The Manuscript Almanacks of Mary Moody Emerson

Since 2007 the Women Writers Project has been collaborating with the editors of The Almanacks of Mary Moody Emerson: A Scholarly Digital Edition, Noelle A. Baker and Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, on an experimental electronic edition of the Almanacks. Because of the length and complexity of these manuscripts, it offers a challenging test case for the WWP as we think through issues of display, reading practice, the representation of documentary materiality, and the development of editorial practice for manuscripts to be published within WWO. As a first step in these experiments, we have created a prototype display of a few Almanack folders, available below, to explore and demonstrate some of the features we envision. As we build the next version of the main WWO interface, these experiments will form the basis of a manuscript-specific interface that can be extended to other manuscript publications in WWO.

Project Synopsis

General Introduction

The Almanack Folders

Almanack Folder 1

MS Am 1280.235 (385, folder 1), Emerson Family Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Written c. 31 October 1804-25 November 1804. Malden and Concord, Massachusetts. 10 MS sheets, bearing damage due to burning, foxing or mildew, and water.

This earliest extant Almanack fascicle documents an array of emotions and concerns as MME, age 30, discusses free will and divine justice, her ongoing pursuit of virtue, and the utility of prayer. Deriding the sermons offered by the local clergy, she instead finds ecstasy in both the natural world and her own imagination. This folder reflects MME’s reading of theologians Robert Fellowes and William Sherlock, Anglican bishop Joseph Butler, the letters of Cicero, and Shakespeare’s Othello; poignantly, her comments remind us that such intellectual pursuits are possible only after she has attended to “the needle, the flatiron the porridge pot.” Several family members visit MME during these months, including sister Hannah Emerson Farnham and family, and half brother and sister Daniel and Sarah Ripley. Ralph Waldo Emerson transcribed several of this fascicle’s pages in his MME Notebooks 2; substantive differences between his transcriptions and MME’s text are encoded in this interface display.

Almanack Folder 2

MS Am 1280.235 (385, folder 2), Emerson Family Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Written 16 June 1806-c. 26 December 1806. Malden, Boston, and Newburyport, Massachusetts. 13 MS sheets, bearing considerable damage due to burning, foxing and water; three sheets are vertical fragments with minimal text.

This Almanack opens with MME’s enthusiastic record of the solar eclipse of 16 June 1806. In this passage and others, her mood seems inspired, and she describes her sense of intellectual and emotional fulfillment, which she credits to “imajanation that faculty of mind w’h [which] seems to unite the feelings of the heart to the exertions of the intellect.” Her reading at this time includes poets James Thomson and John Milton, orientalist Sir William Jones, and statesman Edmund Burke, excerpts from Virgil’s Aeneid, and the sermons of Robert Robinson. She visits Boston and then Newburyport, where she assists in caring her ailing sister Hannah Emerson Farnham and her infant daughter, Hannah Bliss Farnham, both of whom were ill were tuberculosis; Hannah Bliss died on 11 October 11. While in Newburyport, she enjoys several visits with her close friend Daniel Appleton White. In this folder, MME also opines on the need for a Christian to temper her ambition with “humility”; she mentions specific occasions of her recent “weakness of heart,” social obligations and relations that bring her little comfort, and her joy in solitude.

Almanack Folder 3

MS Am 1280.235 (385, folder 3), Emerson Family Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Written 26 December 1806-c. 22 May 1807. Malden, Newburyport, Boston, and Concord, Massachusetts. 14 MS sheets, bearing considerable damage due to burning, foxing, and water; folder also includes many MS scraps with either no text or too little text to discern or transcribe.

This Almanack opens with MME calling attention to it as “the record of virtue . . . of the history of a soul.” She reflects on her recent behavior, cataloging her errors and penitence and vowing to “do better” and to be worthy of divine grace. Tensions in her life at this time are reflected in many passages describing her unease with the terms of the property sale of the Malden estate of which MME was three-fifths owner. This Almanack reflects her reading of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad, Anglican bishop Joseph Butler, and the sermons of eighteenth-century British theologian Robert Robinson. Moreover, on what the editors speculate is 30 January 1807, this fascicle documents MME’s apparent refusal of a marriage proposal from an unidentified suitor. Other personal matters recorded here are the continuing serious illness of MME’s sister in Newburyport, Hannah Emerson Farnham, who died from tuberculosis on 27 March 1807. A month later, MME traveled to Boston when her nephew, John Clarke Emerson, died at age seven on 26 April. Ralph Waldo Emerson transcribed several of this fascicle’s pages in his MME Notebooks 2; substantive differences between his transcriptions and MME’s text are encoded in this interface display.

Almanack Folder 4

MS Am 1280.235 (385, folder 4), Emerson Family Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Written 1809. Waterford, Maine. 2 MS sheets with minor evidence of damage and first four pages missing.

This brief Almanack fascicle is unusual in its formal nature, uncharacteristic pagination, and undamaged condition, all of which and its contents suggest that MME seems to have considered this piece of writing a draft essay in response to current events. In this fascicle, MME contributes thoughtfully to a theological controversy being waged in 1808-1809 between Unitarians and Calvinists over the newly founded Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts. MME responded directly to contentious articles on the theological divide that were published in the Panoplist and the Boston Monthly Anthology in 1808-1809.

Almanack Folder 5

MS Am 1280.235 (385, folder 5), Emerson Family Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Written 6-10 October 1810. Waterford, Maine. 2 MS sheets, undamaged.

This short fascicle begins and ends in mid-sentence, indicating that it is a fragment of a longer Almanack manuscript. These pages include an extended discussion of chance and free will as both are manifestations of a preordained divine plan. MME discusses slavery and “human misery” but also expects that the promise of eternal life should comfort all who are afflicted. She pronounces ancient and modern philosophers “proof of the immortality of the soul” and discusses their contribution to natural religion.

Almanack Folder 40

MS Am 1280.235 (385, folder 40), Emerson Family Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Written March-c. 20 August 1821. Hamilton, Boston, and Concord Massachusetts; Connecticut; and [Augusta, Maine]. 2 MS sheets, undamaged.

This fascicle represents an intriguing example of the materiality of MME’s Almanacks as well as the wide expanse of her commonplacing. The front and back pages are graphically rendered as “patchwork covers,” with blocks of text written diagonally in various positions around the page and leaving a blank triangle shape in the center. On page 2, a “mood chart” runs vertically down the right gutter and records MME’s terse descriptions of her emotional state on specific days, which speculate run from 22 March through 11 April 1821. Commonplaces in this fascicle reflect her reading of many figures, including Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid, Francis Bacon, Philip Doddridge, Germaine de Staël, and Friedrich von Schlegel. Ralph Waldo Emerson transcribed one of MME’s commonplaces from this fascicle, with no substantive differences.