HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems
Author: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Publisher: Bantam Classics, published in 1990
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Teens and adults
Rating: **** 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems (selected edition published in 1990 by Bantam Classics). Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 —1882) was a renowned American essayist, lecturer, and poet who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century and whose ideas on philosophy, religion, and literature influenced many writers, including Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. After an undergraduate career at Harvard, he worked as a teacher and then studied at Harvard Divinity School, becoming a minister with Boston’s Second Church (Unitarian) from 1829 to 1832 when he resigned due to disagreements. He gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay, Nature and his 1837 speech entitled “The American Scholar.” Emerson wrote most of his important essays as lectures first, then revised them for print. His first two collections of essays – Essays: First Series and Essays: Second Series, published respectively in 1841 and 1844 – represent the core of his thinking, and include such well-known essays as “Self-Reliance,” “The Over-Soul,” “Circles,” “The Poet,” and “Experience.” Together with Nature, these essays made the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s Emerson’s most fertile period.
Emerson was also an abolitionist and made his living as a popular lecturer in New England and much of the rest of the country, publishing essays and giving more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States. When I was in high school, we had to read his essay on “Self-Reliance” and part of his poem “Threnody” which was the result of his grief following the death of first son Waldo from scarlet fever in January of 1842. However, my favorite work of Emerson’s is his poem “Concord Hymn,” written for the 1837 dedication of the Obelisk, a monument in Concord, MA, commemorating the Battle of Concord on April 19, 1775, at the outbreak of the American Revolution. The wide-ranging Bantam selection of his writings shows Emerson as a protester against social conformity, a lover of nature, an activist for the rights of women and slaves, and a poet of great sensitivity. It contains such seminal works as Nature, “Self-Reliance,” “The Over-Soul,” and early essays and lectures such as the “Cherokee Letter” and “Pray Without Ceasing,” along with his most important poetry, including “The Sphinx” and “Days.”
Please understand that I am not wholeheartedly and unreservedly endorsing Emerson. The death of his first wife caused him to begin to doubt his own beliefs. On July 15, 1838, Emerson was invited to Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School for the school’s graduation address, which came to be known as his “Divinity School Address.” Emerson discounted Biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. Historical Christianity, he said, had turned Jesus into a “demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo.” Emerson’s religious views were considered radical at the time. He believed that all things are connected to God and, therefore, all things are divine, a form of Pantheism. Critics believed that Emerson was removing the central God figure. Even Unitarian theologian Henry Ware, Jr. said that Emerson was in danger of taking away “the Father of the Universe” and leaving “but a company of children in an orphan asylum.” However, he was an important American author and while one may not agree with much of what he says, he is interesting to read.