Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.
Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay, Nature. Following this ground-breaking work, he gave a speech entitled "The American Scholar" in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. considered to be America's "Intellectual Declaration of Independence".
Mary Moody Emerson (1774-1863) was known not only as her nephew Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “earliest and best teacher,” but also as a “spirited and original genius in her own right” (Richardson on back cover of Origins). Ralph Waldo Emerson considered her presence in his life a “blessing which nothing else in education could supply” (Emerson Lectures 432); and her vast body of writing—her thousands of letters and journal entries spanning more than fifty years—“became one of Emerson’s most important books” (Richardson 25). Her surviving documents reveal the voice of a “woman who […] had something to say to her contemporaries and who can continue to speak to ours” about “the great truths that were the object of her life’s pilgrimage” (Cole Origins xl, xxvii).
Born in Concord in 1774, Mary Moody Emerson was the fourth child of Phebe Bliss and the Reverend William Emerson. Both the Emerson and the Bliss family forebears came to Massachusetts with the first generation of Puritan settlers in the 1630s, and both families’ histories deeply involved religious ministry. Ever since Mary’s great-great grandfather Joseph Emerson settled in Concord, at least one son in each succeeding generation was ordained a minister of the church. Included in this “ministerial dynasty” was Mary’s great uncle Joseph Moody, who appeared before his congregation with a handkerchief covering his face—the inspiration for the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Minister’s Black Veil” (Cole Origins 18, 22). Many of the Emerson men attended Harvard, and the family was generally respected and genteel though not wealthy, integrally involved in the New England Calvinist milieu (Cole Origins chpt 1).