Mary Moody Emerson was born on August 23, 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, in Concord, Massachusetts, the fourth child of Phebe Bliss and the Reverend William Emerson. Both Phebe and William were very spiritual and came to America for religious freedom. In 1776, when her father, who was a chaplain to the Continental Army at Fort Ticonderoga, died of “army fever,” his widow had five young children to raise. Two-year-old Mary was packed off to be reared by a childless aunt and uncle who lived in nearby Malden, Massachusetts. She later described these lonely formative years as a “slavery of poverty & ignorance & long orphanship.”
The family was so impoverished that they very often subsisted on a “bread-and-water diet” and the young Mary would be sent to keep watch for the debt-collecting sheriff. Her journal entries suggest that living in “calamitous poverty” and isolation as a youth profoundly affected her entire life. Separated from her mother and siblings, she was reared with little social interaction and meager formal education. However, Emerson took charge of her own education, reading widely in literature, philosophy, history, and the classics. It was said that before the age of 9 she had read Milton’s Paradise Lost from cover to cover. She found the book buried in dust in the attic.
1791, she moved to her sister Hannah's home in Newburyport to help care for that family's ten children. She felt optimistic at this point in her life and declared that leaving her situation in Malden which was awful, the future was brighter. After Newburyport, the seventeen-year-old Mary began a sort of occupation as an on-call nanny and nurse for various relatives which was to provide her room and board and keep her busy and moving around New England for many years.
Thanks to a modest inheritance from her grandmother and namesake, Mary Emerson came into adulthood as a rarity in early America: a property-owning single woman who could afford to refuse at least one marriage proposal. By age 30 she had committed to dance to the “musick of my own imajanation” and set out to craft a rich life as a scholar, theologian, reform-minded idealist, and writer.
For more than half a century—1804 through 1858—Emerson authored an immense series of journals she called her “Almanacks.” Numbering more than one thousand manuscript pages, these writings offer a rare and prolific example of early American women’s scholarly production. The manuscripts exist today in
Emerson family collections housed at Harvard University’s Houghton Library.
She was part of the Concord close knit community that included the Alcott’s, Thoreau’s, her beloved nephew, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many others in the transcendentalist and anti-slavery movements. Henry David Thoreau, after a few hours of conversation with the 77 year old Mary Moody Emerson on a late November evening, stating that she was not only “a genius,” but “the wittiest and most vivacious woman” that he knew. A few years later when she was 81 years of age, Thoreau said that she “was the youngest person in Concord.” Thoreau referred to Mary as a vibrant, open-minded woman who thrived on engagement with others. Over the course of a long life, Emerson cultivated intellectual relationships, especially with younger women and men, like Thoreau, whose stimulating company she craved.
Mary and her nephew were very close and her nurturing of Waldo’s philosophical bent was vivid and profound. He later recalled that his aunt had “described the world of Plato, Spinoza, & all the ghosts, as if she had been mesmerized, & saw them objectively.” As a young minister, he found her “conversation & letters” better than all other research sources he consulted to write his sermons. Her nephew said a conversation with his aunt was “like a good spurring of the mind.”
Descriptions of Mary Moody Emerson, at age 81, recall her as ageless, riding horseback and “with rosy skin that never wrinkled, and bobbed yellow hair that never grayed.” She was eccentric and in these later years was often seen on the rooftop, in a white flowing gown, communing with Angels and Archangels.