Teaching Women and Transcendentalism


Part 2 of “Pedagogical Lessons from the Transcendentalists: 2017 NEH Summer Institute in Concord”

In Part 1 of this PALS blog post about the NEH Summer Institute on “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller,” I admitted that a hyper-vigilant “hermeneutics of suspicion” had kept me from regularly teaching male Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in my American literature classes. I instead focused on incorporating marginalized nineteenth-century women and minority writers into my syllabi in order to expose students to a diverse and inclusive canon of American literature.

But the NEH Summer Institute at Concord made me aware of female Transcendentalist voices that will change the way I teach all of my nineteenth-century American literature courses. Not only will I integrate women writers such as Mary Moody Emerson into my courses as significant writers in their own right, knowing more about women and Transcendentalism will also change how I teach canonical male authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

(Note: Since Margaret Fuller is regularly taught and studied and her major bearing on Transcendentalism is commonly acknowledged, in this post I will focus on female writers and thinkers who have received less recognition.)

Emerson manuscript 2
Page from Mary Moody Emerson’s “Almanack”

Mary Moody Emerson: Proto-Transcendentalist

Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt, was a significant influence on his thinking and writing. She was born in 1774 and, in the spirit of the later Transcendentalists, was a self-educated woman. For over fifty years she kept extensive journals that she called her “Almanacks” which “offer a rare and prolific example of early American women’s scholarly production.” As a matter of fact, her nephew regarded his aunt’s Almanacks as a vast register of her intellect and often borrowed and recopied the thread-bound fascicles into his own journals. The Almanacks were so important to him that he kept them after her death; they were eventually donated with his papers to Harvard’s Houghton Library.

The Almanacks were overlooked in the archives for decades until feminist scholars such as Phyllis Cole, Sandra Petrulionis, and Noelle Baker started giving them the scholarly attention they deserve. Petrulionis and Baker are in the process of creating an online edited edition of the Almanacks, which can be accessed through Women Writers Online as an excellent teaching resource.

Mary Moody Emerson’s thoughts in the Alamacks herald some of concepts that we tend to recognize as “original” to Emerson and Thoreau (who respected and admired his mentor’s aunt) decades before the men came on the scene. Her 1804 comment, “In communion with trees, with streams and stars and suns, man finds his own glory inskribed on every flower and sparkling in every beam,” predicts the basic Transcendentalist notion that nature is metaphor and microcosm of existence. Decades later, in 1836, her nephew would echo in his now-famous essay “Nature,” “Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic.”

In 1806, after viewing a total solar eclipse, Mary Moody Emerson joyfully wrote in her Almanack:

[T]he winds were hushed as if in awe–the birds screamed with what rapt devotion did I view my Makers hand–Oh how forgotten are the vanitis & sorrows of life at grand appearances! … I sunk into life and walked & lost the afternoon.

Mary Moody Emerson’s notion that the natural world can give such perspective and meaning to human experiences, would, of course, be simulated by Thoreau much later in Walden, in 1851: “We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

Mary Moody Emerson can be taught as an intellectual precursor to Emerson and Thoreau and as an example of the how women are all too often dropped from intellectual and literary history. But she can also be taught on her own terms, as a remarkable writer and thinker, and as a case for the importance of continued feminist archival recovery.


Collection box for Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society

Activist Sisters and Aunts

Although remembered for their role as moral arbiters and public intellectuals, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson slowly came to their anti-slavery attitudes and activism through the women in their families and social circles. According to Thoreau biographer Laura Dassow Walls, “Concord’s antislavery activists were led by women, including all the women in Thoreau’s family.” In 1835, Concord’s Female Anti-Slavery Society’s founding members included Thoreau’s sisters Sophia and Helen, Emerson’s wife Lidian, and many extended family members and friends. These women were also involved with the Middlesex County Anti-Slavery Society, which was responsible for bringing Frederick Douglass to Concord and raising funds for John Brown.

While the women in Transcendental circles were the instigators of Concord’s abolitionist movement, as women they  were barred from speaking in public. Long after their female family members and friends had exposed them to abolitionist activism, Thoreau and Emerson both eventually adopted antislavery attitudes and used their writing and speeches as opportunities to speak out on the issue. Emerson’s take was more tempered “Emancipation in the British West Indies” (1844) and then more bold with his “Seventh of March Speech on the Fugitive Slave Law” (1854). Thoreau was known for his public support and defense of radical abolitionist John Brown with this essays “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854)and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859).

When we teach Emerson and Thoreau as strong voices for the abolitionist movement, we can remind students that while the women of Concord may not have left great oratory and treatises behind, their voices and moral influence exist nonetheless in the works of their male counterparts.



Louisa May Alcott

Transcendentalism’s Female Skeptics

Women in the Transcendentalist movement also functioned as skeptics and cautionary voices. Louisa May Alcott, daughter of Bronson Alcott, wrote “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873) a scathing satire of her family’s winter at Fruitlands, a Transcendental Utopian community not far from Concord. Fruitlands was established in 1843 by Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, and the Alcott family lived there for one winter when Alcott was a girl. Alcott’s story tells of the toll that male idealism takes on the minds, souls, and lived experiences of women. The men in the story spend their time in tedious esoteric debates, while the character based on Alcott’s mother, Abba Alcott, works to keep the household and family afloat. When a storm threatens the farm’s crop, “Some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away,” and the women and children have to save the harvest.

Like the Alcott family, the family in the story faces a crisis when the father loses his spirit after the failure of the community, but the mother keeps the family together. The Alcott family eventually moved back to Concord after their sojourn at Fruitlands, where the girls grew up in Orchard House, the setting of the novel that would eventually make Louisa May Alcott famous, Little Women. “Transcendental Wild Oats” reminds us that Alcott can be taught not only in the traditions of the domestic and sentimental novel and popular literature but also in the context of Transcendentalism.

Lidian Jackson Emerson was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second wife. (He changed her name to “Lidian” from “Lydia” upon their marriage in 1835.) Although she was supportive of her husband and his career, she worried about his deviation from Christian religious orthodoxy as a Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist leader. In her “Transcendental Bible,” she lampoons the lofty intellectual aims of Transcendentalism that sometimes privilege the soul and mind over the concerns of the heart:

If you have refused all sympathy of the sorrowful, all pity and aid to the sick, all toleration to the infirm of character, if you have condemned the intellectual and loathed such sinners as have discovered want of intellect by their sin, then are you a perfect specimen of Humanity.

Let us aspire after this Perfection! So be it.

In spite of such sharp critique, “Emerson admired Lidian’s independence of mind, and…even claimed he borrowed many of his ideas from her.” He called her “Transcendental Bible” “The Queen’s Bible” after his pet name for her, “Queenie.”

Both of these pieces are short, accessible, and very teachable.They may lead to more nuanced discussions of the Transcendentalists, as these female critics provide a voice for students who may approach Transcendentalism skeptically. At the same time, more reproachful points-of-view allows for a more well rounded approach to teaching male Transcendentalist authors to students who might overly and uncritically valorize them.

The forgotten history of women in the Transcendentalist movement reveals women writers, intellectuals, and activists who provided influence, ideas, and inspiration to the movement. Indeed, their lives and writing provide important new content and contexts for teaching nineteenth-century American literature.


Pedagogical Lessons from the Transcendentalists: 2017 NEH Summer Institute in Concord


Part 1: New Contexts for Teaching Henry David Thoreau

I participated in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller” this past June 18-July 1 in Concord, Massachusetts. The Institute was co- sponsored by the Community College Humanities Association and organized by Sandra Petrulionis of the University of Pennsylvania, Altoona. Along with Dr. Petrulionis, a Thoreau scholar, Institute participants learned from other major scholars of American literature and Transcendentalism such as Phyllis Cole, Robert Gross, Megan Marshall, John Matteson, Wesley Mott, Joel Myerson, Lance Newman, Melissa Pennell, and Laura Dassow Walls.

Twenty-five professors from around the nation, representing a wide range of institution types–community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, large state universities, and regional state colleges–attended the Institute. Along with lectures from visiting faculty and field trips around Concord, the Institute included several opportunities for participants to talk about pedagogy and teaching. The twenty-five faculty members who were at the two-week Institute will teach approximately 3,100 students across the country in the 2017-2018 academic year, and, collectively, tens of thousands of students over the courses of their careers.

I attended the Institute to develop a new course called “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature” which will highlight several nineteenth-century American writers, including many of the Transcendentalists. (I plan to write about this course for PALS soon.) This is the first of two PALS blog posts about my experiences at the NEH Summer Institute in Concord. Today’s post will focus on Henry David Thoreau, and my next post will be on “Teaching Women and Transcendentalism.”

Beyond the “Hermeneutics of Suspicion”

The Institute left me with new contexts for teaching Henry David Thoreau, who I had all too often taught as the reclusive and misanthropic author of Walden and as completely disengaged from the people and world around him. In fact, over the years I had skeptically taught Thoreau with the cynical tone represented by Kathryn Schulz in “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia.” Schulz claims “[t]he real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” But an Institute lecture from Thoreau biographer Laura Dassow Walls made me realize that I had been reading and teaching Thoreau through a hyperactive “hermeneutics of suspicion.” In my case, my suspicion was that Thoreau was a white, male author historically taught, studied, and valorized at the expense of nineteenth-century women and minority writers.

But I’ve come to see that while teaching an inclusive canon of American literature, there is plenty of room for Thoreau. A recent biography by Walls, Thoreau: A Life, published just this summer to commemorate the 200-year anniversary of his birth, portrays Thoreau as a complex and principled writer, thinker, and activist:

“…he was a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who  filled the room, laughed and danced, sang and teased and wept…. [He was] a writer of world-class achievement; a natural scientist who gave us the deep poetry of nature writing; a political activist who, in the name of the common good, gave the weak their most powerful tool against the strong; and a spiritual seeker who encouraged every one of us to enter into the great experiment of life.”

Indeed, taught in this historical and biographical context, Thoreau can help our students think more deeply about concerns that many of them bring to the classroom after the election of 2016, particularly the perils and rewards of social and political activism.

Thoreau as a Radical Abolitionist

This semester I’ll teach Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” an account of his night spent in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax in opposition to the expansion of slavery and the U.S.-Mexican War. Viewed solely through the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” Thoreau’s action seems naive and futile, as his aunt soon paid his tax and he was released from the Concord jail. But what I learned from Institute faculty such as Petrulionis and Walls is that Thoreau was a committed and even radical abolitionist. His family hosted escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad, and he was an ardent supporter of John Brown before the fatal raid on Harpers Ferry. Thoreau’s support of Brown, his family, and his collaborators continued even after Brown’s death.

Learning about Thoreau in Concord made me realize that he was a person of conviction who used not just his literary voice, but also his actions, to live out those convictions and make a difference in the world. My students are looking for models and guidance as they become more involved in social movements and activism in our politically divided country. A nuanced consideration of Thoreau’s “civil disobedience” and his involvement in the abolitionist movement can help students sharpen their thinking about how their beliefs translate into deliberate action in the world. Thoreau might inspire them to “be a counter-friction to stop the machine,” while his frustrations may help them navigate the dissonance between political ideals and realities.


Place-Based Learning: Thoreau in Concord

As a professor at a liberal arts college, I often tout the benefits of “place based learning” and the impact  of out-of-class experiences on students’ classroom learning. However, I was not prepared for the benefits that place-based learning in Concord would have for me and how I would teach Thoreau. Certainly walking the few miles from Concord to Walden Pond along the “Emerson-Thoreau Amble” and viewing the iconic pond from the site of Thoreau’s cabin will inform the way I teach Thoreau in the future. My experience in Concord was embedded in Thoreau’s life and history as I daily walked past the house where he lived with his aunts and sisters, the town hall where delivered Lyceum lectures to the community, and the site of the jail where he spent the night in 1848.

Learning about Thoreau in Concord gave me a better sense of Thoreau as an authentic and sincere person and inspired me to bring place-based experiences into all of my teaching. This will be difficult to do with my students in north Texas, thousands of miles away from New England. But the next time I teach Walden, I will ask students to connect to the literature through their own sense of place. I will ask them to think and write about their own Walden, a place on campus or their hometowns where they can experience peace and the satisfaction and inspiration of being alone.

Many of my Texas students, like Thoreau in Concord, grew up in small towns. I will ask students to consider how the people and places in those towns shaped their worldviews. Many of my students will be able to relate to Robert A. Gross’s, a historian of Concord, observation that “Thoreau was locked in a lifelong quarrel with fellow citizens to whom he was inextricably bound by a thousand, imperceptible ties.” Yet my students, like Thoreau, feel a sense of pride about where they are from and are grateful for their formative experiences there. As Thoreau wrote of Concord, “I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too.”



And Finally, “Huckleberries”

Many participants in the Institute routinely teach Thoreau’s most well known works such as Walden Pond and “Resistance to Civil Government,” but we were delighted to be introduced to Thoreau’s essay on “Huckleberries.” Dr. Lance Newman assigned this essay when he spoke to us on Thoreau and environmental justice. The essay is a natural and cultural history of the huckleberry and argues against the commodification of land and environment in a capitalist society. This essay would be a lively addition to any syllabus on American literature, environmental writing, or creative non-fiction.

In the essay, Thoreau writes of local huckleberry parties where his companions brought “remarkably shaped dishes,” including “a coffee-pot to the huckleberry field” to make it easier to sneak tastes of the huckleberries they gathered. He maintains that the local berry patches are vital to the education of the young, as “[t]hese berries are further important as introducing children to the woods.” He claims that “I served my apprenticeship and have since done considerable journeywork in the huckleberry field,” and wonders “[w]hy such haste to go from the huckleberry field to the College yard?”

“Huckleberries” reminds us of the social Thoreau, who needs to be taught as a vibrant if vexing person, a paradoxical and principled activist, and a humorous and humane writer who still has much to teach our students about their own place and experiences in the world today.

Coming soon, Part 2: Teaching Women and Transcendentalism.