Emerson's Oracles: Visionary Women

in the Transcendental Circle

All his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson was surrounded by visionary women.  These women were astute, incisive intellectuals who engaged him in long philosophical discussions, inspired his essays and poems, and urged him toward involvement with the greatest social and moral issues of their time.  Yet despite their enormous influence on America’s premier philosopher, most of them have faded into the shadows of history.  This afternoon I hope to draw them out of those shadows and introduce them to you.  All of them, at one time or another, generously shared their ideas and insights with Emerson, many in the confines of his parlor or study.  All of them were brilliant, insightful, courageous women who saw far beyond the conventions of their time and culture. 
 I invite you to journey back 165 years and imagine with me an evening of conversation in Emerson’s home – that square white house on the corner of Lexington Road and the Cambridge Turnpike in Concord.   It’s a warm night in the spring of 1846 and the windows are open in the big parlor.  Polished oak and mahogany furniture shines in the lamplight; cream-colored wallpaper sets off dark red drapes.  The room is filled with people.  They sit in small groups on chairs and couches and stools and some even lounge on the floor.   Henry Thoreau is there, and Bronson Alcott, and Ellery Channing.  But you quickly note that most of the people in the room are women.    All of them seem to be passionately engaged in conversation.  There is no one who is sitting as a silent spectator.  And judging by the phrases you catch, the subject matter isn’t the typical female chatter of the day focusing on the price of lamb or the latest fashion in bonnets.  These women are discussing far weightier matters.  You hear a thoughtful voice say, “but the finite questions the infinite in vain“and from the opposite corner of the room, you hear, “you ought to have seen the crystals, as I did, under polarized light. “   You look around for Emerson and spot him sitting in a red upholstered chair by the fireplace, listening intently to the woman perched on the rocking chair to his left.  She is a small woman whose white hair pokes out from under a lace cap and who seems to be in constant motion.  Even as Emerson leans toward her and she turns to speak into his ear, she is knitting something from a big ball of gray yarn, the needles nearly spinning in her fingers.    This tiny woman is the single most influential person in Emerson’s life – his paternal aunt, Mary Moody Emerson.  She is the person who stepped in to manage the Emerson household when her brother died at the age of 42, leaving his widow and five young sons destitute.  Mary saw to it that the boys were adequately fed and properly educated.  Long before Emerson entered college, she encouraged him to develop a deep appreciation for the natural world and showed him how to connect it with crucial moments of human experience.  She is a remarkable philosopher who has long emphasized the importance of self reliance and of facing one’s fears.  She and Emerson engage in long conversations and exchange lively, intellectual letters.  Emerson acquired from her his love of nature, his penchant for solitude and his philosophical vision.  As often as he is able, he borrows her Almanak – the multi-volume compendium of her thoughts and observations that she’s kept for years – and which he peruses with the intense concentration and acquisitiveness of a hunter.  In the 1820s, as a young minister, he used passages from her Almanak in his preaching, borrowing not only her thoughts but her language.   Since then, phrases have turned up, word for word, in his poems.  He calls her “the Sibyl,” a “Greek oracle,” a “prophetess.”     Mary Moody Emerson has never married.  She divides her time among friends and relatives, moving from one to another, freely offering her counsel and advice.  Since 1835, she has fervently supported the abolition of slavery, and has devoted herself to drawing others into the antislavery movement, insistently pressuring her nephew to follow her lead.    When you are introduced, Miss Emerson looks you up and down and says, “What extraordinary clothes!”  You assume from her tone and her sharp look that she disapproves, but then she shakes her head and smiles, “Yet the eye sees not its own luster.  I, too, have long been at war with society.” Before you are able to respond, she has returned to her conversation with Emerson, leaving you to puzzle out her meaning.   “All truth revolves around one center,” says a woman’s voice at your elbow and you turn to find a kind-looking, white-haired woman sitting on Emerson’s right, talking with two younger women.  This is Sarah Bradford Ripley, Emerson’s aunt through his step father, Ezra Ripley, and a long-time protégé of Mary Moody Emerson.  Unlike Mary, Sarah has a quietly restrained, decorous air about her, yet her intelligent gaze projects an inner strength and an analytical mind.  You know that she is considered one of the most intelligent, accomplished women of her generation.  Some have called her the best-educated woman in New England.  A brilliant scholar, teacher and thinker, she educated herself in physics, chemistry and botany, devouring her brothers’ books when they attended Harvard College, learning Latin, Greek, French, and Italian.  She tutored Emerson after his father died, teaching him to read and write Latin.  She is widely read in the new German Biblical criticism, and has long been a religious skeptic, who considers herself a deist with a scientific understanding of the natural world.  Though she loves Sarah dearly, Mary Moody is not one to hold back her opinions, and she frequently faults Sarah for being the primary influence for Emerson’s rejection of Christian orthodoxy.   Sarah greets you warmly, inquires politely about your journey, and then introduces you to the woman seated next to her near one of the open windows.  A slim, gray-eyed woman, her pale face radiates a remarkable composure, though you sense an electric energy just below the surface.  Like Mary Moody, she wears a lace cap over graying brown hair.  Her back is remarkably straight and it occurs to you that she exhibits the elegant manners of English royalty.  This is Lidian, Emerson’s second wife.  Born Lydia Jackson in Plymouth, Massachusetts, she is the mother of his children and the keeper of his house, which is so busy it sometimes reminds people more of a hotel than a home.   As she smiles at you, you detect a quality of sadness in her eyes and you recall that her oldest son, Waldo, succumbed to scarlet fever four years ago at the age of five.    Lidian is widely admired for her spirituality and her brilliant, philosophical mind.  A complex woman, she exhibits a generous concern for those in need, yet loves nothing better than a good debate.  She has a biting wit, and a passion for abolition, women’s suffrage, and animal rights. Many who have had the opportunity to talk with her have commented that she is as brilliant and exceptional as her husband.  She has participated in Margaret Fuller’s famous Boston Conversations for women.  Lidian once so impressed a roomful of Shaker men with her conversation that she brought the community’s work to a standstill.  She is a devout Christian and has written a stinging satire of Transcendental thought that the family calls her “Transcendental Bible,” and which is sometimes brought out to be read to company, and always greeted with appreciative laughter.   She has a passion for justice and a great compassion for the oppressed.  She regards slavery as America’s “national shame,” and is a founding member (along with many other women in this room) of the Concord Female Anti-slavery Society.  It is said that she was the driving force behind her husband’s open letter to President Martin Van Buren in May, 1838, in which he protested the removal of the Cherokee people.  She supports women’s suffrage and regards those women who do not as selfish, blind and cruel.  She is sometimes considered eccentric because of her unusual concern for animals and the fact that she embraces progressive ideas on health routines, including the importance of fresh air and cold-water baths.     Lidian clasps your hand and you are startled by how warm it is.  You wonder for a moment if she is suffering from a fever, but her kind smile and welcoming words dispel your worry.  She introduces you to the woman who sits beside her.  Elizabeth Hoar is a dark-eyed, dark-haired woman with classically beautiful looks.  Affectionately known in the Emerson family as “Aunt Lizzie,” Elizabeth was engaged to Emerson’s youngest brother, Charles, when he died of tuberculosis.  She was immediately incorporated into the Emerson family circle in the role of a widowed sister and spends nearly as much time in the Emerson home as in her own.  She is the daughter of Samuel Hoar, Concord’s most eminent lawyer and judge.  An intellectual woman, educated by her father and at the Concord Academy, she was an early member of the Hedge Club, the group of people who first gathered in the fall of 1836 and soon became known as Transcendentalists.   Like Mary Moody and Lidian, Elizabeth is a passionate abolitionist. Just two years ago she accompanied her father on a journey to South Carolina, where he was commissioned to collect information on the seizure and enslavement of black sailors from ships docked in South Carolina harbors.  When they arrived, authorities warned them that they were in grave personal danger because the state legislature, on learning of Squire Hoar’s mission, had passed a resolution ordering his immediate expulsion.  They refused to leave until a mob gathered in the hotel lobby.  Elizabeth and Samuel escaped – just barely – with their lives.   You talk with Elizabeth and Lidian for a few moments, drawn in by their graceful gestures and insightful comments.  Elizabeth speaks in a penetratingly sweet voice about the agenda for the next meeting of the Concord Female Anti-slavery Society, and Lidian echoes her concern that more pressure needs to be put on the churches to speak out against the abomination.  Lidian says that she’s considering draping the front gate and fence of her home with funereal black cambric on the next Fourth of July to condemn the national shame of slavery.   After a short conversation, you turn and notice four women on the far side of the room, heads bent together talking.  One is Abba Alcott, Bronson Alcott’s long suffering wife.  You have heard of the recent failure of the short-lived Fruitlands utopian community that her husband founded with the Englishman Charles Lane; you know that Abba did most of the physical labor in that venture, and that she was often left to care singlehandedly for the farm and her four young daughters while the men went off on long speaking tours in a vain effort to drum up supporters.  You know that her husband is a good natured man and a close friend to Emerson, but that he is, fundamentally, a dreamer.  That it is Abba who keeps him grounded.  You also know that Abba, like most of the women in this room, is a vehement supporter of both abolition and women’s suffrage.    Next to Abba is her good friend, Lydia Maria Child.  Known for her writing, including the popular advice book, The American Frugal Housewife, and the novel Hobomock: A Tale of Early Times, Lydia is an outspoken advocate for both Native American and women’s rights, as well as a proponent of abolition.  Some of her work has shocked her readers, for she has taken on both the issue of male domination and white supremacy.   Like Lidian Emerson, and many others in this room, she has participated in the Conversations led by Margaret Fuller in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s North Street bookstore in Boston.    A third woman in this group you recognize as Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, a talkative, energetic woman.  The mother of Henry David Thoreau, she, too, is a strong, independent-minded woman, and an ardent supporter of abolition.  She has often made space available in her crowded boarding house to shelter fleeing slaves on their way to Canada and freedom.  Both she and Abba Alcott are known for their reformer’s zeal and sharp personalities.  Cynthia Thoreau has long been an outspoken supporter of William Lloyd Garrison, the controversial leader of the anti-slavery movement.  Garrison has dined at her table, as have other noted abolitionists.   The fourth woman in the group is Mary Merrick Brooks, a Concord neighbor and the town’s leading abolitionist.  She is the secretary of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society and a close friend to both Lidian and Mary Moody Emerson.  Mary Moody is so fond of her that she considers her a member of the Emerson family.  Many credit her, along with Lidian, for persuading the reluctant Emerson to speak at the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society two years ago when the organization was celebrating the recent end of slavery in the West Indies.  This caused such a controversy in town that the lyceum sexton refused to ring the bell announcing the lecture, whereupon Henry Thoreau took matters into his own hands and rang it himself.   Just last year, Mrs. Brooks convinced Emerson not to lecture at the New Bedford Lyceum because the lecture hall did not admit free blacks.  It was the first time in his life he refused to lecture as a protest.  Lately, she and others have been encouraging him to support the Underground Railroad, though he is clearly reluctant to get involved.   You realize, as you are introduced to these women, that they’re discussing Brook Farm, the utopian community in nearby West Roxbury, where a recent fire destroyed the large central building called the phalanstery.  Abba Alcott says that the farm has lately become infected with the doctrines of the French philosopher, Charles Fourier, who advocated free love and divorce, which he claimed would increase the economic independence of women.   Reluctantly you turn away, wishing you could listen in at length, and find yourself confronted by a stout, energetic woman.  She sticks out her hand.  “Elizabeth Palmer Peabody,” she said.  “I’m so glad you could come.”   “I wouldn’t want to miss it,” you say.  “It’s a gathering of the most brilliant philosophers in America.”   Elizabeth Peabody seems to take your words as her due despite a gracious smile.  She wears a plain dress and her broad face is not conventionally pretty, but her sharp blue eyes radiate a rare intelligence.  She is one of the most accomplished women in Massachusetts.  A true Renaissance woman, she’s a teacher, editor, publisher, translator, historian, bookseller, and linguist.  She is gifted in literature, history, geography, theology and philosophy.  She is able to read in 10 languages and speaks five: English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit.  She has taught in her own private schools and assisted Bronson Alcott in his famous Temple School.  She has developed a progressive approach to education, creating methods that engage students directly by encouraging experimentation and critical thinking.  She, like Bronson Alcott, finds the current educational focus on rote memorization misguided.  She runs a remarkable bookstore in Boston, where a patron can not only peruse and buy books, but hear lectures and participate in intellectual conversations led my notables, including Margaret Fuller.  She has published the Transcendental journal, The Dial along with many other titles, under her own imprint.  She is passionate about the abolition of slavery and rights for Native Americans.  She has known Emerson for years; you have even heard that they are distantly related.   Elizabeth engages you in a lively discussion about the importance of educating young children, when you become aware of a sudden hush in the room.  It is as if a string ensemble had suddenly stopped playing.  Everyone looks up, expectantly.   Elizabeth turns, permitting you a view of the hall.  There, smiling and blinking in the doorway, stands a woman of medium height, wearing a cream colored dress.  Her light brown hair is loosely caught up and over her right ear is a small spray of delicate purple and white flowers – wood anemone, one of the earliest wild flowers of spring.   You know at once that this woman is Margaret Fuller, famed throughout New England for her brilliant, unconventional ideas.  You know that she has recently moved to New York and you realize that she must have returned unexpectedly to attend this gathering.  She is not beautiful according to the current standards.  Yet there is about her a charismatic radiance and it is clear from their expressions that she has had a profound influence on every woman in this room.   Author, editor, teacher, and philosopher, she is remarkably controversial, mystifying both friends and strangers.  A close personal friend of Emerson’s, she has challenged him both intellectually and emotionally.   You have been told that Margaret received a vigorous education from her father.  At the age of eight, she was reading Fielding, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere, Goldsmith, Cowper, Scott and Plutarch.  She learned Latin and Greek from her father and later went on to master German and Italian.  She has written and published and taught and translated, working with the famous Boston cleric, Dr. William Channing, where she has often met Elizabeth Peabody and Lydia Maria Child.    In a few short years, Margaret dramatically widened Emerson’s circle of friends, introducing him to Anna Barker, Sarah Clarke, Caroline Sturgiss and Samuel Ward.  She and Emerson often debate the subject of friendship and she has accused him of being “commercial” in his friendships, valuing people only for the ideas they bring him, not for themselves.     Despite her dazzling intellect, Margaret has not yet been able to persuade Emerson that women are the true equals of men.  Although he believes that women as human beings are entitled to a full intellectual development, he feels they should express that development in passive, noncompetitive ways.  Yet paradoxically he is surrounded by women who are far from passive.   You know that Margaret Fuller, along with Elizabeth Hoar and Elizabeth Peabody, was one of the 14 founding members of the Hedge Club.  In 1839 she organized her first series of seminars for women, or “Conversations” which were wildly popular, attracting the wives of prominent citizens and social reformers.  She excluded men from these conversations because she discovered that their presence often intimidated women.  She used a Socratic method – each conversation was devoted to a philosophical question.  She typically engaged the women in discussion and dialogue before presenting her own dazzling views.  Her famously radical and influential book, Women in the 19th Century, published just last year, grew out of these conversations.   You know that Emerson selected her as the first editor of The Dial, the short-lived but influential journal of the Transcendental movement, and that she has been a frequent visitor to Brook Farm.   As she comes toward you, smiling, you extend your arm, eager to meet her.  Elizabeth Peabody introduces you and you shake hands.  The skin at the back of your neck prickles in response to some electric energy that she seems to emit.  You want to talk with her, but even more you want to listen to what she has to say.  But already she is looking away from you, her compelling gaze circling the room, lighting finally on Emerson.    You recall something he once said: A chief event of life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startled us.  And you understand suddenly – or maybe it isn’t so sudden after all – that Ralph Waldo Emerson has spent his whole life being startled by the great minds of the women gathered in this room.  These women are the ones who have taught him self-reliance and love of nature.  They have encouraged him to love poetry and philosophy and to value self-expression.  And they have challenged him to examine his conventional views on slavery and Native American rights, and the equality of women.    It is time for us to leave.  Reluctantly, we say our goodbyes and withdraw from this roomful of extraordinary women, grateful for the introductions, even as our mind is spinning nearly as fast as Mary Moody Emerson’s needles.  As we depart, we promise ourselves that we will not forget them, that we will acknowledge their remarkable contributions to American thought, and that we will not allow the curtains of history to hide them anymore.

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​​Amy Belding Brown