an Exhibition in Celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson
No other Concord resident has been as locally respected and honored as 19th century philosopher, essayist, lecturer, poet, and sometime minister Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although born in Boston (May 25, 1803) and raised there, Emerson’s roots in Concord were deep. His ancestry extended back to the town’s Colonial origins—to Peter Bulkeley, a founder and the first minister of Concord. Emerson’s great-grandfather Daniel Bliss and grandfather William Emerson were also ministers of the First Parish, and his father William was born here.
Emerson and his brothers stayed in Concord from time to time during their childhood. The Reverend Ezra Ripley had married their grandmother Phebe Bliss Emerson, widow of Revolutionary minister William Emerson. When in Concord, young Emerson stayed at the Manse, Ripley’s home and previously that of Emerson’s grandfather William. Ripley gave the Emerson boys a knowledge of Concord history and a sense of their ancestors’ place in it. Here they experienced small-town life and the pleasures of nature. Ralph Waldo developed a lasting fondness for Concord that in 1834 led him back to settle permanently.
Emerson graduated from Harvard College in 1821, entered Harvard Divinity School in 1825, married his first wife, Ellen Tucker, in 1829, and lost her to tuberculosis in 1831. He resigned from his pastorate at the Second Church in Boston in September, 1832, and in December of that year traveled to Europe, where he met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. He returned to America in 1833 to take up a new career as a lecturer. In 1834, his brother Edward died. Shortly thereafter, Emerson moved into the Manse. There he worked on a book that he had been thinking about for some time. When finally published in 1836, Nature would launch his literary career and unleash a period of intense expression of Transcendental thought and reaction to it.
In 1835, Emerson bought the house on the Cambridge Turnpike that was his home for the rest of his life, delivered his first public address in Concord at the bicentennial celebration of the town’s incorporation, took as his second wife Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, and brought her back to the home he had recently purchased.
Although Emerson hadn’t been Concord’s first choice as keynote speaker for the 1835 celebration, he quickly became the town’s most prominent citizen. His Concord heritage and his characteristic humility and inclination to deal kindly with others—no matter what their social status—made local residents feel that he was one of them. In 1837, his “Concord Hymn,” written at the request of the town, was sung at the dedication of the Battle Monument near the site of the Old North Bridge. Over the years, he served the town through its lyceum, as a member of its School Committee and Library Committee, through attendance at town meetings, and as a public speaker on many occasions.
Those who formed part of Emerson’s Transcendental circle were frequent guests at the house on the Cambridge Turnpike. Moreover, unknown visitors from all over often came to Concord just for the opportunity of meeting one of the most recognized men in America. But Concordians knew and appreciated Emerson within the context of town life. Despite the demands made upon him as a lecturer and a man of letters, Emerson was invested in Concord’s day-to-day life and the management of local affairs. The people of the town responded by accepting him as one of their own—even when his ideas and actions generated controversy, and even though many were quick to admit that they did not comprehend the philosophical issues he pondered. He was an influential man, but he radiated an encompassing sense of democracy that appealed to his Yankee townsmen. “And as a man is equal to the Church and equal to the State,” he proclaimed in his lecture “New England Reformers” in 1844, “so he is equal to every other man.”
On the bicentennial of Emerson's birth, it is appropriate to consider Concord’s unique connection with this man. An idealist who nevertheless accepted everyday life and human society on their own terms, Emerson derived sustaining strength and comfort from his place in Concord as a community. The warm and mutual feeling between Emerson and Concord affected the town as well. A significant part of Concord’s appeal today, after all, derives from the fact that it was the chosen home of one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century.
This exhibition—drawn entirely from the Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library—is offered in celebration of Emerson's 200th birthday, of his life in Concord, and of his importance to the town.
Note: Myerson citations in the entries for items exhibited refer to: Joel Myerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Descriptive Bibliography (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982).
Exhibition table of contents - I. Emerson's Concord Heritage - II. Settling In -- The Emerson House - III. Taking a Place in Town Life -- the 1835 Celebration - IV. At the Center of the Circle - V. Concord's Conscience - VI. Citizen, Townsman, Friend, and Family Man - VII. The Respect and Affection of Concord - VIII. Concord Keeps the Flame - Special Collections Home.