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.

The 25 Best Colleges in America

Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images
Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images

The college decision process is always a tough one, but review site Niche's annual rankings of the best colleges in America make it easier for prospective students (and their parents) to narrow down the choices to find the best fit. The 2020 list takes a variety of factors into account, including student life, admissions, finances, and student reviews. But the most important factor in their methodology, comprising 40 percent of a school's overall rating, is academics, which, according to the Niche website, looks at "acceptance rate, quality of professors, as well as student and alumni surveys regarding academics at the school."

Taking the number one spot on Niche's list for the second year in a row is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by Stanford University in the number two spot (again, for the second year in a row). Six of America's eight Ivy League schools made it into the top 10.

Here are the 25 Best Colleges in America for 2020, according to Niche's rankings.

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology // Cambridge, MA

  1. Stanford University // Stanford, CA

  1. Yale University // New Haven, CT

  1. Harvard University // Cambridge, MA

  1. Princeton University // Princeton, NJ

  1. Duke University // Durham, NC

  1. Brown University // Providence, RI

  1. Columbia University // New York, NY

  1. University of Pennsylvania // Philadelphia, PA

  1. Rice University // Houston, TX

  1. Northwestern University // Evanston, IL

  1. Vanderbilt University // Nashville, TN

  1. Pomona College // Claremont, CA

  1. Washington University in St. Louis // St. Louis, MO

  1. Dartmouth College // Hanover, NH

  1. California Institute of Technology // Pasadena, CA

  1. University of Notre Dame // Notre Dame, IN

  1. University of Chicago // Chicago, IL

  1. University of Southern California // Los Angeles, CA

  1. Cornell University // Ithaca, NY

  1. Bowdoin College // Brunswick, ME

  1. Amherst College // Amherst, MA

  1. University of Michigan // Ann Arbor, MI

  1. Georgetown University // Washington DC

  1. Tufts University // Medford, MA

12 Facts About Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Two bison grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Two bison grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
scgerding/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The only U.S. national park named after a person—America's 26th presidentTheodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) was established in North Dakota by Harry S. Truman in 1947. The park honors Roosevelt, who lived as a ranchman in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s and, as president, conserved 230 million acres of public land for future generations. Read on for things to do and see, plus what to know before you go camping, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

1. The plans for Theodore Roosevelt National Park began not long after Roosevelt’s death in 1919.

Medora, North Dakota, was chosen as the site of the memorial, and in 1921, the state’s legislature asked its reps in Congress to help set aside land for that purpose. One early proposal called for a park of more than 2000 acres, but that was controversial—the land was valuable to ranchers. Some believed a national monument was more appropriate than a national park.

Then, in the 1930s, drought and overgrazing led many homesteaders to abandon their land, which they sold to the federal government; some of those lands were set aside to create a park. In 1935, the land—which was in a north unit and a south unit—became the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area, and in 1946, it was taken over by the Fish and Wildlife Service and became the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge.

On April 25, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the bill that created Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park; at that time, the land included the South Unit and the site of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. The North Unit of the park was added the next year. Finally, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a law that changed the memorial park to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In 2018, it received nearly 750,000 visitors.

2. Before the land became Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Native Americans hunted in the area.

A flint spearpoint and other projectiles from the Archaic Culture (5500 BCE to 500 CE) have been found in the park, as have artifacts from the Plains Woodland Tradition (1 to 1200 CE) and pre-Columbian peoples. Though one of the pre-Columbian sites includes a bison processing camp (or what remains of it), there was no permanent occupation of the area of that time, according to the park’s website.

There are a number of sites from what the website calls the Historic Period, which lasted from 1742 to the 1880s, and included artifacts like “stone rings, a rock cairn, and four conical, timbered lodges. Two of the lodges, presumably used by men engaged in seasonal eagle trapping, are still standing today … One archaeological interpretation indicated that the use of the badlands for hunting, gathering, and spiritual pursuits, though undertaken by numerous cultures and groups over millennia, had not significantly changed over that entire time span.” The Mandan and Hidatsa, among many other Native tribes, hunted in the area, and the lands have spiritual significance for some tribes as well.

3. Theodore Roosevelt National Park contains 70,488 acres.

The park is spread over three units. The South Unit, which is located in Medora off I-94, is its most visited area. The North Unit, 50 miles off the same highway, is more remote. Both units have scenic drives—though the drive in the South Unit is currently closed due to slumping—and hiking trails. The South Unit also has a petrified forest with a 10.3-mile trail.

The third unit of the park is its smallest, and very out of the way: The roads leading to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit are unpaved and sometimes require four-wheel drive. No roads go directly to the site to preserve the solitude TR would have felt living there, so getting to the site requires a bit of a walk along a mowed pathway.

4. Visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can see the future president’s Maltese Cross ranch house.

Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin.
Erin McCarthy

When Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Dakota Badlands to hunt bison in 1883, he stayed with some cattle ranchers and decided to invest in a ranch himself. Before he left, he invested $14,000 into Maltese Cross Ranch. The cabin was built seven miles outside of Medora, and it was unusual for the area: While most houses were made of sod, Roosevelt’s ranch was made of ponderosa pine. It had a singled, pitched roof, which created an upper half-story where his ranch hands could sleep. There were three rooms (a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom for TR), and white-washed walls.

The cabin got new owners in 1900, and after Roosevelt became president, it went on tour: It could be seen at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, then to Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. For a time, it sat in Fargo, North Dakota, and then on the state capital grounds in Bismarck. Finally, in 1959, the cabin came back to what was, by then, Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. Today, it can be found in the South Unit of the Park behind the Visitor’s Center.

The building is mostly original; the roof and shingles were removed at one point and have been restored. Inside, visitors can see several authentic Roosevelt artifacts, including a traveling trunk with “T.R.” on the top and a hutch.

5. Visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can go out to the site where Roosevelt’s second ranch house once stood.

A gate in front of the site of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site.
A gate in front of the site of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site.
Erin McCarthy

In 1884, Roosevelt decided to abandon politics after the deaths of his wife and mother and settle at his ranch in the Dakotas permanently. But his Maltese Cross cabin was located on a popular route into Medora, and people were always stopping by. Grieving and seeking solitude, Roosevelt rode out to a site 35 miles north of Medora that had been recommended to him.

On the site, Roosevelt found the skulls of two elk, their horns interlocked, and named what he would come to refer to as his Home Ranch in their honor. He bought the rights to the site for $400; his nearest neighbors were at least 10 miles away.

Two friends of Roosevelt’s from Maine, Bill Sewall and Wilmont Dow, came to the Dakotas and built the 30-by-60-foot house of cottonwood pine; it had 7-foot high walls, eight rooms, and a veranda. Also on the site was a barn, a blacksmith’s shop, a cattle shed, and a chicken coop.

In Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Roosevelt wrote:

“My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand—though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and for, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset."

But the cattle business was not meant to be Roosevelt’s future. He eventually returned to New York, and after a hard winter where he lost 60 percent of his herd, he sold the ranch in 1898. By 1901—the year Roosevelt became president—the ranch was gone. A local said that all that remained was “a couple of half-rotted foundations."

Today, visitors to TRNP can take a scenic drive on gravel roads, then hike three-eighths of a mile to the Elkhorn site, located between the Little Missouri River and black, white, and yellow Badlands bluffs. There, they can stand on the foundation stones that mark where TR’s Home Ranch once stood, listening to the birds, insects, and low mooing of cattle, as he would have done. (They might even encounter a cow or two on the trail!)

6. More than 185 species of birds have been spotted in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The black and brown Spotted Towhee in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
Spotted Towhee in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Wildnerdpix/iStock via Getty Images Plus

They include bald and golden eagles, blue-winged teal, American wigeon, turkey vultures, prairie and peregrine falcons, and the sage grouse. The park has a handy checklist [PDF] to help visitors keep track of the birds they’ve seen.

Birds aren’t the only animals you might see: TRNP is also home to elk, prairie dogs, pronghorns, feral horses, big horn sheep, coyotes, badgers, beavers, porcupines, mule deer, longhorn steers, rattlesnakes, and bison.

7. There are hundreds of bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Whether you call them bison or buffalo (though Americans use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference!), you’ll have a chance to see plenty of them at TRNP. Both the north and south units have herds—200 to 400 animals in the south and 100 to 300 in the north. Full-grown bison bulls can stand up to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 2000 pounds, so visitors should give them a wide berth or risk getting charged and possibly gored.

The American bison (Bison bison) was once critically endangered and nearly went extinct. (Roosevelt was one person who was instrumental in saving the species from extinction.) The animals were reintroduced into the park in 1956. Because all of the living bison are descended from a small number of animals, monitoring the genetic diversity of the herd is important. Every couple of years in October, park staff round up the animals in both units by using helicopters to herd them into progressively smaller enclosures. Eventually, each animal ends up in a squeeze shoot, where staff takes hair (for DNA analysis) and blood (to test for disease) samples and weighs and measures the animals. Bison born since the last roundup are given tags and microchips so they can be tracked.

8. Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a few prairie dog towns.

Two black-tailed prairie dogs coming out of a burrow in the ground.
Two black-tailed prairie dogs coming out of a burrow in the ground in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
RONSAN4D/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Black-tailed prairie dogs are abundant in TRNP. Roosevelt himself described them as “in shape like little woodchucks,” and called them “the most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable.” Visitors can see the first of many prairie dog towns in the park near the Skyline Vista trail.

9. In prehistoric times, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was home to a Champsosaurus.

Fifty-five million years ago, during the Paleocene Epoch, North Dakota—including the area of TRNP—was a swamp, and in that swamp lived a reptile called Champsosaurus. The animal looked like modern-day crocodilians called gharials and could measure nearly 10 feet long.

10. You can go camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

There are three campgrounds in TNRP, but visitors just can’t drive in and set up a tent—reservations must be made, fees must be paid, and, in some cases, permits are required to camp in the park.

Camping isn't the only thing you can do in the park: It's also possible to canoe or kayak down the Little Missouri River if the water is deep enough.

11. The colors of the rocks in Theodore Roosevelt National Park tell a story.

A rock formation in Theodore Roosevelt National Park with gray, yellow, and light colored-layers.
hartmanc10/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The massive and unusual formations in TRNP, created by erosion over millions of years, are awe-inspiring—and you can tell a lot about them from the colors of their layers [PDF]. Brown and tan layers indicate sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone, which came from the Rocky Mountains, while blue-gray is bentonite clay laid down by the ash of far-away volcanic eruptions. (The clay can absorb up to five times its weight in liquid, which is why it’s used in … kitty litter.)

Black is a layer of coal, and red is the delightfully named clinker, which is formed when coal veins catch fire and cook the rock above it. Locally, the red rock is called scoria, but clinker is its scientific name.

One coal vein located in the park caught fire in 1951 and burned for 26 years. Apparently, visitors could roast marshmallows over the fire, which finally burned out in 1977. Fires in the Badlands aren’t unusual; they can be caused by lightning strikes or even set purposefully to reduce hazards or benefit certain species.

12. There are a number of interesting historic sites near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

While you’re in the area, check out the Chateau de Mores—the mansion that was home to a French marquis who dreamed of bringing a cattle-slaughtering business to Medora—and the Von Hoffman House. And don’t miss the Medora Musical, a variety show held in an open-air amphitheater that features the history of the town’s most famous and infamous figures—plus an appearance by the president who once called the area his home.

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