Emerson's father was a Unitarian minister who died leaving his son to be brought up by his mother and aunt. Educated at Harvard, Emerson began writing journals filled with observations and ideas which would form the basis of his later essays and poems.
After a period of teaching, Emerson returned to Harvard to join the Divinity School where he was less than a perfect student owing to his poor health and a lack of conviction in religious dogma. He was ordained and was both effective and popular as a preacher, but felt compelled to resign because he did not feel he could conscientiously serve communion. In 1832 Emerson visited Europe, where he met Wordsworth, Coleridge and Carlyle through whom he became interested in transcendental thought. His meeting with Coleridge was to prove particularly influential as Emerson developed his themes of two levels of reality, the physical and the supernatural or Oversoul as he later called it.
On his return to Boston Emerson concentrated on lecturing rather than preaching, and lectures such as The Philosophy of History would form the foundation of future writings. He settled in Concord in 1835 where he became friends with other figures in the transcendental movement such as Thoreau and Hawthorne and began writing for and editing The Dial. After his second Essays, Emerson's writing began to show less confidence in the individual. He returned to Europe in 1847 and renewed his friendship with Carlyle, with whom he had kept in touch by letter, and met other European thinkers and writers.
During his last years he became increasingly involved in the anti-slavery campaign, but fell a victim to dementia, writing Terminus in the realisation that his intellect was failing.