Ralph Waldo Emerson

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History Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ralph Waldo Emerson's History. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, and philosopher. Born at the turn of the nineteenth century in Boston, he was the son of a reverend who ensured that Emerson and his siblings had a strong spiritual and intellectual foundation in their upbringing. Emerson was an advanced student, learning to read at three and attending Harvard College at fourteen. Following in his father’s footsteps, Emerson went on to Harvard Divinity School and was a pastor at Boston’s Second Church until he became disenchanted with the institution of religion. Emerson, remarkably well-read and well-traveled, switched careers to become a lecturer of philosophy. He was a lead figure of American Transcendentalism, rebelling against the rationalism of the Unitarian religion and the empiricism of science to instead focus on the divinity of the individual. Emerson published his first essay, “Nature,” in 1836, with “History” following in 1841 as part of the Essays: First Series collection. Emerson solidified himself as a revered author, orator, and philosophical thinker of the American Romantic era, publishing dozens of essays, poems, and other works before his death in 1882.
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Historical Context of History

As part of the transcendentalist movement, much of Emerson’s work was a reaction to the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, also referred to as the “Century of Philosophy.” The Enlightenment marked a shift in the West’s core beliefs, as new ideas and doctrines such as the separation of church and state emphasized reason over divine right as the ultimate source of authority. By contrast, Emerson believed in the transcendentalist valuation of the individual’s spiritual intuition as the ultimate source of truth and wisdom. This notion is presented throughout “History,” as Emerson advocates for the individual to make sense of history not through hard facts, but through their own personal experiences that unify them with other people. Emerson’s philosophical and theological views also run parallel to Unitarianism, the religious movement that predominated Boston throughout his life. Emerson resonated with certain aspects of Unitarian belief (such as the oneness and omnipresence of God, reflected in the concept of universal nature in “History”) but was in favor of a more intense spiritual experience than the reserved, rational mindset of the church encouraged.

Other Books Related to History

“History” was published in Emerson’s Essays: First Series collection, which also contains “Self-Reliance,” arguably his most well-known work. “History” expands upon many of the ideas covered in “Self-Reliance,” expressing a similar reverence for the unity of nature and the individual. This central theme of unity that Emerson explores in “History” also appears in his essay “The Over-Soul,” where he tackles the complex relationships of the individual’s soul with the ego, God, and other human beings. Emerson is widely considered to be the most important writer of the nineteenth century, with his ideas inspiring his fellow transcendentalists as well as contemporary writers such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe who resisted his ideas. Emerson was mutually influenced by other writers in the transcendentalist movement, with works such as Hendry David Thoreau’s book Walden and Walt Whitman’s poetry collection Leaves of Grass drawing from many of the same ideas about the individual, spirituality, and nature. Emerson’s deep metaphysical musings even went on to influence the works of philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche.
Key Facts about History
  • Full Title: “History”
  • When Written: 1800s
  • Where Written: Concord and Boston, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1841
  • Literary Period: American Transcendentalism, American Romanticism
  • Genre: Philosophical essay
  • Point of View: Multiple (first-person, second-person, and third-person)

Extra Credit for History

Dear Diary. Emerson was a prolific diarist, with his personal journals spanning from his junior year at Harvard College up through his elderly years. His journals served as a major source of inspiration for fellow transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau and were eventually published in 16 volumes.

The Buddha of the West. Emerson was revered as an orator as well as an author, giving as many as 80 philosophical lectures in a year throughout the United States. Many of his contemporaries regarded him as a brilliant and wise thinker whose lectures inspired people to see the underlying beauty and mysticism of the world.