Transcendentalist essayist/poet Ralph Waldo Emerson died on this date at age 78 in 1882. “The Sage
of Concord” was buried in his town’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in a section known, appropriately enough, as “Authors'
Ridge.” Also here: Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and perhaps the
closest to Emerson in sensibility, Henry David Thoreau. Can you think of a town
of comparable size that has produced so many literati? I can’t.
Nine years ago, in the fall, I was visiting the Boston, area,
staying in Lexington and Concord, when I took this photo. I could not bid
goodbye to this area that had done so much to establish America’s political and
literary without stopping at this site. So, on a sunny, beneficent Saturday morning, I
It is entirely appropriate that Emerson was laid to
rest in this spot. He had, after all, delivered
the speech at the dedication of the cemetery in 1855. It is equally appropriate
that he and his family occupies the most visible family plot in this stretch of
ground, as he had done so much in the antebellum period to make Concord a
center of intellectual life in the United States.
The remains of three people closest to Emerson are
next to him: his second wife Lidian, daughter Ellen, and most poignantly, son
Waldo. The latter’s death, at age five, plunged his father into a torrent of
grief, leading ultimately to the hard-won wisdom expressed in one
of his greatest essays, “Experience” (1844).
The verses that appear on the bronze plaque on Ralph’s uncarved boulder that you see here—“The
passive master lent his hand/To the vast soul that o’er him planned”—come from
Emerson’s poem “The Problem,” which disclaims interest in ministries (“Yet not
for all his faith can see/Would I that cowled churchman be”). He had shocked
the sensibilities of many New Englanders when he not only gave up his Unitarian
ministry in his late 20s, but went on to stress the human rather than divine
nature of Jesus. The rest of his hugely influential career was spent in
creating a new kind of American spirituality that extolled the “divine
sufficiency of the individual."