15 Facts about Ralph Waldo Emerson

Image: Otto Herschan, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
Image: Otto Herschan, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss

Born in Boston in 1803, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a writer, lecturer, poet, and Transcendentalist thinker. Dubbed the "Sage of Concord," Emerson discussed his views on individualism and the divine in essays such as "Self-Reliance" and "Nature," and he emerged as one of the preeminent voices of his generation, both in his lifetime and in the annals of history.

1. HE LOST HIS FATHER AT AN EARLY AGE.

Emerson's father, Reverend William Emerson, was a prominent Boston resident who worked as a Unitarian minister. But he didn't focus solely on matters of God and religion. William Emerson also organized meetings of intellectuals, bringing together open-minded people from a variety of backgrounds to discuss philosophy, science, and books. Unfortunately, Emerson's father died of either stomach cancer or tuberculosis in 1811, when Emerson was just 7 years old. Emerson's mother, Ruth, and his aunts raised him and his five remaining siblings (a brother and sister had previously died young).

2. HE WAS HARVARD'S CLASS POET.

After studying at the Boston Latin School (which is now the oldest school in the U.S.), Emerson began college at 14, a common occurrence at the time. At Harvard College, he learned Latin, Greek, geometry, physics, history, and philosophy. In 1821, after four years of studying there, Emerson agreed to write and deliver a poem for Harvard's Class Day (then called Valedictorian Day), a pre-graduation event. Was he the best poet in the class? Not exactly. The faculty asked a few other students to be Class Poet, but they turned down the post, so Emerson got the gig.

3. HE RAN A SCHOOL FOR GIRLS.

After graduating from Harvard, Emerson went home to teach young women. His older brother, William, ran a school for girls in their mother's Boston home, and Emerson helped him teach students. Later, when William left to study in Germany, Emerson ran the school himself. He reportedly disliked teaching, though, so he moved on to plan B: grad school.

4. THEN HE SWITCHED GEARS AND BECAME A MINISTER.

In 1825, Emerson enrolled at Harvard Divinity School. He decided to become a minister, following in his father's (and grandfather's) footsteps. Despite struggling with vision problems and failing to graduate from his program, Emerson became licensed to preach in 1826. He then worked at a Unitarian church in Boston.

5. HE WAS FRIENDS WITH NAPOLEON BONAPARTE'S NEPHEW.

In late 1826, Emerson wasn't feeling well. He suffered from tuberculosis, joint pain, and vision problems, so he followed medical advice and went south for a warmer climate near the ocean. After spending time in Charleston, South Carolina, Emerson headed to St. Augustine, Florida, where he preached and wrote poetry. He also met and befriended Prince Achille Murat, the nephew of the former French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who had renounced his European titles (though his father had already been overthrown) and immigrated to the United States. Murat was also a writer, and the two young men reportedly discussed religion, politics, and philosophy.

6. HIS YOUNG WIFE DIED OF TUBERCULOSIS.

When Emerson was 26, he married 18-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker. The newlyweds lived happily in Boston, but Tucker was suffering from tuberculosis. Emerson's mother helped take care of her son's ailing wife, but in 1831, less than two years after getting married, Ellen passed away. Emerson dealt with his grief by writing in his journals ("Will the eye that was closed on Tuesday ever beam again in the fullness of love on me? Shall I ever be able to connect the face of outward nature, the mists of the morn, the star of eve, the flowers and all poetry with the heart and life of an enchanting friend? No. There is one birth and baptism and one first love and the affections cannot keep their youth any more than men."), traveling, and visiting her grave. The next year, after an extended period of soul-searching, he decided to leave the ministry to become a secular thinker.

7. HE GAVE MORE THAN 1500 LECTURES, WHICH MADE HIM RICH.

portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson
A 1846 portrait of Emerson, from friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's personal collection.
midnightdreary, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1833, Emerson turned his love of writing into a career as a frequent lecturer. He traveled around New England reading his essays and speaking to audiences about his views on nature, the role of religion, and his travels. In 1838, Emerson gave one of his most famous talks, a commencement speech to graduating students of the Harvard Divinity School. His "Divinity School Address" was radical and controversial at the time, since he expressed his Transcendentalist views of individual power over religious doctrine. He also argued that Jesus Christ was not God, a heretical idea at the time. In cities such as Boston, he paid his own money to rent a hall and advertise his speaking event. Emerson packaged some of his lectures into a series, speaking on a certain theme for several events. Ticket sales were high, and the "Sage of Concord" was able to support his family and buy land thanks to his lectures.

8. HE CRITICIZED JANE AUSTEN'S WRITING.

Although many readers love Jane Austen's novels, Emerson was not a fan. In his notebooks (published posthumously), he criticized her characters' single-minded focus on marriage in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. He also called Austen's writing vulgar in tone and sterile in creativity. "I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate," he wrote. "Never was life so pinched and so narrow … Suicide is more respectable."

9. HE NAMED HIS DAUGHTER AFTER HIS FIRST WIFE.

In 1835, Emerson married Lydia Jackson (nickname: Lidian), an abolitionist and animal rights activist. The couple had four children—Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward—and they named their first daughter Ellen Tucker to honor Emerson's first wife. Besides naming his daughter after her, Emerson also kept his first wife's rocking chair to remind himself of his love for her.

10. HE GREATLY INFLUENCED HENRY DAVID THOREAU.

Illustrated portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson
iStock

No biography of writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau would be complete without mentioning Emerson's impact on the "Civil Disobedience" essayist. Emerson gave Thoreau housing and money, encouraged him to keep a journal, and let him have land to build a cabin on Walden Pond. The two friends often discussed Transcendentalism, and Thoreau thought of Emerson's wife Lidian as a sister. Although they had some intellectual disagreements, Emerson gave the eulogy at Thoreau's 1862 funeral.

11. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT HAD A CRUSH ON HIM.

Emerson was friends and neighbors with Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of the Little Women author. Louisa May Alcott grew up surrounded by Emerson, Thoreau, and other Transcendentalist thinkers, and their works greatly influenced her. Emerson lent her books from his library and taught her about the joys of nature. She apparently wrote about her crushes on the much-older Emerson and Thoreau in one of her earliest works, a novel called Moods, and she was known to leave wildflowers near the front door of Emerson's house.

12. MEETING ABRAHAM LINCOLN CHANGED HIS MIND ABOUT THE PRESIDENT.

Emerson wrote and lectured about the evils of slavery, and he frequently criticized President Lincoln for not doing enough to end it. In 1862, Emerson gave an anti-slavery lecture in Washington, D.C., and was invited to the White House to meet Lincoln. After the meeting, Emerson praised Lincoln's charisma and storytelling ability ("When he has made his remark, he looks up at you with a great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs"), saying that the president "impressed me more favorably than I had hoped." Emerson also called Lincoln a sincere, well-meaning man with a boyish cheerfulness and clarity in speech.

13. HE PRAISED WALT WHITMAN WHEN FEW OTHERS WOULD, BUT FELT BURNED WHEN WHITMAN PUBLISHED HIS PRIVATE LETTERS.

letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman
Emerson's letter to Walt Whitman, dated 21 July, 1855: "I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of 'Leaves of Grass.' I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."
U.S. Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After reading one of Emerson's poems, Walt Whitman felt inspired. In 1855, he self-published Leaves of Grass and sent a copy to Emerson. The controversial collection of poems by the unknown poet got horrible reviews—it was routinely called obscene and profane, and one critic called it "a mass of stupid filth." Sales were dismal. But Emerson read the book and wrote a laudatory letter to Whitman, calling the work a "wonderful gift" and "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."

Thanks to Emerson's encouragement, Whitman published a second edition of Leaves of Grass. However, Whitman printed Emerson's words on the book's spine and in a newspaper article. Emerson was reportedly surprised and annoyed that his private letter was made public without his permission, and he remained silent on his thoughts regarding Whitman from then on.

14. HE SUFFERED FROM MEMORY PROBLEMS LATE IN LIFE.

In the early 1870s, Emerson began forgetting things. Given his symptoms, most historians think Emerson suffered from Alzheimer's, aphasia, or dementia. Although he had difficulty recalling certain words, he continued to lecture until a few years before his death. Despite forgetting his own name and the names of his friends, Emerson reportedly kept a positive attitude towards his declining mental faculties (much as his first wife did while she was dying of tuberculosis).

15. HE HELPED DESIGN THE CEMETERY HE'S BURIED IN.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's grave
midnightdreary, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

When Emerson died of pneumonia in 1882, he was buried on "Author's Ridge" in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (not the same Sleepy Hollow as in the famed Washington Irving story)—a cemetery that was designed with Emerson's Transcendentalist, nature-loving aesthetics in mind. In 1855, as a member of the Concord Cemetery Committee, Emerson gave the dedication at the opening of the cemetery, calling it a "garden of the living" that would be a peaceful place for both visitors and permanent residents. "Author's Ridge" became a burial ground for many of the most famous American authors who called Concord home—Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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10 Facts About The Blue Lagoon On Its 40th Anniversary

Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields star in The Blue Lagoon (1980).
Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields star in The Blue Lagoon (1980).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Brooke Shields was just 14 years old when she filmed The Blue Lagoon, the infamously sexy and slightly salacious island-set romance that capitalized on burgeoning hormones in a big way. The film was shocking when it debuted on July 5, 1980—but even 40 years later, it can still make jaws drop. Here’s a look at some of its more compelling tidbits, complete with undiscovered iguanas and a nifty trick to cover up nudity.

1. The Blue Lagoon is based on a trilogy of books by Henry De Vere Stacpoole.

Although the film closely follows the events of the first book in Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s series, also called The Blue Lagoon, the film’s sequel (1991’s Return to the Blue Lagoon) breaks with the storyline presented in the 1920s-era trilogy to essentially re-tell the original story (read: more tanned teens falling in love on a tropical island). Stacpoole’s books were far more concerned with the culture of the South Seas population, particularly as it was being further influenced by the arrival of European cultures.

2. The Blue Lagoon was adapted into a film twice before.

In 1923, director W. Bowden crafted a silent version of the story. More than a quarter-century later, British filmmaker Frank Launder made a very well-received version for the big screen in 1949, starring Jean Simmons and Donald Houston. The film was immensely popular, becoming the seventh-highest grossing domestic film at the U.K. box office that year.

3. The Blue Lagoon's costume team came up with a clever trick to keep Brooke Shields covered up.

Brooke Shields was just 14 years old when she filmed The Blue Lagoon, which led to some challenges for the production team, especially as Shields’s Emmeline is frequently topless. So the costume designers hatched an ingenious (and, really, just kind of obvious) way to keep her covered up at all times: they glued her long-haired wig to her body.

4. Brooke Shields’s age was an issue for a long time.

Even after The Blue Lagoon was long wrapped, completed, and released into theaters, issues related to Shields’s age at the time of filming still lingered. Years later, Shields testified before a U.S. Congressional inquiry that body doubles—of legal age—were used throughout filming.

5. The Blue Lagoon was nominated for an Oscar.

Cinematographer Néstor Almendros was nominated for his work on The Blue Lagoon. And while he lost out to Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet for Tess, he already had one Oscar at home for his contributions to Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978). The skilled DP, who passed away in 1992, was also nominated for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Sophie’s Choice (1982).

6. A new species of iguana was discovered when it appeared in The Blue Lagoon.

Parts of the film were lensed on a private island that is part of Fiji, one of the habitats of the now-critically endangered Fiji crested iguana. The iguana appeared throughout the film, and when herpetologist John Gibbons caught an early screening of the feature, he realized that the animal that kept popping up on the big screen wasn't a familiar one. So he traveled to Fiji (specifically, to the island of Nanuya Levu), where he discovered the Fiji crested iguana, an entirely new Fijian native.

7. The Blue Lagoon won a Razzie.

Despite its stellar source material and Oscar-nominated camerawork, The Blue Lagoon wasn’t beloved by everyone: The Razzies foisted a Worst Actress award on Shields. The actress won (lost? hard to tell?) over an extremely mixed bag of other nominees that somehow also included Shelley Duvall for The Shining. Come on, Razzies.

8. The Blue Lagoon director Randal Kleiser hatched a plan to get his stars to like each other.

Because the chemistry between the two leads was vital to the success of The Blue Lagoon, director Randal Kleiser (who also directed Grease) came up with the idea to get star Christopher Atkins feeling a little lovestruck with Shields by putting a picture of the young starlet over Atkins’s bed. Staring at Shields every night apparently did rouse some feelings in Atkins; the duo had a brief romance while filming. "Brooke and I had a little bit of a romantic, innocent sort of romance in the very beginning of the film," Atkins told HuffPost. “It was very nice—we were very, very close friends."

9. Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins's affection didn’t last for long.

Despite their early attachment, Shields and Atkins soon began bickering nonstop. “Brooke got tired of me,” Atkins told People in 1980. “She thought I took acting too seriously. I was always trying to get into a mood while she would be skipping off to joke with the crew.” Still, Kleiser even capitalized on that, using the tension to fuel the more frustrated scenes, lensing the tough stuff while his leads were tussling.

10. The Blue Lagoon's film shoot basically took place on a desert island.

Kleiser was desperate to capture authenticity for the film, going so far as to live like his characters while making it. "To shoot this kind of story, I wanted to get as close to nature as possible and have our crew live almost like the characters," Kleiser said. "We found an island in Fiji that had no roads, water, or electricity, but beautiful beaches. We built a village of tents for the crew to live in and had a small ship anchored in the lagoon for our camera equipment and supplies. This filming approach was quite unusual, but it just seemed right for this project."

This story has been updated for 2020.