Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Ruth Haskins and the Rev. William Emerson, a minister for the Unitarian Church. He was named Ralph after his mother’s brother and Waldo after his father’s great-grandmother Rebecca Waldo. He was the second of five sons who survived to be adults; the others were William, Edward, Robert Bulkeley, and Charles. Three other siblings died in childhood: Phebe, John Clarke, and Mary Caroline.
Young Ralph was only seven years old when his father died from stomach cancer on May 12, 1811, less than two weeks before Ralph turned eight years old. Ralph was raised by his mother, who was assisted by other women in the family – particularly an Aunt Mary Moody Emerson. Aunt Mary lived with the family off and on and corresponded with Ralph until her death in 1863.
Emerson was nine years old when he began his formal schooling at the Boston Latin School in 1812. Three years later, in October 1817, fourteen-year-old Emerson entered Harvard College; there he was appointed to be freshman messenger for the president and required to “fetch” delinquent students and carry messages to faculty members.
About halfway through his junior year, Emerson started a list of books he had read and began keeping a journal. He covered his school expenses by working as a waiter and occasionally as a teacher. By the time he was a senior in college, Emerson dropped his first name and started going by his middle name of Waldo. He served as Class Poet and followed the tradition of presenting an original poem on Harvard’s Class Day. He was eighteen years old on August 29, 1821, when he presented the poem approximately a month before he graduated. He was not an outstanding student, graduating in the exact middle of his class of 59 people.
Five years later in 1826, Emerson was quite ill and sought warmer climates. He went to Charleston, South Carolina, and then moved further south to St. Augustine, Florida. There he took long walks on the beach, began writing poetry, and met Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Prince was a couple of years older than Emerson, but the two young men became good friends and “engaged in enlightening discussions on religion, society, philosophy, and government.” Emerson “considered Murat an important figure in his intellectual education.” There in St. Augustine, Emerson came face to face with slavery when he saw a slave auction taking place in the yard outside a meeting of the Bible Society.
Emerson became a famous essayist, lecturer, and poet. He “led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century” and was “seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society.” He “disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.” He “remains among the linchpins of the American romantic movement, and his work has greatly influenced the thinkers, writers, and poets that have followed him…. “He was “well known as a mentor and friend of … Henry David Thoreau.”
On Christmas Day, 1827, Emerson met Ellen Louisa Tucker in Concord, New Hampshire; they married when she turned 18 years old. The couple moved to Boston, taking Emerson’s mother with them to care for Ellen, who was sick with tuberculosis. Less than two years later, Ellen passed away at age 20, on February 8, 1831. Emerson took her death hard.
On January 24, 1835, Emerson wrote a letter containing a marriage proposal to Lydia Jackson and received her acceptance letter on the 28th. He purchased a house in July 1835 on the Cambridge and Concord Turnpike in Concord, Massachusetts. He named his new home “Bush” – and it is now open to the public as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House. Emerson became one of the leading citizens of his new town. On September 12, 1835, Emerson gave a lecture to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the town of Concord. He married Lydia Jackson two days later in her home town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The couple moved to their new home in Concord on September 15, taking Emerson’s mother with them.
Emerson changed Lydia’s name to Lidian and called her Queenie or Asia; she called him Mr. Emerson. They became the parents of Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward Waldo Emerson. Ellen was named after Emerson’s first wife at Lidian’s suggestion.
Emerson began suffering with ill health in 1867 and losing his memory in 1871-1872. He was so embarrassed about his memory problems that he stopped appearing in public in 1879. He was diagnosed with pneumonia on April 21, 1882, and died on April 27, 1882. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.