Phyllis Cole (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "The Advantage of Loneliness: Mary Moody Emerson's Almanacks, 1802-1855," in Emerson: Prospect and Retrospect, edited by Joel Porte, Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 1-32.
[In the following essay, Cole examines Emerson 's spiritual beliefs, derived from early American Puritanism and romanticism, as expressed in her Almanacks and letters.]
Were the genius of the Xian religion painted, her form would be full of majesty, her mien solemn, her aspect benign, and strongly impressed with joy & hope, her eyes raised to Heaven with tears for Zion and rays of glory descending to illuminate the earth at her intreaties!1
In 1804, when Mary Moody Emerson described this emblematic female "genius" in the pages of her Almanack, she was thirty years old and clearly hopeful of living out the ideal she imagined. It is an impressively strong figure. A single female form—unaccompanied by parents or husband or children, friends or congregation—raises its eyes directly to Heaven, without the intercession of priest or even redeeming Christ. In fact she hopes herself to intercede for others. She weeps for Zion, the fallen city and apostate people, and at the same time she conveys heavenly glory and hope back to earth. She seems a New England Rachel or Virgin Mary, but also a Jeremiah.2 An explicitly female figure, she nonetheless goes beyond the conventional piety of New England women in her separation from the domestic sphere and her unfeminine prophetic power.3
Such an idealization of the solitary self was radical for both its gender and its time: indeed a significant anticipation of the self-reliance that Mary's nephew Ralph Waldo Emerson would articulate as the primarily masculine romantic vision of the next generation. Waldo later acknowledged Mary's importance as an influence on his vision and a "representative life" of New England in her own time. When in the 1820s he recalled the aunt who had taken on the intermittent role of spiritual instructor to his fatherless childhood, he saw her as a "genius" from whom "rained . . . influences of ancestral religion" upon his soul and thus saved it from the arid forms of Cambridge Unitarianism. After Mary's death in 1863, when he fully memorialized her in a biographical lecture, Waldo again characterized his aunt as a figure mediating between "ancestral religion" and Transcendentalism: her life marked "the precise moment when the power of the old creed yielded to the influence of modern science and humanity." Further, he specified the quality of this transitional life as solitary, unladylike, and prophetic. A woman who "could keep step with no human being," Mary was "our Delphian"—"Cassandra domesticated in a lady's house" and as such a "troublesome boarder."4 Waldo's portrait of Mary was both sympathetic and astute.
But it was also a portrait made from very close perspective, and one that to a considerable extent possessed and controlled its troublesome subject as "our Delphian" aunt. Both in historical sequence and in her own priority of values, Mary was herself before she was Waldo's aunt. Whether for the study of Emerson or for the broader histories of women and religion in America, it is time that Mary be disengaged from Waldo's memory of her, seen within her own generation, and more fully represented by her own words. Waldo revered these words: he quoted at length from both her Almanacks and letters in the biographical sketch, and he transcribed an even more extensive selection of passages into journals as he prepared his study. But Waldo's transcriptions are only a fraction of the manuscript record available to modern scholars. Believing Waldo's testimony to the "representative" value of Mary's solitude, we need to construct a sense of it that is ours and not his.
Mary's Almanacks are her fullest exploration of solitude: this journal she called "a letter to me when unable to think . . . Private" (22, 1), a "conversation with my chamber" (17, A), and a prayer from "my soul to its author" (22, 3). Its earliest extant entry (28, 2) is undated but was probably written in 1802,5 its last (broken off in mid-sentence) dated 1855, eight years before Mary's death at nearly eighty-nine. The journal began, that is, just before Waldo was born, his father William took on the job of editing Federalist Boston's Monthly Anthology, and the New England Way split permanently into orthodox and Unitarian factions; it ended the year Whitman sent Leaves of Grass to Emerson, who was by then the aging mentor of the American Renaissance. The Almanacks are a major text, possibly New England's longest as well as last Puritan diary by a woman.6 In them the full life of Mary Moody Emerson is in fact not evident; her voluminous correspondence, which Evelyn Barish has for several years been studying, offers the better sense of her life with and influence on family and friends.7 But the Almanacks express her central, even obsessive, theme: "My life I would occupy only in the study of its wonders—in arranging my ideas of its real character" (7, 6).
In the essay that follows I will try to suggest the terms of this self-study: first, Mary's sense of her own position in the post-Revolutionary generation of Emersons; second, her religious temperament and theological position in the earliest part (1802-1807) of the Almanacks; third, her preoccupation with and exercise of memory, especially memory of childhood; and finally, her intellectual position between Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Mary was always more concerned with eternity than time: she seems to have called her journal an Almanack because she was consciously projecting herself into the heavens, chronicling "sun and moon's rising" as a "horologue" in time of the timeless God she sought (20, 12; 24, D.)8 The "wonders" she wished to study were moments of apprehending divine, not social, relationship. But of course this unworldly consciousness is itself one expression of time and place, of a woman's opportunities and exclusions in the years of the early Republic.9
Mary's sense of herself as an Emerson dictated the terms in which she experienced both opportunities and exclusions. Born in Concord's ministerial manse in 1774, less than a year before the battle at North Bridge, Mary as an adult laid hold of the double heritage of Puritan clerical status and Revolutionary fervor. The Emersons were an eminent clerical dynasty, one whose position and theological leaning were often reinforced by marriage: Mary's grandfather the Reverend Joseph Emerson of Maiden had married Mary Moody, daughter of the Reverend Samuel Moody of York, Maine; their twelfth child, the Reverend William Emerson, had settled in Concord and married Phebe Bliss, daughter of his predecessor the Reverend Samuel Bliss. All the Emerson, Moody, and Bliss clergy had actively supported Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield in the 1740s, and by the 1770s, as chaplain to the Concord Minutemen, William was redirecting this Great Awakening piety into pro-Revolutionary politics.10 For Mary, the center of the Revolution—indeed of all America—was the heroism and martyrdom of her father, William. It was his privilege to hear "the toskin of early war—of glorious freedom!" (7, 6). Yet not much more than a year after the battle in Concord he died of camp fever on his way home through Vermont from Fort Ticonderoga. In her own elder years, regarding an America compromised to materialism and slavery, Mary wished that she could take "the dust of my father from the Green Mountains" back to England (15, 11).
For in her view the glory both of America and of her own life had only declined since that early moment: "Soul of man made for immortal races sickens at possession. Ah it was the possession of headless families—of poverty—of protracted sufferings wh quench the light even of such a noble struggle—wh doom the helpless orphan to find liberty & all that makes life valuable sunk in the beloved grave" (7, 6). The grandiose self-pity of this statement should not keep us from recognizing its hard truth: William anticipated the Revolution as millennial glory; his daughter inherited the Revolution as social chaos, deprivation, orphanhood. Either when William departed from Concord or when he died, Phebe (with five children under the age of eight) sent Mary to be raised by her widowed grandmother Mary Moody Emerson in Maiden. In 1779 grandmother Mary died of smallpox,11 and mother Phebe married the Reverend Ezra Ripley, next in the line of Concord ministers; but Mary stayed in Maiden, now as ward of her childless and economically struggling aunt Ruth Emerson Sargent (later Waite). When Mary eventually rejoined her siblings and mother, she did so as a young adult and domestic helper, one only half socialized into the genteel ways of clerical households. Maiden was still her primary home in 1804 as she described her Christian "genius."
Throughout the Almanacks Mary sees herself, with resentment and defiance, as a have-not in a world of American and Emersonian haves. "Hail happy day," she writes on the fiftieth anniversary of Independence, "—tho' the revolution gave me to slavery of poverty & ignorance & long orphanship,—yet it gave my fellow men liberty" (6, 5). She prays in 1802 that God will "remember thy favor, thy covenant with my ancestors—their faith their holiness were eminent. Why not miner (28, 7). Her life, she adds three decades later, has been an exile from that ancestry: "I have wandered, from [the] cradle—and in the apartments of social affection .. . all say—-forbear to enter the pales of the initiated by birth wealth talents & patronage!" (12, 16). But Mary proudly claims the covenant in exile, in fact implies that only have-nots will be its inheritors. "I submit with delight," she continues, "—for it is the echo of a decree from above—and from highway hedges where I get lodging .. . I get a passing vision wh is an earnest of the interminable skies where the mansions are prepared for the poor" (12, 16). Exclusion allows her to appropriate for herself what is best from a compromised but holy past.
Mary's piety-in-exile was the source of a strong if exaggerated minority view at a time when most children of the Revolution were consecrating their religious faith to the secular Republic and to internally divisive sectarian dispute.12 Among Mary's male contemporaries in the New England church, the orthodox (including some of her Emerson cousins) were fostering group revival that ended in group conformity, the liberals (like her brother William) helping to create the Athens of America in Boston.13 In 1827 Mary looked back at William's career at First Church Boston, ended early by his death in 1811, and found him the victim of "the imitations & competition wh alas attend City ministers" (7, 3). About ten years later she listed the thirty-one Emerson ancestors and relatives who had graduated from Harvard, using the Latin names that symbolized their (but not her) status as male scholars; and she asked, "How much of poetry in this catalogue of Cambridge Emersons?" (16, A). In her experience poetry, like the covenant, could not be had by the institutional accesses of Cambridge and Boston.
As a female lay scholar—formally educated only to bare literacy but abreast of all the theological writing of the competing seminaries—Mary could dwell everywhere and nowhere in sectarian New England. In her itinerant life she moved constantly in and out of Cambridge and Andover, Concord and the Connecticut Valley, and all the religious allegiances past and present that these places represented, able personally to resist both the fragmentation and the secularization of their joint tradition. By 1809 she had found a retreat on the upcountry frontier of Waterford, Maine, sharing land with two sisters and their husbands. But the frontier only accelerated fragmentation: Mary watched as one sister and brother-in-law lost their liberal parish before a multiplication of new sects, and as another sister and brother-in-law joined the "scamp millerites" (25, 6) in awaiting Christ's imminent Second Coming. The children of Chaplain William Emerson went many ways, and among them Mary held closest to the heart of the faith.
To a certain extent Mary's sex helped her to play this role. Puritan women had always enjoyed the freedom of privacy as well as suffered its restrictions; though required to "keep silence in the churches,"14 they were considered to have special access to grace. But Mary sought visionary power in her private devotionalism, and this search required her to reject her generation's conventional womanhood as she rejected its secular Republic and its diminishing Church. Puritan women had traditionally found the chief end of private holiness to be the creation of a pious home, not a free self, and after the Revolution such domesticity took on ideological, patriotic meaning too. Within both the orthodox and liberal cultures of New England, women were considered Republicans: they exercised their authority in the home to encourage civic virtue in their husbands and sons, and eventually they edged into the public sphere themselves through association for benevolent reform. Mary consciously, vehemently, rejected domesticity and chose for herself a "moral grandeur" that was by implication both celibate and androgynous: "Alass," she exclaimed in 1817, "with low timid females or vulgar domestics how apt is this [grandeur] to lose its power when the nerves are weak. . . . But give me that oh God—it is holy independance—it is honor & immortality—dearer than friends wealth & influence. .. . I bless thee for giving me to see the advantage of loneliness" (38, 5). Loneliness gave her an access to divinity unavailable to either the competitive clergymen or their "low timid" wives.
Neither of the major theological views of the contemporary New England church, Calvinism or Arminianism, entirely contained Mary's independent holiness. Her inner life partook of both—of the humility, self-loathing, and fatalism of Calvinism and the willfulness and aspiration of Arminianism—just as her outer life provided social and intellectual contact with both of the increasingly separate sects defined by those theologies. The first five years of the Almanacks, from 1802 to 1807, express that complex temperament in the personal terms of life in Maiden, just at the moment of the cultural and theological divide between Arminian Cambridge and Calvinist Andover.15
These were Mary's last years in her childhood home, and though she was already in her late twenties and early thirties, they appear to mark as well the end of her youth and the occasion for decisions that would be binding for life. By this time she is part owner of the house in Maiden that was first her grandmother's and then her Aunt Ruth's, still sharing it with Ruth and Ruth's second husband, Samuel Waite. In January of 1807 this period ends, because Mary and Samuel jointly sell the house, and Mary leaves Maiden to seek "better company" (2, 10) and greater freedom in which to perfect her mind and spirit. But these years of early adulthood serve as a continuing touchstone for Mary: sadly, she feels later in life that she has never again achieved the sustained holiness of "the years between 27 & 30, when in entire solitude I asked not books or [?] but the quietism of faith & obedience" (21, 3). Retrospectively, the very privations of Maiden increase its aura of holiness. But in fact, as Mary records the immediate experience of those years, she is hungry for books, she has to fight for solitude, and she finds obedience and quietism difficult virtues.
In these early Almanacks, Mary uses the traditional language of Puritan sainthood with ease and immediacy. "I feel assured from the experience of years and various trials that I am a deciple," she writes in 1802 (28, 4). She never refers to an experience of conversion or recalls a time when she was unconverted, but she records the pursuit of a "sanctification" that "God willeth . . . [and] I will" (28, 7). But Mary's belief in God's "incontrovertible . . . elections" is fraught with tension, for she never forgets that they "gave to the glowing Seraph his joys & to me my vile imprisonment" (3, 5). And while she tries to believe that imprisonment will itself bring holiness, through the patience of "waiting—for more grace knowledge" (28, 4)—she in fact beats on her prison walls and wants immediate perfection. "Away with devout prayers—faith in a Mediator's responsibility—delight at tho't of death, & assurance of salvation because of the leading feature of Xianity. Nothing short of standing Complete & perfect—of imitating Jesus Christ in every part of his inimitable & sacred character shall henceforth be my object" (2, 9). Even in heaven nothing must get in the way: "The first question I shall ask after droping the flesh, if I behold any created being more immediately than my Father, where is the throne?" (28, 4). Mary's God is alternately her jailer and the goal of her liberation, the enthroned Being to which her freed soul will seek absolute access.
The prison that Mary decides by turns to endure and to escape is mortality itself, but it is also the actual house in Maiden, surely the originating scene of her radical antidomesticity. This is a house tolerable only when her "poor old folks" and their "care and clamour" have gone elsewhere (1, 1, 4); otherwise she seems to get along by fleeing to solitude in the Maiden woods or the roads to nearby towns. Ruth, the woman who primarily raised her, appears only as a negative entity: Mary assures herself that not losing her temper with her aunt will give her the "glee of virtue," provide humbling means to sanctification (1, 10; 1, 4). Such virtue, however, is merely negative, as is all domestic "duty." Mary hardly dismisses the value of humble domesticity; she is pleased, for instance, with a "week of duty" that has made room for washing, carding, housecleaning, and baking as well as for reading Butler, Cicero, Shakespeare, and the Scriptures. But even here she gives away her spiritual elitism: "There is a sweet pleasure in bending to our circumstance while superior to others" (1, 4). Domesticity is not itself a vehicle of the spirit, but a privation and punishment that prepares one to deserve the spirit: "scenes of dirt, vulgarity, misery, & unqualified ignorance" embraced as "the safest, speediest passage to the worlds of light" (1, 4).
And Mary feels that she needs such punishment. If her ideal self would storm heaven, her actual being is small, passive, polluted, female, analogous to the scenes of dirt around her. "God beholds something abhorrent to his pure nature in my heart—Oh could I see it—could I tear it away" (28, 8). Not only is "negative existence" (3, 4) a sin itself, but in addition her pride and anger and resistance to negativity become a worse sin, reason for God's special wounds. She laments her high "animal spirits" and fears that, even when expressed in religious rapture, they are more "gross" than "etherial" (2, 1). "I want humility by nature & lately by habit... Merciful God . . . afflict me, crush me into the lowest cavern of the earth . . . Let my body be sunk into the depths of the sea or dispersed by the vultures of the desert" (2, 7). Because she wants to rise from her vile prison she must be lowered, torn asunder, driven back to female passivity; and only after such humbling can she again seek "passage to the worlds of light."
Caring for the sick—in Mary's eyes, woman's dirtiest and most holy duty—brings out in Mary her strongest gestures of duty and avoidance, self-punishment and cosmic arrogance. Ruth's sister Rebecca Brintnall, brought home to Maiden insane in 1802, is to Mary a "mortifying sight" of instinct undetained by reason or the wish of others. But attending her needs "alarms me not. I shall delight to return to God" (28, 3). And similarly the call by Newburyport in-laws to come nurse her sister Hannah is to Mary "no matter—it will not retard my glory in the skies a moment"; a single view of the heavens will instead give her, in a phrase from Milton's "Il Penseroso," "'the spirit of Plato to unfold'" (2, 3). Mary constantly juxtaposes the sickroom and the heavens, and when she becomes her "Penseroso" self, she leaves female identity behind as well as duty. "I should have soared like the eagle & basked in the rays of light joy and serenity," Mary writes after a day of petty anger in Newburyport (3, 7). Soaring is masculine, clean, and free; the sickroom is feminine, dirty, and constricted. "I took care of my weak folks with pleasure," she writes in Maiden, "but there are some [?] with bodies of ladies so disgusting to reason & refinement that to shrink is not anti-benevolent" (2, 10). Clearly the most personally acceptable way to shrink is to soar.
Mary's psychological being, then, embraces extreme and apparently disjunctive feelings: God has imprisoned her but wills her straight ascent to His throne; she is "abhorrent," deserving to be torn apart by vultures, and "superior," deserving to fly like an eagle. If I have begun this essay emphasizing the visionary strength of Mary's isolation, I would not want to disregard its deeply neurotic, even potentially suicidal, personal origins. There is much in her that is not life-affirming. But "sanctification" does provide Mary with a language for understanding and (somewhat precariously) bringing together her extremes. Her solution is a highly personal reading of the contemporary religious culture. Like the liberal Arminians of Cambridge she wishes for a self-initiated and self-affirming knowledge of God. But her sense of personal fallenness is much greater than theirs, and at the same time her eagle-self aspires to more inward and ecstatic experience than their socially oriented sainthood of good works. The Calvinist orthodoxy of Andover more fully comprehends these paradoxical depths of sin and heights of sanctity. But Calvinism too must be reworked so as more fully and radically to affirm the individual ego.
It is the Calvinists' atoning Christ who both meets Mary's depravity and allows her exaltation. Personal power, in her experience, comes only and absolutely as salvation by Christ. "Had I my deserts what shame & pain would involve me! Blessed & adorable Jesus—thy attonement how rich how adapted to my condition" (2, 7). For Mary, this is an implicitly feminine condition. Christ is a glorious "portion," a dowry in her life of poverty; Christ is "my high Priest" (2, 7; 2, 8). "With what rapture must the thief have received the promise of life—and the unnamed woman at the feet of Jesus her pardon!" (2, 7). Mary's portrayal of union with Christ is physically immediate on both her side and His. "Blood of Christ. How I cling to that" (28, 4). Even an unnamed "poor deformed soul" that Mary cannot tolerate—probably insane Aunt Brintnall—can be a "member of his body" (28, 4). Bodies are transformed by His body.
But Mary's Christ is a means, not an end; here she departs most drastically from Andover theology, appropriating and extending something of Cambridge. Later in life she would specify her belief as "Arian," that is, belief in Christ as a secondary, divine-human "influx" from God the "one infinite consciousness" rather than fully and originally divine (20, 4).16 In the earlier years she does not use this conceptual language, but the experience that would lead to Arian belief is already present. That is, though she claims selfhood only as part of the body of Christ, she is in her moments of ecstasy alone before the one God rather than within Christ's body. It is in her desire for such moments that she can wish to do "away with . . . faith in a Mediator's responsibility" and stand "complete and perfect"—like Christ, "imitating .. . his inimitable & sacred character," but not in Him, not stopping short of the throne with any mere "created being." In being thus Arian but not Arminian, Mary preserves both her humility and her "moral grandeur": atonement is central to her belief, but she receives it as entitlement to God's absolute presence.
Mary's spiritual life, following from her intense desire for this transformation, is both more ascetic and more self-exalting than the traditional Puritan ways of sanctification. The occasion for her prayer that God would remember His covenant with her ancestors, which I quoted earlier, is a vow not to allow herself "one indulgence of sleep food drink raiment shelter labour friends fame or life" (28, 7). Her ancestors would recognize such vows. But they, despite a strong denial of the body, also married, sanctioning family life rather than celibacy as the holier way. Mary was a celibate by conscious decision as well as temperament. And what surprises us about this is less her denial of sexuality than her ability to act upon her feelings and to choose a condition of life that had essentially no context or precedent in her family or community. Her celibacy is in this sense more a self-declaration than a self-denial. As Waldo wrote in his biographical essay on Mary, she could have married if she chose. "I walked to Capt Dexter's," she records early in 1807, "—sick—promised never to put that ring on" (3, 5). And a few weeks later, "Henceforth the picture I'll image shall be girded loins, a bright lamp, fervent devotion" (3, 11). With no other company to join, she "images" herself among the faithful maidens of the Biblical parable who light their lamps to await the heavenly bridegroom. But she is a more active and masculine maiden than most: as well as lighting her lamp she girds her loins to prepare for work, like the men who await the kingdom in another version of the parable.17
Even asceticism for Mary has this quality of energetic individualism in it. And her moments of positive vision are joyfully transcending and self-affirming. Her sanctified life is still attuned to the rhythms of the Puritan church: "Sabbath" is always marked as such at the head of a journal entry, often with a response to church that day. But she mentions taking communion—traditional sign of belonging to Christ and the church—only once in the entire record of the Almanacks (28, 3). And church services are valuable only insofar as they arouse her own "fervid emotions" (2, 7). The hearing of sermons is a central part of her life, but often in the opportunity thus provided for dismissing the preacher as "poor" or "frivolous" (1, 1; 1, 2). One day before describing the female "genius" in her Almanack she records this experience: "I could not be reverent tonight with poor Mr. G's preaching—I sympathized with the joys of the vulgar—I trod on air—I danced to the musick of my own imajanation—it is well no one knows the frolick of my fancy, for they w think me wild unless they knew me" (1, 4).18 Mary may misspell Imagination, that crucial term of Transcendentalism, but she understands, when Waldo is only a year old, how its music can overwhelm mediocrity in the pulpit. In Mary's religious life authority, community, and sacrament have already started to disappear before a dance of the inner self in direct contact with divinity.
And the setting for this dance before God is as often Nature as church. When Mary flees home to view the heavens, she encounters as well as avoids, finds rapture and assurance in the "regular radiant orbs" of the stars (28, 5). On the occasion of a complete solar eclipse in June of 1806, Mary escapes "to the woods to get beyond the din of human tongues." The sun starts to emerge before she can get to the "most sequestered spot," so she fails to capture quite the fullness of "the sublime in perception" (2, 13). Yet this is one of the highest moments in her Maiden years: "The appearance was unexpected so exquisite a light I cannot describe—winds were hushed as if in awe—birds screamed—stars glowed—with what rapt devotion did I view my Maker's hand" (2, 13). Here is a recognizably Emersonian scene: flight to solitude, and solitude as close to the perfect center of things as possible; aesthetic savoring of sublime light and sound that brings a freely perceiving soul to "rapt devotion" of the Maker. "In communion with trees, with streams and stars and suns, man finds his own glory inscribed on every flower and sparkling on every beam," concludes Mary two days later (2, 13).
Moreover, Mary approaches Waldo's Transcendentalism not only in her reverence for the God of nature, but in the temporal pattern of her regenerate life. Even though she looks for slow growth on the model of Puritan sanctification, she instead experiences isolated "moments" (17, 7)—whether in church or in the woods—that are absolute as revelations of eternity but permanent only in their value for memory. It seems to have been only after her Maiden years that Mary started calling her journals Almanacks in ironic recognition that she was recording a calendar of constant changes in time and weather. But again these earliest years of the Almanacks show her new sanctification of momentary consciousness taking shape, if she has not yet recognized it as such.
Both Mary's stated desire for progressive holiness and her actual experience of briefer inspiration are present in the entry for December 26, 1806: "Never was a date issued from the hand of royalty more important than the above. It is related to days and ages beyond this sphere. It is the record of virtue—the beginning of a portion of the history of a soul—struggling with weakness & ignorance & opposite appetites to the pure state of Heaven! God of infinite power & love, aid the being before thee to honor thee & herself in this little history. Bless her with no common & ordinary portion of thy wisdom—all else is dust & ashes! This day so dark—so incumbered hath been filled—yes filled with devotion & zeal—patience & joy" (3, 1). Mary hopes to experience (and record) a continuing "history" that, though "little," compared to the history of kings, will take her beyond...
(The entire section is 12500 words.)