Help! I Just Realized the Face of the Transcendentalist Literary Movement has been Named “Ralph” this Whole Time


By Sophie Stachurski

A few hundred years ago, a white man took pen to paper and wrote a very prolific novel that would grace the syllabi of New England boarding school English classes long after his untimely death of pneumonia. A few years ago, some guy logged onto the internet and typed a line allegedly from that novel on top of a picture of a lighthouse and uploaded it to Pinterest. The quote read: “To be yourself in a world constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” 

Indeed, a truly moving quote that remains so applicable to the modern age. Upon reading it, I simply had to know the author. Imagine my surprise when I saw it was penned by a man named “Ralph.” 

“But Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most influential authors from the Transcendentalist movement!” You protest. “Of course he would have said something profound. In fact, he said many things that were profound.” 

Sure, you may be able to accept Ralph Waldo Emerson as a literary and poetic genius. But can you accept Ralph? Think about it.

Ralph is the name of the friendly retired firefighter who lives on your block. It’s the name of the sales associate at the Home Depot who explains to you why eggshell white would look way better than champagne in your guest bathroom. Ralph’s your friend’s dad who wears an apron that says “Grill Master” at the annual 4th of July barbeque. He’s the guy from that movie that’s always shouting he’s “Gonna wreck it!” As a name, Ralph means “wolf counsel.” Accordingly, Ralph is a name that conveys grit and capability. It is not a name that becomes synonymous with a literary movement known for its romantic stylings and natural imagery.

Imagine you’re yourself, but you live in Concord, Massachusetts in 1841, and one of your buddies approaches you with big news. Someone from your town has just written the hottest new book that is taking the 26 states and unorganized territory by storm! It’s a meaningful essay that reflects on big themes of individualism and self-confidence. Wow, that’s great! Who wrote it?

“Ralph from down the cobblestone road!” 

Something about that exchange just doesn’t feel right. But if you reimagine it and place a different name in its stead, perhaps something like Ernest or even Henry, such as his contemporary, suddenly everything makes much more sense.

It’s a shame, really. With the Waldo and the Emerson, it seems like Ralph’s parents were almost convinced that their child would be destined for greatness, but at the last minute they decided they just couldn’t commit themselves to the bit. The cries of the newborn that said “Mom, Dad, one day I’ll be an artist!” could have just as easily been saying “Mom, Dad, one day I’ll convert the garage into a home gym where I’ll bench press milk jugs filled with water.” 

Using a pseudonym or some sort of abbreviation is perfectly acceptable in the literary world. If Thomas Stearns Eliot thought it’d be a good idea to go by his initials, then certainly Ralph could have at least entertained the idea of publishing Self-Reliance under the name R. Waldo Emerson. 

Sure, I have no way of proving it, but I bet that if dear old Ralph had just deigned to nix the first name, he’d break past the American middle school bubble and find his way onto a Barnes and Noble display that has been carefully curated by a bookseller with split-dyed hair. There’s a reason we remember people like Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne and it certainly isn’t because we’ve read their books. It’s because they have names that are just as classy as them. 

Or maybe Ralph would hear my suggestion, look at me and then scoff. After all, It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said “To be yourself in a world constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” 

Sorry, Ralph.

  • September 6, 2023