The Almanacks of Mary Moody Emerson: A Scholarly Digital Edition

Project Synopsis

Mary Moody Emerson (1774–1863) was a self-educated scholar, theologian, and author whose literary production engages 18th- and 19th-century American culture, and whose life and work resist conventional formulations of early American womanhood. Best known as the brilliant aunt of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Mary Emerson kept throughout her life a series of hand-made manuscript booklets she called “Almanacks.” This unpublished manuscript series spans over fifty years and one thousand pages and combines multiple literary genres, including devotional and philosophical journals, commonplace books, letters, and original compositions. Its subjects range from theology, philosophy, literary criticism, and science, to war, imperialism, and slavery. As such, the Almanacks provide insight into both the intellectual and everyday world of a single woman in early New England. These multidisciplinary texts illuminate the important ways in which antebellum women’s private writing intersects with the public literary marketplace and participated in ongoing national debates about the emerging public spheres of republicanism and liberalism.

Mary Moody Emerson’s Almanacks are a series of hand-made manuscript booklets (fascicles), which she constructed by writing on loose sheets of letter paper and then binding them together with thread. These individual booklets may display multiple genres, including letters, spiritual and philosophical journals, commonplace books, essays, and other original compositions. During her life Emerson circulated whole fascicles as well as individual loose leaves from her Almanacks to friends, correspondents, and family, such that many fascicles existed originally in a fragmentary state; moreover, after her death the manuscripts were excerpted, consulted, annotated, and reordered. Emerson’s nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson, inherited and preserved the majority of the Almanacks, but in 1872, his Concord home caught fire, severely damaging and massively disordering the manuscripts. Additionally, from the 1880s through the turn of the 20th century, the Almanacks were transcribed and quite likely reordered by Waldo Emerson’s children, Ellen Tucker and Edward Waldo Emerson, and Edith Emerson Forbes, and by their father’s literary executor and early editor, James Elliot Cabot.

Eventually, in 1901–1902, the Emerson family hired archival Concord historian George Tolman to reorder and transcribe the original Almanacks, but Tolman’s notes indicate that some of his reconstructed fascicles are comprised of Almanack fragments from several different years. Both Mary Emerson’s originals (48 folders) and Tolman’s fair-hand copies (50 folders) were deposited at Harvard University’s Houghton Library in the middle of the twentieth century, where they remained uncatalogued until 1981. At that time, they were largely grouped as they had been deposited, in forty-seven folders and preserved on microfilm; an additional Almanack folder was misfiled with Mary Emerson’s vast correspondence, also deposited at the Houghton. In 2008, courtesy of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association, the Almanacks underwent conservation procedures to enable our editorial work. Leaves from sheets and sheets from fascicles were separated and encapsulated as individual leaves in mylar, and small encircled numbers were added by hand in pencil to each leaf. These Houghton numbers are shown on each page of our edition, along with Tolman’s idiosyncratic pagination, and our own page numbers. Houghton folder numbers do not always correspond to Tolman’s, nor does the Houghton pagination system correspond to Tolman’s; further, since the Houghton encircled pencil leaf numbers were added in 2008, as described above, their microfilm of the Almanacks do not include these numbers. For ease of working with the holograph manuscripts, the editors have retained the Houghton folder designations, but our ordering of pages within a folder deviates at times from both the Houghton’s and Tolman’s.