The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 2. His Youth and Training
Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Boston, 25 May, 1803, gathered into himself the very quintessence of what has been called the Brahminism of New England, as transmitted through the Bulkeleys, the Blisses, the Moodys, and the direct paternal line. Peter Bulkeley, preferring the wilderness of Satan to Laudian conformity, founded Concord in 1636; William Emerson, his descendant in the fifth generation, was builder of the Old Manse in the same town and a sturdy preacher to the minute-men at the beginning of the Revolution; and of many other ministerial ancestors stories abound which show how deeply implanted in this stock was the pride of rebellion against traditional forms and institutions, united with a determination to force all mankind to worship God in the spirit. With William, son of him of Concord and father of our poet, the fires of zeal began to wane. Though the faithful pastor of the First Church (Unitarian) of Boston, it is recorded of him that he entered the ministry against his will. Yet he too had his un-fulfilled dream of “coming out” by establishing a church in Washington which should require no sort of profession of faith. He died when the future philosopher was a boy of ten, leaving the family to shift for itself as best it could. Mrs. Emerson cared for the material welfare of the household by taking in boarders. The chief intellectual guidance fell to the Aunt Mary Moody Emerson, of whom her nephew drew a portrait in hisLectures and Biographies. “She gave high counsels,” he says. Indubitably she did, but a perusal of her letters and of the extracts from her journals leaves the impression that the pure but dislocated enthusiasms of her mind served rather to push Emerson in the direction of his weaker inclination than to fortify him against himself. When a balloon is tugging at its moorings there may be need of low counsels.
In 1817, Emerson entered Harvard College, and in due course of time graduated. Then, after teaching for a while in his brother’s school in Boston, he returned to Cambridge to study for the ministry, and was in the autumn of 1826 licensed to preach. Three years later he was called, first as assistant to Henry Ware, to the Second Church of Boston. His ministration there was quietly successful, but brief. In 1832, he gave up his charge on the ground that he could not conscientiously celebrate the Communion, even in the symbolic form customary among the Unitarians. He was for the moment much adrift, his occupation gone, his health broken, his wife lost after a short period of happiness. In this state he went abroad to travel in Italy, France, and England. One memorable incident of the journey must be recorded, his visit to Carlyle at Craigenput tock, with all that it entailed of friendship and influence; but beyond that he returned with little more baggage that he took with him. He now made his residence in Concord, living first with his mother and then with his second wife. Thenceforth there was to be no radical change in his life, but only the gradual widening of the circle. The house that he now bought he continued to inhabit until it was burned down in 1872; and then his friends, in a manner showing exemplary tact, subscribed money for rebuilding it on the same lines. For a number of years he preached in various pulpits, and once even considered the call to a settled charge in New Bedford, but he could not overcome his aversion to the ritual of the Lord’s Supper and to regular prayers.