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Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson.

Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson (Michigan State UP, 1992), 270 pp., $14.95 paper.

With the recent interest in the stories women's lives can tell, the reissue of Ellen Emerson's biography of her mother is a welcome return. It is a rich work for exploring how women's lives have been fashioned and refashioned. Begun in the 1890s shortly after Lidian Jackson Emerson's death, this life of a "great man's wife" tells a number of interesting and disquieting stories. Ellen Emerson's biography of her mother is at once reminiscent of the nineteenth-century tradition of sainted women's lives and at odds with that tradition, for the Lidian Emerson who emerges from her daughter's memory is an elusive character, a "sojourner," not simply in Concord, Massachusetts, but in a life that was never entirely her own.

The first question arises with her name itself: Is she Lydia, the name given her at birth, or Lidian, the revised name she was given by her husband, Ralph Waldo Emerson? Is she "Queenie" or "Asia," his nicknames for her? Or "Mother," the name most readily given her by her daughter and biographer? Or is she most alive when left unnamed, remembered for her piercing skill in argument and her lively critique of Transcendentalism? Her own preference is ambiguously rendered. In her correspondence, she signed herself "Lidian" when the letters went to her husband or to individuals within the Emerson circle; to her sister, she remained "Lydia." Frequently her letters simply close with her initials, the part of her name which could not be disputed.

In her life she was variously named. In her daughter's memory, she was a powerful figure who resisted simple definition. Edited by Delores Bird Carpenter, Ellen Emerson's life of her mother began its life as a private work, a family manuscript apparently intended for close friends and relatives. It remained in manuscript until 1980, when it was published by Twayne, and has now been reissued by Michigan State in the centennial year of Lidian's death. Although the first in print, these late twentieth-century editions were by no means the original publication, for Ellen's work was clearly "published" before it saw print. Ellen read her mother's biography to a circle of family and friends as had earlier been done with James Eliot Cabot's biography of her father. Carpenter reports that in 1897 a group of women who had known Lidian joined Ellen to listen to her story. The readings were substantial, lasting as long as two hours, and it may well have been at the prompting of such an audience that Ellen decided to write her mother's life. In all likelihood, however, this was not the only and probably not the strongest impetus. Parts of the manuscript in which Ellen reflected on what she called her mother's "sad thoughts," are marked "do not read."

Clearly this manuscript functioned on many levels, as a work from which a "reading" could be taken, as a private space to analyze particular traits of a personality, and in parts, as a more formal document. Ellen would do for her mother what Cabot had done for her father. Cabot's life of Emerson was published in 1887, five years after Emerson's death. Ellen's life of her mother "appeared" at roughly the same interval after her mother's death. Carpenter terms the manuscript "the result of much research" (li) and describes it as "heavily revised" (lii). She notes that Ellen pursued various sources of information about her mother, acquainting herself with the Plymouth of her mother's youth, visiting her mother's friends and corresponding with them when such visits were not feasible. But she says little else about how this manuscript came into being, and the reader is left with more questions than can be easily answered. What else does Ellen say about her work in her letters? What comments from her audiences does she record ? Since Ellen's published letters end, tellingly enough, with her mother's death, the later letters are unavailable for the general reader. Carpenter could have helped us out by being more explicit about what is known about the production of this manuscript and what remains speculation.

Despite the little we know about Ellen's decision to write her mother's life, the life itself speaks volumes about how a person is translated into prose. Ellen employs various methods for representing her mother. She follows a loose chronology, although freely breaks from it to group occurrences that strike her as similar. Chronology, in fact, seems the least important of Ellen's structuring elements. She takes it as a given--the way to tell a life is to proceed from birth to death--but within this general understanding, the "life" comes alive with stories that cannot necessarily be associated with any specific time. Her structuring principle is the anecdote, often introduced without connection to what preceded it. These stories frequently stand on their own; they could be read independently of each other as most likely they were in Ellen's "editing" of her manuscript for her "public" audience. This separateness, however, is only apparent, for Ellen shaped these stories with respect to each other. In writing about her mother, she focused her attention on particular attributes of character. Her stories circle around these characteristics, variations on the themes she identified as unique to her mother.

Ellen's stories speak with a practiced familiarity: They bear the patina of many retellings. Her version of her mother was a long time in the making, and what she preserves for her audience is a woman whose characteristics are treated as rare eccentricities. Ellen was most interested in establishing her mother's uniqueness, and her stories are crafted to this particular end. The stories she tells most powerfully are those in which her mother stands alone, distanced from other individuals by some response or some skill.

In Ellen's representation, Lidian figures as a dynamic conversationalist, an individual who gathered audiences about her. Ellen highlights her mother's argumentative nature, emphasizing Lidian's delight in situations that challenged the participants to define and defend their positions. Ellen plays this aspect of her mother's character into her mother's firm convictions on cruelty, whether to humans or animals. On the one hand, she shows us a woman who unfailingly observed the anniversary of Daniel Webster's March 7, 1851 speech as a day of mourning. And on the other, she humorously presents the consequences of her mother's unwavering compassion for animals. Whether feeding the rats in the house or decrying politicians in the Senate, Lidian, in her daughter's stories, is often comic and always adamant in her resistance to convention.

For Ellen, the anecdote was more important than its place in the lapse of time. The choice is interesting. In part it certainly stems from Ellen's own uncertainty about when particular events occurred, particularly those of which she herself could claim no memory. But the integrity of the separate stories serves another function. Taken as they can be on their own terms, these stories sidestep the issue of what makes a life "important." Dissociated from the province of the time line and its world of "events," it distances itself from the father's or husband's world of lectures and publications and ever-increasing public recognition. While her mother clearly lived in that world, and was often defined by it, her daughter sought to separate her from it, placing the father on the margin and allowing the mother to move to the center. What she attempted to preserve was her mother's perspective, a perspective she admits she did not always understand but that deserved its own place.

Lidian's attitude toward Transcendentalism is a case in point. Not only does Ellen insert the text of "The Transcendental Bible," her mother's rather wicked parody of the ideas associated with her husband, but she also makes clear that her mother was not reticent in voicing these opinions. Take for a sampling the following excerpts:
 Loathe and shun the sick, they are in bad taste and may untune us
 for writing the poem floating through our mind. Despise the
 unintellectual, and make them feel that you do by not noticing
 their remark. It is mean and weak to seek for sympathy; it is mean
 and weak to give it. Great souls are self-sustained and stand ever
 erect, saying only to the prostrate sufferer "Get up, and stop your
 complaining." (82)


Now we know that during his ministry, Emerson disliked the pastoral side of the job, and in particular the minister's duty of visiting the sick. We also know that Lidian was frequently ill and that these illnesses were tolerated by the household but not understood. Ellen's comments about her mother reveal Lidian's decidedly "unEmersonian" point of view. For Lidian, the sick were "enthroned" (127); "sympathy" was the most valuable gift one person could give to another, and individuals were "self-sustained" by necessity, not choice. Ellen's portrayal of her mother's life as a long "sojourn" (read exile) in Concord suggests that self-reliance was as much a strategy for despair as an affirmation of hope.

In her representation of her mother, this element of despair is one of the strongest. Leaving anecdote aside, Ellen turned to the sermonic, taking the saying "It's a long lane that has no turning" as the text for her mother's life. Seeking the "turn," she frequently returned to her mother's "sad thoughts," what she called the "ground color" of her life (84). Ellen sought and thought she had found an explanation in the diametrically opposed traits that seemed to characterize her mother's personality. To Ellen, Lidian seemed "combative," ever ready for an argument, clear on what had happened and on the wrongs that had been committed. At the same time, she strongly believed in unconditional forgiveness; yet despite this belief, she could neither forgive nor forget. From Ellen's perspective, this conflict produced her mother's "sad thoughts," thoughts that invariably turned against her. The oldest daughter's perspective, however, was not the only explanation offered, for Edith provided her own very different interpretation in a "protest" inserted in the manuscript. From Edith's perspective, her mother's sadness was the evidence of her deep sympathy with others. Always willing to give comfort, her ability came from her willingness to feel another's pain.

These different versions may well say more about the sisters than the mother. Lidian Jackson Emerson in fact remains an elusive character, an individual remembered in particular ways yet rarely seen directly. She is glimpsed through her daughter's bemused and often amusing descriptions. Whether secreting away doughnuts for the rat in the parlor or arguing with Judge Hoar at the Sunday School Teacher's meeting, Lidian is kept at a distance. We observe her, even hear her, but Ellen never speaks for her. Valuing her mother's perspective as well as her own, she will not assume one is the other. She readily acknowledges that circumstances did not make it easy for her to understand her mother's "value." Writing about the late 1860s she comments, "Certainly the little world that I lived in did not seem to me to set Mother's worth so high. But in these ten years I had gradually opened my eyes first to her beauty, then to her courage, then to the high pure atmosphere in which she dwelt, later to the amusing and more slowly to the excellence of the amusing traits of her character" (155). That Ellen continued to open her eyes is evidenced by the way in which she crafted her mother's life. She refused to confine her mother to a series of idiosyncracies, and yet as firmly refused to deny that much of her mother's behavior seemed eccentric to her. Unable to understand her mother's despair, she chronicled it without subordinating it within some final explanation. It remained the side of her mother's character into which she could not see. Ellen shaped her stories in a way that allows her audience to see Lidian, as it were, in a glass darkly. She kept her mother at a distance, but in that distancing guaranteed her a separate existence. Her representation of her mother cannot be reduced to familiar terms or subsumed in another's life or another's story. Lidian Emerson remains a separate, solitary self.

Something similar could be said of the biographer. Ellen's respect for her mother's difference speaks for her own. The daughter, even more than the mother, lived a life that was easily subsumed. Remembering Margaret Fuller's response to the young Waldo Emerson's death, Ellen writes without comment: "She could not get over it that he had died and I was left" (90). That Ellen "was left" hauntingly defines the shape of what most readers know about her life. She was her father's companion and memory toward the end of his life, taking care of his correspondence, keeping track of his engagements, and keeping track of his wandering thoughts. For most of her life she took care of the Emerson household, served as companion to her mother, reading to her, riding with her, willing to be awakened at a moment's notice to attend to some item around the house. And for later generations, Ellen remained the "dutiful daughter" whose life was devoted to her parents. The most complete record of Ellen's life--the published selection of her letters--ends with her mother's death although Ellen lived and wrote for another seventeen years. Ellen's life has been confined within the biographies of other subjects. Within the biography of her mother, a curious reversal occurs. The subject remains a powerful but elusive presence. It is the daughter who emerges as the most sharply-defined individual in this work. Her voice is lively, amused, compassionate, and always distinct from the mother. In writing her mother's life, she crafted her own.

Sarah Ann Wider

Colgate University
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Author:Wider, Sarah Ann
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
Words:2286
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