Ralph Waldo Emerson Had a Secret Support System: His Daughter
Ralph Waldo Emerson led the 19th century Transcendentalist movement, emphasizing self-reliance, individual moral choices, harmony with nature, and a philosophy of daily living not unlike 21st century mindfulness. He lived in Concord, Massachusetts, a hotbed of anti-slavery activism and intellectual fervor where his neighbors included the family of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, famed for retreating from society to Walden Pond.
But Emerson had a helpmate whose story is not well-known. His daughter Ellen Tucker Emerson ran the family household from her teen years on, and served as her father’s correspondent, conversationalist, and caregiver. Working with James Elliot Cabot, she also compiled, edited, and even revised essays from her father’s final decade, when he struggled with memory loss. But Ellen refused to take public credit for her work. Professor Kate Culkin (Bronx Community College) is writing a biography of Ellen and published an essay in The New England Quarterly showing how Emerson carefully charted his daughter’s education partly to support his career.
Emerson “recognized his daughter’s intelligence,” Culkin writes. “But he also at times privileged his needs above” hers. Emerson’s wife Lidian was ill and depressed, so Ellen’s education was interrupted so she could run the family home. Emerson also “chose schools that solidified his social connections” and signaled support for the schools’ educators. Ellen and her mother had input into decisions about her education, but a “matrix of familial, social, and professional demands” drove those choices.
For eight years beginning at age 13, Ellen alternately boarded at school away from home, commuted to school by train, and balanced her studies from home with housekeeping. Her father wanted her to study arithmetic, Latin, and French, but above all sought “to mold her into a better companion” who would “chatter well.” Like today’s helicopter parents, Emerson also engaged with “mundane details” like Ellen’s roommate assignment and rules about packages from home.
When Emerson left on a lecture tour, Ellen was brought home to supervise servants, handle finances, care for younger siblings, sew, serve as her father’s secretary, and read to her ailing mother — while also studying Greek before breakfast.
Ellen’s tombstone inscription notes her “fine mind” but also says “she cared more for people than for books … eagerly helped others,” and was the “comfort” of her parents’ last years. This final, formal erasure of her role as Emerson’s collaborator, Culkin writes, was in keeping with her lifelong “desire to hide her contributions and thus preserve his reputation.”