Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Emily Clemens Pearson, 1818-1900

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Emily Clemens Pearson, 1818-1900

Article excerpt

Were we content to be an humble imitator, we know of no one whom we should be prouder to follow than the noble author of that wonderful work, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But we owe it to ourselves to say, that our little book was projected before the publication of the latter; and our Jamie Parker, we think, had only one predecessor--and that we had not seen--in this species of literature.

Emily Clemens Pearson, Cousin Franck's Household, vii

In the twenty-first century as in the nineteenth, Emily Clemens Pearson's work invites comparison with that of her better-known contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe. (1) Because Pearson's background is similar to Stowe's in key areas--race, gender, class, geography, religion, and education--the differences in their antislavery fictions offer an opportunity to reflect on how shared culture, individual experience, and authorial imagination undergirded their abolitionist arguments. Pearson's characterization of individual African Americans is less racially based than Stowe's, and her visions for the future of the United States more egalitarian. These attitudes, and her other characteristic themes--an insistence that slaves were at least as able as their masters to care for themselves, an ever-present awareness of the possibility of slave rebellion, and a fascination with the psychological consequences of slaveholding, especially as reflected in tensions between female slaveholders and female slaves--were undoubtedly shaped in part by the year Pearson spent living in a slave-holding household, a key difference between her experience-and Stowe's. (2) Pearson, however, is a compelling figure in her own right: a woman who balanced active engagement in key social and religious movements of her era, a long-standing ambition to be a writer, and the need to support herself and her family through her efforts.

Pearson had a long career as a published writer. Her first major group of writings was printed in 1844 in periodicals of the Millerite movement, whose members expected the second coming of Jesus in the fall of 1844; her last novel, Madonna Hall, The Story of Our Country's Peril, appeared in 1890. In the intervening years she published four abolitionist novels; two works subtitled "a temperance tale"; Gutenberg, and the Art of Printing (a combined biography and history); and numerous sketches, columns, poems, hymn texts, and other items for the periodical press.

Emily Catherine Clemons was born in July 1818 in Granby, Connecticut, to Allen and Catherine Stillman Clemons. The family valued education; Catherine Stillman was descended from Abraham Pierson, the first president of Yale ("Mrs. Emily C. Pearson"). Her daughter probably alluded to this connection in the semi-pseudonym under which she published Jamie Parker, Emily Catharine Pierson. In 1812, according to the original constitution held by the Salmon Brook Historical Society, Allen Clemons helped found the Granby Social Literary Society and lending library. Emily Clemons Pearson wrote in 1869, in a probably autobiographical reference, of "a young lady having a thirst for knowledge," who, "years ago, in a village academy in Connecticut ... commenced the study of Latin,--an unheard of departure from the course for girls made and provided. Her young lady friends did not care to conceal their wonder and dislike," but the student persisted, and "since then that institution has sent out many scores of classically educated young ladies" ("For and to the Sex"). In 1837, Emily Clemons entered Mount Holyoke College. Like most members of the inaugural class, she did not graduate, but maintained a connection with other alumnae ("Alumnae Notes").

By January 1842, Clemons was working as a governess at Mount Airy, a plantation near Warsaw, Virginia. In a letter written that month, she commiserated with her brother Stillman about their mutual sorrow at a separation necessitated by the need to help pay off family debts, and described her literary ambitions, telling him, "En passant I am a going to astound you and the literary world some of these days if nothing happens--you don't believe it I perceive, but I'll try to convince, and astonish you notwithstanding. …

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