Mary Moody Emerson (1774-1863)
Bill Long 11/13/04
Thoughts on the Rootage of New England, in Gratitude to Virginia Sewell
In 1936 Van Wyck Brooks set the stage for all subsequent evaluations of early 19th century American literature by arguing that American literary independence didn't really happen until about 50-75 years after our political independence. The declaration of independence of this literary/intellectual movement, centering on such figures as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne and lasting from about 1820 until the Civil War, was Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1836 work Nature. The theological implications of the ideas articulated in Nature were spelled out in his Divinity School Address, given to seven graduates of Harvard Divinity School in mid-July 1838. For his 1936 work, with the evocative title The Flowering of New England (1815-1865), Brooks received the Pulizer Prize in 1937.
But as I spent some time thinking of the metaphor of flowers and effloresence, I was almost ineluctably drawn back to the stage just before flowering--that of rootage and growth. Flowers depend on the roots and the roots, though possibly not as attractive or eye-catching, are the things on which "so much depends," as William Carlos Williams would say. It is in the context of roots, then, that the figure of Mary Moody Emerson (1774-1863), Ralph Waldo's aunt, emerges. But in order to understand her, which I will try to do in the next mini-essay, I need to set the context for understanding her and her influence over Ralph Waldo.
Try as many American scholars/literary historians may, you really cannot avoid the generative power of theological ideas on the greatest authors in 19th century American life. While most satisfy themselves with dismissive remarks about "dour Puritanism" or "Calvinist fanaticism," the story needs to be more subtly told.
Though there was a liberalizing tendency in some Massachusetts Congregationalism during and before the Revolutionary War, the gauntlet was thrown down when the Rev. Henry Ware of Hingham, a liberal Congregationalist, (Unitarian) was installed as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard in 1805. Fulminations against this decision echoed from the pulpits of Boston Churches, none stronger than that from the Rev. Jedidiah Morse (father of Samuel FB) in Cambridge. The orthodox Congregational clergy quickly founded a triad of institutions that were designed to stem the flow of this doctrinal latitudinarianism: Andover Seminary (1808), Amherst College (1821) and Park Street Church in Boston (1809), whose steeple and outdoor pulpit still dominate the Northeast corner of the Boston Common.
Though William Ellery Channing would try to put a human and compassionate face on the theology of Unitarianism in his ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore in 1819, many began to feel that Unitarianism was just Puritanism without the warmth (laughter, please). Other sources of literary inspiration also became attractive.
Modern Languages and History at Harvard
At about the same time that the orthodox Congregational clergy were trying to stem the Unitarian tide (or tsunami), another influence was more subtly creeping into New England--the entry of modern European philosophical and literary movements. Harvard College responded to this by establishing its first professorships in modern languages around 1810 (previously the only languages other than English that were regularly taught were Greek and Latin) and modern history shortly thereafter. It became all the rage for au courant or aspiring American historians to spend a few years in Gottingen or other German universities to learn the "science" of history from German historians.
At the same time, the romantic movement in poetry, wending its way gently up the Neckar River from Tuebingen to its confluence with the Rhine and then resting in Heidelberg before jumping over to England in the earliest days of the 19th century, also came to the New England shores. Thus the stage was set for the most ambitious intellectual mixture of divergent sources hitherto attempted in the history of the colonies/country. A Calvinist or Puritan past, softened by the warm spirit of romantic poetry, coupled with a rising historical consciousness as well a theological dissatisfaction with the inheritance from 16th century Geneva and 17th century England, created the conditions for what Brooks would denominate the "Flowering" of New England.
But there was one other source, the apparently never "de-Flowered" aunt of Ralph Waldo, Mary Moody Emerson. Let's meet her now.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long