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I. LIFE OF EMERSON
(May 25, 1803-April 27, 1882)
We have few more intimate biographical records than Emerson's; fewer still that cause so little disappointment in the reading. In the wealth of material at hand, in his Journal and letters as well as in the personal reminiscences of a great band of friends and admirers, we are brought face to face with a personality that can but win by the "cumulative power of character.” Even those who met Emerson with prejudices to be overcome were conquered by his presence. “In an instant all my dislike vanished,” said Crabbe Robinson, in reporting the first glimpse caught of him across a crowded room. One and another bear evidence to the same personal power with a concurrence that would be tiresome, were it not for the strong individual conviction in each case.
Two other brothers, Edward and Charles, both younger, shared this power; William, the oldest, was likewise gifted with unusual intellect. The family lived in Boston, where the father, William Emerson, was a brilliant Congregational minister, prominent in religious, social, and literary circles till his death in 1811. That event put a new face on the circumstances of the family; only the most rigid and careful economy, supplemented by the generous continuance of part of her husband's salary
and the help of relatives, enabled the mother, Ruth Haskins Emerson, to keep the family together and give them the education due to their great intellectual gifts and to the traditions of the family. "They were born to be educated," their aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, once declared.
This aunt was a force to be reckoned with. Odd to the point of absurdity, she yet had so fine an intellect and so true a nature that she gained and held the respect of her nephews. She was at times an inmate of their home; at other times her peculiarities drove her to the quiet of the country. But absent or present, she continually urged them on by the spur of her spiritual ambition to live lives of independent thought, to disregard fame and social advancement, and to fit themselves for true leadership. The early correspondence between her and Ralph Waldo Emerson is scarcely less valuable than the first few years of his Journal in tracing the rise of his fine independence of thought.
Through a childhood filled with work and books, seasoned by the hardships of poverty, and straitened by Puritan discipline, one catches glimpses of the Emerson of later days. He made efforts at poetical and oratorical composition, flat and feeble to be sure, but earnest; and when, in his twelfth year, the family went to live for a time with their step-grandfather, Dr. Ezra Ripley, at the Old Manse in Concord, Waldo and his two younger brothers were set free in nature. "They took that valley for their toy," writes Emerson in The Dirge, and alludes to games that filled the Concord woods and cornfields with echoes from the past. When he came back as a man, those woods were already dear to him; and the imagination that in boyhood had wakened through them to a love of nature, found there in manhood
as nowhere else, a way of feeling and seeing that deepened into philosophical vision.
In the Latin School at Boston Emerson did not distinguish himself; but at fourteen he was ready for Harvard. William had preceded him there, and later the two younger boys followed him. All were obliged to mingle study and work and to live more frugally than was good for boys of their delicate constitution. On entrance Emerson was President's Freshman, or messenger, and later eked out his expenses by waiting on table, tutoring, and teaching a country school. He was urged on meanwhile by the stern-spirited women at home to rise above material inconveniences and become an independent, moral spirit. Those who knew him described him even in his freshman days as “kindly, affable, and self contained.” He took his degree in 1821 without any distinction except the rather equivocal one of being chosen class poet after seven others had refused the office; but though he bore from college little honor and less knowledge of mathematics, he had “consoled himself for his defects," as his Journal long years afterwards states, "with Chaucer and Montaigne, with Plutarch and Plato at night.” Other authors we find mentioned here and there as forming part of this privately acquired education,-Otway, Massinger, Swift, Addison, Sterne, and many historical writers and poets of his own day. Shakespeare he knew from beginning to end.
After graduation he turned to teaching in earnest, assisting in a school for young ladies which William, "a grave professor even at eighteen,” had started in his mother's house. In a short time he was left in sole charge by William's departure for Europe. The task was far from congenial, for he fell short of his brother's dignity and was often teased for his bashfulness and
blushing cheeks by his roguish pupils. In after years they praised his work as a teacher, but he looked upon it with regret because he had made it too much a matter of dry form, keeping the best of his thoughts to himself. His Journal of those days shows that even then he was cherishing ideas which were to become an important part of his later philosophy.
He continued his teaching till free from debt, then in 1825 went back to Harvard to study theology. But he made the mistake, for the sake of economy, of taking a damp, dimly lighted room. Rheumatism, weak eyes, and a stricture in the chest were the results, so that in 1826 when he was approbated” as a Unitarian minister, he was in a fair way to be a confirmed invalid. Rev. Samuel Ripley, the uncle who had always stood behind the family most generously, sent him south. Lazy days in St. Augustine restored his general health, though his lungs were long weak. But prudence and "hope," as his son has said, conquered ill-health at last, and set him free for his life work.
After the preliminaries usual to a young man starting out in the ministry, Emerson at the age of twenty-six was ordained assistant to Rey. Mr. Ware of the Second Church, Boston, and soon succeeded to the sole pastorship. The same year, 1829, he married Ellen Tucker of Concord, New Hampshire, a joyous, gracious woman, whose influence it is easy to trace in several passages in the essays of this book. One of Emerson's parishioners describes her as a flowerlike woman whose delicate health made her practically a recluse from the start; once each Sunday they saw her when she came in a carriage to hear her husband's sermon. These years of Emerson's pastorate have an ever-increasing interest to the student of his life. They were outwardly prosperous, free from