Born in 1803, Ralph Waldo Emerson began his career as a Unitarian minister and later achieved worldwide recognition as a lecturer and writer. Notably, Emerson was the central figure in American Transcendentalism—a movement that questioned the rules of society while stressing the importance of nature and individual freedom. Known as “the sage of Concord," Emerson was considered one of the greatest orators of his time, giving more than 1,500 public lectures across the country. Meanwhile, readers were drawn to his equally powerful writing style. As an author, Emerson combined his talents as a poet, philosopher, and essayist to create some of the most admired works in the U.S. literary canon. The 1930s and 1940s were an especially fertile period for Emerson, who wrote some of his most acclaimed essays then, including "Self-Reliance," "The Poet," "Experience," and "Nature." Though he was a well-known mentor to future great Henry David Thoreau, Emerson's greatest achievement is the literary legacy that continues to influence readers today.

Emerson showed signs of brilliance at an early age, as evidenced by the fact that he entered Harvard College on a scholarship when he was only 14 years old. During his first year, he was appointed freshman messenger for the president, which required Emerson to fetch delinquent students and transfer messages to faculty, among other duties. With money being tight, he also took odd jobs on campus, including working as a waiter at a University dining hall. More importantly, it was at Harvard that Emerson first began keeping journals. He continued this habit for the rest of his life, as the process provided the groundwork of his literary achievements. In addition, Emerson served as Class Poet, presenting an original poem on Harvard's Class Day in 1821, the year he graduated. Four years later, Emerson would return to Cambridge as a student again, this time only needing a year to earn his master's degree from Harvard Divinity School.

Become a Subscriber

Please purchase a subscription to continue reading this article.

Subscribe Now

As one of Harvard's best-known literary alumni, Emerson continued to interact with his alma mater throughout his many years of rising fame. His first alumni achievement came in 1837, when he delivered his famous "The American Scholar" lecture to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard. Emerson was invited back to Harvard to speak to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School in 1938. Known as the "Divinity School Address," Emerson's words had a profound impact on the religious development of a burgeoning nation, the creation of a distinctly American cultural identity, and the future of Harvard. However, the speech was so radical and controversial at the time that it would be 30 years before the writer was invited back to campus. In 1866, Emerson reconciled with Harvard, which later asked him to give the Phi Beta Kappa address. Afterwards, bringing things full circle, Emerson's own journal was published in 16 large volumes in the definitive Harvard University Press edition issued between 1960 and 1982.