March 29, 1998 in Nation/World

Emerson’s Wisdom Often Was Borrowed Writer Who Preached Virtue Of Self-Reliance, Lifted Aunt’s Advice

Jeffrey Brodeur Associated Press
 

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American man of letters who extolled self-reliance, apparently got some of his material straight from his aunt Mary.

Many of the philosopher’s writings include whole lines and phrases taken directly from the letters, journals and diaries of Mary Moody Emerson, professor Phyllis Cole says in the new book “Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism,” published by Oxford University Press.

“I stop just short of (calling it) theft,” Cole said last week. “He appropriates from her - she is echoing through his mind.”

In 19th-century Massachusetts, a time when women were expected to be genteel, Mary Moody Emerson was so boisterous, opinionated and full of energy that her nephew said she “spun faster than all other tops.”

She lived most of her 89 years in Malden, Mass., but often returned to her hometown of Concord, where her nephew lived.

She regaled the young Emerson with her views on life and religion - especially how solitude, nature and imagination were ways of reaching God - and thus played a role in the development of the American literary school known as Transcendentalism, said Cole, a professor at Penn State University’s Delaware County Campus.

“I am saying that she was not only a general influence; she told him specifically what to read, to seek solitude in nature and to be a poet,” Cole said.

In 1824, Mary Moody Emerson wrote a letter to the 21-year-old Emerson in which she said:

“Solitude which to people, not talented to deviate from the beaten track (which is the safeguarding of mediocrity) without offending, is to learning and talents the only labyrinth (though sometimes gloomy) to form eagle wings which will bear one farther than suns and stars.”

In 1860, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay “Culture”: “Solitude, the safeguard of mediocrity, is, to genius, the stern friend, the cold obscure shelter where moult the wings which bear it farther than suns and stars.”

In another example, his aunt wrote him, “Oh how I love a little virtue at my heart’s core, come how it will.” Later, in a sermon, he urged the believer to desire “a little virtue at the bottom of the heart.”

Cole said she believes Emerson wrote one of his best-known essays, “Self-Reliance,” fully aware that he was being less than self-reliant.

“I would not say he’s a hypocrite in ‘Self-Reliance,’ but he’s only telling half of his own truth,” she said.

Robert D. Richardson, author of the 1995 biography “Emerson: The Mind on Fire,” said Mary Moody Emerson was undoubtedly her nephew’s “single biggest influence.” But it would be going too far to say he stole her intellectual property, Richardson said.

“He learned from her. Goethe once said 1,000 people wrote his books,” Richardson said. “Just to keep it in the family, so to speak, Henry Thoreau learned an enormous amount from Emerson which he never in one word acknowledged.”

He added: “You read previous people, or you talk with them and you’re influenced by them, and then your stuff comes out.”


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