Unsung Heroines: Mary Moody Emerson, Foremother of Transcendentalism by Carolyn Lee Boyd

Transcendentalism is a philosophical, literary, and spiritual movement begun in 19th century America whose founders centered being guided by your own inner voice, the immanence of divinity in all beings, the sacredness of nature, and the importance of social reform, among other aspects. Its influence is still felt today in the environmental movement, civil rights, literature, spirituality celebrating nature, and more. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and others are often considered to be its originators, but before them all was Mary Moody Emerson.

The Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts, where Mary Moody Emerson was born and lived periodically, as did various minister ancestors and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Mary Moody Emerson was born in 1774 in Concord, Massachusetts into a family of ministers and philosophers, including her nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her literary legacy includes a few published pieces, but is primarily the mountain of letters and journals which she called her “Almanacks.” She circulated these among friends and family, including many transcendentalists, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. They featured many revolutionary ideas that made their way into his books and lectures, in particular, especially foreshadowing his book Nature, which launched transcendentalism. She also held influential conversations with Henry David Thoreau as he was writing Walden and with many other prominent thinkers over decades. Ralph Waldo Emerson praised her “Genius always new, subtle, frolicsome, musical, unpredictable” (Cole, 262). Almost entirely self-educated through books given or lent by family, friends, and local libraries, her sagacity was the well-spring of a movement that has been instrumental in making her world and ours. 

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