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.)
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.
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.
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.