Rejecting established doctrines and orthodoxy, Emerson is best known for his beliefs in introspection, self-reliance, and individualism. He believed that moral truth is found in self-examination rather than formal religion. Emerson was a leader of the Transcendentalist movement, which advocated personal integrity, intellectual individualism, and the importance of a spiritual, rather than material, outlook on life. He sought to encourage the development of a unique American culture, distinct from the formality of Europe. His two volumes of poetry (“Poems”, 1846 and “May-Day”, 1867) established him as a major American poet.
Since the Puritans, all of Emerson’s ancestors, including his father, had been ministers. His father died in 1811, leaving the family in poverty, but, with the guidance of his aunt, Emerson managed to receive an excellent education at Boston Latin School, Harvard College, and Harvard Divinity School. He became a successful preacher in Boston, but the death of his beloved wife from tuberculosis in 1831 after only two years of marriage added to his growing doubts about religious doctrine. As a result, he resigned from the ministry in 1832.
He anonymously published the 95-page essay “Nature”, the foundation for all his later work, in 1836. His other most important work, two volumes of “Essays”, were published in 1841 and 1844. He had four children with his second wife, one of whom, Waldo, died as a little boy. In the 1850s Emerson became an advocate for the abolition of slavery. As he aged, Emerson’s intellectual positions became more moderate. At the same time, his views were accepted into the cultural mainstream. Thus, although he began his career as an intellectual revolutionary, he was an establishment figure by the time of his death at age 78.