I'm Shirley Griffith.Graphic Image
And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, PEOPLEIN AMERICA. Today we tell about the life of Nineteenth Centuryphilosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The United States had won its independence from Britain justtwenty-two years before Ralph Waldo Emerson was born. But it had yetto win its cultural independence. It still took its traditions fromother countries, mostly from western Europe.
What the American Revolution did for the nation's politics,Emerson did for its culture.
When he began writing and speaking in the Eighteen-Thirties,conservatives saw him as radical -- wild and dangerous. But to theyoung, he spoke words of self-dependence -- a new language offreedom. He was the first to bring them a truly American spirit.
He told America to demand its own laws and churches and works. Itis through his own works that we shall look at Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's life was not as exciting as the lives ofsome other American writers -- Herman Melville, Mark Twain or ErnestHemingway. Emerson traveled to Europe several times. And he madespeeches at a number of places in the United States. But, except forthose trips, he lived all his life in the small town of Concord,Massachusetts.
p>He once said that the shortest books are those about the lives ofpeople with great minds. Emerson was not speaking about himself. Yethis own life proves the thought.
Emerson was born in the northeastern city of Boston,Massachusetts, in Eighteen-Oh-Three. Boston was then the capital oflearning in the United States.
Emerson's father, like many of the men in his family, was aminister of a Christian church. When Emerson was eleven years old,his father died. Missus Emerson was left with very little money toraise her five sons.
After several more years in Boston, the family moved to thenearby town of Concord. There they joined Emerson's aunt, Mary MoodyEmerson.
Emerson seemed to accept the life his mother and aunt wanted forhim. As a boy, he attended Boston Latin School. Then he studied atHarvard University.
For a few years, he taught in a girls' school started by one ofhis brothers. But he did not enjoy this kind of teaching. For atime, he wondered what he should do with his life. Finally, like hisfather, he became a religious minister. But he had questions abouthis beliefs and the purpose of his life.
In Eighteen-Thirty-One, Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned as theminister of his church because of a minor religious issue. Whatreally troubled him was something else.
It was his growing belief that a person could find God withoutthe help of an organized church. He believed that God is not foundin systems and words, but in the minds of people. He said that Godin us worships God.
Emerson travelled to Europe the following year. He talked abouthis ideas with the best-known European writers and thinkers of histime. When he returned to the United States, he married and settledin Concord. Then he began his life as a writer and speaker.
Ralph Waldo Emerson published his first book, Nature, inEighteen-Thirty-Six. It made conservatives see him as arevolutionary. But students at Harvard University liked the book andinvited him to speak to them.
His speech, "The American Scholar," created great excitementamong the students. They heard his words as a new declaration ofindependence -- a declaration of the independence of the mind.
"Give me an understanding of today's world," he told them, "andyou may have the worlds of the past and the future. Show me whereGod is hidden...as always...in nature. What is near explains what isfar. A drop of water is a small ocean. Each of us is a part of allof nature."
Emerson said a sign of the times was the new importance given toeach person. "The world," he said, "is nothing. The person is all.In yourself is the law of all nature."
Emerson urged students to learn directly from life. He told them,"Life is our dictionary."
The following year, Emerson was invited to speak to students andteachers at the Harvard religious school. In his speech, he calledfor moral and spiritual rebirth. But his words shocked members ofHarvard's traditional Christian church. He said churches treatedreligion as if God were dead.
"Let mankind stand forevermore," he said, "as a temple returnedto greatness by new love, new faith, new sight."
Church members who heard him speak called him a man who did notbelieve in God. Almost thirty years passed before Harvard invitedEmerson to speak there again.
Away from Harvard, Emerson's speeches became more and morepopular. He was able to make his living by writing and speaking.
"Do you understand Mister Emerson?" a Boston woman asked herservant. "Not a word," the servant answered. "But I like to go andsee him speak. He stands up there and looks as if he thoughteveryone was as good as he was."
Many people, especially the young, did understand Emerson. Hisideas seemed right for a new country just beginning to enjoy itsindependence -- a country expanding in all directions.
Young people agreed with Emerson that a person had the powerwithin himself to succeed at whatever he tried. The important truthseemed to be not what had been done, but what might be done.
In a speech called "Self-Reliance" Ralph Waldo Emerson told hislisteners, "Believe your own thoughts, believe that what is true foryou in your private heart is true for all men."
Emerson said society urges us to act carefully. This, he said,restricts our freedom of action. "It is always easy to agree," hesaid. "Yet nothing is more holy than the independence of your ownmind. Let a person know his own value. Have no regrets. Nothing canbring you peace but yourselves."
The Eighteen-Fifties were not a peaceful time for America. Thenation was divided by a bitter argument about slavery.
Most people in the South defended slavery. They believed theagricultural economy of the South depended on Negro slaves. Mostpeople in the North condemned slavery. They believed it was wrongfor one man to own another.
Emerson was not interested in debates or disputes. But he wasprepared to defend truth, as he saw it.
Emerson believed that the slaves should be freed. But he did nottake an active part in the anti-slavery movement. All his beliefsabout the individual opposed the idea of group action -- even groupaction against slavery.
As the dispute became more intense, however, Emerson finally,quietly, added his voice to the anti-slavery campaign. When one ofhis children wrote a school report about building a house, he saidno one should build a house without a place to hide runaway slaves.
Emerson's health began to fail in the early Eighteen-Seventies.His house was partly destroyed by fire. He and his wife escaped. Butthe shock was great. Friends gave him money to travel to Egypt withhis daughter. While he was gone, they rebuilt his house.
Emerson returned to Concord. But his health did not improve. Hecould no longer work. In April, Eighteen-Eighty-Two, he became sickwith pneumonia. He died on April Twenty-Seventh. He was seventy-nineyears old.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's death was national news. In Concord andother places, people hung black cloth on houses and public buildingsas a sign of mourning. His friends in Concord walked to the churchfor his funeral service. They carried branches of the pine treesthat Emerson loved.
After the funeral, Ralph Waldo Emerson was buried in Concord nearthe graves of two other important early American writers -- HenryDavid Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
This Special English program was written by Richard Thorman. I'mSteve Ember.
And I'm Shirley Griffith. Join us again next for another Peoplein America program on the Voice of America.