Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ralph Waldo Emerson came of the academic class. His ancestors for five generations had been scholars and most of them had been ministers. His father, William Emerson, minister of the First Church in Boston, was a man of good sense, dignified after the manner of the old New England type, and emphatic in the expression of his views. The mother of Ralph Waldo was known for her patience, her gentle courtesy, her quiet dignity and serenity of spirit. Among the early companionships of the household, there was another which had a lasting influence in the development of Emerson's character, that of an aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, whose strong intellectuality was of the sort which distinguished Emerson himself.

Home Atmosphere.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born May 25, 1803, in the parsonage on Summer Street, in Boston, not far from the house in which Franklin was born almost a century before. His boyhood was passed in an atmosphere of intellectuality and of literary effort. In 1804, the Rev. William Emerson organized what was known as the Anthology Club, and edited a publication of the club, the Monthly Anthology, or Magazine of Polite Literature. The circle of contributors included John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and much scholarly talent. The famous Boston Athenaeum library was an outgrowth of this club; and although with the death of Mr. Emerson in 1811, the Anthology ceased publication, the appearance of the North American Review, in 1815, is regarded as a revival of the earlier magazine.

Youth and Education.

Waldo was eight years old at his father's death; and the household was in serious financial straits. There were five boys to be clothed and fed -- and educated as family tradition and innate talent required. By heroic exertion and a most rigid frugality, Mrs. Emerson succeeded in realizing her ambition for her sons. It is related that one winter when times were especially hard in the family, Ralph and his brother Edward had but one great-coat between them and had to take turns in going without and in bearing the taunts of their school-fellows, calling after them -- "Whose turn is it to wear the coat to-day?" It is said, too, that Ralph Waldo was obliged on one occasion to forego the reading of the second volume of some work drawn from a circulating library because the pennies needed to secure it were not to be spared. Yet out of the enforced economy and the life bare of material comfort, the boys emerged sweet- tempered, nobly-mannered, and with the best academic training to be had. All but one were graduates of Harvard College.

There are not many records of Emerson's school-days. He studied at the Boston Latin School, and entered Harvard at fourteen. Through his appointment as President's messenger, he had his lodging free in the President's house, and his board was paid by waiting on table in the commons. He was not conspicuous as a student, yet was always the scholar; not talkative, his utterances were well weighed, deliberate, and "with a certain flash when he uttered anything that was more than usually worthy to be remembered."1 Gentle and amiable, his personality lacked a little, perhaps, in masculine vigor. For mathematics, Emerson had no faculty; but in all subjects of a literary sort, he took a good stand. Like most students who develop into geniuses, he read widely in authors not prescribed in his course. He won prizes in English composition, and at his graduation, in 1821, delivered the poem for the class.


After leaving Harvard, Emerson taught for several years, at first in a suburban school for girls, kept by his brother William, where the young instructor does not seem to have been altogether charmed with the teacher's lot. It was at this time that he composed one of his most widely known poems, Good-bye, proud world! I'm going home. The latter half of this poem is descriptive of the sylvan retreat amid the rocks and pines at Canterbury, whither Mrs. Emerson had recently removed -- a district now included

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