ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
Noelle A. Baker
"'Let me do nothing smale': Mary Moody Emerson and Women's 'Talking Manuscripts'"
This essay argues that Mary Moody Emerson (1774–1863), the brilliant, self-educated writer and single aunt of American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, should be considered along with such professional talkers as Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott in assessments of the role of transcendentalist conversation and literature of the portfolio in promoting individual self-culture. Neither salonnière, apt subject for a pious memoir, nor transcendentalist, Emerson nonetheless eagerly surveyed their diverse conversational cultures in her unpublished "Almanack" manuscripts (c. 1804-55), which she routinely circulated within literary circles. This broad-minded desire to acquire and disperse knowledge uniquely enabled Emerson to influence different communities, connecting the cultures of eighteenth-century transatlantic women's coteries, salons, and generic conventions with nineteenth-century feminist and transcendentalist pursuits.
Her rich foreground in coterie writing and such dialogic genres as commonplace books and memoirs distinctively facilitated Emerson's connection with the female transcendentalists who would ultimately benefit from the gendered and feminist self-consciousness of Fuller's more prominent conversational experiments—for Emerson began practicing self-cultivation and sharing it with others over thirty years before Fuller established these practices as central pedagogical tools in her Boston Conversations. Acting as a bridge between generations and in advance of the more feminist Fuller, Emerson experimented with diverse conversational media in order to achieve mutual cultivation, enlightened truth, and even professional opportunity.