Mary Moody Emerson: Ralph Waldo’s “First & Best Teacher”

Mary Moody Emerson (1774-1863) was Ralph Waldo EmMMEerson’s aunt, whom he called his “earliest and best teacher.” I’ll be drawing from a landmark biography written in 1998 (Oxford University Press) by an English and Women’s Studies professor named Phyllis Cole, which helped further raise awareness about Mary’s influence on Waldo’s life. I will follow Cole’s choice to break the scholarly convention of referring to Ralph Waldo by his last name “Emerson” and of “Aunt Mary” in relationship to him—and will instead refer to both by their first names (vi).

“A full generation before Waldo’s early manifestos, Mary’s Almanack was claiming a life of solitude and an experience of God through nature and the imagination. Her letters then formed the matrix of his thought, both early in life and through the years of his landmark literary utterance” (v). However, prior to the influence of Second Wave Feminism in the 1960s, which led to a revolution in women’s studies, Mary’s influence on Waldo had not been extensively explored. Emerson himself “partially acknowledged” his intellectual debt to Mary, but the full depth of his debt has become increasingly apparent in recent studies of Mary’s Almanack, her decades-long personal journal, begun at age twenty (93). The Almanack was thought lost or destroyed, but in 1981 Dr. Cole rediscovered it in a box of uncatalogued Emerson family papers in the Harvard University Library (v):

Constructed from letter paper and bound with thread, the Almanacks are hand-made booklets…running to over one thousand pages, and they display multiple genres, including letters…spiritual diaries, and original compositions; their content, however, largely consists of commonplace book quotations from and commentary on her extensive reading. Although Mary published essays during her lifetime, these miscellaneous Almanacks represent her most experimental expressions as a writer.

She often shared pieces of her Almanacks with friends, and there are even periodic notes to “any Nephew who may read this.” Her Almanacks are in the process of being published online in free digital edition.

Waldo’s own extensive journals include significant sections in which he transcribed letters from Mary and excerpts from her Almanacks that she let him borrow. Indeed, there were many occasions in which he begged her to share more of her Almanacks with him (9). And in 1837, the year after he published his breakthrough essay “Nature,” he listed Mary in his journal as one of his “seven more vital ‘benefactors’” (9).

There are also multiple instances in which Emerson published revised versions of pieces of Mary’s writings—which was often “cryptic” and “fragmentary”—without attribution of his intellectual debt to her (9, 164). One of the most ironic examples is from a passage in his 1859 essay “Culture” about solitude. In writing about the virtues of being alone, he was drawing directly from his relationship with his aunt, the opposite of solitude. Moreover, the wisdom was from her direct experience of solitude, not his own. “Because Mary had been unwilling or unable to publish, her words did not to him count as written text, but occupied the category of ‘living wit,’ like conversation, protected by no authorial right” that Waldo recognized (181). There is much more to say here about how Waldo’s writings about self-reliance also “forgot to mention that he depended daily upon his wife, his mother, three servants, and a gardener,” but I can get to that in an eventual post about him (Brock and Parker 33).

There is also much more to say about Mary’s legacy, but before continuing on that track, allow me to share some of the details of her life. She was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1774, two years before the American Revolutionary War (57). To give you only one example of how remarkable her feminist independence was, given the patriarchal home into which she was born, she writes of the following as of one of her earliest childhood memories:

I remember my Father’s punishing me once. I was two years old and when I came into his study I wouldn’t make my curtsey…so he whipped me. Mother came in and asked why he had punished me. He said, ‘Because she wouldn’t make her duty on coming into the room.’ ‘What! Whip a child two years old for that!’ My Father said, ‘My dear, since you have interfered I must whip her again,’ and he did.” (69)

Mary’s father died the same year as this incident from an illness. Her mother, struggling to care for five children alone sent Mary to live with various relatives during her childhood (83). This early distance from her family of origin increased Mary’s independence, although there were also times when the distance caused her sorrow (83). 

As Mary began to come into her own, she never expressed romantic interests (93). And she turned down at least two enviable marriage proposals (101). Mary wrote of feeling “sick” in regard to the thought of marriage, and stuck to a “permanent vow of non-compliance” (101).

She was drawn instead to independence. And although she only had a few months of formal schooling, she cultivated a lifelong journey of self-directed learning. Fortunately she had access to an excellent public library, and read widely, including many cutting-edge books at the time on theological liberalism (95). She also loved poetry, particularly Milton and Wordsworth (96, 152).

To give you a taste of her writing style, she wrote about her favorite poets that

Solitude which to people, not talented to deviate from the beaten track (which is the safeguard of mediocrity) without offending, is to learning and talents the only sure labyrinth (though sometimes gloomy) to form the eagle wings which will bear one farther than suns and stars. (178)

Her writing style is idiosyncratic and somewhat difficult to follow, but it also reflects her peculiar genius and the originality of her insights.

(I will say more later this week in a second part of this post on “The Legacy of Mary Moody Emerson.”)

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

Learn more about Unitarian Universalism: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles

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