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.)

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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.


Human, Animal, HUMANIMAL… and making lit crit count.

This post is a report from the field, and the report is that I’ve reached a stumbling block in my semester. Students wrestled productively with Michael Lundblad’s “Animality Studies” article a few weeks back, but the conversation derailed when they tried to dig in to Josephine Donovan’s “Animal-Standpoint Criticism” more recently. This raises a broad question in the instruction of literature – when and how to include (or omit) scholarly criticism alongside study of primary texts? It also raises practical questions of reviewing, returning, correcting, or re-teaching material when the semester is in mid-swing.

One of my course goals this semester is for students to learn the major concepts and questions driving Animal Studies. Another is to apply these concepts and questions as interpretive tools. That being said, scholarly discourse is not our central focus – literary texts are the heart of this course. Here’s an overview: my students and I are asking how, and for what purpose, do certain literary works construct a human/animal division? Indeed, some traditions elevate humans above animals, opposing “man” from “beast” (yes! Animal Studies is a great way to interrogate the heteronormative patriarchy!). But others see a reciprocal relationship between humans and animals, portraying animals as deities, messengers, magicians, or as complex participants in a larger-than-human social fabric. While some texts might reinforce a conceptual human/animal division, how do other texts set forth a “zone of indiscernibility” in which humans and animals converge?

The criticism we work with is designed to grow students’ bag of analytic tools. My idea, in designing a “Human, Animal, Humanimal” literature course, was to include a very small selection of articles to create a progression of concepts that would build on one another. Pretty standard, right? But in practice, there’s a tension between goals: how small of a “small selection” will still build a “progression”? Perhaps the time is right to discuss dosage. How much lit crit is valuable in an English course? For English majors? For non-English majors? How much is enough to give students firm ground from which to enter and participate in larger conversations? And how much is too much: how much lit crit starts to send the message that the higher calling is scholarship, and not the literary arts?

My questions above are a bit clumsy: of course it is more a question of how we frame criticism in our classes, rather than simply “how much” we include.

In any case, here’s how I’ve framed the semester’s critical articles: students have a “Co-Teaching Assignment” in which groups of 3-4 are responsible for reading one article. They must decide what its most important concept(s) is/are and teach that/those concept(s) to the class. Co-Teaching groups need to leave a lot out; they cannot teach the article’s whole intricate argument. They must glean the big ideas, teach the class those big ideas, and devise activities in which their classmates find applications for those big ideas.

Co-Teaching group one taught Michael Lundblad’s article, “From Animal to Animality Studies.” Lundblad’s project is to set aside territory for inquiry that does something other than animal rights advocacy. The “Animality Studies” Lundblad describes is an analytic approach directing readers to ask, “what does the animal character tell us about human thought? And what can a text’s animal character reveal to a reader about their (or society’s) prejudices, blind spots, and assumptions?”

Co-Teaching group two taught Josephine Donovan’s article, “Tolstoy’s Animals,” in which Donovan describes an approach called “Animal-Standpoint Criticism.” This analytic approach is concerned with the uniqueness of animal characters and directs readers to ask, “how is the animal character’s individual experience of reality portrayed? Is the text’s constructed perspective of the animal character ‘true’ to the particularities of that kind of animal?”

Students took Animality Studies in the spirit Lundblad intended: as guidance toward a particular kind of interaction with a text – specifically, an interaction unconcerned with animal rights or the treatment of real-world animals, focusing instead on how texts use animal characters to reveal human social limitations. But students took Animal-Standpoint Criticism as a normative prescription. What they saw, in Donovan’s article, was an argument about how writers “should” write, rather than an argument about how readers should (or could) read.

Why the disjunction? The jury’s still out.

Well, what to do about it?

I’ve had good luck in the past with structures and scaffolds. So I’ve worked out a STRUCTURAL INTERVENTION. It takes the form of a handout, and it’ll involve a conversational introduction from my end followed by some sessions focused on student retrospection.

The handout is called “What’s in an Article?” It’s got two columns. Here are the headings:

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A simple grid appears below, separating the page into two columns (one beneath each heading), and into five rows (one for each of the critical articles we’ll draw from this semester). I’ve typed out notes from our first two Co-Teaching class periods.

Here is my summary of the first Co-Teaching class period:

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I’ve done very little revision, here. It’s essentially a record of class discussion.

Here is my summary of the second Co-Teaching class period:

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Here, I’ve done some revision of the class’s conversation. In the “Broader Contemplation” (righthand) column, I’ve synthesized important questions instead of recording conversational highlights (because many comments were along the reductive lines of, “Donovan wants people to write from the animal’s perspective, but humans can’t know animal perspectives.”) I’ve tried to identify what’s at stake in this objection to Donovan’s article, rather than simply recording the objection.

The idea here is to sort out two conversation students recently had. My purpose is not exactly to “correct” their thinking, but instead to organize it in such a way as to keep questions open.

My immediate hope is for students to reflect back and see that their conversations have wrestled with two distinct uses for each given concept – an analytic use in the study of literature, and a general thinking use in the world of lived experience. My other immediate hope is for students to re-center on literary analysis as a crucial aspect of their work in this course. In other words, if they can’t fill in the left-hand column on a subsequent Co-Teaching day, they’re missing something important. Connections to the outside world are valuable, but we don’t, in this field of study, make those connections at the expense of a rigorous, text-based analytic practice.

These columns may be visually separated, but there is a crucial sense in which they go hand-in-hand. My next plan is to have students work retrospectively on framing the content from class discussions themselves. Next week, Co-Teaching Group Three will teach. Then, we’ll return to this handout in the following class meeting for a meta-class. Here, my hope is that student reflection will take over, that they will organize the highlights of their conversation into “Literary Analysis” and “Broader Contemplation.” If this reduces angst about what to study for the exam, all the better. But if this also demonstrates that conversation is valuable in part because it generates insights on several levels at a time, all the better.