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Mr. Emerson's Revolution

Jean McClure Mudge

The making of a Protester

1.1 A Legacy of Revolt, 1803-1821

Phyllis Cole

Texte intégral

I find myself often idle, vagrant, stupid, & hollow. This is somewhat appalling & if I do not discipline myself with diligent care I shall suffer severely from remorse & the sense of inferiority hereafter. All around me are industrious & will be great, I am indolent & shall be insignificant. Avert it heaven! avert it virtue! I need excitement.
Journal, 25 October 1820

  • 1 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman, (...)

1At sixteen, while a junior at Harvard College, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his first entry in a new journal. It would become the personal record of his trajectory toward vision and revolution. Many students kept journals, commonplace books, or diaries, but Emerson’s title for this one ―“The Wide World”― measured his unusually ambitious compass. Since the year before, he had been accumulating notebooks for college themes, lists of books read, course notes, and commonplace books with quotations from his reading. But now in January 1820, he wrote of uniting his “new thoughts” with the “old ideas” of other writers. Imagination would be their ordering principal, the “generalissimo” of “all the luckless ragamuffin Ideas” gathered here, he announced. Only that faculty, he felt, gave form to the “thousand pursuits & passions & objects of the world.”1

2Emerson’s wealth of growing entries richly displayed this power in romantic fantasies, vivid and often critical self-portraits, poems, watercolors and drawings, ironic asides, and philosophical musings. Though the particulars would change, this journal and its allegiance to imagination would ground his career as a writer and reformer for the next five decades. Of course, he had been prepared for such a boldly active philosophical beginning. Emerson’s boyhood had allowed him to find resources within himself, required him to muster strength against loss and difficulty, and embedded a strong habit of questioning the status quo. Furthermore, he had started life in a time and place that made a wide, and ever wider, world available to his curious mind. His immediate surroundings beckoned with incentives to create, out of his forefathers’ protesting past and participation in the Revolution, his own call to citizens of the nation and world.

At a Leading Center of American Culture and Change

  • 2 Statistics in Lawrence W. Kennedy, Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630 (Amherst, Mass. (...)

3When Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803, American horizons were rapidly expanding at home and abroad. The United States, fourteen years after the enactment of its Constitution, was newly enlarged and confident. Less than a month before, President Thomas Jefferson had seized the unexpected opportunity of purchasing the Louisiana territory from France. That act extended the nation, and its constitutionally legal shadow of slavery, to the western reaches of the plains, the Rockies, and the Spanish Southwest. Yet Boston remained arguably the most cultured city in all of the seventeen states. Nearby in Cambridge, Harvard College continued to lead the region’s two hundred year old tradition of close intellectual ties to England and Europe. Boston itself, though long a major East Coast port, was rapidly enlarging from the size of a town, growing from 25,000 in 1800 to more than 90,000 forty years later.2

  • 3 Adelaide M. Cromwell, “The Black Presence in the West End of Boston, 1800-1864: A Demographic Map,” (...)

4Among its residents at the turn of the nineteenth century was a small community of blacks, free since Massachusetts outlawed slavery in 1790. By 1830, they numbered 1,875, or three percent of the city’s total population, the majority living in the West End, just over the hill from Boston’s State House and Emerson’s boyhood home. In the three decades that Emerson would call Boston home, the people in its streets always included black seamen, barbers, waiters, and even rising shop-owners.3

1.1 View of Boston, 1810.

  • 4 Jean McClure Mudge, Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, 1785-1835, 2nd ed., revised (E (...)

5Like its population, Boston’s contacts abroad were growing exponentially. Just a few minutes’ walk from the Emerson home on Chauncy Place, wharves and ships ringed the city, displaying New England’s role in the country’s newly independent trade with China. Since the mid-1780s, Boston and Salem’s venture capitalists, veteran leaders in colonial coastwise shipping, had been among the first Americans in China. They led the United States in the Far East, a trade forced by Britain’s post-Revolutionary embargo of the West Indies and England. The adventure to China meant sending ships around the world with the high-risk goal of safely reaching Canton, the single port of exchange. En route, like all Westerners for the two previous centuries, sea-going Americans touched multiple ports in both the Atlantic and Pacific; the round trip often took a matter of years. Like their predecessors as well, New Englanders braved the long and dangerous voyage for the promise of 100 to 300 per cent profit on their cargoes. The most successful of them were among the nation’s first millionaires.4

  • 5 David Greene Haskins, Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Maternal Ancestors (Boston, Mass.: Cupples, Upham & (...)

6Emerson’s parents, William and Ruth Haskins Emerson, were connected with this global enterprise through Ruth’s brother, Ralph Haskins, a business agent or supercargo in the trade, for whom they named their third son in 1803. Haskins returned that June from a voyage to China of nearly three years on the ship Atahualpa. Sailing by way of Cape Horn to the northwest coast of Canada, his company had exchanged muskets and West India goods for otter skins with the Indians, then proceeded across the Pacific to Canton for a second trade that brought the ship home, after circling the globe, laden with Asian imports.5 Boston households like the Emersons’ grew elegant with mahogany furniture, silks, spices, teas, and blue-and-white Canton and Nanking porcelain. This far-flung trade exposed Boston’s intellectual circles to new foreign literatures as well as exotic objects. Privileged at the outset, Ralph grew up keenly aware of his expanding nation and fascinated by distant lands. No wonder he titled his first journals “The Wide World.”

Two Different Parental Influences

7If Boston’s trade lay not far from the Emerson house, the family’s essential mission in these changing times was the city’s religion.

1.2 First Congregational Church, 1843.

8William Emerson served as minister of First Church, Boston’s most prominent assembly in a Congregational order that had direct theological roots in seventeenth-century Puritanism. Through ministerial and civic leadership, he aspired to create an intellectual culture out of the raw materials of a new prosperity. Four years before, William and Ruth had arrived from the country parish of Harvard, twenty-five miles to the west. Six generations of his ancestors had ministered to New England towns, but none before had claimed the liberal theology that would soon be called Unitarian, and none had achieved the leadership of a Boston church. Now William aimed for influence even beyond his prominent congregation, which included former President John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. On the cultural and social front, William helped to found several Boston institutions: the city’s first library (the Boston Athenaeum), its first literary magazine (the Monthly Anthology), and the Massachusetts Historical Society (publishing Ralph Haskins’ travel journal in its proceedings). He also observed the stars with a Society for the Study of Natural Philosophy. In the realm of social action, he supported the Female Asylum and the new school for black children in Smith Court.

1.3 Ruth Haskins and William Emerson, Emerson’s parents.

  • 6 Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (New York: (...)
  • 7 William Emerson, Journal and Commonplace Book No. 1, May 25, 1803, Sept. 6, 1803, Houghton Library (...)

9William’s liberal religious doctrines emphasized reason and active virtue in improving society. But, along with the ruling class of Federalist Massachusetts, he was politically conservative, opposing the extreme democracy of President Jefferson and what he considered worse, the possible contagion of French anarchy. On Independence Day in 1802, William’s official oration at Boston’s Faneuil Hall had asked citizens to preserve the American Revolution by recalling the recent eras of Washington and Adams, with their greater social order and deference to authority.6 Elegant in dress and gregarious in style, William lived for the public. The day Ralph was born — Election Day in Massachusetts, a holiday — William dined with the governor, listened to the day’s official sermon, and spent the evening at his club. But he was far from indifferent to his growing brood of children, with Ralph the fourth of eventually eight siblings. Instead, he took on childrearing as if it were another project for public improvement, with the fervor of something personal to prove. Yet for all his prominence and dedication, William was undisciplined, especially in money matters. And insecurity led to his habit of putting on courtly airs and an elevated speech that encouraged some parishioners, first in Harvard and then in Boston, to hold him in contempt. He privately blamed his inadequacies on a lack of guidance from his father, who had died in the Revolution when he was five. This felt deprivation motivated his insistence that his children become “intelligent as well as moral beings... to take rank with professional characters and the upper classes of society.”7

  • 8 William Emerson to John Clarke Emerson, May 17, 1806; William Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, May (...)

10William’s discipline, enforced primarily by verbal injunction rather than physical punishment, sought to imbue his offspring with these values. “It will grieve me exceedingly to have you a blockhead,” he wrote to eldest son John at six. “I hope you will be as bright as silver.” By Ralph’s second birthday, his father was offering rewards and imposing conditions: “Papa will bring home cake for little boys who behave well at the dinner table,” he reminded the toddler. When Ralph’s instruction in a dame school began not many months later, William confided to John that his little brother was “rather a dull scholar”; and as the child neared three, his father wrote a friend, “[He] does not read very well yet.” William’s negative attention took aim at Ralph’s behavior as well as his pace of learning. Away on a trip in April 1810, William wrote his wife that he hoped his third son “regards his words, does not eat his dinner too fast, and is gradually resigning his impetuosity to younger boys.”8 At almost seven, Ralph showed a certain headstrong, impulsive nature that would later blossom into full revolt.

  • 9 JMN 2: 309; The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 6 vols., ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York: Columbia Univ (...)

11Emerson’s adult career as one of America’s first public intellectuals owed a considerable debt to his father, but he rarely acknowledged it. Instead, he disparaged William’s era, represented by his Monthly Anthology, as an “early ignorant & transitional Month-of-March” in American culture. In general, he recalled childhood as “unpleasing,” beginning with his fear of this godlike parent. “Twice or thrice he put me in mortal terror by forcing me into the salt water off some wharf or bathing house,” Emerson later wrote, “and I still recall the fright with which, after some of this salt experience, I heard his voice one day (as Adam that of the Lord God in the garden), summoning us to a new bath, and I vainly endeavouring to hide myself.”9 William believed in cold-water bathing as a strategy for health. But to Ralph — who recalled the day with grim humor — his father’s words were divine thunder.

  • 10 Ruth Haskins Emerson to William Emerson, Oct. 3 and 5, 1805, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2764); Frank (...)

12William’s regimen, however, strengthened the bonds among these bright young Emerson children. Sadly, their group soon narrowed to four boys. John, receiver of his father’s strongest guidance, died of tuberculosis at the age of eight, and two girls fell victim to illness in infancy. Meanwhile, younger brother Bulkeley proved to be mentally disabled, part of the family circle but not up to its ambition. Ralph’s chief partners and competitors would be elder brother William and younger brothers Edward and Charles. When small, they were restricted to the yellow, gambrel-roofed parsonage on Chauncy Place and its enclosed half-acre yard, three blocks from the gold-domed State House. From an early age Ralph was looking beyond its bounds. When father William had traveled to Waterford, Maine to visit family members, Ruth reported the make-believe play of two-year-old Ralph and his brother, “riding to Waterford to carry and bring intelligence to you.” Emerson later described himself as a small boy sitting on the brick wall around his yard, coveting the pears in his neighbor’s orchard. His school friend William Henry Furness once claimed that Emerson’s childhood had been without play, but personal recollections tell a different story. As an adult Emerson remembered “trundling a hoop in Chauncy Place” and could call before his mind’s eye “the old school-entry where... we spun tops and snapped marbles.”10

  • 11 Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 7; D. G. Haskins, Emerson, 53-54, 5 (...)

13Ruth’s maternal affection was the rock supporting young Ralph’s childhood, but her native reserve and pressing household duties left little time to show it. Though the daughter of a prosperous brewer and businessman, Ruth rather than William modeled the life of prayer in their family. Each morning she dedicated an hour to solitary devotions, following the traditional ways of the Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Not brought up a Congregationalist, she nevertheless dutifully supported her husband’s ministerial position, serving dinner to his Boston colleagues every Thursday as well as wine to the deacons on Sunday evenings. The Emerson parsonage was a perpetual open house: Ruth’s surviving recipe book tells how to make a “plumb cake” with twenty-eight pounds of flour, sixteen of currents, and seven dozen eggs. As a young woman who lived in the household later recalled, Ruth raised her children with firm discipline and gentle restraint. But one of Emerson’s memories suggests he wished for more. When Ralph and his brother William spent an entire Election Day holiday enjoying the town’s festivities, they were surprised that Ruth met their return with relief: “My sons, I have been in an agony for you!” “I went to bed,” Emerson remembered, “in bliss at the interest she showed.”11

  • 12 McAleer, 21, 23, 27; JMN 7: 395.

14Still, Ruth and her son Ralph shared unspoken bonds, as well as physical, temperamental, and spiritual traits. Many saw the strong physical likeness of son to mother, and her calm exterior became his own. Most of all, Emerson’s alienation from his father did not extend to his mother; in fact, he willingly provided her with a home throughout her elder years. Near the end of her life, having fallen out of bed and broken her hip, Ruth remained silent until morning so as not to disturb others. Her son reproved such extreme self-discipline but could be equally stoical himself. It was another sign of the intense emotional reserve, the “native frost” he once noted as common to New Englanders.12

The Rebellious Example of Mary Moody Emerson

15The influence of a more headstrong blend of love and piety than Ruth’s, with the addition of considerable barbed wit, came from William’s sister Mary Moody Emerson.

1.4 Mary Moody Emerson, silhouette, [n. d].

  • 13 For this family history in detail, see Cole, MME, ch. 1-4.

16So did she model the value of reading and intelligence in a different manner from William. This strong-willed aunt, contemptuous of many social conventions, joined Ralph’s more conservative mother as a primary first mentor. Thus Emerson came early to appreciate female mental capabilities and emotional sensibilities. In their separate ways, these two women set Emerson on a path toward eventual adoption of social causes that female friends as well as family held dear: abolition and their own legal rights. Though less than five feet in height, Mary carved out larger space for herself as a self-taught spiritual seeker and a feisty, even rudely memorable debater. From the start, she served as a vital catalytic figure for the whole family. It had been Mary who proposed her exemplary friend Ruth as a wife for William. He and Mary had been born shortly before the American Revolution in the Concord parsonage later made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne as the “Old Manse.” Their father, also named William, had served as chaplain to Concord’s Minutemen; and their mother, Phebe, was daughter of the zealous pastor Daniel Bliss, who had led Concord during the disruptive, spirit-filled revivals of the First Great Awakening. Later, Mary would celebrate these spiritual heroes to her nephews, urging them to make an equal mark. However, after her father’s death when Mary was two, she had grown up under different circumstances from her siblings. She was “exiled” (as she later recounted) to the household of kinswomen in nearby Malden and formed by their Calvinist piety rather than by the religion of reason and social order that her ministerial step-father, Ezra Ripley, brought to Concord.13

  • 14 Monthly Anthology 1 (July 1804), 456-57; 1 (December 1804), 646. William Emerson to Mary Moody Emer (...)

17In Mary’s lifelong search for religious power, however, she became a self-educated reader of both new and traditional books. After reuniting as young adults, William and Mary, only three years apart, often supported each other. His Monthly Anthology in 1804 and 1805 carried her essays on nature and imagination as avenues to God. But they agreed about almost nothing, including the subjects of Mary’s essays. He charged that her “imagination, all fascinating and balloon-like as it is,” had carried her away from correct judgment. In turn, she criticized his worldliness and urged him to retire from Boston, “commune with nature sublime and tranquil... and take leave of the earth.”14

1.5 Old Manse, Concord, c. 1890-1895.

  • 15 Cole, MME, 103, 120-29.

18In a generation still energized by the Revolution’s spirit of change, William and Mary, each an innovator of sorts, argued for fundamentally different worldviews. William believed that his position at First Church would begin to fulfill his father’s goal of a new American order. Earlier, he had even dreamed of founding a national, nondenominational church in Washington, D. C.; human reason was reliable enough to make it succeed. Mary, raised by Calvinists, doubted his faith in reason. She believed that humanity was born in sin and needed Christ’s salvation. However, she had experienced that salvation on her own, not through the agency of church ritual or authority. Thus she valued “enthusiasm”— the direct influence of divine spirit — as shown in both her father’s Revolutionary heroism and in her own solitary devotion. Going further, she was even able to forget Christ as “mediator,” perceiving God’s truth directly in natural landscapes and in lines of poetry. Though all her life she would reflect a Calvinist upbringing and sense of human depravity, the adult Mary began reading books popular with the most daring liberals — becoming familiar with a wide variety of thinkers across time and space, from England and France to ancient Greece and even India. Her endorsement of imagination and nature in 1804, when Ralph was still an infant, shows that she was absorbing the leading ideas of European Romanticism into her own individualistic faith.15

  • 16 Letters of MME, 36; Mary Moody Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, Dec. 30, [1805], Houghton bMS Am 12 (...)
  • 17 Rebecca Waldo, daughter of Deacon Cornelius Waldo of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, married Deacon Edwa (...)

19Mary passed on a revolution of the spirit to all her nephews, especially Ralph. Though she influenced him through long and intimate involvement, at first she did not focus on him as a special charge. A single woman, Mary lived at the beck and call of relatives, stretching herself across the distances between Concord, Malden, Boston and her new and preferred home, “Elm Vale,” near the White Mountains in the frontier town of Waterford, Maine, where two sisters and their families had settled. From adolescence, she had cared for relatives’ children; the Emerson boys in Boston were not her sole focus. But their potential stimulated her best efforts and opinions. More than either of their parents, Mary could both play with children and exhort them to religious devotion. When little John was sent to Maine in an attempt to cure his tuberculosis, she coaxed him into trying to swing. To Ruth, she wrote about the value of music in harmonizing the minds of children, and to nine-year-old William, appreciation for his letter and advice to “reflect on your condition.” “Give my love to R. Waldo,” she added. “I shall write to him very soon.”16 Already Mary was emphasizing seven-year-old Ralph’s ancestral middle name (from her great-grandmother) that recalled to her the family’s devout origins. Giving him that name in 1810 was an early signal of their nascent special relationship.17

  • 18 William Emerson, Journal and Commonplace Book No. 1, Sept. 22 and 23, 1799, March 2, 1802 etc., Hou (...)

20William especially asked for Mary’s assistance with the family because of his fragile health. The tuberculosis that cut short little John’s life also plagued the father. In 1799, William had taken up the call to preach at First Church despite feeling “alarmed about my health” and “sore at my lungs.” A few years later, following medical advice of the day to ride rough roads in order to clear the lungs, he rode several times to Waterford, Maine, both to see young John and to regain his strength. His journal, along with self-accusations for failing to achieve more, often included the terse note, “quite unwell.” But William kept his illness private until 1808, when he was felled by a massive hemorrhage of the lungs, a sure sign of the disease in its acute phase. Through his months of recuperation, Mary stayed in Boston to help Ruth in sickroom and nursery.18

  • 19 Cole, MME, 130-31; William Emerson to Mary Moody Emerson, Oct. 23, 1809, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 ( (...)

21That July, William rose from bed to preach in the splendid neoclassical church that First Church had built at Summer Street and Chauncy Place, along with a spacious new parsonage nearby. Since the country was enduring an economic depression brought on by Jefferson’s anti-British shipping embargo, many in the congregation thought these new structures extravagant. Simultaneously, William’s excessive spending put him permanently in debt. When Mary returned to Maine a year later, William pleaded with her to “come home... and help to alleviate the burdens of a minister of religion weighed down to the earth by a consciousness of incompetence to his awful function... The boys’ minds and hearts afford a fine field for the display of talents such as their aunt possesses.”19

  • 20 Ellen Emerson, “What I Can Remember about Father,” 7, Houghton bMS Am 1280.227. For Emerson’s child (...)

22William died in May 1811 not from tuberculosis but, surprisingly, from stomach cancer. Mary was present and afterward stayed with the family for months at a time. Witnessing the pomp and ceremony of his father’s funeral, Ralph, almost eight, felt more awe than sorrow. He and William walked behind the hearse in a parade to King’s Chapel Burial Ground led by the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. “As we went up School Street and saw them sweep round the corner into Tremont Street,” he later told his daughter, “it seemed to me a grand sight.” Other than that, he could remember little of William except certain moments of discipline. This largely negative feeling about his father reflected the trauma of pain, stress, and death buried within his terse description of his childhood as “unpleasing.”20

  • 21 L 4: 179, 1: 197.

23Furthermore, William’s name was not often mentioned afterward. “I have never heard sentence or sentiment of his repeated by Mother or Aunt,” the adult Emerson asserted. As these two women worked to keep the family together — a goal they had shared with William before his death — silence rather than fond recollection led them forward. Although Ruth was bent with grief at her loss, she might also have felt shame and resentment at William’s failure to leave an estate for his young family. Mary would always recall the anniversary of William’s death, but her differences with him on fundamental theological and philosophical matters now led her to assert her own voice. She would raise the boys her way and fulfill a potential greatness lost to two successive male generations in the Emerson family. As Ralph once joked, Mary now became “Father Mum” to the boys.21

Hard Times and High Objectives

24The family’s reduced means following William’s death cut short all expectation of ease for the growing sons. William left behind only the mahogany furniture, China tea sets, a telescope, and 452 books that supported his stylish urban ministry. He also left debts of $ 2,458, or $ 42,100 today, well above his entire assets and nearly twice his annual salary. For the first three years after William’s death, the family stayed in the First Church parsonage, taking boarders and selling the books to pay debts. Afterward, they shared the Haskins’ house on Rainsford Lane and moved on to a succession of rented quarters, where Ruth continued boarding guests to supplement her widow’s stipend. The family’s position among Boston’s elite became fragile. Living on Beacon Street among the highest class, they rarely saw their affluent neighbors, as Mary wrote to a friend: “Ladies do not like to visit where [there] are boarders.” From this humiliation and loss of face, Ralph learned an early lesson in compensation: the value of family solidarity. In his later essay “Domestic Life,” Emerson pictured boys collaborating in chores and, as Ruth and Mary had taught them, entertaining each other with the treasure of their day’s reading. “What is the hoop that holds them staunch? It is the iron band of poverty, of necessity, of austerity, which, excluding them from the sensual enjoyments which make other boys too early old, has directed their activity into safe and right channels.”22 His father had provided a model of elite generosity to the poor by supporting the Female Asylum and school for black children, but Emerson’s later sympathy for the marginalized grew also from direct experience of poverty’s “iron band.”

25In 1812, at age nine, Ralph entered Boston Public Latin School, although the cost of tuition and suitable clothing added to the family’s financial burden.

1.6 Boston Public Boys’ Latin School, 1812-1844.

  • 23 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 55, 57-59.

26He never forgot the anxiety of searching for the dollar he had lost while on his way to buy shoes. One winter, he and Edward had to share an overcoat on alternate days, enduring schoolmates’ taunts about whose turn it was to wear it. Nonetheless, Boston Latin gave Ralph a strong social and intellectual foundation over the next five years. Here he grew in the company of boys such as William Henry Furness and Samuel Bradford, who would become lifelong friends. Here, too, after one reputedly drunken master was dismissed, the kind and invigorating young Benjamin Gould replaced him. Gould taught geography not only from the textbook, but with a globe, atlas, and stories of Napoleon’s recent campaigns in the African desert. Gould’s Greek lessons came alive with enough clarity and force that for life Emerson could repeat the lines he learned. Most of all, this teacher passed on his love of writing and oratory. Ralph responded by composing his first serious essays, reciting passages from literature each week, and presenting his poem “Eloquence” to a visiting expert on the subject.23

  • 24 W 2: 133. Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 60; Cole, MME, 146-49.

27He later recalled, however, that his best education had come from “some idle books under the bench at Latin School.” His own choice of reading always led to his most important learning. Ruth had kept the family’s membership in the Boston Athenaeum, so that mother, aunt, and sons could all borrow volumes freely. Whether or not he read these on the sly at Latin School, he enjoyed bookish conversations at home. Mary provided constant challenges out of her own knowledge of poetry and philosophy, seeking to “unfold... powers” that, in her view, each child already possessed. Ralph believed that his aunt had read every known book, and he afterwards remembered the sentences of Milton, Shakespeare, and Antoninus as she had quoted them. Mary’s faith that the boys were “born to be educated” anticipated their achieving greatness from within, a goal far different from the academic rank and social station to which her brother might have driven them.24

28Each evening, she led the family in hymns and prayers, after which they took turns reading Rollin’s Ancient History. Rollin’s Athenian heroes affected Ralph so deeply that he wrote verses extolling their bravery. He showed his lines to Mary’s intellectually gifted friend, Sarah Alden Bradford, who often visited in the evenings and, as Mary put it, “animate [d] the boys to study.”

1.7 Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley.

  • 25 Letters of MME, 82; L 1: 4-6, 75.

29Sarah’s conversations with Ralph continued after she became his aunt by marrying his half-uncle Samuel Ripley, and along with Samuel taught school in Waltham to prepare boys for Harvard. “As to her knowledge,” Ralph later wrote to brother William, “talk on what you will, she can always give you a new idea.”25

  • 26 Moncure Daniel Conway, Emerson at Home and Abroad (Boston, Mass.: James Osgood, 1882), 41; The Jour (...)
  • 27 Albert J. von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse: Unpublished and New Texts Edited from (...)

30An early Emerson biographer noted his unusual, female-influenced education, referring to Ruth, Mary, and Sarah Ripley as the “three Fates” who had set the direction of young Ralph’s life. His adult friend Bronson Alcott more boldly declared the result: “The best of Emerson’s intellect comes out of its feminine traits.” Neither observer was disparaging the grown man as effeminate, but instead was praising Emerson’s intuition and receptivity, traits that their culture associated with women. Free of father-son struggles for control, the impressionable Ralph readily made this collective female mind part of his own psyche. Later, in a journal entry of 1842, Emerson realized the value of a bisexual sensibility in the revolutionary consciousness he was proposing: “The finest people marry the two sexes in their own person. Hermaphrodite is then the symbol of the finished soul.”26 This later openness to women and to the womanly side of himself grew naturally from his early formation. The encouragement of his kinswomen directly affected Ralph’s reading and creativity, his love of language and composing poetry. Ruth asked the boys every Sunday to learn a hymn. At nine, Ralph wrote one instead, which Edward read for Ruth’s approval before triumphantly revealing the author. His poem “The Sabbath” also survives from that same age. Two years later, during idle moments at Rufus Webb’s noontime writing school, he collaborated as writer with his friend William Furness, who drew the pictures, for the bloody and adventurous “History of Fortus.” Whether or not he had formal drawing lessons, Ralph also liked to sketch, as his elaborate rebus-letter to brother William in November 1814 and later watercolors show.27

1.8 Rebus letter, 1814, p. 1.

1.9 Rebus letter, 1814, p. 2.

  • 28 Cabot, Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1: 35; Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 33-34; JMN 16: 263.

31Since his mother was preoccupied with boarders and Aunt Mary often away in Concord or Waterford, Ralph now felt both the loneliness and the advantage of independence. This freedom allowed him to explore Boston neighborhoods of both the rich and the poor. On the Election Day, when he and William were reprimanded for being gone so long, they must have taken full advantage of the festivities for this major state holiday. After school and even while truant from it, they skated and played ball on the nearby Boston Common, explored the city’s docks and ropewalks on Charles Street, and soaked up the sights and sounds of street-criers and fire engines. The Common, a large public space in the city’s center, was a playground he shared with its black community from the nearby West End. Down by the docks, Ralph first encountered even more races and classes. Sailors disembarking from ships were black as well as white, and they also included the natives of far-flung ports. Once he and Edward ventured over the bridge to Charlestown and were bullied by street boys — their race unmentioned — on the way back; later he declared he could have used more such education. From these wanderings, along with observing all types of humanity, Emerson’s intellectual curiosity grew: “When a boy I used to go to the wharves,” he later wrote, “and pick up shells out of the sand which vessels had brought as ballast, and also plenty of stones, gypsum, which I discovered would be luminous when I rubbed two bits together in a dark closet, to my great wonder.”28 Such wonder fed both his poetic mind and his lifelong interest in science.

  • 29 D. G. Haskins, Emerson, 84; Haskins, “Ralph Haskins,” 471-72.
  • 30 Von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse,” 4-5, 24-25; Edward Waldo Emerson, Emerson in C (...)

32The War of 1812 brought new excitements to Boston, martial music in the streets and warships in the harbor. Ralph was especially proud of Uncle Ralph Haskins’ “manly beauty” as a member of the Boston Hussars, a troop of fifty leading citizens who paraded in showy green uniforms trimmed with red, ready to defend the city if the British attacked.29 Though the die-hard Federalists of New England still opposed war with the British, by the end of 1812 new national pride rallied, especially after the Boston-built Constitution summarily destroyed the Guerrière not far off-shore. Two years later, after Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British on Lake Erie, eleven-year-old Ralph’s verses on “Perry’s Victory” both celebrated America’s military might and displayed a naive love of rhyming: “When late Columbia’s patriot brave/Sail’d forth on Erie [’] s tranquil wave/No hero yet had found a grave —/Within her watery cemetery./But soon that wave was stained with gore/And soon on every concave shore/Reechoed with the dreadful roar/Of thundering artillery.” Ralph had his own moment of patriotic service the same year, when the students of Boston Latin were enlisted to help build fortifications against British attack on Noddle’s Island at the harbor’s mouth. Later, he fondly mocked their boyish efforts, noting that Great Britain had probably made peace as a direct result.30 But now, on the cusp of his impressionable teens, Ralph’s enthusiasm for his revolutionary heritage and the promise of extending independence in America was only strengthened by the war.

  • 31 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 50-53; W 10: 385; Allen, 33.

33Such proud rebellious stirrings were also encouraged by a temporary move to Concord. Inflation and a serious threat of invasion to Boston during the war led Ruth and Mary temporarily to evacuate the boys to that ancestral home. Eleven-year-old Ralph had often visited his grandmother and step-grandfather Ezra Ripley’s manse on the Concord River. Now, from November 1814 through the spring of 1815, he actually lived in the house built by his blood grandfather, William Emerson. Just behind it in 1775, as Mary loved to tell her nephews, William had invoked divine blessing on the Minutemen as they fought the British at Old North Bridge. When grandfather Ripley took him on ministerial rounds, Ralph heard stories about parishioners that also helped make Concord’s rich pre-Revolutionary and wartime history his own. Meanwhile, to add to his positive memories of the place, the village schoolmaster frequently invited him to recite his poems in class. Once he even spoke his lines for a larger public while standing on top of a sugar barrel at the village store, a future performing orator enjoying his first public audience.31

  • 32 Furness, Records of a Lifelong Friendship, 31; E. W. Emerson, Emerson in Concord, 18-19.

34Equally delightful to Ralph was the town’s natural landscape. As he recalled, “this place was... all ‘the Country’ which we knew.” It was a far different playing field from Boston’s streets, Common, and shore. William had already gone to college, so Ralph spent his after-school hours with Edward and Charles, now nine and six, in the woods and hills. As his memorial to these brothers later recalled, “They took this valley for their toy,/They played with it in every mood;/A cell for prayer, a hall for joy,—/They treated nature as they would.” At the time, Ralph expressed no hint of interest in Concord as a one-day home. But Emerson’s son Edward later remarked that its fields “bound him unconsciously with ties which drew him back before many years to live and dream and prophesy and die in them.”32

  • 33 JMN 5: 323; L 7: 102-04; L 1: 42; postscript to Ralph in Mary Moody Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson (...)

35Once peace was declared in 1815, Ruth brought the family back to Boston, where Ralph continued to grow under Mary’s influence. Throughout the war years she had told and retold her nephews stories of ancestors, not only recent family heroes but a long line of Protestant pastors whose charity and power rose from the Holy Spirit at work in them. Ralph heard these “with awe.” Every day he also read aloud her prayers for family devotions, their “prophetic & apocalyptic ejaculations” still sounding in his ear years later. Now, as he reached his teens, his direct give and take of ideas and jokes with Mary also intensified. In 1813, at age ten, he had written her about his daily schedule in stiff, schoolboy prose. Three years later, he shared his learning while also revealing a new ability to mimic his aunt’s satirical style, poking fun at her insistence that morning should make one “feel inspired.” The same year, Ralph parodied Mary’s literary advice in substance and style when he advised Edward that a letter “fill’d by ‘sentiment’ and taste/On common stuff should, no black fluid waste.” Such slight sarcasm was allowable, because by now he knew that he and Charles had become Mary’s favorites among the Emerson brothers. While she hoped that Charles, whom she had taken to Maine for a time to care for alone, would eventually rise to political power, she hailed Ralph as the most creative of the brothers with language and ideas. When he was about fourteen, she both complimented his growing talent and added a characteristic barb: “I remember no hour of our solitude so pleasantly as the last sab.[bath] eve. The Justice of your theological views was noticeable for your age and non-application — that is there are some books you have not read. But some serious questions were inferred which I did not put. You will. To know one’s duty is a great step.”33

Independence at Harvard with Mary Emerson as Continuing Mentor

36Both aunt and nephew took major life steps in the fall of 1817. Ralph followed family tradition and entered Harvard College in nearby Cambridge.

1.10 Harvard College, Old Quad, North Side, 1828.

  • 34 W 10: 401; Cole, MME, 151.

37In contrast, Mary left Boston to live at her farm, Elm Vale, in western Maine, doing what she had once advised her brother William: to retire from society and commune with nature. Though in 1817 Ralph had not yet visited Mary’s farm, he already idealized this sublime natural landscape, a place he later described as “within sight of the White Mountains,” with a lake, neighboring mountain, a brook running over granite, “and noble forests all around.” At college, he began receiving Mary’s letters reflecting on such scenes — as well as on the new, defining texts of European Romanticism that she associated with them. Having affirmed French novelist and essayist Germaine de Staël’s dictum, “Enthusiasm is God within us,” and William Wordsworth’s admission that a humble flower creates thoughts that “lie too deep for tears,” she was now urging a life of similar natural inspiration upon her nephew.34

  • 35 Letters of MME, 104.

38In their exchange of learned, playful letters, both Mary and Ralph benefited. As a woman in her forties, lacking formal education or means to publish her ideas, Mary was attempting to make this promising nephew her literary surrogate by transferring her wealth of insights and hopes. In mock humility, she pictured the supposed cultural divide between them: “What dull Prosaic Muse would venture from the humble dell of an unlettered district to address a son of Harvard?” she asked that November. But Mary’s serious vision for Ralph as a poet went well beyond Harvard. Her incomplete phrases left open an unlimited future: “Son of — — — of poetry — — of genius — ah were it so — and I destined to stand in near consanguinity to this magical possession.”35 If her nephew had the “genius” to write original works, it would be enough that she had served as his mentor.

39Mary’s compliments offered the gangly, six-foot, fourteen-year-old Ralph — superior by heritage and education but shy by nature and poverty — an invaluable sense of self-worth. He needed confidence as the youngest in his class.

1.11 Emerson at 14 (painted 1845).

  • 36 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 62, 65-67, 69; McAleer, 53; Letters of MME, 85.

40Also, as President John T. Kirkland’s freshman messenger in exchange for room and board, he was living alone at the rear of the president’s house, while fellow students were readily making new friends in the dormitories. Kirkland’s nephew Samuel Lothrop, whom Ralph helped prepare for college, recalled that his tutor had “a wall of reserve around him which he would not let anybody penetrate.” Yet at times he relaxed enough to share his poems with Lothrop and give “comic views of persons” at Harvard. Classmate John Gardner also noted that Ralph, though rarely speaking, had “a certain flash when he uttered anything.” When brother William began college three years before, Mary had advised him to avoid the look of “dependance [sic].” Instead he should act “generous and great” so as to begin giving society benefit rather than receiving it.36 For Ralph, satirical skills and verbal “flash” were his form of pride and gift to society at this moment. Later, he would use them as a bridge from literature and philosophy to the world of reform.

41A seemingly slight incident at college was already a harbinger of social action to come. By his second year, Ralph, now living in Hollis Hall with other classmates, worked in the college commons to help his mother and brother put him through college. This employment gave him a catbird seat to witness a small class rebellion there, a food fight on All Hallows Eve in 1818. When President Kirkland suspended its ring-leaders, the sophomores arose in collective protest at Harvard’s Rebellion Tree, revered since the Revolution. Ralph had not participated in the riot, whether from personal reserve or desire to keep his job at the commons, but he joined his peers at the tree.

1.12 Hollis Hall with Rebellion Tree, 1875.

  • 37 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 71-74.

42Afterward, he wrote what brother William in amusement called a “history of your very praiseworthy resistance to lawful authority.” In similar spirit and around the same time, Ralph joined several student societies fostering reading and debate. Sometimes he composed drinking songs for them and sampled “a great deal of wine (for me),” though instead of loosening up, he grew “graver with every glass.”37

43A deeper and longer-lasting conflict near the end of Ralph’s sophomore year was the mounting battle between conservative and liberal clergy, centered at Harvard and long brewing within New England’s dominant Congregationalism. It would both win his commitments and prompt his acts of resistance.

1.13 Room 15, Hollis Hall, 1822, Emerson watercolor.

  • 38 David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), 4, 30; (...)

44The controversy had begun in 1805, when Henry Ware, Sr. was elected Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard over objections from the orthodox clergy. Ralph’s father William had sided with Ware and the liberals: that year he devoted pages of the Monthly Anthology to defending Ware. His sister Mary, though raised orthodox, showed her liberal bent by contributing a letter portraying Christ as a divinely human “hero,” rather than part of the three-person God. Even more at issue for the opposing heirs of New England Puritanism than a single or tri-part God was the question of how redemption would occur: by humanity’s own will to goodness or through the undeserved gift of God’s grace? The stakes were high. A host of new spiritual competitors caught up in the fervor of the Second Great Awakening — Baptists, Methodists, Shakers — were offering the populace emotional conversion in a way that undermined all the old churches. William Ellery Channing of Boston’s Federal Street Church emerged as chief leader of the liberals, and soon thereafter the energetic, far-sighted Kirkland began reforming Harvard in this light. By 1816, the year before Ralph arrived, Ware had begun a new Divinity School to train liberal clergy.38

  • 39 Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists, 30; Letters of MME, 445; JMN 2: 237.

45In May of 1819, Channing preached a sermon in Baltimore that named and defined a new denomination, “Unitarian Christianity.” For Ralph, family history placed his initial allegiance to Unitarianism beyond doubt. His father had been Channing’s Boston colleague and Kirkland’s close friend. Mary had followed Channing’s career closely over the years, mixing her occasional dissents from his views with wishes for “the youth... to imbibe his spirit.” Her ideas of Christ as God’s “mediator,” but not himself divine, paralleled Channing’s theology as it had developed to this point. Two years earlier, Ralph had won Mary’s praise for his theological questions, indicating his ability to follow these debates. By 1821, when Channing gave his definitions of natural and revealed religion in the Dudleian lecture at Harvard, young Emerson praised him for showing the highest form of “moral imagination.”39 But sectarian distinctions never deeply mattered to him. Less than a decade later, he quoted Augustine, “‘ Let others wrangle, I will wonder,’” adding, “It shall be my speech to the Calvinist & the Unitarian.” Such independence, built from his deep curiosity, sense of wonder and Mary’s model in childhood, also helped distance him from the 1819 divide in Congregationalism. That year Ralph adopted his middle name, “Waldo,” and signed himself “R. Waldo Emerson,” as Mary had addressed him nine years before.

  • 40 JMN 3: 193; Allen, 47.

46Here was a new identity more interesting, and a voice more commanding, than the larger religious claims to authority that whirled about him.40

47Yet his journal also reveals a young man whose maturity and self-confidence came only in fits and starts. Waldo’s reserve persisted in his junior year. Rarely mentioning social occasions or fellow students in his journal, instead he drew heroic classical figures and male faces in profile as if they were imagined selves or ideal friends.

48In fact, he was deep into puberty, what he later called “a passage from the sleep of the passions to their rage.” Waldo’s overt passion at seventeen took the form of longing for a true friend, guardedly confessed in his journal. “There is a strange face in the Freshman class whom I should like to know very much,” he wrote in August, 1820. “He has a great deal of character in his features & should be a fast friend or a bitter enemy. His name is [Martin] Gay.”

1.14 Early Emerson signature as “Waldo,” 1821.

1.15 “Roman Phantasies of imagination and bad dreams,” 1820, Emerson watercolor.

1.16 Martin Gay, 1820, Emerson sketch.

  • 41 JMN 1: 22, 39, 40; 4: 348.

49For months — often with the name left blank — he recorded exchanging glances with Gay. Gay’s “cold blue eye” entered Waldo’s thoughts a dozen times a day, leading him to speculate in verse about their different ambitions and destiny: “Perhaps thy lot in life is higher/Than the fates assign to me.” This assumption reflected Waldo’s insecurity about himself, registered in his simultaneous self-disparagement: “I find myself often idle, vagrant, hollow, and stupid.” Such a lack of confidence evidently won out over his attraction to Gay, and the two never met. Despite chastising himself, Waldo still added to his self-profile, “I need excitement.”41

  • 42 For differing interpretations of the incident, see Allen, 53-54, and Caleb Crain, American Sympathy (...)

50Biographers differ in their interpretation of this apparently homoerotic declaration of love. Perhaps it was only the momentary crush of a teenage boy. Or perhaps his own awakening included acknowledgement of a homosexual inclination, otherwise kept silent amid his lifelong praise for the soul’s bisexuality. Beyond dispute, however, was his unsuccessful struggle to bring admiration of Gay to any test for over two years, even after graduation from college. “Baby play” was Waldo’s self-disparaging name for this unfulfilled flirtation. It was evidence of a profound inner hesitation. Nearing nineteen, in mock address to a higher-ranking self, he described his heart as “[a] blank, my lord.” “I have not the kind affections of a pigeon. Ungenerous and selfish, cautious & cold, I yet wish to be romantic.” Waldo felt compelled to probe such an important matter to its emotional core. Even when his attraction to Gay was waning in 1822, he nevertheless found this “curious incident in the history of so cold a being... well worth a second thought.” The explanation now seemed obvious to him: “From the first, I preferred to preserve the terms which kept alive so much sentiment rather than a more familiar intercourse which I feared would end in indifference.”42

1.17 “Unfruitful land” of “Loggle,” 1820, Emerson watercolor.

51Expectation, for the vulnerable Waldo, was infinitely better than rejection. From now on, with a few notable exceptions, Emerson would shield his deepest feelings within a cold exterior. For this, he would regularly berate himself. Emotionally, he would remain timid and defensive and for a lifetime be reserved. This pronounced psychological trait was one reason, among others, for his slow pace in entering the social and political fray of coming decades. But intellectually, he was steadily building in confidence and self-assurance.

Becoming a True Philosopher

  • 43 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 75-77, 79; Allen, 54-55; Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the Am (...)

52Waldo’s intellectual courage took wing in his last two years at Harvard. Unremarkable before as a scholar, he began a new era in his junior year, by both using and ignoring Harvard’s official course of study. He had hated and nearly failed mathematics, found no mentor comparable to Boston Latin’s Gould, and performed without distinction in classrooms stressing recitation and rote learning. Increasingly, however, courses in philosophy confirmed the inward power that he had sought and Mary had encouraged. Until junior year, under Professor Levi Hedge, students had progressed from only logic to the seventeenth-century philosophy of John Locke, who saw knowledge as a system of ideas constructed from sense impressions of the outer world. But then Waldo’s class began reading the newer views of the Scottish Common Sense School, especially Dugald Stewart, who affirmed a more intuitive morality and reasoning power in the mind itself. For Stewart, uniting sensory experience and prior mental power provided a new — indeed commonsensical — grounding in the world. By senior year, now under professor Levi Frisbie, Waldo took yet another step toward future beliefs by reading the English moral philosopher Richard Price. Mary had long sworn by Price and now quoted to the college senior lines that he was also hearing in class: “Right and wrong have had claims prior to all rites — immutable & eternal in their nature.”43 Moral principles did not simply arise from variable human experience but were written into the universe, directly empowering the mind. Such ethical thinking would become the backbone of Emerson’s later reform work.

  • 44 W 10: 326, 329; Allen, 49-51.

53Not only was the young man maturing; times were also swiftly changing during his college years. In 1820, as Emerson later recalled, a “Movement” started to replace the “Establishment” at Harvard, exposing him to new ways of thinking that he made his own for life. While Frisbie instructed the students in philosophy, two young professors — Edward Everett in Greek and George Ticknor in French — introduced Germany’s revolutionary “higher criticism” from their recent studies abroad. They also honored students by lecturing at an adult level in the style of European professors. In response, Emerson recalled, he and his classmates developed critical “knives in their brain.” This new scholarly method required examining literary texts, especially the Bible, through the lenses of historical context, multiple authorship, and linguistic study. Everett and Ticknor questioned traditional ideas, especially dogmatic, authoritative statements. Such a perspective also stimulated the imagination, and it was bound to appeal to Waldo’s curiosity and creativity. His journal and college theme books began recording responses to lectures and elaborate notes for Harvard’s prize essay contests, toward which Waldo was encouraged by lessons in rhetoric by another new professor, Edward Tyrell Channing, a brother of William Ellery Channing.44

  • 45 Furness, “Random Reminiscences of Emerson,” in Emerson in His Own Time, eds. Ronald A. Bosco and Jo (...)

54Everett, Ticknor, and Channing were all commanding lecturers. As Waldo’s friend William Furness recalled, “Rhetoric was all the rage in college... A finely turned sentence, a happy figure of speech, threw us into a spasm of enthusiasm. Edward Everett was a master in that line.” Waldo, whose verbal “flash” was his forte, chiefly admired Everett at first, but then increasingly adopted Channing’s new simplicity of style. Now was the moment when he might unite his formal education with informal reading “under the bench” and produce new writing of his own at home. The journal — his greatest feat of composition to date as well as a ready store of ideas for college essay contests — was begun not at Harvard but in his mother’s parlor during a vacation. Mary was sitting nearby, doubtless the “witch... in the chamber” that his first pages invoked for aid.45

55Referring to his pious aunt as a “witch” was no insult. Rather, Waldo was crediting her with supernatural gifts and alluding to their now serious, now light conversation about romantic poetry and the power of the imagination. Mary’s self-education framed and gave meaning to his new learning at Harvard. In fact, for Waldo, she was not only “witch” but all-in-one “muse,” “oracle,” “Cassandra,” and “weird woman,” each title revealing nuances of her power to foretell his destiny and inspire him toward it. By 1821, transcribing her letters into his “Wide World” journals and college theme books, he attributed them primarily to “Tnamurya.” The name, suggesting a figure of Eastern mystery, was Waldo’s anagram for “Aunt Mary,” perhaps to disguise her influence even from himself.

1.18 “Tnamurya,” Emerson’s anagram for “Aunt Mary,” 1821.

  • 46 JMN 1: 333-34.

56“Tnamurya” not only encouraged him to become a “son of poetry” but also suggested how to begin. “If I were a Poet this night would inspire me,” Mary wrote, then sketched out what she would describe. Or she urged his imagination to fly to her secluded mountain home in Maine, where “you might... hear the songs of the grove echoed by the little Tritons of Neptune... [or] people a sylvan scene with nymphs or fairies.” As such fancies grew ridiculous, she shifted to higher purpose, urging withdrawal into nature and discovery of God’s greatness through it.46 Years ago, brother William had resisted such advice. Now her young protégé not only listened to, but also recorded, her wryly humorous and exalted words alongside his own.

  • 47 JMN 1: 334-35, 153-54; 2: 373-76; 2: 380-81 (cf. Letters of MME, 139-41, 143-44, 155-57, 182).
  • 48 JMN 1: 251; Kenneth Cameron, Transcendental Climate (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1963), 1: 12; (...)

57In copying “Tnamurya’s” letters, Waldo was immersing himself in ideas that explored a new philosophy. As a senior, writing on “The Present State of Ethical Philosophy” for the Bowdoin Prize, he asked Mary questions about both pre-Christian natural religion and the history of philosophical ideas. In dense, only partially decipherable responses, she laid claim to both idealism and a romantic theory of correspondence between soul and universe, quoting Richard Price and Mme. de Staël. Fearing the contemporary love of “sensation rather than sentiment,” she also urged Waldo toward a celestial poetry based on Plato and Plotinus, then ended her letter with the Hindu “Hymn to Narayena”: “My soul absorbed one only Being knows/Of all perceptions one abundant source.” She cited her beloved poets Milton, Byron, and Wordsworth as examples, defending solitude as the best way to resist mediocrity, “to form the eagle wings wh [ich] will bear one farther than suns and stars.”47 “Tnamurya’s” words ranked so highly with Waldo that he included them in his journal’s table of contents, at hand early and late, to draw upon for inspiration and re-quotation. He echoed the lines from Price and Staël in his senior Bowdoin essay, and those on solitude as late as The Conduct of Life (1860).48

  • 49 Letters of RWE 1: 137; Letters of MME, 176-77. On the longer development of Mary Moody Emerson’s an (...)

58Mary, a devout force for “ancestral religion” in Waldo’s life, also paradoxically opened the way for his heresies. Throughout his career he consistently and publicly acknowledged her first role, but her second, only privately. Two years after graduating from Harvard, Waldo described his aunt to a classmate as “an idolater of Nature,” anxious to have him share her sublime landscape “as the temple where God & the Mind are to be studied & adored & where the fiery soul can begin a premature communication with other worlds.” This devout idolatry pervaded Mary’s letters and journals and foreshadowed themes that Waldo would develop thirteen years later in Nature. Also in 1823, he wrote her with an early concern about slavery, posing the “curious question” of why slaves suffered in a moral universe. She responded that the “tormentors” of slaves presented an even greater enigma, perhaps an “evil in the nature of things,” echoing her Calvinist upbringing with its emphasis on original sin. This exchange, implying earlier conversations on such subjects as well, is the first surviving sign in Waldo of later abolitionist convictions, passionately shared with his aunt. Their Price-based affirmation of right and wrong as “immutable” universal principles demanded such justice. In 1836, as the antislavery cause was mounting in Massachusetts and among Concord women, Mary wrote to Waldo’s wife Lidian, knowing that her abolitionist conversion would continue to influence him: “[T] hink that the revolutions of only half a century concentrate the great idea of man’s greatness as a man.... [M]an shall not thrive on the miseries of his brother!”49 Waldo’s internal drive to act would grow through more than a dozen years of family conversation.

  • 50 Letters of RWE 1: 133; Sanborn, Transcendental and Literary New England, 342-43; Cabot, Memoir of R (...)

59In politics as in metaphysics, dialogue with Mary Moody Emerson enabled the emergence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s revolutionary views. After his star began to rise, he was asked what difference it would have made if Aunt Mary had not influenced his education. He answered, “Ah, that would have been a loss! I could better have spared Greece and Rome.” On another occasion, he added, “I have no hour of poetry or philosophy, since I knew these things, into which she does not enter as a genius.” He valued this obscure woman equally with the nation’s famous men, but expressed such feelings only to his journal. In 1868, commenting on remarks made by his friend, the Boston critic Charles Eliot Norton, he asked, “What could Norton mean in saying that the only great men of the American past were Franklin & Edwards? We have had Adams & Channing, Washington, & the prophetic authors of the Federalist, Madison & Hamilton, and if he had known it, Aunt Mary.”50

  • 51 JMN 1: 47, 184.
  • 52 JMN 1: 10-11; 28; 1: 20 No. 35; 246-47; 274-75.

60Around his quotation of Mary’s ideas lay the “variety shop” of Waldo’s journal. Turbulent with adolescent trials, it revealed an independent center of creativity, a theater for all his private musings, hopes, and literary experiments. Seemingly with an eye to a future biographer, he observed, “Thirty or forty years hence, if I should live so long, this book will serve as a nucleus for the association of ideas and may recall very vividly all the interest which attached to the projects and fancies of a young writer.”51 He lamented that his college studies, “however unsuccessful,” kept him from plunging into the lore of chivalry and magic as he wished, except for the occasional watercolor of a Romantic landscape on one page and an assortment of towers, orbs, and unicorns on another. He would also jot down a song exhorting fellow students to empty their wine glasses, since “the tutors are near and the daylight’s past,” or compose a poem about a hog which “drank swill from Pleasure’s brimming cup/And grunted grunts of ecstasy.”52

  • 53 JMN 1: 395-99; 2: 265.

61But Waldo’s intellectual seriousness, increasing as he turned eighteen, was evident side by side with whimsy in his journal. Poems might appear with drafts of essays for college prizes. Here he quoted widely from Byron, Scott, Shakespeare, and dozens of other authors from his independent reading list. Two moral philosophers, French essayist Michel de Montaigne and the English writer-statesman Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method, especially won his respect. Three years later, Waldo would single out their essays, along with Alexander Pope’s poetry, as models of the collected “wisdom of their times” that he hoped to emulate.53 Such a framework of French and English realism, along with Mary’s idealism, became part of his thinking for a lifetime.

  • 54 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 78, 80-83. JMN 1: 332-33; 1: 266-68; 337-39.

62Now two of his own attempts — his junior-year essay “Socrates” and senior-year “Dissertation on the Present State of Ethical Philosophy,” both winners of second prizes in the Bowdoin competitions of 1820 and 1821 — were pregnant with his developing core beliefs. At this early date, Waldo’s ethical study affirmed a theme repeated in his future work: that philosophers from Plato to Bacon had shown the mind’s ability to penetrate the universe and create a “SCIENCE of morality.” Meanwhile, his fictional romances also hinted at lofty ambitions and explored the mysteries of inspiration, often in terms of a young man’s relationship with an older woman. “The Magician” imagined a young hero encountering a witchlike woman of the forest. Another described how the prophetic mother of a fantasized New England founder, Foxcroft by name, instructed him to lay the foundation of nothing less than America’s empire.54

  • 55 JMN 1: 340; Cameron, “Young Emerson’s Orientalism at Harvard,” in Indian Superstition (Hanover, N. (...)

63Two poems Waldo wrote as a senior show his nationalistic pride and imaginative range as he moved thoughts from the private space of his journal to public performance. For the first, “Indian Superstition,” he studied Robert Southey’s “Curse of Kehama” among other works, noting to himself that “enlightened morality was taught in India” in the pre-Christian era of Manu, a semi-legendary Hindu lawgiver. A glimpse of both future reform and international interests lay in this comment. But his finished poem, read at the College Exhibition in April 1821, found no wisdom in Eastern religion. Rather, it conventionally faulted India’s present “thralldom” to superstition and expressed relief that “No Indra thunders in Columbian sky.”55 The poem’s major interest was to point to the triumphal progress of culture through its migration westward to America.

  • 56 Von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse,” 49, 50, 56.

64A similar vision of greatness for America underlay his “Valedictory Poem,” delivered as Class Day poet in July. This poem’s deep personal and intellectual investment contrasted with his poem about India and made these lines his most resonant of any from his college years. Here Waldo mythologized his classmates as he likened their hopes to the “rapture” of young Columbus on first beholding the new world. His class of 1821 might achieve greatness by also listening, as did the Italian explorer, to the “oracles of Fate.” He saw divine blessings falling on his generation as they had on Columbus and his men: “Earth, air, and heaven, which smiled benignant then/On those far travelers from the haunts of men,/With equal luster now look calmly on/This youthful band,— this goal which they have won;/Perhaps bear with them, in their counsels high,/The near fulfilment of old prophecy;/And we, perchance, may claim with joy to be/The Ministers of Fate, the priests of Destiny.” Consciously or not, Waldo was grandly projecting his own hopes to rank among America’s “Ministers of Fate” and “priests of Destiny.” Along with such lofty prophecies, however, his irrepressible humor emerged as the poem also recalled the ability of his class “to cheer, and to rebel” in the famous sophomore food fight.56

  • 57 Ibid., 55; E. W. Emerson, Emerson in Concord, 27; L 1: 101; McAleer, 61-64.

65Yet Waldo did not cover himself with glory at Harvard, socially or intellectually. He stood dead center of his graduating class, thirtieth out of fifty-nine students in academic rank. He had been asked to be Class Day poet only after seven other seniors declined. Worse, the poem on which he had worked so hard apparently met with little enthusiasm. After its performance, he had to settle for a disappointing “conference part” at Commencement — a “stupid thing,” as he wrote Sarah Bradford Ripley, all the more since the event was a popular state holiday, bringing crowds to the college. Affluent classmates like Josiah Quincy, whose father would be mayor of Boston and president of Harvard, celebrated with extended families at grand dinners and parties. But Waldo had only a small circle of his mother, his aunts Mary and Sarah, and brothers to meet him for the ceremony, with no festive dinner afterward. Apart from the question of academic honors, there was no money for grandeur.57

  • 58 JMN 4: 293.

66Leaving Cambridge in 1821, Emerson lacked self-trust and sure prospects, but his well-furnished imagination, grounding in academic learning, and maturing self-estimation offered a broad platform from which his revolutionary words would develop. Not until the early 1830s did he look back at Harvard and realize that, like Columbus heading toward America, he had been right to follow his own lead. “I was the true philosopher in college,” he wrote, “and Mr. Farrar and Mr. Hedge and Dr. Ware the false, yet what seemed then to me less probable?”58 The insight that these words expressed would be hard won over the next dozen years. Through such thoughts, however, Waldo would emerge a stronger prophet and prophet-in-action than anyone, except Aunt Mary, might have predicted.


1 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982), 1: 3-4. Hereafter JMN. For Emerson’s journal as literary expression, see Lawrence Rosenwald, Emerson and the Art of the Diary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

2 Statistics in Lawrence W. Kennedy, Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630 (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992). See also

3 Adelaide M. Cromwell, “The Black Presence in the West End of Boston, 1800-1864: A Demographic Map,” in Courage and Conscience: Black & White Abolitionists in Boston (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), 156-57.

4 Jean McClure Mudge, Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade, 1785-1835, 2nd ed., revised (East Brunswick, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1981), ch. 2; and Chinese Export Porcelain in North America (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986; 2nd ed. (New York: Riverside Book Company, Inc., 2000), ch. 6.

5 David Greene Haskins, Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Maternal Ancestors (Boston, Mass.: Cupples, Upham & Co., 1887), 83-84; David Greene Haskins, “Ralph Haskins,” in Memorial Biographies of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (Boston, Mass: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1880), 1: 467-70.

6 Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 103, 121, 127. Hereafter MME. D. G. Haskins, “Ralph Haskins,” 470; William Emerson, An Oration Pronounced July 5, 1802... in Commemoration of the Anniversary of American Independence (Boston, Mass: Manning and Loring, 1802), 23.

7 William Emerson, Journal and Commonplace Book No. 1, May 25, 1803, Sept. 6, 1803, Houghton Library bMS Am 1280H (150); John McAleer, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1984), 17; William Emerson to Phebe Bliss Emerson Ripley, Jan. 11, 1810, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2925).

8 William Emerson to John Clarke Emerson, May 17, 1806; William Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, May 25, 1805; William Emerson to John Clarke Emerson, Dec. 13, 1805; William Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, April 14, 1810, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2839, 2864, 2837, 2877). James Elliot Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1887), 1: 41.

9 JMN 2: 309; The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 6 vols., ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), 4: 179. Hereafter L.

10 Ruth Haskins Emerson to William Emerson, Oct. 3 and 5, 1805, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2764); Franklin B. Sanborn, Transcendental and Literary New England, ed. Kenneth W. Camerson (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1975), 198; Records of a Lifelong Friendship: Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Henry Furness, ed. Horace H. Furness (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), 88, 159; JMN 8: 258; L 2: 255.

11 Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 7; D. G. Haskins, Emerson, 53-54, 59-60; William and Ruth Haskins Emerson, “Receipts,” 27, Houghton bMS Am 1280.235 (445); Cabot, Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1: 35.

12 McAleer, 21, 23, 27; JMN 7: 395.

13 For this family history in detail, see Cole, MME, ch. 1-4.

14 Monthly Anthology 1 (July 1804), 456-57; 1 (December 1804), 646. William Emerson to Mary Moody Emerson, April 10, 1806, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2841); Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson, ed. Nancy Craig Simmons (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 55. Hereafter Letters of MME.

15 Cole, MME, 103, 120-29.

16 Letters of MME, 36; Mary Moody Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, Dec. 30, [1805], Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (974); Letters of MME, 57.

17 Rebecca Waldo, daughter of Deacon Cornelius Waldo of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, married Deacon Edward Emerson in 1697. Her epitaph in the Malden cemetery, which Mary would have grown up knowing, declares in devoutly Puritan terms, “Prudent and pious, meek and kind/Virtue and Grace Adorned her Mind./This stone may crumble into Dust;/But her Dear Name continue must.” Benjamin Kendall Emerson, The Ipswich Emersons (Boston, Mass.: D. Clapp, 1900), 50-51.

18 William Emerson, Journal and Commonplace Book No. 1, Sept. 22 and 23, 1799, March 2, 1802 etc., Houghton bMS Am 1280H (150); Cole, MME, 130.

19 Cole, MME, 130-31; William Emerson to Mary Moody Emerson, Oct. 23, 1809, Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (2847).

20 Ellen Emerson, “What I Can Remember about Father,” 7, Houghton bMS Am 1280.227. For Emerson’s childhood grief and its impact on his development, see Evelyn Barish, Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), chs. 1 and 4.

21 L 4: 179, 1: 197.

22 William Emerson Inventory, List of Debts (Suffolk Probate No. 23771);; Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 30; Letters of MME, 93; The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition, 12 vols., ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904), 2: 133. Hereafter W.

23 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 55, 57-59.

24 W 2: 133. Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 60; Cole, MME, 146-49.

25 Letters of MME, 82; L 1: 4-6, 75.

26 Moncure Daniel Conway, Emerson at Home and Abroad (Boston, Mass.: James Osgood, 1882), 41; The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1938), 221; JMN 8: 380.

27 Albert J. von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse: Unpublished and New Texts Edited from Manuscript,” Studies in the American Renaissance, 1983, ed. Joel Myerson (Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1983), 2-3, 5; L 1: frontispiece.

28 Cabot, Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1: 35; Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 33-34; JMN 16: 263.

29 D. G. Haskins, Emerson, 84; Haskins, “Ralph Haskins,” 471-72.

30 Von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse,” 4-5, 24-25; Edward Waldo Emerson, Emerson in Concord: A Memoir (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1888), 17.

31 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 50-53; W 10: 385; Allen, 33.

32 Furness, Records of a Lifelong Friendship, 31; E. W. Emerson, Emerson in Concord, 18-19.

33 JMN 5: 323; L 7: 102-04; L 1: 42; postscript to Ralph in Mary Moody Emerson to Ruth Haskins Emerson, Aug. 7, [1817?], Houghton bMS Am 1280.226 (1015) (dated by Nancy Craig Simmons, “A Calendar of the Letters of Mary Moody Emerson,” Studies in the American Renaissance 1993, 15). For fuller discussion of Mary’s different hopes for Charles and Ralph, see Cole, MME, especially 139-43, 147-50, and 184-86.

34 W 10: 401; Cole, MME, 151.

35 Letters of MME, 104.

36 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 62, 65-67, 69; McAleer, 53; Letters of MME, 85.

37 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 71-74.

38 David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), 4, 30; Cole, MME, 124-25; Monthly Anthology 2 (March 1805), 152 ff., 141; Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), 387, 393-96.

39 Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists, 30; Letters of MME, 445; JMN 2: 237.

40 JMN 3: 193; Allen, 47.

41 JMN 1: 22, 39, 40; 4: 348.

42 For differing interpretations of the incident, see Allen, 53-54, and Caleb Crain, American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), ch. 4. JMN 1: 54, 134; 2: 59.

43 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 75-77, 79; Allen, 54-55; Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 355-56. Mary’s dictum, Letters of MME, 139; identified as a quotation from Price and evidence of her continuing interest in him, Cole, MME, 167 (cf. 11, 124-25).

44 W 10: 326, 329; Allen, 49-51.

45 Furness, “Random Reminiscences of Emerson,” in Emerson in His Own Time, eds. Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2003), 186; McAleer, 55; JMN 1: 4. For the family group in Boston, see L 1: 89-91.

46 JMN 1: 333-34.

47 JMN 1: 334-35, 153-54; 2: 373-76; 2: 380-81 (cf. Letters of MME, 139-41, 143-44, 155-57, 182).

48 JMN 1: 251; Kenneth Cameron, Transcendental Climate (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1963), 1: 12; W 6: 155-56; Cole, MME, 9-10, 164-70.

49 Letters of RWE 1: 137; Letters of MME, 176-77. On the longer development of Mary Moody Emerson’s antislavery allegiance, first hinted at in 1805, see Cole, MME, 221; ibid., 237.

50 Letters of RWE 1: 133; Sanborn, Transcendental and Literary New England, 342-43; Cabot, Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1: 30; JMN 16: 90. In 1869, Emerson did pay public tribute to his aunt in a lecture to the New England Women’s Club, published as “Mary Moody Emerson” in the Atlantic Monthly 52 (1883): 733-45; in W 10: 397-433, he claimed she was a “representative life” of her age (399), leaving to his journal entries his much bolder historical and personal references to her.

51 JMN 1: 47, 184.

52 JMN 1: 10-11; 28; 1: 20 No. 35; 246-47; 274-75.

53 JMN 1: 395-99; 2: 265.

54 Rusk, Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 78, 80-83. JMN 1: 332-33; 1: 266-68; 337-39.

55 JMN 1: 340; Cameron, “Young Emerson’s Orientalism at Harvard,” in Indian Superstition (Hanover, N. H: Friends of the Dartmouth Library, 1954), 13-14; von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse,” 46-47.

56 Von Frank, “Emerson’s Boyhood and Collegiate Verse,” 49, 50, 56.

57 Ibid., 55; E. W. Emerson, Emerson in Concord, 27; L 1: 101; McAleer, 61-64.

58 JMN 4: 293.

Table des illustrations

Légende 1.1 View of Boston, 1810.
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Légende 1.2 First Congregational Church, 1843.
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Légende 1.3 Ruth Haskins and William Emerson, Emerson’s parents.
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Légende 1.4 Mary Moody Emerson, silhouette, [n. d].
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Légende 1.5 Old Manse, Concord, c. 1890-1895.
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Légende 1.6 Boston Public Boys’ Latin School, 1812-1844.
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Légende 1.7 Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley.
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Légende 1.8 Rebus letter, 1814, p. 1.
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Légende 1.9 Rebus letter, 1814, p. 2.
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Légende 1.10 Harvard College, Old Quad, North Side, 1828.
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Légende 1.11 Emerson at 14 (painted 1845).
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Légende 1.12 Hollis Hall with Rebellion Tree, 1875.
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Légende 1.13 Room 15, Hollis Hall, 1822, Emerson watercolor.
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Légende 1.14 Early Emerson signature as “Waldo,” 1821.
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Légende 1.15 “Roman Phantasies of imagination and bad dreams,” 1820, Emerson watercolor.
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Légende 1.16 Martin Gay, 1820, Emerson sketch.
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Légende 1.17 “Unfruitful land” of “Loggle,” 1820, Emerson watercolor.
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Légende 1.18 “Tnamurya,” Emerson’s anagram for “Aunt Mary,” 1821.
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