Lives out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation in Honor of Robert N. Hudspeth

By Robert D. Habich | Go to book overview

“Conversation that Makes the Soul”: Writing
the Biography of Mary Moody Emerson

Phyllis Cole

SIX MONTHS AFTER BEGINNING RESEARCH ON THE EMERSON FAMILY PAPERS at Harvard’s Houghton Library, I struck archival gold—the manuscript diary of Mary Moody Emerson. The original plan for my 1980–81 project had been to interpret Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous declaration of independence from “the sepulchres of the fathers” in light of lived relationship with two competing elders: his urbane, rationalistic father, William, and his pious but “eccentric” Aunt Mary.1 Months passed and the plot thickened as I found a wide, unanticipated range of manuscript diaries and sermons by still older generations in the family, as well as a great deal by William and hundreds of letters by Mary Moody Emerson. However, the diary that Mary had named her Almanack, though copiously quoted in Waldo’s lecture on her, seemed irretrievable. Both the Houghton curators and the contemporary family believed it lost, and a researcher could only feel resigned. Then, after asking repeated questions about other documents, quoted by scholars but still uncatalogued at the library, I was invited from the reading room down to the storage boxes to look on my own. Luckily I was not in the reading room’s hushed sanctum. Opening one box I beheld a thousand new pages of Mary Moody Emerson’s familiar handwriting—clearly the Almanack—and could react as vocally as I wanted.

Soon I moved beyond exclamations, back to the reading room, and on to a new center for the family history. Rather than merely researching biographical background for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s literary text, I was now recovering a new text and construing the family from its vantage point. The diary came alive for its exploration of solitude over more than half a century, beginning in 1802 and trailing off only in the 1850s. My first article on the Almanack took its title from Mary’s own words, “The Advantage of Loneliness,” because that phrase evoked

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