Society Is a Corpse That Purges at the Mouth

By Justin Murphy,

Source unknown


On Mary Moody Emerson.

You've heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but there's a second genius in the Emerson family you've probably never heard of. Mary Moody Emerson was "the best writer in Massachusetts," according to her nephew Ralph. I recently learned about aunt Mary in Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1996), the biography of Ralph Waldo by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

A mysterious and eccentric woman, Ralph's aunt (on his father's side) was more like a prophet than a writer. She was known for her great physical energy, bursting in and out of rooms like a banshee. Her obituary in the Boston Commonwealth said she had "the power of saying more disagreeable things in half an hour than any person living." Four feet, three inches tall, Mary Moody wore a burial shroud when she traveled and slept in a bed shaped like a coffin. You can begin to understand why she is sometimes remembered, if she is remembered at all, as an eccentric Dickensian character in the larger plot of Ralph's biography.

Yet to call her even a "great writer," is an understatement. She is almost closer to a prophet. She lived her entire life in destitution, which she did not seem to mind, and she wrote about the advantages of poverty. Although she had the occasional suitor, she never married. She always knew she could never have a normal life. She woke up before dawn every morning to read and write. She was entirely self-educated. She read Milton, Shakespeare, Cicero, Plato, Plotinus, Coleridge, Marcus Aurelius, Herder, Locke, Byron, Spinoza, Wallstonecraft, Rousseau, Goethe, and of course Scripture, plus theologians like Samuel Clark and Jonathan Edwards.

She was essentially an idiosyncratic Calvinist theologian of a peculiar New England kind. She was deeply pietist, and yet a freethinker seemingly always on the cusp of not believing. She did not conform to anything or anyone other than her own search for the truth, and she took nothing secondhand. As Emerson once said of her Genius, she was "always new... unpredictable. All your learning of all literatures and states of society of Platonistic, Calvinistic, English or Chinese would never enable you to anticipate one thought or expression."

Mary Moody Emerson

The four notebooks of her writing that Emerson reread throughout his life have never been published. A selection of her letters has been published as The Selected Letters of Mary Moody, but it's hard to find. The authority on Mary Moody seems to be Phyllis Cole, who wrote her biography. Mary Moody deserves to be studied more deeply, and I suspect she will be.

One of her slogans that she always told the Emerson boys was, "Always do what you are afraid to do." She had no time for gossip or the opinions of high society: "Society is like a corpse that purges at the mouth," she said. She believed that one should speak freely on every topic, pass judgment on every text, and develop an original perspective especially on what matters most: the nature of life, death, and eternity.

I love people who live as if the truth matters. Mary Moody Emerson was one of those people.

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