Known primarily as the leader of the philosophical movement transcendentalism, which stresses the ties of humans to nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet and essayist, was born in Boston in 1803. From a long line of religious leaders, Emerson became the minister of the Second Church (Unitarian) in 1829. He left the church in 1832 because of profound differences in interpretation and doubts about church doctrine. He visited England and met with British writers and philosophers. It was during this first excursion abroad that Emerson formulated his ideas for Self-Reliance. He returned to the United States in 1833 and settled in Concord, Massachusetts. He began lecturing in Boston. His first book, Nature (1836), published anonymously, detailed his belief and has come to be regarded as his most significant original work on the essence of his philosophy of transcendentalism. The first volume of Essays (1841) contained some of Emerson's most popular works, including the renowned Self-Reliance. Emerson befriended and influenced a number of American authors including Henry David Thoreau. It was Emerson's practice of keeping a journal that inspired Thoreau to do the same and set the stage for Thoreau's experiences at Walden Pond. Emerson married twice (his first wife Ellen died in 1831 of tuberculosis) and had four children (two boys and two girls) with his second wife, Lydia. His first born, Waldo, died at age six. Emerson died in Concord on April 27, 1882 at the age of 78 due to pneumonia and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.
Alfred Kazin, a literary critic and professor of English literature, was born in Brooklyn on June 5, 1915. He was educated at City College and Columbia University. Kazin established his own critical reputation in the mid-1940s with On Native Grounds (1942), a study of American literature. His later work, Bright Book of American Life (1973), is both a recapitulation of modernism and an evaluation of American writers who have achieved prominence since 1945. Modernism, a favorite topic of Kazin, is in his view a literary revolution marked by spontaneity and individuality but lacking in precisely the mass culture appeal necessary to its survival. Contemporaries (1962) includes reflective essays on travel, five essays on Freud, and some very perceptive essays on literary and political matters. The final section, "The Critic's Task," concerns itself with the critic's function within a popular and an academic context and with critical theory and principles. Starting Out in the Thirties (1965) describes Kazin's early years with The New Republic as book reviewer and evaluates his contemporaries in a period when the depression and radical political thought, pro and con, deeply affected literary production. In the midst of the current antihumanistic trend in literary theory, Kazin remains a literary critic of the old school, believing in the relevance of literature to modern life. Alfred Kazin died on June 5, 1998.
Alfred R. Ferguson was Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.