the
Story of its Rebuilding. - Third Visit to Europe. - His Reception at
Concord on his Return
1873-1878. AET. 70-75.
Publication of "Parnassus." - Emerson Nominated as Candidate for the
Office of Lord Rector of Glasgow University. - Publication of
"Letters and Social Aims." Contents: Poetry and Imagination. - Social
Aims. - Eloquence. - Resources. - The Comic. - Quotation and Originality.
- Progress of Culture. - Persian Poetry. - Inspiration. - Greatness.
- Immortality. - Address at the Unveiling of the Statue of "The
Minute-Man" at Concord. - Publication of Collected Poems
1878-1882. AET. 75-79.
Last Literary Labors. - Addresses and Essays. - "Lectures and Biographical
Sketches." - "Miscellanies"
Recollections of Emerson's Last Years. - Mr. Conway's Visits. - Extracts
from Mr. Whitman's Journal. - Dr. Le Baron Russell's Visit. - Dr. Edward
Emerson's Account. - Illness and Death. - Funeral Services
EMERSON. - -A RETROSPECT.
Personality and Habits of Life. - His Commission and Errand. - As a
Lecturer. - His Use of Authorities. - Resemblance to Other Writers. - As
influenced by Others. - His Place as a Thinker. - Idealism and
Intuition. - Mysticism. - His Attitude respecting Science. - As an
American. - His Fondness for Solitary Study. - His Patience and
Amiability. - Feeling with which he was regarded. - Emerson and
Burns. - His Religious Belief. - His Relations with Clergymen. - Future of
his Reputation. - His Life judged by the Ideal Standard
"I have the feeling that every man's biography is at his own expense. He
furnishes not only the facts, but the report. I mean that all biography
is autobiography. It is only what he tells of himself that comes to be
known and believed."
So writes the man whose life we are to pass in review, and it is
certainly as true of him as of any author we could name. He delineates
himself so perfectly in his various writings that the careful reader
sees his nature just as it was in all its essentials, and has little
more to learn than those human accidents which individualize him
in space and time. About all these accidents we have a natural and
pardonable curiosity. We wish to know of what race he came, what were
the conditions into which he was born, what educational and social
influences helped to mould his character, and what new elements Nature
added to make him Ralph Waldo Emerson.
He himself believes in the hereditary transmission of certain
characteristics. Though Nature appears capricious, he says, "Some
qualities she carefully fixes and transmits, but some, and those the
finer, she exhales with the breath of the individual, as too costly to
perpetuate. But I notice also that they may become fixed and permanent
in any stock, by painting and repainting them on every individual, until
at last Nature adopts them and bakes them in her porcelain."
* * * * *
We have in New England a certain number of families who constitute what
may be called the Academic Races. Their names have been on college
catalogues for generation after generation. They have filled the learned
professions, more especially the ministry, from the old colonial days to
our own time. If aptitudes for the acquisition of knowledge can be
bred into a family as the qualities the sportsman wants in his dog are
developed in pointers and setters, we know what we may expect of a
descendant of one of the Academic Races. Other things being equal, he
will take more naturally, more easily, to his books. His features will
be more pliable, his voice will be more flexible, his whole nature more
plastic than those of the youth with less favoring antecedents. The
gift of genius is never to be reckoned upon beforehand, any more than
a choice new variety of pear or peach in a seedling; it is always a
surprise, but it is born with great advantages when the stock from which
it springs has been long under cultivation.
These thoughts suggest themselves in looking back at the striking record
of the family made historic by the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was
remarkable for the long succession of clergymen in its genealogy, and
for the large number of college graduates it counted on its rolls.
A genealogical table is very apt to illustrate the "survival of the
fittest," - in the estimate of the descendants. It is inclined to
remember and record those ancestors who do most honor to the living
heirs of the family name and traditions. As every man may count two
grandfathers, four great-grandfathers, eight great-great-grandfathers,
and so on, a few generations give him a good chance for selection. If
he adds his distinguished grandmothers, he may double the number of
personages to choose from. The great-grandfathers of Mr. Emerson at the
sixth remove were thirty-two in number, unless the list was shortened by
intermarriage of relatives. One of these, from whom the name descended,
was Thomas Emerson of Ipswich, who furnished the staff of life to the
people of that wonderfully interesting old town and its neighborhood.
His son, the Reverend Joseph Emerson, minister of the town of Mendon,
Massachusetts, married Elizabeth, daughter of the Reverend Edward
Bulkeley, who succeeded his father, the Reverend Peter Bulkeley, as
Minister of Concord, Massachusetts.
Peter Bulkeley was therefore one of Emerson's sixty-four grandfathers
at the seventh remove. We know the tenacity of certain family
characteristics through long lines of descent, and it is not impossible
that any one of a hundred and twenty-eight grandparents, if indeed the
full number existed in spite of family admixtures, may have transmitted
his or her distinguishing traits through a series of lives that cover
more than two centuries, to our own contemporary. Inherited qualities
move along their several paths not unlike the pieces in the game of
chess. Sometimes the character of the son can be traced directly to that
of the father or of the mother, as the pawn's move carries him from one
square to the next. Sometimes a series of distinguished fathers follows
in a line, or a succession of superior mothers, as the black or white
bishop sweeps the board on his own color. Sometimes the distinguishing
characters pass from one sex to the other indifferently, as the castle
strides over the black and white squares. Sometimes an uncle or aunt
lives over again in a nephew or niece, as if the knight's move were
repeated on the squares of human individuality. It is not impossible,
then, that some of the qualities we mark in Emerson may have come from
the remote ancestor whose name figures with distinction in the early
history of New England.
The Reverend Peter Bulkeley is honorably commemorated among the worthies
consigned to immortality in that precious and entertaining medley of
fact and fancy, enlivened by a wilderness of quotations at first or
second hand, the _Magnolia Christi Americana_, of the Reverend Cotton
Mather. The old chronicler tells his story so much better than any one
can tell it for him that he must be allowed to speak for himself in a
few extracts, transferred with all their typographical idiosyncrasies
from the London-printed, folio of 1702.
"He was descended of an Honourable Family in _Bedfordshire_. - He was
born at _Woodhil_ (or _Odel_) in _Bedfordshire_, _January_ 31st,
"His _Education_ was answerable unto his _Original_; it was
_Learned_, it was _Genteel_, and, which was the top of all, it was
very _Pious_: At length it made him a _Batchellor_ of _Divinity_,
and a Fellow of Saint _John's_ Colledge in Cambridge. -
"When he came abroad into the World, a good benefice befel him,
added unto the estate of a Gentleman, left him by his Father; whom
he succeeded in his Ministry, at the place of his Nativity: Which
one would imagine _Temptations_ enough to keep him out of a
But he could not conscientiously conform to the ceremonies of the
English Church, and so, -
"When Sir _Nathaniel Brent_ was Arch-Bishop _Laud's_ General, as
Arch-Bishop _Laud_ was _another's_, Complaints were made against Mr.
_Bulkly_, for his Non-Conformity, and he was therefore Silenced.
"To _New-England_ he therefore came, in the Year 1635; and there
having been for a while, at _Cambridge_, he carried a good Number of
Planters with him, up further into the _Woods_, where they gathered
the _Twelfth Church_, then formed in the Colony, and call'd the Town
by the Name of _Concord_.
"Here he _buried_ a great Estate, while he _raised_ one still,
for almost every Person whom he employed in the Affairs of his
"He was a most excellent _Scholar_, a very-_well read_ Person, and
one, who in his advice to young Students, gave Demonstrations, that
he knew what would go to make a _Scholar_. But it being essential
unto a _Scholar_ to love a _Scholar_, so did he; and in Token
thereof, endowed the Library of _Harvard_-Colledge with no small
part of his own.
"And he was therewithal a most exalted _Christian_ - In his Ministry
he was another _Farel, Quo nemo tonuit fortius_ - And the observance
which his own People had for him, was also paid him from all sorts
of People throughout the Land; but especially from the Ministers of
the Country, who would still address him as a _Father_, a _Prophet_,
a _Counsellor_, on all occasions."
These extracts may not quite satisfy the exacting reader, who must be
referred to the old folio from which they were taken, where he will
receive the following counsel: -
"If then any Person would know what Mr. _Peter Bulkly_ was, let him read
his Judicious and Savory Treatise of the _Gospel Covenant_, which has
passed through several Editions, with much Acceptance among the People
of God." It must be added that "he had a competently good Stroke at
Latin Poetry; and even in his Old Age, affected sometimes to improve it.
Many of his Composure are yet in our Hands."
It is pleasant to believe that some of the qualities of this
distinguished scholar and Christian were reproduced in the descendant
whose life we are studying. At his death in 1659 he was succeeded, as
was mentioned, by his son Edward, whose daughter became the wife of the
Reverend Joseph Emerson, the minister of Mendon who, when that village
was destroyed by the Indians, removed to Concord, where he died in the
year 1680. This is the first connection of the name of Emerson with
Concord, with which it has since been so long associated.
Edward Emerson, son of the first and father of the second Reverend
Joseph Emerson, though not a minister, was the next thing to being one,
for on his gravestone he is thus recorded: "Mr. Edward Emerson, sometime
Deacon of the first church in Newbury." He was noted for the virtue of
patience, and it is a family tradition that he never complained but
once, when he said mildly to his daughter that her dumplings were
somewhat harder than needful, - "_but not often_." This same Edward was
the only break in the line of ministers who descended from Thomas of
Ipswich. He is remembered in the family as having been "a merchant in
Their son, the second Reverend Joseph Emerson, Minister of Malden for
nearly half a century, married Mary, the daughter of the Reverend Samuel
Moody, - Father Moody, - of York, Maine. Three of his sons were ministers,
and one of these, William, was pastor of the church at Concord at the
period of the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
As the successive generations narrow down towards the individual whose
life we are recalling, the character of his progenitors becomes more and
more important and interesting to the biographer. The Reverend William
Emerson, grandfather of Ralph Waldo, was an excellent and popular
preacher and an ardent and devoted patriot. He preached resistance to
tyrants from the pulpit, he encouraged his townsmen and their allies to
make a stand against the soldiers who had marched upon their peaceful
village, and would have taken a part in the Fight at the Bridge, which
he saw from his own house, had not the friends around him prevented
his quitting his doorstep. He left Concord in 1776 to join the army at
Ticonderoga, was taken with fever, was advised to return to Concord and
set out on the journey, but died on his way. His wife was the daughter
of the Reverend Daniel Bliss, his predecessor in the pulpit at Concord.
This was another very noticeable personage in the line of Emerson's
ancestors. His merits and abilities are described at great length on his
tombstone in the Concord burial-ground. There is no reason to doubt that
his epitaph was composed by one who knew him well. But the slabs
which record the excellences of our New England clergymen of the past
generations are so crowded with virtues that the reader can hardly help
inquiring whether a sharp bargain was not driven with the stonecutter,
like that which the good Vicar of Wakefield arranged with the
portrait-painter. He was to represent Sophia as a shepherdess, it will
be remembered, with as many sheep as he could afford to put in for
William Emerson left four children, a son bearing the same name, and
three daughters, one of whom, Mary Moody Emerson, is well remembered as
pictured for us by her nephew, Ralph Waldo. His widow became the wife
of the Reverend Ezra Ripley, Doctor of Divinity, and his successor as
Minister at Concord.
The Reverend William Emerson, the second of that name and profession,
and the father of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born in the year 1769, and
graduated at Harvard College in 1789. He was settled as Minister in the
town of Harvard in the year 1792, and in 1799 became Minister of the
First Church in Boston. In 1796 he married Ruth Haskins of Boston. He
died in 1811, leaving five sons, of whom Ralph Waldo was the second.
The interest which attaches itself to the immediate parentage of a man
like Emerson leads us to inquire particularly about the characteristics
of the Reverend William Emerson so far as we can learn them from his own
writings and from the record of his contemporaries.
The Reverend Dr. Sprague's valuable and well-known work, "Annals of the
American Pulpit," contains three letters from which we learn some of
his leading characteristics. Dr. Pierce of Brookline, the faithful
chronicler of his time, speaks of his pulpit talents as extraordinary,
but thinks there was not a perfect sympathy between him and the people
of the quiet little town of Harvard, while he was highly acceptable in
the pulpits of the metropolis. In personal appearance he was attractive;
his voice was melodious, his utterance distinct, his manner agreeable.
"He was a faithful and generous friend and knew how to forgive an
enemy. - In his theological views perhaps he went farther on the liberal
side than most of his brethren with whom he was associated. - He was,
however, perfectly tolerant towards those who differed from him most
Dr. Charles Lowell, another brother minister, says of him, "Mr. Emerson
was a handsome man, rather tall, with a fair complexion, his cheeks
slightly tinted, his motions easy, graceful, and gentlemanlike, his
manners bland and pleasant. He was an honest man, and expressed himself
decidedly and emphatically, but never bluntly or vulgarly. - Mr. Emerson
was a man of good sense. His conversation was edifying and useful; never
foolish or undignified. - In his theological opinions he was, to say the
least, far from having any sympathy with Calvinism. I have not supposed
that he was, like Dr. Freeman, a Humanitarian, though he may have been
There was no honester chronicler than our clerical Pepys, good, hearty,
sweet-souled, fact-loving Dr. John Pierce of Brookline, who knew the
dates of birth and death of the graduates of Harvard, starred and
unstarred, better, one is tempted to say (_Hibernice_), than they did
themselves. There was not a nobler gentleman in charge of any Boston
parish than Dr. Charles Lowell. But after the pulpit has said what it
thinks of the pulpit, it is well to listen to what the pews have to say
This is what the late Mr. George Ticknor said in an article in the
"Christian Examiner" for September, 1849.
"Mr. Emerson, transplanted to the First Church in Boston six years
before Mr. Buckminster's settlement, possessed, on the contrary, a
graceful and dignified style of speaking, which was by no means without
its attraction, but he lacked the fervor that could rouse the masses,
and the original resources that could command the few."
As to his religious beliefs, Emerson writes to Dr. Sprague as follows:
"I did not find in any manuscript or printed sermons that I looked
at, any very explicit statement of opinion on the question between
Calvinists and Socinians. He inclines obviously to what is ethical
and universal in Christianity; very little to the personal and
historical. - I think I observe in his writings, as in the writings of
Unitarians down to a recent date, a studied reserve on the subject of
the nature and offices of Jesus. They had not made up their own minds on
it. It was a mystery to them, and they let it remain so."
Mr. William Emerson left, published, fifteen Sermons and Discourses, an
Oration pronounced at Boston on the Fourth of July, 1802, a Collection
of Psalms and Hymns, an Historical Sketch of the First Church in Boston,
besides his contributions to the "Monthly Anthology," of which he was
Ruth Haskins, the wife of William and the mother of Ralph Waldo
Emerson, is spoken of by the late Dr. Frothingham, in an article in the
"Christian Examiner," as a woman "of great patience and fortitude, of
the serenest trust in God, of a discerning spirit, and a most courteous
bearing, one who knew how to guide the affairs of her own house, as long
as she was responsible for that, with the sweetest authority, and knew
how to give the least trouble and the greatest happiness after that
authority was resigned. Both her mind and her character were of a
superior order, and they set their stamp upon manners of peculiar
softness and natural grace and quiet dignity. Her sensible and kindly
speech was always as good as the best instruction; her smile, though it
was ever ready, was a reward."
The Reverend Dr. Furness of Philadelphia, who grew up with her son,
says, "Waldo bore a strong resemblance to his father; the other children
resembled their mother."
Such was the descent of Ralph Waldo Emerson. If the ideas of parents
survive as impressions or tendencies in their descendants, no man had
a better right to an inheritance of theological instincts than this
representative of a long line of ministers. The same trains of thought
and feeling might naturally gain in force from another association of
near family relationship, though not of blood. After the death of the
first William Emerson, the Concord minister, his widow, Mr. Emerson's
grandmother, married, as has been mentioned, his successor, Dr. Ezra
Ripley. The grandson spent much time in the family of Dr. Ripley, whose