Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism

Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism : A Family History

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Mary Moody Emerson has long been a New England legend, the "eccentric Calvinist aunt" of Ralph Waldo Emerson, wearing a death-shroud as her daily garment. This exciting new study, based on the first reading of all her known letters and diaries, reveals a complex human voice and powerful forerunner of American Transcendentalism. From the years of her famous nephew's infancy, in both private and published writings, she celebrated independence, solitude in nature, and inward communion with God. Mary Moody Emerson inherited both resources and constraints from her family, a lineage of Massachusetts ministers who had earlier practiced spiritual awakening and political resistance against England. Cole discovers a previously unexamined Emerson tradition of fervent piety in the ancestors' own writing and Mary's preservation of their memory. She also examines the position of a woman in this patriarchal family. Barred from the pulpit and university by her sex, she also refused marriage to become a reader, writer, and religious seeker. Cole's biography explores this reading and writing as both a woman's vocation and a gift to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Helping to raise her nephews after their father's death, Mary Moody Emerson urged Waldo the college student to seek solitude in nature and become a divine poet. Cole's pioneering study, tracing crucial lines of influence from Mary Emerson's heretofore unknown texts to her nephew's major works, establishes a fresh and vital source for a central American literary tradition.show more

Product details

  • Hardback | 384 pages
  • 164.1 x 241.6 x 30.5mm | 806.19g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 0195039491
  • 9780195039498

Review quote

"Feminist archaeology at its most impressive, Phyllis Cole's Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism recovers a woman of extraordinary intellect. An heir to New England Puritanism, Emerson infused that legacy with a powerful Romanticism. Companion and critic to her nephew Ralph Waldo Emerson, she became a primary source for his celebrated individualism. Bringing an interpretive originality to all these traditions, the female Emerson can now take her rightful place as a signal contributor to the New England Renaissance."-Mary Kelley, Dartmouth College exceptional new book ... Cole's scholarship reveals how traditions, stories, and ideas reverberate through a notable family history in a manner that justifies a shift from speaking of "aunt Mary" to "nephew Waldo" ... this remarkable book succeeds as both a "family history" and a history of ideas centering around one woman ... Cole has delivered a portrait of a luminous mind and a significant influence who until now we have known mostly as she appears on the cover: a shadow behind others, framed in silhouette. * Branden T C Miller, The British Library *show more

Back cover copy

Mary Moody Emerson has been cast by generations of scholars as the "eccentric aunt" of Ralph Waldo - a quickly, deeply religious woman who though the cherished epistolary partner of her nephew is herself worthy of no sustained critical attention. This biography suggests otherwise. This narrative rethinks both the extent of Mary's influence on her nephew and Mary's own historical standing as writer, thinker, spiritual seeker, and self-reliant, self-creating woman. Biographer Phyllis Cole, who discovered Mary's "Almanack" in the Emerson family papers in 1981, introduces a self-taught, strikingly independent woman, a bold and philosophically gifted writer and fierce reader who chose solitude in nature over married life and other conventions. Her thought and language honored and discretely assimilated by Waldo from youth through old age, Mary not only connected Waldo to a rich ancestral and cultural past but she also formed the matrix in which Waldo developed his essential philosophic and aesthetic themes. It is through brilliant soul-making conversation between aunt and nephew, Cole demonstrates, rather than through typically cited sources such as Boston Unitarianism and English Romanticism, that Ralph Waldo Emerson's Miltonic mode of poetry and indeed his Transcendentalism took root and shape. Sifting Mary's private and published writing, previously unexplored ancestral texts and family lore, new letters to Waldo in dialogue with his long-familiar letters to her, and major and minor Emersonian writings, Cole tells a captivating story of intellectual and spiritual enthusiasm within a distinctive family and culture, a story that begins with the zealous generations preceding Mary's own andconcludes with her death in 1863 at the age of 88. Cole's pioneering focus on a life Waldo deemed "purely original" unlocks a variety of new perspectives on late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New England life and thought, and gives voice to a woman with much to say but from whom till now so little has been heard.show more

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11 ratings
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3 18% (2)
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