Essential Books on Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are numerous books on Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it comes with good reason, he was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, abolitionist, and poet who led the Transcendentalism movement of the mid-19th century, which taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity.
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of history’s foremost intellectuals to the heights of societal contribution, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson
Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most important figures in the history of American thought, religion, and literature. The vitality of his writings and the unsettling power of his example continue to influence us more than a hundred years after his death. Now Robert D. Richardson Jr. brings to life an Emerson very different from the old stereotype of the passionless Sage of Concord. Drawing on a vast amount of new material, including correspondence among the Emerson brothers, Richardson gives us a rewarding intellectual biography that is also a portrait of the whole man.
These pages present a young suitor, a grief-stricken widower, an affectionate father, and a man with an abiding genius for friendship. The great spokesman for individualism and self-reliance turns out to have been a good neighbor, an activist citizen, and a loyal brother. Here is an Emerson who knew how to laugh, who was self-doubting as well as self-reliant, and who became the greatest intellectual adventurer of his age.
Richardson has, as much as possible, let Emerson speak for himself through his published works, his many journals and notebooks, his letters, his reported conversations. This is not merely a study of Emerson’s writing and his influence on others; it is Emerson’s life as he experienced it. We see the failed minister, the struggling writer, the political reformer, the poetic liberator.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Infinitude of the Private Man by Maurice York & Rick Spaulding
Emerson once wrote that the times we are born in are the best of times, if only we know what to do with them. His life spanned the crucial years of the nation’s youth – the first tests of its shop-new Constitution; the explosive expansion into the untamed West; the great conflagration of the Civil War and the destruction of slavery; and the pains of rebirth and reconciliation that carried the United States to the eve of emerging as a world power.
In the midst of this swirl of upheaval and change, Emerson turned his attention inward to the citizen, the individual, who must find his or her own inmost truth and bring that one fact of being to perfect expression in the world – and must learn to believe the faintest presentiment of the self against the testimony of all history. As a lecturer and essayist, Emerson was a catalyst who sought through his daily work to wake the long-slumbering soul of the farmer, mechanic, businessman, and politician – to show the common person that the divine and extraordinary are present in every hour of the day.
His efforts triggered a cultural tidal wave, inspiring a generation of authors, poets, teachers, and social activists who built the very foundations of culture in America. This biography takes a fresh look at Emerson through his Journals to trace the story of his own self-development, and the hidden life’s work that makes him as relevant to our time as to his own.
American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever
The 1850s were heady times in Concord, Massachusetts: in a town where a woman’s petticoat drying on an outdoor line was enough to elicit scandal, some of the greatest minds of our nation’s history were gathering in three of its wooden houses to establish a major American literary movement.
The Transcendentalists, as these thinkers came to be called, challenged the norms of American society with essays, novels, and treatises whose beautifully rendered prose and groundbreaking assertions still resonate with readers today. Though noted contemporary author Susan Cheever stands in awe of the monumental achievements of such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Louisa May Alcott, her personal, evocative narrative removes these figures from their dusty pedestals and provides a lively account of their longings, jealousies, and indiscretions.
Thus, Cheever reminds us that the passion of Concord’s ambitious and temperamental resident geniuses was by no means confined to the page.
The definitive collection of Emerson’s major speeches, essays, and poetry, The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson chronicles the life’s work of a true “American Scholar.” As one of the architects of the transcendentalist movement, Emerson embraced a philosophy that championed the individual, emphasized independent thought, and prized “the splendid labyrinth of one’s own perceptions.”
More than any writer of his time, he forged a style distinct from his European predecessors and embodied and defined what it meant to be an American. Matthew Arnold called Emerson’s essays “the most important work done in prose.”
Solid Seasons by Jeffrey S. Cramer
Any biography that concentrates on either Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson tends to diminish the other figure, but in Solid Seasons both men remain central and equal. Through several decades of writing, friendship remained a primary theme for them both.
Collecting extracts from the letters and journals of both men, as well as words written about them by their contemporaries, Jeffrey S. Cramer beautifully illustrates the full nature of their twenty-five-year dialogue. Biographers like to point at the crisis in their friendship, focusing particularly on Thoreau’s disappointment in Emerson – rarely on Emerson’s own disappointment in Thoreau – and leaving it there, a friendship ruptured.
But the solid seasons remained, as is evident when, in 1878, Anne Burrows Gilchrist, the English writer and friend of Whitman, visited Emerson. She wrote that his memory of him was failing “as to recent names and topics but as is usual in such cases all the mental impressions that were made when he was in full vigor remain clear and strong.” As they chatted, Emerson called his wife, Lidian,
“Henry Thoreau,” she answered.
“Oh yes,” Emerson repeated. “Henry Thoreau.”
The Transcendentalists and Their World by Robert A. Gross
The Transcendentalists and Their World offers a fresh view of the thinkers whose outsize impact on philosophy and literature would spread from tiny Concord to all corners of the earth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Alcotts called this New England town home, and Thoreau drew on its life extensively in his classic Walden. But Concord from the 1820s through the 1840s was no pastoral place fit for poets and philosophers.
This gem among books on Ralph Waldo Emerson and his environment is an intimate journey into the life of a community and a searching cultural study of major American writers as they plumbed the depths of the universe for spiritual truths and surveyed the rapidly changing contours of their own neighborhoods. It shows us familiar figures in American literature alongside their neighbors at every level of the social order, and it reveals how this common life in Concord entered powerfully into their works. No American community of the nineteenth century has been recovered so richly and with so acute an awareness of its place in the larger American story.
Emerson by Lawrence Buell
“An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote – and in this book, the leading scholar of New England literary culture looks at the long shadow Emerson himself has cast, and at his role and significance as a truly American institution. On the occasion of Emerson’s 200th birthday, Lawrence Buell revisits the life of the nation’s first public intellectual and discovers how he became a “representative man.”
Born into the age of inspired amateurism that emerged from the ruins of pre-revolutionary political, religious, and cultural institutions, Emerson took up the challenge of thinking about the role of the United States alone and in the world.
With characteristic authority and grace, Buell conveys both the style and substance of Emerson’s accomplishment – in his conception of America as the transplantation of Englishness into the new world, and in his prodigious work as writer, religious thinker, and philosopher. Here we see clearly the paradoxical key to his success, the fierce insistence on independence that acted so magnetically upon all around him.
Emerson in His Journals; selected and edited by Joel Porte
This long-awaited volume offers the general reader the heart of Emerson’s journals, that extraordinary series of diaries and notebooks in which he poured out his thoughts for more than fifty years, beginning with the “luckless ragamuffin ideas” of his college days.
Emerson as revealed in his journals is more spontaneous, more complex, more human and appealing than he appears in the published works. This man is the seeker rather than the sage; he records the turmoil, struggle, and questioning that preceded the serene and confident affirmations of the essays.
He is honest, earthy, tough-minded, self-critical (“I am a lover of indolence, & of the belly”), warm in his enthusiasms, a witty and sharp observer of people and events. Everything is grist for his mill: personal experiences, his omnivorous reading, ruminations on matters large and small, his doubts and perplexities, public issues and local gossip. There are abrupt shifts in subject and tone, reflecting the variousness of his moods and the restless energy of his mind.
Essayist, poet, and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson propounded a transcendental idealism emphasizing self-reliance, self-culture, and individual expression. The six essays and one address included in this volume, selected from Essays, First Series (1841) and Essays, Second Series (1844), offer a representative sampling of his views outlining that moral idealism as well as a hint of the later skepticism that colored his thought. In addition to the celebrated title essay, the others included here are “History,” “Friendship,” “The Over-Soul,” “The Poet,” and “Experience,” plus the well-known and frequently read Harvard Divinity School Address.
Through his writing and his own personal philosophy, Ralph Waldo Emerson unburdened his young country of Europe’s traditional sense of history and showed Americans how to be creators of their own circumstances. His mandate, which called for harmony with, rather than domestication of, nature, and for a reliance on individual integrity, rather than on materialistic institutions, is echoed in many of the great American philosophical and literary works of his time and ours, and has given an impetus to modern political and social activism.
If you enjoyed this guide to essential books on Ralph Waldo Emerson, check out our list of The 10 Best Books on Frederick Douglass!