Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson—a New England preacher, essayist, lecturer, poet, and philosopher—was one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the 19th century in the United States. Emerson was also the first major American literary and intellectual figure to widely explore, write seriously about, and seek to broaden the domestic audience for classical Asian and Middle Eastern works.
He not only gave countless readers their first exposure to non-Western modes of thinking, metaphysical concepts, and sacred mythologies, but he also shaped the way subsequent generations of American writers and thinkers approached the vast cultural resources of Asia and the Middle East. Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts.
As a boy, his first contact with the non-Western world came by way of the merchandise that bustled across the India Wharf in Boston harbor, a major nexus of the Indo-Chinese trade that flourished in New England after the Revolutionary War. Emerson’s first contact with writings from and about the non-Western world came by way of his father, William Emerson, a Unitarian minister with a genteel interest in learning and letters.
In 1817, at the age of 14, Emerson entered Harvard College. While at Harvard, Emerson had little opportunity to study the diverse literary and religious traditions of Asia or the Middle East. The curriculum focused on Greek and Roman writers, British logicians and philosophers, Euclidean geometry and algebra, and post-Enlightenment defenses of revealed religion.
As his journals and library borrowing records attest, however, in his spare time, Emerson paid keen attention to the wider European Romantic interest in the “Orient” or the “East,” which to him meant the ancient lands and sacred traditions east of classical Greece, such as Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, China, and India. An aspiring poet, Emerson also gravitated to selections of poetry that took up Eastern themes and Eastern poetry, including the works of Saadi and Hafez, which he would embrace in adulthood.