Give All to Love: A New Documentary on Ralph Waldo Emerson Debuts

Released November 1, “Ralph Waldo Emerson: Give All to Love” is an impassioned and endearing documentary about one of America’s greatest thinkers.

Nov 1, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
Ralph Waldo Emerson, documentary, give all to love
Ralph Waldo Emerson with two of his children, the background showing the helix nebula photographed from the Hubble telescope.


Undeniably one of the most revered thinkers in the history of the United States, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a man of many words, writing essays and poetry, discussing politics and society, and spreading his ideas through lectures.


First and foremost, however, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a humanist. His ideas were built on compassion and reverence for his fellow man. The progressive nature of his philosophy helped expand on the foundation of freedom and individualism on which the United States was built and shaped the ideas that characterize the country today.


Give All to Love, written, directed, and narrated by Michael Maglaras for 217 Films, is a movie that encapsulates the man and the philosopher that was Emerson in an intimate discovery of the beautiful and cherished importance that was his contribution to humankind.


“What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.”


Ralph Waldo Emerson: Give All to Love from 217 Films on Vimeo.


Who Was Ralph Waldo Emerson?

theodore davis slave auction
A slave auction in South Carolina by Theodore R. Davis. Source: Library of Congress

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There was nothing especially surprising about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s childhood and early years growing up in New England. He was one of eight children, of which five survived to adulthood. Just before Ralph’s eighth birthday, his father, a Unitarian minister, died of cancer, leaving the young boy to be brought up in a somewhat matriarchal context.


Emerson attended the Boston Latin School and then Harvard. From a young age, he discovered his love of nature, an element that would be integral to his worldview and his ideas on Transcendentalism, a belief in the essential unity of all creation and the innate power of human beings. It was a popular movement in the 19th century and was certainly a forerunner to many spiritualist movements that followed in the 20th century.


Destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, he was accepted into the Harvard Divinity School and began his path to becoming a minister.


Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803 – 1882. Source: National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


In 1826, while suffering from tuberculosis, Emerson moved to Florida, where the warmer climate was more conducive to healing. It was there that he would encounter a disturbing paradox that planted seeds of doubt in his mind. While attending church and listening to the pastor’s sermon, his ears were also assailed by the sound of a slave market next door. This paradox would impact his life, and he would become an outspoken abolitionist later in life.


His first marriage ended in tragedy. Ellen Louisa Tucker died of tuberculosis less than two years after they were married. Her death struck a grievous blow to Emerson, who had been deeply in love with his wife. His prayers to God had been answered by an unmerciful hand.


jardin des plantes
It was at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris where Ralph Waldo Emerson discovered the interconnectedness of the natural world. Source: MNHN – S. Gibault


Even before Emerson was ordained as a minister, the seeds of doubt had already sprouted in his mind. Three years after he became a minister, he left the profession. He felt the methods, traditions, and rituals associated with seeking God were absurd. This led him on a path of discovery that would lead him to Europe, meeting philosophers and discovering radical ideas on the meaning of life and the purpose of the human soul.


While in France, Emerson visited the Jardin des Plantes, the primary botanical garden in Paris. And it was there that a revelation took hold. He realized the interconnectedness of everything in nature.


Thus began his lifelong obsession with the oneness of nature. In his first book, simply entitled Nature, he would write:


Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.


It was this revelation in the power of nature that would spur his thoughts towards what he is perhaps best known for – the Transcendentalism movement. This movement would transform the American psyche. It rested on the premise of self-reliance and self-awareness in the quest to achieve unity with the divine. It did this by promoting self-reflection and adherence to the natural world, marveling at the common and mundane, for there is wonder there too, and in it, there is a connection to all life.


Give All to Love

emerson home concord mass
Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts. Source: Library of Congress


A celebration of the life and ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michael Maglaras has created a gentle and reverential “essay in film” about a remarkable American who challenged the way we see the world, seeking to create a foundation of respect, love, and dignity that he imagined America should be built upon.


Shot on location in Concord, Massachusetts and the surrounding area, The film is the ninth created over the past 18 years by Maglaras and his artistic partner Terri Templeton for 217 Films.


thoreaus cove concord mass
Thoreau’s Cove, Concord, Massachusetts. Source: Library of Congress


A century ahead of his time, Emerson was a force for spiritualism, moral principles, and progressive thought that influenced generations of Americans, evolving them into the modern society that exists today. As Maglaras points out, “Emerson is the spiritual father of the poetry of Walt Whitman, the music of Charles Ives, the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.”


Emerson was an important figure in the founding and development of the Transcendentalism movement. Give All to Love charts the course of Emerson as he struggled with a Calvinist upbringing and his expectations as a minister. He could not reconcile his beliefs with those of the church, especially the religious belief of original sin and the need for an external savior.


His quest for knowledge would see him at odds with his career and take him far afield, meeting with great European thinkers. It was, however, his experience with nature that would solidify his belief in “an original relation to the universe.”


ralph waldo emerson 2
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Source: Library of Congress


An important figure in guiding American thought, Emerson was a staunch abolitionist and “is also the father of our American conscience,” Maglaras notes.


Inspired and urged by his second wife, Lidian, Emerson took an active and public interest in opposing the slave trade, an activity he always considered an abomination. He was slow to act on his thoughts, however, considering the sentiment against slavery to be marred by what we would regard today as virtue signallers. However, this didn’t mean Lidian and Emerson didn’t make their objections known.


But when Emerson finally took to the stage and spoke out against it, he was already one of the most famous men in America, and the reach of his word was immense. His was one of the most prominent voices that urged a population into such a powerful sentiment that the government would abolish slavery and fight a bloody civil war to keep it abolished.


frank duveneck ralph waldo emerson
Sculpture of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Frank Duveneck at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Source: Library of Congress


Emerson’s life was guided by his idea of Transcendentalism, a belief in self-reliance, self-determination, self-expression, and, through these things, the discovery of truth. His was a life wholly committed to individualism. But this did not mean he was a selfish man. Almost completely in Emerson was a deep affection and love for so many others in his life. He was uncommonly generous, kind, and loving to those around him. His life influenced millions of Americans through the ages, but his life experiences could not have been possible without the people who inspired him, loved him, and lived with him.


Give All to Love also focuses on these people who had such a significant impact on Emerson’s life. It tells us about his marriage to Ellen Louisa Tucker and the immense grief that followed. It tells us of his life with the kind and gentle Lidian Jackson, his friendship with Henry David Thoreau, the Alcott family, and Margaret Fuller, all of whose lives are explored in this intriguing documentary.


Michael Maglaras’ Give All to Love does justice to all of them in an immense and beautiful film that reveals the lives of these people through the eyes and mind of Emerson.


ralph and lidian graves
The graves of Lidian and Ralph. Source: Library of Congress


Ralph Waldo Emerson was a gentle and compassionate soul. He revered nature and sought total immersion within it, looking for that connection to the divine that escapes so many in the world today. With the same tender reverence Emerson had for his fellow human beings, so too does Give All to Love delve into the majestic life and thoughts of such an influential thinker. His influence, however, remains to this day, for his thought is prevalent everywhere in today’s society in those who seek justice for humanity and a path towards a better understanding of the goodness of the soul.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.