Lidian Jackson Emerson was married for forty-seven years to one of the most famous philosophical and literary figures in American history. As Ralph Waldo Emerson's second wife, she bore and raised his four children, managed his house and entertained his many guests with her remarkable wit and intelligence, yet she remains in the shadows of history while her friends Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau enjoy universal interest and praise.
There are several possible reasons why Lidian has been overlooked. The most obvious is her husband's monumental
reputation. Emerson was extraordinarily famous in his own day, friends with the best-known intellectual lights of his generation, he corresponded with philosophers and scholars around the world, counseled Presidents, mentored a generation of reformers, and wrote essays and books that profoundly influenced the American viewpoint in the world. Another possible reason is that the Emerson's marriage was a rocky one. Although the first few years were happy enough, they grew apart after the birth of their first son, Waldo. By the early 1840's Emerson was already writing critiques of marriage in his journal. The emotional distance between them grew with Emerson's fame and influence.
Were there other reasons? Was Ellen, the Emerson's oldest daughter, a life-long and rather conservative spinster, partly responsible for Lidian's slighted reputation? At this historical distance it's hard to know for sure, but the facts of the case encourage speculation.
Born on September 20, 1802 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the fifth child of Charles and Lucy [Cotton] Jackson, Lydia Jackson was one of three children who survived into adulthood. Her older sister, Lucy, was abandoned by her husband in 1834, leaving her to care for her two young children, Frank and Sophia. Lydia's younger brother, Charles Thomas Jackson, would become of the most highly respected physicians in New England. He would spend many years of his adult life embroiled in controversies over the invention of the surgical use of ether, and the development of the telegraph-both ideas which he claimed to have authored but for which he was never given proper credit.
Lidian married Ralph Waldo Emerson on September 14, 1835, in the parlor of the family home overlooking Plymouth Harbor. Now the headquarters of The Mayflower Society, Winslow House, as it was called in Lidian's day, was one of the most impressive homes in Plymouth. Originally built by Edward Winslow, the great-grandson of Governor Winslow, it had been purchased by Lidian's grandfather in 1782. Lidian was born and raised there until the age of sixteen, when the deaths of both parents within a few months forced her to move in with relatives. It was still the family home, however, and later was to become the residence of Dr. Charles T. Jackson, Lidian's younger brother.
This marriage was Emerson's second. His first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, died of tuberculosis at the age of 19, only eighteen months after they were wed. Emerson, deeply in love with Ellen, continued to carry a torch for the rest of his life. Lidian had not been particularly interested in marriage before she met Emerson. At 32, she was well-established as an intellectual and charitable woman in Plymouth, one of the new lights who sought reforms to both church and society. She had settled comfortably into the life of maiden aunt to Lucy's two children, Frank and Sophia Brown by the time she met Emerson. Though she was four years younger than her sister, Lidian was nevertheless possessed of unusual confidence and certitude and took on the role of provider and protector. She became well known in Plymouth as a graceful, charitable woman who took particular joy in her garden. She was also known for her sharp wit and contentious nature. She loved nothing better than a vigorous debate. Though she tried to tame this side of herself, it impressed many, and she was favorably compared with her friend and contemporary, Margaret Fuller. She was a reformer and activist by nature, horrified by slavery, appalled by the treatment of Native Americans, and deeply sensitive to the welfare of animals. She spent years vigorously prevailing upon her famous husband to take a public stand on her causes.
Immediately after the wedding, Lidian and Emerson moved to Concord, where she saw her new home for the first time. An L-shaped clapboard building situated on the Cambridge Turnpike at the eastern end of town, the house had been built seven years before by a Mr. Coolidge, and was known in Concord as "Coolidge Castle." The Emersons later renamed it "Bush." As soon as they settled in, the Emersons hired carpenters to expand the house, adding two large rooms (one upstairs and one down) to the back of the house, turning the L into a square. These rooms were to be the apartment for Charles Emerson and his fiancée, Elizabeth Hoar, after their marriage. Charles, Emerson's youngest brother, was studying for the law in Concord and the two men planned to live together as an extended family. Tragically, Charles died of tuberculosis in May of 1836, less than a year after Lidian and Emerson were married. Elizabeth Hoar was devastated and never married, though she continued to remain so close to the Emerson family that she was regarded as "Aunt Lizzie" by the Emerson children.
The Emersons had four children: Waldo, born on October 30, 1836; Ellen, born February 24, 1939; Edith, born November 22, 1841; and Edward, born July 10, 1844. The oldest child, Waldo-a charming and intelligent boy-contracted scarlet fever in January, 1842, and died tragically at the age of five. The Emersons' marriage, which had weathered the usual tensions with the coming of children and had been complicated by a deepening split in religious viewpoint, was dealt a blow in little Waldo's death from which the relationship never fully recovered. Emerson retreated into his writing and increasingly demanding lecture schedule, while Lidian withdrew into a prolonged and lonely bereavement. She had her house and children to attend, including the infant Edith, but nothing could lift the terrible burden of her grief.
In April of 1841, Emerson had invited Henry David Thoreau to live with the Emerson family. In exchange for room and board, Thoreau agreed to act as handyman and gardener. This was a good situation for both parties, for Emerson was notably inept with a hammer and shovel, and Thoreau needed a quiet place to write, away from the noise and confusion of his mother’s boarding house. The routine of the household was unusual for the time – visitors commented on the strange way the different household members dispersed after breakfast on solitary tasks. Lidian’s and Thoreau’s duties must have coincided and thrown them together often. It’s very likely that their strong friendship developed at this time. They shared a passion for abolition and a concern for animals. The two particularly enjoyed discussing philosophy and religion. Lidian was known in her own day as a lively debater, and no doubt Thoreau enjoyed the exchanges immensely.
In early January of 1842, two weeks before Waldo passed away, Thoreau’s older brother, John, died of lockjaw. Thoreau was devastated and developed what was probably a psychosomatic case of lockjaw. By the time he had recovered, Waldo Emerson was dead. In the weeks and months that followed, in the course of the normal Emerson household routine, Lidian and Thoreau spent many hours together, and almost certainly shared their grief with each other. They almost certainly provided support and sympathy for each other, which strengthened their relationship.
In 1843, Emerson arranged for Thoreau to tutor his nephews, the sons of William and Susan Emerson, on Staten Island, New York. In a cryptic comment to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emerson noted that Thoreau’s presence in the Emerson home had become “an inconvenience.” Thoreau apparently had some ambivalence about his move – though he wanted to explore the world of New York publishing, he was reluctant to leave Concord. His sojourn on Staten Island did not last long. He was back in Concord by mid-December of that year, living once again in his mother’s boarding house.
The Emerson’s last child, Edward Waldo Emerson, was born in July 1844, a large, full-term baby. By this time, Emerson’s lecture schedule required him to be often away from home, sometimes for weeks at a time, forcing Lidian to take on the responsibilities of the financial management of the family. She was often ill, perhaps because of the twin stresses of trying to fulfill her tasks, and preserve what was clearly a troubled marriage. A perfectionist, she saw one of her chief responsibilities as playing hostess to the endless stream of visitors. Margaret Fuller was a frequent visitor and sometimes stayed with the Emersons for more than a month, residing in the “Red Room,” a handsome guest room across the hall from Emerson’s study. Lidian was an admirer of Margaret Fuller, and had attended her "Cnversations” in Boston and had even been favorably compared to her in the past, but sometimes felt shut out by Fuller’s close friendship with Emerson.
By 1847 the Emerson marriage was severely stressed. Emerson, whose fame had risen dramatically in the preceding years, decided to accept Thomas Carlyle’s invitation to lecture in Europe and arranged for passage to England in the early fall of 1847. At Lidian’s request, he asked Thoreau to leave his cabin at Walden Pond and move into the Emerson house again. Thoreau agreed to help manage the house and took up residence a few weeks before Emerson’s departure. During the ten months of his absence, Thoreau acted as Lidian’s chief assistant. He helped her manage Emerson’s financial affairs, maintained the house and gardens, and helped care for the children. Some letters from Thoreau to Emerson at this time indicate some annoyance toward Emerson on Thoreau’s part – whether it was caused by Emerson’s inattention to Lidian, who was ill with jaundice for much of that time, or some other circumstance, is speculation. There is a poignant and pointed passage in one of Thoreau’s letters in which he describes little Eddy (who was three at the time) asking Thoreau if he would be his father. Was this bit of reportage intended to hurt Emerson?
After Emerson’sreturn to Concord in late July of 1848, there was a subtle but important shift in the Emerson marriage. They seemed to settle down, and no longer played as many visitors or invited them to stay the night. Thoreau left the Emerson residence immediately upon Emerson’s return and the friendship between the two men was noticeably strained afterward. Though they still saw each other frequently, and Thoreau still came and went in the Emerson house as if he were family, there was a palpable tension between them. They no longer walked together, and Thoreau turned to an in-depth study of nature.
On July 19, 1850, Margaret Fuller drowned with her husband, Count Ossoli, and their 20 month old son in a shipwreck off Fire Island in New York. She was returning to the United States with a manuscript of her experiences in the Italian uprisings. When Emerson learned of her death he was devastated, and began almost immediately to work on a book memorializing her.
Though there is no documented evidence that the Emersons ever housed slaves during the Underground Railroad, Lidian and Emerson signed a paper in 1854, declaring that they would ot turn away a refugee from slavery, should one appear at their door. They hosted John Brown on a fund raising tour of New England in 1857. Lidian was a assionate advocate of abolition and when Brown was executed in December of 1859, she attended the vigil ceremony in Concord that had been organized by Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau. The Civil War began in 1861, and Lidian believed Emancipation would follow. She was, however, reluctant to allow her son, Edward, to join the army, for he was young and had recently suffered a serious bout of typhoid fever.
In the winter of 1862, Emerson traveled to Washington where he met and talked with Abraham Lincoln. In May of that year, Thoreau died in his home of tuberculosis. Emerson took over the funeral arrangements, and also persuaded Sophia Hawthorne to loan him Thoreau’s journals, which he spent the next month reading. He arranged to have the funeral in the church, over the objections of some of Thoreau’s friends, who knew of Thoreau’s aversion to the institutional church. Emerson gave the funeral oration, and soon expanded the speech into an essay, which was published in The Atlantic Monthly.
In 1865, Edith Emerson married William Hathaway Forbes. The Emersons’ first grandchild, Ralph Emerson Forbes was born the next year. Edith was the only daughter to marry. Ellen, named for Emerson’s beloved first wife, dedicated her life to the care of her parents, and served as traveling companion and aid to her father.
In June of 1872, a fire broke out in the attic of the Emerson home. The only people at home that night were Waldo and Lidian, but they escaped safely, and neighbors soon came to help battle the blaze. When the fire was finally extinguished, it was clear that much of the house was in ruins. It would have to be restored. Money was raised and so much was given that there was enough for Emerson to travel abroad once more. This time he went with Ellen, who by then was a necessary adjunct in his lectures and writing. Emerson, sadly, was falling into dementia, and often had problems recalling the names of familiar objects. Lidian, who never traveled with Emerson, stayed with their daughter Edith while Emerson was abroad and the house was being restored.
As Emerson deteriorated, Lidian became healthier and stronger. She began to go out more, and became more noticeably social. In 1881 she danced at Ellen’s 42nd birthday ball. At the age of 85, she attended the Concord School of Philosophy. Emerson died on April 27, 1882. His son, Edward, a medical doctor, administered ether in his last hours to relieve his pain. From that day on, Lidian kept a lamp burning in Emerson’s study as a memorial. She lived for 10 more years, and died peacefully in her bed on November 13, 1892 at the age of 90.
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