Mary Moody Emerson Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mary Moody Emerson 1774-1863

American intellectual.

Although Mary Moody Emerson has generally been overshadowed by the renown of her nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the originality of her ideas has recently earned her a reputation in her own right, as a unique American woman and scholar. Not only was she an important precursor of transcendentalism, but she was also an inheritor of Calvinist tendencies; her intellectual position between early and modern America was a deeply significant amalgamation of individualism, stoicism, and faith.

Biographical Information

Emerson was born in Concord, Massachusetts, where she was to spend much of her life, into a family of ministers. She took great pride in this heritage of Puritan spirituality and remained fiercely pious throughout her life. When she was two years old, and upon the death of her father, she was sent away from her family to be raised on an isolated farm in Maiden with her paternal grandmother. Although Emerson spent many of her early years in relative poverty and solitude in the wake of the American Revolution, she managed to familiarize herself with the works of Shakespeare and several English poets as well as with religious texts. After 1811, when her brother William died, she supervised the moral, spiritual, and intellectual education of her nephews. This led to a long and close relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson—although she reviled his decision to leave the ministry in 1832 and was disturbed for many years over his controversial "Divinity School Address," delivered at Harvard in 1838, in which he renounced the tenets of historical Christianity and defined Transcendental philosophy in terms of the "impersoneity" of God. Throughout her adulthood, she spent her time journeying around New England, visiting friends and relatives, although from 1807 to 1850 she co-owned a farm in Waterford, Maine. Toward the end of her life, she became known in Concord as an eccentric who spent much time anticipating her own death and engaging in theological debates.

Major Works

Although Emerson was a voracious reader, her writing is limited to a multitude of letters and Almanacks—what she called her journals—in which she recorded daily events from about 1802 to 1855. Her letters reflect a life steeped in religious thought and self-sufficiency; her harsh assessments of "human pretensions" lie in stark contrast to her celebrations of the wonder of God's creations. Her interpretation of Calvinism emphasized the importance of solitary reflection, and what she called "alchemy": the transformation of suffering into creative and spiritual energy, which leads to atonement and "access to divinity." This very personal relationship with God and the divine order led to an interest in natural phenomena, which she recorded in her Almanacks. The Almanacks are only a marginal example of the woman's diary, as they document events much less personal than cosmic. Emerson called the journals "a letter to me"; her musings there retain the intellectual focus of her letters to others. She was an ardent and prolific correspondent; her letters were a primary mode of communication during her travels around New England, and reflect the strength of her commitment to spiritual purification through duty and compassion, as well as her disgust at the degeneration of religious influences in nineteenth-century America.

Textual History

Emerson's surviving letters, which scholar Nancy Craig Simmons estimates to be "half or less" of the original number, were preserved by many of her correspondents and are now collected in several libraries around New England. Her missives to her most intimate friends—including Ralph Waldo Emerson—are among those that have not survived in their original form. Ralph Waldo Emerson kept and transcribed long passages from both the Almanacks and the letters, but the original manuscript of the Almanacks was damaged in an 1872 fire at his residence. George Tolman, a Concord historian who (in 1902) presented the first full account of Emerson's life and work, also generated a transcription that has become the authoritative version of the Almanacks, which runs to almost one thousand pages.

Critical Reception

While popular opinion in Concord labeled Emerson an unconventional and grim woman preoccupied with the spiritual decay of the nation, the recipients of her letters respected her intellectual agility and keen understanding of theology. The most prominent of the American transcendentalists—Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson—considered her to be a stimulating and demanding correspondent; Ralph Waldo Emerson called her his "muse." More recent critics have emphasized the unique position of Mary Moody Emerson as a woman who strove to fulfill an inheritance of scholarly and spiritual ability and thus rejected conventional values. Her letters and Almanacks document the transition that brought the nation politically from the earliest years of the nineteenth century to the brink of the Civil War, and intellectually from the rule of Puritan faith to the contemplative movement of transcendentalism.