WILLA v5 - 'A Good Aunt is More to a Poet Than a Patron:' Mary Moody Emerson, a Model of Self-Reliance

Volume 5
Fall 1996

"A Good Aunt is More to a Poet Than a Patron:" Mary Moody Emerson, a Model of Self-Reliance

Janice Battiste

While Mary Moody Emerson's influence on her nephew Ralph Waldo Emerson's writing has been marginally noted by biographers and critics, her writing also merits value independent of its assimilation into her nephew's essays for the critique it provides on nineteenth-century American society. In addition to providing the intellectual ferment that became fodder for her nephew, her letters trace her struggle as an independent woman in the young United States. Though the nation was founded on ideals of freedom and equality, in actuality this freedom was determined by gender, for women were silenced as the political and religious ideology became increasingly patriarchal. In the context of a new understanding of its surrounding history, Mary Moody Emerso's text becomes a tool to re-define women's silent role and to give history itself new meaning. The following pages focus on her role as a proto-feminist: how she maintained her independence against cultural norms, why she is virtually unknown, and how her life provided a model for her nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Scholars now agree that Ralph Waldo Emerson's aunt was a major, if not the most important, influence on his intellectual development. 1 By modeling his life on this renegade, independent, widely-read, self-educated intellectual, Emerson evolved as a thinker and writer. Yet Mary Moody Emerson (1774-1863) has fallen through the cracks of literary history not only by virtue of the complex, fragmented allusiveness of her writing, but also because her gender and social position have silenced her.

Unlike his father's notes, which he found so uninspiring that he discarded them in order to reuse the leather bindings for his own writing ( Barish, Roots 153 ), Emerson copied many of his correspondences with his aunt into his journals, which he read and reread throughout his life. Her thoughts and language he sometimes copied verbatim into his published essays. He did this with no other correspondent, yet subsequent editions of his journals failed to note their significance and increasingly edited them out. Undoubtedly, had Emerson corresponded so much with a man, their discourse would have already been the subject of significant study. Because of her gender and inferior status, male editors gradually erased Mary Emerson from history, minimizing her influence on her nephew ( Barish, Roots 37 ). Instead, biographers find interest in Mary Moody Emerson's diminutive stature: "Small in stature, only 4'3", she wore her blond hair cut short under a kind of mobcap that gave her the appearance of a diminutive nun" ( Baker 18 ), and eccentric habits, such as her traveling in her shroud so as to be ready for the much-longed-for reunion with her creator, and her coffin-shaped bed ( Richardson 23 ).

In addition to her published letters, her unpublished diaries -- the longest and probably the last American Puritan diaries by a woman ( Cole 4 ) -- are the record of and a response to religious, social, and political changes and tensions of her time. They also reveal the complications she overcame to ensure her independence and her struggle to define herself against the increasingly narrowed confines of the definition of womanhood in nineteenth-century America. Her life is a marked contrast to that of her brother William, who benefited not only by inheritance but-along with a list of thirty-one Emerson ancestors and relatives-by a Harvard education by virtue of his gender ( Cole 9 ). She, however, subverted societal expectations by including in her daily activities not only "washing, carding, housecleaning, and baking" but also reading "Butler, Cicero, Shakespeare, and the Scriptures" ( Cole 12 ), thereby combining the domestic sphere with the intellectual and bridging the gap between what men at Harvard read and discussed and what was considered appropriate knowledge for a woman. She performed traditional women's work as the "penance" she had to pay in order to partake of the intellectual and balance the luxury of her freedom and solitude: "there is a sweet pleasure in bending to our circumstance while superior to them" ( Cole 12 ).

Her position as orphan 2 and single woman was a source of power because it enabled her to discuss issues denied other women by their background and social position and helped form her unique perspective. The early loss of her father and virtual abandonment. by her mother left her to grow up in relative isolation, in poverty, with difficult, aged relatives, and with minimal contact with other young women. Because of this lack of early companions, she developed an internal dialogue through which she discovered her own values independently. This ability grew into complex written conversations that are reflected in her journals, which she called the outpouring of "my soul to its author" ( Cole 4 ).

This ungendered, unsocialized early life freed her from the ideologies that defined her contemporaries along with societal and familial restraints which would have kept her -- as they kept many women in nineteenth-century America -- unable to pursue a lifelong passion for knowledge. Unconditioned by general female values and concerns, she "never expected connections & matrimony. My taste was formed in romance & knew I was not destined to please" ( Simmons 344 ). She remained unmarried not onlv because the questions foremost in men's minds while seeking a wife were "Is there money? Are there lands?" ( Simmons 5 ), but she also refused a Charleston lawyer when she was thirty-three. Her reference to the proposal is short and definitive: "III never put that ring on" ( Emerson, "Mary" 419 ). She rejected her patriotic duty to marry and multiply, excusing herself by what the church claimed were women's refined, "passionless" natures. As the congregations began to consist largely of women, ministers appealed to women to modify, and thereby control, men's less-refined natures. As a result, women's status was elevated, which increased the significance of their female friendships since they were free of male carnal passion ( Cott 168 ).

Mary Emerson used the changing ideals of her society to fit her purpose. The theory that the virtuous woman was allegedly also a sexually passionless one provided an excuse for Mary Emerson's independence and justified her androgynous role. She rejected human connections and the role of wife in order to follow her spiritual and intellectual pursuit while ensuring her independence and freedom. After living a life of service as a young woman, it was probably repellent to her to think of herself in service to a man, with the subsequent loss of intellectual and physical independence that marriage would bring. To ensure her psychic survival, she excused herself from marriage and redefined the role preset for her as a woman and declared celibacy, freeing herself to revel in her intellectual, spiritual and physical independence. Certainly her mind "spun faster than all the other tops" ( Emerson, "Mary" 407 ) and her nomadic life-style reflected, if it was not caused by, her need and subsequent searching for an intellectual outlet.

Her decision to be independent came early -- at age nineteen she told her sister, "I must have a place to exist in, however it seemed so difficult" ( Simmons 3 ). At age twenty-one, she used an inheritance from an aunt whom she had cared for to buy Elm Vale, a farm, the deed uncharacteristically reading "Mary Moody Emerson of Concord, single woman" ( Simmons 4 ). She did not allow the farm to bind her to domestic responsibilities, but leased it to her sister and brother-in-law so she could travel as a "boarder" in other towns in search of the stimulation of new places, people, and ideas. Traveling unescorted, she often chose to board in a town to listen to a minister whose views interested her, then returned to the farm when she felt the need to meditate and write, to escape "to the woods to get beyond the din of human tongues" ( Cole 16 ). She constructed this situation to control her moods: "our senses administer to the virtues ... we can so manage them that when they depress we can use them as organs of xian [sic] humility & patience when they exalt -- as means & messengers of praise & diffusion" ( Simmons 277 ) as well as to expand her knowledge: "I have thought of boarding in a Neighbourhood for the purpose of attending Astronymy [sic] with a Preceptor of an Acadamy [sicl in private lessons" ( Simmons 112 ). She compared the desire to discuss new ideas to a physical hunger: "No famished beggar ever craved food so needy these I had felt in situations of famine & effort and darkness -- to get athority [sic) -- to acquire new blood in old veins was an object to w'h I felt no pains & sacrifices too mortifying" ( Simmons 277 ).

Mary Emerson was an informative correspondent because her exposure to different locations and religious ideals was always changing. At a time when strict Calvinist doctrine was being challenged by new sects, her journals and letters reflect the mixture of all these different viewpoints as they are sifted through her sharp intellect, her knowledge of the Bible and of new philosophies, which she then wove through the minds of her correspondents. With an always-changing "home," and with no social responsibilities to hold her in place, writing was her only fixed point of connection. Her journal became her " home -- the only images of having existed" ( Simmons 287 , emphasis Emerson's).

Her nomadic life-style set Mary Moody Emerson apart from the Transcendentalists who were concerned with community. She lived solitary in nature long before Thoreau (who was fond of Mary Emerson) took up residence at Walden Pond. A generation too early and of the wrong gender, she was a Romantic. Women's implicit subservience made it difficult for them to realize a central self that was assumed by male Romantic writers, but Mary Moody Emerson's Romantic stance symbolized a central self unconnected to the web of others in the domestic sphere that a woman traditionally was part of and central to ( Alexander 5 ). Living outside society, she developed a strong individual identity and immediately identified with Wordsworth: "I found many a page of him among some old papers w'h I copied when he first appeared-before every or any body liked him" ( Simmons 376 ). Although his aunt embodied the ideal of the self-reliant figure Ralph Waldo Emerson would later introduce into American culture, he made his referent and subject male ( Cole 3 ).

Expanding on the model of the Puritan journal of spiritual experience ( Rosenwald 36 ), Mary Emerson's writing became her process of creating herself as a text, weaving in the secular and religious, mortal, and spiritual, to include her vast range of thought on philosophy, poetry, politics, and human relations during a "period of wonderful revolutions" (Simmons xxxvi). Puritan ministers stressed reflective writing as a virtuous woman's duty, hoping to keep her limited idle time concentrated on God and constant spiritual improvement ( Ulrich 70 ); for women barred from speaking in church, the journal became their silent forum.

Mary Emerson's exuberant language and style were influenced by the excitement of the Great Awakening and Revivalist preaching, which stressed an individual approach to salvation in fragmentary, coded sermons. After the American Revolution, however, the political climate became increasingly patriarchal and hierarchical, and, in turn, the churches adopted this language and ideology. With them, women's voices became increasingly silenced in the church during Mary Emerson's lifetime (Ouster 127), and her religious ideas -- because expressed in passionate tones and articulated in a state of religious ecstasy from a less constrained era -- were less valued.

Although Mary Emerson witnessed and was affected by changes in American religious values, she was unable to participate in them. The proliferation of itinerant preachers and the movement to discredit educated ministers by turning to the less educated ( Wright 38 ) made room for a clergy not limited to the educated elite. Barred by her gender, Mary Emerson suffered from her inability to use her knowledge and wished she, too, could go house-to-house to talk of God: "to speak of the mercies of God in the simpel [sic] language of these [rustic] people ... I know not what to do oftentimes. . ( Cole 31 ). She felt "a pilgrim from childhood" ( Simmons 564 ) but "pilgrims stayed only a month at a place, had duties, but I none" ( Simmons 563 ). In letters to her nephew, she chronicled diverse experiences, among which was an encounter with a Buddhist: "I have been fortunate this week to find a Visitor here from India, well versed in literature & theology" ( Simmons 152 ). She also describes various disappointments in some ministers' uninspiring sermons: "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 [sic] of my own imajanation [sic]" ( Cole 16 ).

Although she crossed gender lines by traveling freely and owning her own home, Mary Emerson did not define herself as a feminist because she felt no solidarity with women whose concerns she did not share. She praised women such as Sarah Ripley as "above the crowd" ( Simmons 76 ) because she "solved problems of Euclid with as much ease as she used her needle" ( Simmons 82 ), and who would sooner buy "a Pindar, not a pin cushion" ( Simmons 109 ). Through their epistolary relationship, the two women found solidarity and a forum to speak and be heard, which gave them the power to transcend their isolated social position into the male sphere. Hoping always to elevate discourse, Mary Emerson writes to her niece, Anne Brewer: "You, Anne write without elegance & taste .... You seem to have no distinct idea of what you mean to convey when you begin a sentence ... I disliked the note --you trifled with serious words & ideas... I will return it that you may be more carefull [sic] to improve your self in every thing" ( Simmons 63 ). She agreed with Mary Wollstonecraft's theories on education: "Were her modes of education adopted I believe we should find less of that softness in girls which lays a foundation for many future ills in thier [sic] lives" ( Simmons 24, emphasis Emerson's ). Inspired by "power to excite mind and heart -- the only power" ( Simmons 127 ), she defied the rules governing discourse for young women defined by men such as her brother William. In 1803, William Emerson wrote a guide for "misses, of from twelve to fifteen years old," which appeared in the Boston Weekly Magazine , listing the following rules: "the writer must choose her subject matter according to her relationship to her correspondent, which should be, 'natural,' not 'learned' . . . in clear, beautiful handwriting" ( Cole 9 ). Mary Emerson's rules for her correspondents were quite different.

Mary Emerson elected to oversee and contribute financially to the education of assorted nieces and nephews, and her language and ideas are often echoed in the writing of her nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This correspondence provided a mutual education. He coveted her journals as well: "if my gross body outlive you, you will bequeath me the legacy of all your recorded thought. I know not to what purpose you should think and write so many years (pardon the coarseness of the phrase) if you design to bum or bury your books, like Prospero" ( Emerson, Journals 357 ). He, in turn, sent his journal to her, and their writing became a process of interchange and discourse on ideas which resonated and expanded their thought. She taught him to write copiously and to use the writing as an archive for further thought. Honing his critical skills, she "erased the sentence from among my jewels" ( Simmons 243 ) when his interpretation did not meet with her approval. Her letters provided a model for sermon writing as she expanded the ideas of the previous letter from her correspondent by incorporating the thoughts of that letter as her text ( Simmons 127 ).

When Emerson turned to his aunt as he tried to find answers to his own doubts, his ideas were fueled by their dialogue. Mary Emerson acted as mediator between this world and the next for her nephew ( Simmons 130 ), and her life provided a model for his. She stressed the need to remove oneself from society in order to commune with God in nature in order to give the spirit free reign, to seek illumination from religious and philosophical ideas that came from within the self, she demonstrated how spirituality informed her life and thought as "Images within us-one word sets off another" ( Simmons 156 ). To her, "reason" was "not cool facts, but emotional experiences, tied to nature-mystical idealistic" (Simmons xxxvii). Any doubts about the presence of God could be dispelled by studying nature. She urged him to see the world from the same high plane that she did. When her nephew asked if she would like to hear details of his daily life, she replied, "facts! what are facts to me?" ( Barish, Mother 231 ); this sentiment Emerson incorporates in his essay "History." As a student, Emerson won second place for an essay on Socrates,

with the unacknowledged help of Aunt Mary, when he copied two paragraphs of one of her letters to him into the essay ( Barish notes ). Because her gender denied her the right to express herself publicly, she gave him her voice, words, and intellect. She prophesied that his words would endure, seeing them as "this new school may be a wheel within a wheel moving under the Great Mover' ( Simmons 395 ), which would bring man closer to virtue. Knowing her words were part of his was her way of being heard. The letters trace an ongoing conversation in language that Emerson described as having a "willow-the-wisp quality" ( Simmons 126 ), fragmentary and allusive as if "caught from some dream" ( Simmons 1 ). In her letters, Mary Emerson anticipated the next era: Romantic, self-reliant, breaking away from European history, education, and family structures.

Tales of her eccentric behavior live on because her lack of social skills made her, at times, an unwelcome guest, especially in her later years. Realizing her position as outcast, she often prefaced a visit with the wish not to offend anyone. Blaming her brusque, outspoken manners for disagreements that inevitably occur, she apologized to her nephew, "for surely you cant [sic] dislike me half so much as I do myself' ( Simmons 170 ). "The more I'm understood, the less tolorated [sic]" ( Simmons 368 ). Despite their intellectual relationship, disagreements caused Mary Emerson to conclude to her nephew that "we can only commune by pen" ( Simmons 221 ). Even though she had helped to raise the Emerson brothers and aided their education, she was not invited to their commencements out of fear of her unsocialized behavior. Comforting herself when shunned by family, she said that she .preferred Shakespeare for my meal's company" ( Simmons 386 ).

When Ralph Waldo Emerson looks back on hi aunt's 'almanaks' he comments:

It is a representative life ... of an age now past, and of which I think no types survive. Perhaps I deceive myself and overestimate its interest. Then it is a fruit of Calvinism and New England, and marks the precise time when the power of the old creed yielded to the influence of modern science and humanity ( Emerson, Works 399 ).

More than just fuel for her faith, Mary Emerson used her religion to focus her energy and provide a structure for living: traveling to hear ministers, writing journals, and lay-preaching through her correspondence. "I [MME1 who never know nor talk of sects can be fed with crumbs every where, tho' I rarely enter a Chh Lsic]" (Simmons xxxvi). Her spirituality underscored her existence, but as the precursor of Self-Reliance, she realized she was

living in a time and within a society that was focusing increasingly on the secular, "Only think that the revolutions of only half a centry [sic] concentrate the great idea of man's greatness as a man " ( Simmons 366 , emphasis Emerson's). The path to salvation was not to be trod with blinders on. Even in her old age, after yearning for, yet being unrewarded by death, she says, "I want to read new about politics and religion ... disgraceful to remain in ignorance waiting for salvation" ( Simmons 576 ).

Ralph Waldo Emerson failed to recognize the forces of patriarchal society which left a limited space for so great a mind as that of his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. By virtue of his gender and vocation, he could have made a claim for the education and inclusion of women. Although Emerson used his aunt's words, used her as his own intellectual model, and respected her as a thinker, he did not recognize the potential of and need for education for women. In his essay "Education," the students he is concerned with are boys only, the goal of education is forming men ( Emerson, Works ). Perhaps realizing her nephew's lack of understanding, the aging Mary Emerson left her writings to her grand-niece Ellen Emerson, and not to Ralph Waldo who had begged for them in his youth. Even the inscription on her tombstone underlines what was believed to be a woman's -- even an unmarried woman's --importance: what she can give to her male descendants. The quote comes from her nephew's essay, "Mary Moody Emerson": "She gave high councels [sic]-it was the privilege of certain boys to have this immeasurably high standard indicated to their childhood, a blessing which nothing else in education could supply." Ralph Waldo Emerson's only published essay about his aunt, "Mary Moody Emerson," will not keep her from falling through the cracks of American history, but it will memorialize her as a footnote.


1 After years of gradual erasure from literary history, Mary Moody's contribution was brought to light by Evelyn Barish in her biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Roots of Prophecy . Richard D. Richardson Jr.'s recent biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson claims that Mary Moody Emerson was the "single most important part of Emerson's education" (23).

2 The pain of growing up as an orphan and servant later found an outlet in her support of Abolition and fueled her feeling of solidarity with "my brethren and sisters of coulor [sic] degraded"(Simmons 417).

3 From the photograph on page 601 of "The Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson."

Works Cited

Baker, Carlos. Emerson Among the Eccentrics . New York and London: Viking, 1996.

Barish, Evelyn . Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy . Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

-----. "Emerson and the Angel of Midnight: The Legacy of Mary Moody Emerson. Mothering the Mind: Twelve Studies of Writers and Their Silent Partners . Ed. Ruth Perry and Martine Watson Brownley. New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1984.218-37.

-----. "Emersonian Gothic: The Misprision of an Aunt." Cambridge: The Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute of Radcliff College, 1979.

-----. Unpublished Notes on Correspondence of Mary Moody Emerson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1974.

Cole, Phillis. "The Advantage of Loneliness: Mary Moody Emersons Almanacks, 1802-1855." Emerson Prospect and Retrospect . Ed. Joel Porte. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Emerson, Edward Waldo, and Waldo Emerson Forbes, ed. Emerson's Journals . Boston: Riverside, 1909.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Mary Moody Emerson." Works of Emerson: The Complete Works , Volume X. Boston: Riverside, 1904.

Richardson, Richard D. Jr. The Mind on Fire . Berkeley: U of California, 1995.

Simmons, Nancy Craig, ed. The Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson . Athens: The U of Georgia, 1993.

Smith Rosenberg, Carroll. "Beauty, the Beast, and the Militant Woman: A Case Study in Sex Roles and Social Stress in Jacksonian America." A Heritage of Her Own: Towards a New Social History of American Women . Ed. Nancy F. Cott and Elizabeth H. Pleck. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979

-----. "The Female World of Love and Ritual: The Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America." Ibid.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. "Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735."Ibid.

Wright, Conrad. The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America . Boston: Beacon, 1955,1966.

Janice Battiste teaches English at Yeshiva University, Stern College for Women in New York City. Her special interest is researching little-known, undervalued women writers.

Copyright 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation : Battiste, Janice. (1996). "A Good Aunt Is More to a Poet Than a Patron: Mary Moody Emerson, a Model for Self-Reliance." WILLA , Volume V, pp. 6-10.