Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Aphasia

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a beloved American essayist, author of “Nature” and “The American Scholar.” He was a leader in the American transcendentalism movement. He was a friend and colleague of Henry David Thoreau, co-founded the literary magazine The Dial, and spoke passionately about abolishing slavery. And he had aphasia.

So many famous and beloved people, from actors and musicians to writers and politicians, have experienced aphasia. We are going to profile some of these brilliant people and how aphasia changed their lives.

The Great Writer

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a poet, essayist, and lecturer — three mediums that all rely heavily on words. Yet later in life, he experienced aphasia.

When he was 64 years old, his health started declining and he began experiencing memory issues. He continued to write essays and poetry for several years beyond the start of his aphasia.

He first noticed that he had trouble organizing his thoughts and writing his lectures. This “distressed him personally and alarmed his family.” He was experiencing non-fluent aphasia, probably Broca’s aphasia according to Albert J. von Frank (author of An Emerson Chronology), caused by a stroke.

In the forward to The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson Ronald Bosco states,

He rudely refused [his daughter] Ellen’s assistance in the organization of his lectures and public readings, locked himself away in his study for long periods of time but emerged with little or nothing to show for the time he had spent there, and until May 1872, when Ellen insisted that he cease accepting them, routinely overextended himself by accepting invitations to lecture near and far.

His Later Life

Robert Richardson, who wrote the book Emerson: The Mind on Fire, stated that Emerson continued to be able to read somewhat until the end of his life. He depended a lot on circumlocutions, speaking around the missing words by providing all related words. For instance, red, round, and fruit when he couldn’t remember the word apple.

As he neared the end of his life, he forgot his name from time to time. Yet the earlier distress seemed to have left him. John McAleer, who wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter, said that when people asked him how he felt, he said, “Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well.”

Emerson was an incredible writer, thinker, and speaker.

Image: ChrisA1995 via Flickr via creative commons license



  • Bernadette
    July 27, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    This message about how Ralph Waldo Emerson couldn’t remember the word for apple has nailed it for me. It’s always good to know that others experience similar problems. The next time I am puzzled about the exact word being sought, I’ll know what to do. Instead of feeling intellectually dumbed-down, I’ll seek out other words to make it known to my loved ones.

  • Suzanne
    July 27, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    Is it possible that he had early Alzheimer’s? Or could it also be that his executive function was failing ? Did he have any right body physical impairments?

  • Rosalind Hurwitz
    July 27, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    Circumlocution and complete sentences? Sounds more like anomic aphasia than Broca’s.

  • Anonymous
    August 1, 2017 at 10:36 pm

    Hope you profile Lenin too. His aphasia changed the world!

  • Anonymous
    January 18, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    My husband also has expressive aphasia from sepsis. I can relate to this information.

  • William
    May 1, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    In his biography, Richardson gives examples of Emerson’s circumlocutions. This one is particularly memorable: “I can’t tell its name, but I can tell its history. Strangers take it away.” He meant “umbrella.”

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