Ralph Waldo Emerson lived and worked in Concord, Massachusetts in the early 19 th century.
“ Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright;
He dares not say, ‘I think,’ ‘I am,” but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose.”
Words like these helped shape the image of the Transcendentalists and of Concord.
Young people in Emerson’s time were looking for new values. They described their world as hypocritical, stifling, spiritually bankrupt. They didn’t like what they saw, and they were willing to write about it:
Terrible conditions in Northern factories
Slave labor in the South
Unequal distribution of wealth
Discrimination against women
Failure of churches
Emerson was one of the leaders of this New England group of thinkers. Born in 1803, he was the 8 th generation minister in his family. But in 1831, at the age of 28, he resigned his pastorate. Emerson saw himself as primarily a poet, but he had to support a family.
In order to earn a living, Emerson turned to lecturing. A marvelously efffective speaker, he began giving public lectures.
He warned against the materialism and money making that were becoming a driving force in the nation.
“ The present generation is bankrupt of principles and hope.” “ . . . Man is not what man should be. . . . He is a money chest.
The move from Boston to Concord fulfilled a great desire of Emerson’s—a desire for the solitude and peace that he found in nature.
In nature, Emerson found a refuge from the ills of society that concerned him.
In the woods around Concord, he meditated on the “web of nature,” through which God and eternity could be seen.
This connection to nature became a major theme of Transcendentalism, an important aspect of American Romanticism. Emerson was the chief spokesperson of Transcendentalism.
“ Standing on the bare ground- my head bathed by the blythe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes.” “ I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the current of the Universal Being circulates through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
“ . . . A question which well deserves examination now is the question of commerce. This invasion of nature by trade with its money, its credits, its steam, its railroads, threatens to upset the balance of man . . .”
Emerson saw misery and unfairness in society and government. The rich had too much and the poor not even enough. The government, in Emerson’s view, did little to help people’s lives.
“ From neither political party, when in power, has the world any benefit to expect in science, art, or humanity. . . ”
“ . . . Persons and property [are] the two objects for whose protection government exists . . . But whilst the rights of . . . Persons are equal . . . Their rights in property are very unequal.” Emerson believed that although the words of the Constitution created equality among persons, ownership of property often created an inequality that was not addressed by government or society. Emerson wanted to see a democracy based in spiritual values that lived up to its Constitutional promises.
As a social activist, Emerson spoke out strongly against the war with Mexico. Although he did not early join the abolitionist movement, he “bemoaned [himself] because [he] had not thrown [himself] into this deplorable question of Slavery . . .” Nevertheless, he felt he could not address the slavery issue and continue to work for his other goals. He was reluctant to spread himself too thin.
Battle of Buena Vista Slave working a cotton whip
Artistically, Emerson rejected old views of esthetics and looked for new and different definitions of art and beauty. He found these new definitions in Nature:
“ There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful. . . . Such is the constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye . . .”
“ Even the corpse has its own beauty.”
“ . . . The primary forms, such as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us delight in and for themselves. The eye is the best of artists.”
“ The tradesman, the attorney . . . sees the sky and the woods and is a man again . . . In their eternal calm, he finds himself.” Emerson celebrated the renewing powers of nature. It beauty, its calm, its strength he named as a source of peace and rebirth to all beings.
“ I have quite other slaves to free . . . To wit, imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man. [They] have no other watchman, or lover, or defender, but I.”
Emerson saw his mission as to awaken in each person a recognition of self, an understanding of humanity, a connection to the spiritual through the beauty of nature.
Emerson died in 1882.
Alive, he called to each individual to achieve not material but spiritual greatness, to search for basic truths which come from the individual’s own intuition and faith rather than from reason alone.
Concord: A Nation’s Conscience. Guidance Associates of Pleasantville, N.Y. 1971.
Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo; and F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo.
Images courtesy of the Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library . Concord Free Public Library, Esther Howe Wheeler Anderson Slide Collection (purchased from William Wheeler Anderson, Jr., 2006).