"I defy tomorrow": Mary Moody Emerson, Women's Writing, and Revolutions in the Archive

The life and writings of Mary Moody Emerson, who lived from 1774 to 1863, expand critical paradigms of early American women's intellectual life. Although best known as the brilliant, unmarried aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Emerson merits scholarly attention in her own right as a self-educated philosopher, theologian, author, and proto-activist. Her published work includes pseudonymous articles informed by coterie writing and the epistolary essay, but her most significant literary accomplishment is a series of hand-made manuscript notebooks kept from approximately 1804 to 1855, and numbering more than one thousand pages. Emerson called these notebooks her "Almanacks," a nomenclature that reflects the immense popularity of annual almanacs, which were also frequently described and used as diaries in eighteenth-century America.

Emerson constructed her Almanack manuscripts from loose sheets of letter paper bound with thread. These fascicles were easy to carry and circulate, either as single leaves with letters or as multiple-leaved gifts that she often dispersed to interested readers. Although Nancy Simmons has edited a scholarly edition of her correspondence, and Phyllis Cole has explored Mary's influence on Waldo's formative thought, the complete text that grounds this relationship and that reveals her singular, lived experience has only recently emerged from a disorganized jumble in the Emerson Family Papers at Harvard University's Houghton Library.

Like many other early modern women's hybridic miscellanies, Emerson's Almanacks derive their content and structure from several genres, notably, spiritual diaries, commonplace books, and letters. Importantly, they document perhaps the most sustained example of a revolutionary moment for a single woman of this generation, a time in which American women formerly derided as "old maids" were culturally sanctioned to cultivate "self-reverence" and "vocational identity." For this generation of women, as Lee Chambers-Schiller has shown, the "blessedness" of the single state afforded "journey[s] of self-enlightenment" and vocational service to "God, culture, or community." As a record of such inward journeys, the Almanacks instantiate the numerous ways that manuscript writing provided agency for Emerson's life for over half a century.

Writing on a wide range of subjects, Emerson reflects her immersion in both eighteenth-century Enlightenment and nineteenth-century Romantic thought, leading her to comment on theology, philosophy, science, war, imperialism, and slavery. Her overarching focus in the Almanacks, however, is an ongoing dialogue with both herself and a wider community of readers and writers as she endeavors to redefine her relationship to God and assure herself of the imperishable nature of her own self-consciousness within the shifting landscape of metaphysics and science.

Not only do Emerson's Almanacks represent the emerging heterogeneity of early American women's manuscripts, they also reveal the value of digital presentation for such writings. As we considered the daunting task of editing this lengthy series of fascicles, we've ultimately decided on a critical digital edition, for several reasons, not the least of which is that we can present readers with the complete Almanack manuscripts, annotated and with encoded editorial apparatus, an undertaking that would be prohibitively expensive in the print world. Today we'd like to discuss two crucial ways in which we imagine this edition offering an archival "revolution": first are the innovative possibilities for presenting the materiality and complexity of this unique text; second is the paradigm-shift in Mary Emerson's reputation as her Almanacks contribute to the ongoing reassessment of early American literary and cultural studies, particularly with regard to the importance of manuscript culture in early women's intellectual history.

Unlike many early American women's manuscripts that have not survived, the Almanacks likely exist today because of their unique history and proximity to Waldo Emerson, who, throughout his life, excerpted Mary Emerson's letters and Almanacks in his own journals, a practice he eventually formalized into indexed notebooks of lengthy transcriptions. Although Waldo prized the legacy of the Almanacks, their history reads like a near fatality. In 1872, his Concord home caught fire, severely damaging them. In 1908, the Emerson family hired archival scholar George Tolman to transcribe them, but both Mary Emerson's manuscripts and his fair-hand copies were eventually relegated to uncatalogued storage at the Houghton Library. For a time, curators believed them lost, and scholars therefore accessed Mary Emerson's words largely through Waldo's incomplete notebooks. As editors have always shaped the reception and reputation of artists, so did Waldo Emerson meaningfully construct the literary legacy of Mary Emerson, first by the Almanack selections he chose to transcribe, and, then by interpreting and refashioning her words in his own writings. Regrettably, Waldo's "edition" of Mary Moody Emerson has for more than a century regularly distorted scholarly discourse about both nephew and aunt.

Standard in any discussion of Emerson has always been her influential molding of nephew Waldo's thoughts and writings. Speaking to the New England Women's Club in 1869, Waldo Emerson exalted her writing, her prophetic style, and her religious searching and intellect; yet he also put in place anecdotes that spawned the legend of the "Weird-woman of her religion," the overly critical houseguest, the eccentric who rode horseback in Concord in her death shroud and designed her bed in the shape of a coffin. Such depictions paved the way for later scholars, most notably Van Wyck Brooks, to characterize the "poor, obscure, uncomely" "dwarf[ish] Mary Moody Emerson" whom everyone despised and whose "voice" was that "of a sibyl, issuing from the caves of the past." Although a caricature, traces of these distorted portraits still remain in Ralph Waldo Emerson scholarship. Thankfully, due largely to Nancy Simmons and Phyllis Cole's recovery work, a self-reliant intellectual is at last emerging from this misrepresentation. When the complete Almanacks are finally accessible, and to a wider audience than Emerson could ever have conceived, this transformation will continue in extraordinary new ways.

The Almanacks' extensive damage results from fire, water, and mildew, often all three on a given leaf. The edges of most pages are brittle and crumbling, with the first and last words of all lines on a page often irrecoverable. Added to this tangible inability to recapture lost text are the complicating facts that Emerson rarely or idiosyncratically dated her entries, and like many a New Englander she never wasted a scrap of paper, writing on the same leaf at various times, sometimes but not always in a different direction.

Moreover, because Emerson dispersed Almanack leaves with correspondence, manuscript circulation she characterized as "prosing," we are still actively recovering individual leaves that have been misidentified as letters at the Houghton and other libraries. Although this fragmentary composition process illuminates both the material culture of her manuscripts and early American women's reading and writing practices, as you can imagine, they create tremendous challenges of representation and chronology to the editor.

As mentioned earlier, two scribal witness transcriptions of the Almanacks—Waldo Emerson's and George Tolman's—can supply text that is now irrecoverable, since they had access to a less damaged manuscript than what exists today. Although both men at times inaccurately rendered Mary Emerson's prose, our edition will, of necessity, report their readings. Unlike a print volume, digital media will allow us to overlay for readers all available transcriptions of a given passage.

An 1845 Almanack leaf, for which Tolman and Waldo Emerson offer variant readings for missing text, suggests the complexity of this manuscript. And although neither scribe could recover the final lines, fortunately, the fragments reveal Mary Emerson's excerpting from William Whewell's 1845 publication, Indications of the Creator. As this example suggests, because of her regular practice of commonplacing, our Annotations will occasionally provide missing text as well as guide the viewer through Emerson's wide-ranging reading. With a digital edition, we can cite the excerpts from her actual source materials and, if one is available, link to an on-line version of these texts.

During preservation at the Houghton Library, most individual Almanack sheets were separated from their original fascicles and are now protected in mylar as single leaves, obliging us to imagine and reconstruct their original binding and order. But in a few instances, intact fascicles remain for us to examine, as with this relatively undamaged fifty-six page booklet bound in brown thread, which Emerson bestowed to her intimate friend Elizabeth Hoar in April 1827.

In addition to the materiality of the text and its enhanced presentation in digital format, we'd like to suggest a few ways in which Emerson's Almanacks both contribute to studies of early American women's intellectual history and document the importance of manuscript culture within it. Most significantly, rather than an eccentric individualist—as she was rendered by Waldo Emerson and since—these writings reveal Mary Emerson as an independent figure in an international conversation with proto-feminists such as Judith Sargent Murray, Germaine de Staël and Mary Wollstonecraft (all of whom she read). Such conversations also place her in critical dialogue with the manuscript exchanges of other early American coterie writers—among them, the literary network of Milcah Martha Moore, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, Susanna Wright, Hannah Griffitts, and Annis Boudinot Stockton; and Ann Eliza Bleecker's epistolary coterie as well.

Specifically, the Almanacks reflect that nineteenth-century women's publication and activism emerged from an earlier century's practices of devotional reading, coterie writing, and exercise of religious duties, an inadequately explored phenomenon in which secular and religious manuscripts circulated as "witnesses" within communities. In this context, Emerson writes within a feminist continuum beginning with eighteenth-century revival leader Sarah Osborn and ending with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reformers such as Caroline Healey Dall and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. As such, Emerson represents an important link between eighteenth-century women's religious "duties" and nineteenth- and twentieth-century women's "public" authorship and activism. Scholars have generally given short shrift to the empowering aspects of religion for early American women, considering their piety as yet more evidence of the patriarchy that governed women's lives. But recent studies are increasingly suggesting that religion enabled women to inhabit the public sphere without cultural reprisal, both in their intellectual writing and their social engagement. Emerson's Almanacks substantiate these nuanced public and private acts and thus contribute to ongoing reconsiderations of separate spheres ideology as well as the multi-dimensionality of "feminisms" in early America.

Moreover, of critical importance to new scholarship on early American women's writing, the ostensibly "private" spiritual journals and commonplace books of Emerson and other early Americans such as Connecticut farm woman Hannah Heaton demonstrate that these eighteenth-century women anticipated a wider audience for their writing than that of immediate family and friends. One of many such markers of audience expectation occurs in an Almanack of the early 18teens, in which Emerson testifies implicitly to authoritative sanction, such as Cotton Mather's, and articulates her own theoretical justification for a wider scope of audience. Emerson speculates that after her death the Almanacks will leave "some memorial more durable than the monuments of science." In humble self-reverence, she celebrates the "design" and "character" of her soul; its self-cultivation she shares freely, as in one particularly poignant elderly dedication "for anybody," in the hope of inspiring other "Sojourners."

Emerson's life-long engagement in manuscript culture also contributes to studies of Transcendentalism, particularly since the Almanacks function at times as an ur-text that both establishes and argues with many of the foundational ideas that Waldo Emerson propounds in his canonical essays. By the early years of the nineteenth-century, for example, Mary Emerson had embraced both Romantic and Enlightenment versions of "self culture" from her reading of Germaine de Staël and William Godwin's novels and from Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women. In adopting this "conduct of life" as a guiding principle, Emerson serves as the earliest illustration of an emerging critical reconsideration of a "women's model" of Transcendentalism, currently envisaged through such figures as Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, and Ednah Dow Cheney. Indeed, Emerson's vocational practice of self-culture and her choice not to marry notably prefigure Fuller's call in Woman in the Nineteenth Century for women to choose a single, celibate life in order to cultivate the solitary soul.

As an eager recipient of Mary Emerson's habitual practice of manuscript circulation, Waldo Emerson transcribed and indexed the Almanacks' proto-Transcendentalist thinking; moreover, years after having been exposed to her dialogic manuscripts, he celebrated such writing in the Dial—the primary organ of Transcendentalism—as, in his words, a "revolutionary" literature of the "portfolio," a genre that is now synonymous with the movement. Such manuscript exchanges deliver specific examples of the modes of intellectual transmission between Mary and Waldo Emerson, as for example, when she reveals her anxiety regarding Waldo's lengthy retention of her manuscript: "Never was time more lost than RWE's retaining my MMS & extracting my extracts," she exclaimed in 1829. On occasion, Mary even addresses Waldo directly in her manuscripts, as in this 1830 Almanack: "Dear W—I've said you shall have one . . . But I seriously ask you never to request another & not read the inside of the folded pages."

Our edition, cross-referenced to Waldo's writings and sermons, will offer a corrective to and a more thorough understanding of Mary's impact on her nephew's intellectual growth and writing, providing new material and context for interpreting the exchanges, as they are considered alone and as compared to other literary families, such as Dorothy and William Wordsworth, in a transatlantic Romantic conversation.

We have largely ignored today the wealth of daily experience that archival manuscripts bring to scholars with respect to the material and social culture of early America. The Almanacks provide important context on, for example, women's legal rights as property owners, boarding life and public transit, and the experience of and treatment for devastating medical conditions such as erysipelas, from which Emerson suffered throughout her adult life. Importantly, the Almanacks also reveal examples of a single woman's reality in early America, a lifestyle that included weeks and months of tending to sick, dying, and even insane relatives. Dramatic, key "woman's" moments in the Almanacks include her refusal in 1807 of the first of two marriage proposals; sealing her single fate with determination and even exultation, Emerson "promised never to put that ring on."

Emerson's Almanacks also include an array of commentary on the revolutionary findings of science. In striving to cultivate this particular branch of knowledge, Emerson demonstrates her intellectual liberality, for as Nina Baym reminds us, "In their own time, nineteenth-century women . . . speaking for science represented themselves as the voice of 'woman' at her most politically progressive." On several Almanack pages, ranging from 1817 to 1845, for instance, Emerson discusses the ways in which Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, and Louis Agassiz advance her understanding of the universe and her place within it through their studies of mathematical principles, gravitational laws, and fossil fishes. At the same time, she cites what philosophers such as David Hume and Rene Descartes thought of these scientific breakthroughs.

Reflecting on her uncertain health in her Almanack of 1829-1830, Emerson explained that "Tho yesterday does never smile as I would yet in the name of the Shepherd of mankind I defy tomorrow." "Health feeble . . . —alone most alone," she added poignantly, while firmly repeating "but I defy tomorrow." On multiple levels, then, our edition of Emerson's Almanacks will allow students and scholars to conduct their own revolution in the archives, as they investigate the myriad dimensions of women's manuscripts in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America.