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.

12 Quirky Books for Imaginative Kids

Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

Though childhood classics like A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are never truly go out of style, each year brings a new cache of funny and fantastical books that will feed the expanding imaginations of young readers everywhere. From a self-conscious sewer monster who wants to make friends to a gluttonous dinosaur who gobbled up Christmas, this guide has the perfect quirky story for every kind of kid on your holiday gift list.

1. Rumple Buttercup // Matthew Gray Gubler ($9)

This whimsical tale about a self-conscious sewer monster is written and illustrated by Criminal Minds star, and king of quirk, Matthew Gray Gubler. While cute characters and a simple message about embracing your individuality make it a great gift for very young kids, its absurdist humor makes it a laugh-out-loud read for older kids and adults, too.

Buy it: Amazon

2. President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath // Mac Barnett ($8)

president taft is stuck in the bath
Candlewick/Amazon

Mac Barnett’s good-natured retelling of William Howard Taft’s infamous (though unconfirmed) bathtub blunder teaches children two things. One, history is far from a tedious list of names, dates, laws, and battles. And two, even the most stately world leaders have embarrassing moments.

Buy it: Amazon

3. It’s Only Stanley // Jon Agee ($15)

it's only stanley book
Dial Books/Amazon

When strange noises wake the Wimbledon family at night, they assume their dog Stanley is cleaning or fixing something; in reality, Stanley is transforming their house into a rocket ship that will carry them to an alien-inhabited planet. Fans of The Secret Life of Pets and Phineas and Ferb’s Perry the Platypus will love this rhyming read-aloud (and surely wonder what their own pet is up to when they’re not around).

Buy it: Amazon

4. Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge // Megan Frazer Blakemore ($6)

frankie sparks and the big sled challenge
Aladdin/Amazon

Third-grade inventor Frankie Sparks is back for the third book in her STEM-inspired series, and this time, she’s about to learn that the hardest part about creating a competition-winning sled is less about sled-building and more about team-building. Great for elementary school kids who love to create anything—be it art or architecture—as well as anyone who’s ever had to work on a group project.

Buy it: Amazon

5. The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! // Mo Willems ($10)

the pigeon has to go to school
Hyperion Books/Amazon

Mo Willems’s original pigeon book was Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, a thoroughly riotous, award-winning tale about a pigeon trying to convince readers to let it drive the bus when the bus driver asked them not to. In the latest story, the headstrong pigeon pivots to something it very much does not want to do—go to school. It sends a message about the value of doing things you don’t want to do, but, most importantly, it’s also really funny.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Glass Town Game // Catherynne M. Valente ($11)

the glass town game
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

Catherynne M. Valente spins a riveting fictional tale from the true story of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë’s childhood in a Yorkshire parsonage, where they passed the time dreaming up an intricate fantasy land populated with toy soldiers. In Valente’s novel, the fantasy land comes to life, complete with whale-sized flies, Champagne flutes that play music, and fire-breathing porcelain roosters, and the siblings must use all their wit and imagination to figure out how to get home. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland meets The Chronicles of Narnia, and perfect for fans of both.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Lambslide // Ann Patchett ($13)

lambslide
HarperCollins/Amazon

The internationally bestselling author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth is just as clever when it comes to writing for kids. In Lambslide, a group of lambs mistakenly hear lambslide instead of landslide and begin a farm-wide campaign for an actual slide for lambs. With quaint illustrations, endearing characters, and an engaging plot, this is the type of book that ends up in the family for generations.

Buy it: Amazon

8. The Book With No Pictures // B.J. Novak ($9)

The Office alum B.J. Novak turns storytime into a full-fledged comedic performance with The Book With No Pictures, a book filled with nonsense words and phrases like blork and blaggity blaggity, which the reader has to read aloud. For parents, it’s a blueprint for embracing their silly side. For kids, it’s a chance to see their parents not seem so parental.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Spencer’s New Pet // Jessie Sima ($14)

spencer's new pet
Simon & Schuster/Amazon

The author of Not Quite Narwhal returns with another adorable story, this time about a boy who must avoid sharp objects in order to protect his balloon-animal pet dog. The mostly black-and-white illustrations (except for the dog, which is red) give Spencer’s New Pet a refreshingly old-fashioned feel, and the tale itself is sweet, evenly paced, and timeless.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Serafina and the Black Cloak // Robert Beatty ($8)

serafina and the black cloak
Disney-Hyperion/Amazon

When children begin disappearing from the Biltmore Estate, Serafina, who secretly lives in the basement, knows the culprit is a mysterious man in a black cloak who prowls the corridors at night. This novel has everything a quality middle-grade fantasy needs, including secret passageways, a forbidden forest, unknown magic, and a scrappy heroine. And the chills and thrills don’t stop at the end—it’s the first in a series of four (so far).

Buy it: Amazon

11. The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas // Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter ($18)

the dinosaur that pooped christmas
Aladdin/Amazon

This jolly, strange story about a ravenous pet dinosaur who gobbles up all of Christmas is hilarious enough on its own—and perhaps even more so when you consider that it was written by British punk rockers Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter from the band McFly.

Buy it: Amazon

12. This Is a Taco! // Andrew Cangelose ($16)

this is a taco
Lion Forge/Amazon

A high-spirited, unique squirrel named Taco provides color commentary on regular squirrel facts in This Is a Taco!, a book that is much more than a factual guide to squirrels. In it, Taco embellishes, acts out, and sometimes completely changes the facts to be truer to his personal experience as a squirrel, which involves being opinionated and eating lots of tacos.

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

16 Biting Facts About Fright Night

William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Charley Brewster is your typical teen: he’s got a doting mom, a girlfriend whom he loves, a wacky best friend … and an enigmatic vampire living next door.

For more than 30 years, Tom Holland’s critically acclaimed directorial debut has been a staple of Halloween movie marathons everywhere. To celebrate the season, we dug through the coffins of the horror classic in order to discover some things you might not have known about Fright Night.

1. Fright Night was based on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

Or, in this case, "The Boy Who Cried Vampire." “I started to kick around the idea about how hilarious it would be if a horror movie fan thought that a vampire was living next door to him,” Holland told TVStoreOnline of the film’s genesis. “I thought that would be an interesting take on the whole Boy Who Cried Wolf thing. It really tickled my funny bone. I thought it was a charming idea, but I really didn't have a story for it.”

2. Peter Vincent made Fright Night click.

It wasn’t until Holland conceived of the character of Peter Vincent, the late-night horror movie host played by Roddy McDowall, that he really found the story. While discussing the idea with a department head at Columbia Pictures, Holland realized what The Boy Who Cried Vampire would do: “Of course, he's gonna go to Vincent Price!” Which is when the screenplay clicked. “The minute I had Peter Vincent, I had the story,” Holland told Dread Central. “Charley Brewster was the engine, but Peter Vincent was the heart.”

3. Peter Vincent is named after two horror icons.

Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.

4. The Peter Vincent role was intended for Vincent Price.

Roddy McDowall in Fright Night (1985)
Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

“Now the truth is that when I first went out with it, I was thinking of Vincent Price, but Vincent Price was not physically well at the time,” Holland said.

5. Roddy McDowall did not want to play the part like Vincent Price.

Once he was cast, Roddy McDowall made the decision that Peter Vincent was nothing like Vincent Price—specifically: he was a terrible actor. “My part is that of an old ham actor,” McDowall told Monster Land magazine in 1985. “I mean a dreadful actor. He had a moderate success in an isolated film here and there, but all very bad product. Basically, he played one character for eight or 10 films, for which he probably got paid next to nothing. Unlike stars of horror films who are very good actors and played lots of different roles, such as Peter Lorre and Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, this poor sonofabitch just played the same character all the time, which was awful.”

6. It took Holland just three weeks to write the Fright Night script.

And he had a helluva good time doing it, too. “I couldn’t stop writing,” Holland said in 2008, during a Fright Night reunion at Fright Fest. “I wrote it in about three weeks. And I was laughing the entire time, literally on the floor, kicking my feet in the air in hysterics. Because there’s something so intrinsically humorous in the basic concept. So it was always, along with the thrills and chills, something there that tickled your funny bone. It wasn’t broad comedy, but it’s a grin all the way through.”

7. Tom Holland directed Fright Night out of "self-defense."

By the time Fright Night came around, Holland was already a Hollywood veteran—just not as a director. He had spent the past two decades as an actor and writer and he told the crowd at Fright Fest that “this was the first film where I had sufficient credibility in Hollywood to be able to direct ... I had a film after Psycho 2 and before Fright Night called Scream For Help, which … I thought was so badly directed that [directing Fright Night] was self-defense. In self-defense, I wanted to protect the material, and that’s why I started directing with Fright Night."

8. Chris Sarandon had a number of reasons for not wanting to make Fright Night.

Chris Sarandon stars in 'Fright Night' (1985)
Chris Sarandon stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

At the Fright Night reunion, Chris Sarandon recalled his initial reaction to being approached about playing vampire Jerry Dandrige. "I was living in New York and I got the script,” he explained. “My agent said that someone was interested in the possibility of my doing the movie, and I said to myself, ‘There’s no way I can do a horror movie. I can’t do a vampire movie. I can’t do a movie with a first-time director.’ Not a first-time screenwriter, but first-time director. And I sat down and read the script, and I remember very vividly sitting at my desk, looked over at my then wife and said, ‘This is amazing. I don’t know. I have to meet this guy.’ And so, I came out to L.A. And I met with Tom [Holland] and our producer. And we just hit it off, and that was it.”

9. Jerry Dandridge is part fruit bat.

After doing some research into the history of vampires and the legends surrounding them, Sarandon decided that Jerry had some fruit bat in him, which is why he’s often seen snacking on fruit in the film. When asked about the 2011 remake with Colin Farrell, Sarandon commented on how much he appreciated that that specific tradition continued. “In this one, it's an apple, but in the original, Jerry ate all kinds of fruit because it was just sort of something I discovered by searching it—that most bats are not blood-sucking, but they're fruit bats,” Sarandon told io9. “And I thought well maybe somewhere in Jerry's genealogy, there's fruit bat in him, so that's why I did it.”

10. William Ragsdale learned he had booked the part of Charley Brewster on Halloween.

William Ragsdale had only ever appeared in one film before Fright Night (in a bit part). He had recently been considered for the role of Rocky Dennis in Mask, which “didn’t work out,” Ragsdale recalled. “But a few months later, [casting director] Jackie Burch tells me, ‘There’s this movie I’m casting. You might be really right for it.’ So, I had this 1976 Toyota Celica and I drove that through the San Joaquin valley desert for four or five trips down for auditioning. And in the last one, Stephen [Geoffreys] was there, Amanda [Bearse] was there and that’s when it happened. I had read the script and at the time I had been doing Shakespeare and Greek drama, so I read this thing and thought, ‘Well, God, this looks like a lot of fun. There’s no … iambic pentameter, there’s no rhymes. You know? Where’s the catharsis? Where’s the tragedy?’ … I ended up getting a call on Halloween that they had decided to use me, and I was delighted.”

11. Not being Anthony Michael Hall worked in Stephen Geoffreys's favor.

In a weird way, it was by not being Anthony Michael Hall that Stephen Geoffreys was cast as Evil Ed. “I actually met Jackie Burch, the casting director, by mistake in New York months before this movie was cast and she remembered me,” Geoffreys shared at Fright Fest. “My agent sent me for an audition for Weird Science. And Anthony Michael Hall was with the same agent that I was with, and she sent me by mistake. And Jackie looked at me when I walked into the office and said, ‘You’re not Anthony Michael Hall!’ and I’m like ‘No!’ But anyway, I sat down and I talked to Jackie for a half hour and she remembered me from that interview and called my agent, and my agent sent me the script while I was with Amanda [Bearse] in Palm Springs doing Fraternity Vacation, and I read it. It was awesome. The writing was incredible.”

12. Evil Ed wanted to be Charley Brewster.

Stephen Geoffreys stars in 'Fright Night' (1985).
Stephen Geoffreys stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Geoffreys loved the script for Fright Night. “I just got this really awesome feeling about it,” he said. “I read it and thought I’ve got to do this. I called my agent and said ‘I would love to audition for the part of Charley Brewster!’ [And he said] ‘No, Steve, you’re wanted for the part of Evil Ed.’ And I went, ‘Are you kidding me? Why? I couldn’t… What do they see in me that they think I should be this?' Well anyway, it worked out. It was awesome and I had a great time.”

13. Fright Night's original ending was much different.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

14. A ghost from Ghostbusters made a cameo in Fright Night.

Visual effects producer Richard Edlund had recently finished up work on Ghostbusters when he and his team began work on Fright Night. And the movie gave them a great reason to recycle one of the library ghosts they had created for Ghostbusters—which was deemed too scary for Ivan Reitman's PG-rated classic—and use it as a vampire bat for Fright Night.

15. Fright Night's cast and crew took it upon themselves to record some DVD commentaries.

Because the earliest DVD versions of Fright Night contained no commentary tracks, in 2008 the cast and crew partnered with Icons of Fright to record a handful of downloadable “pirate” commentary tracks about the making of the film. The tracks ended up on a limited-edition 30th anniversary Blu-ray of the film, which sold out in hours.

16. Vincent Price loved Fright Night.


Columbia Pictures

Holland had the chance to meet Vincent Price one night at a dinner party at McDowall’s. And the actor was well aware that McDowall’s character was based on him. “I was a little bit embarrassed by it,” Holland admitted. “He said it was wonderful and he thought Roddy did a wonderful job. Thank God he didn’t ask why he wasn’t cast in it.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER