Emerson and the Archives

Dr Krissie West writes:

Some months ago, I was fortunate to receive funding from the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society to further my research for my monograph on Emerson and childhood.

Emerson, the spearhead of the nineteenth-century American Transcendentalist movement and the writer of the 1836 work, Nature, is perhaps best known for his creed of self-reliance and his friendship with Henry David Thoreau of Walden and Civil Disobedience fame; however, in his musings on what it was to be a man, Emerson often considered what it meant to be a child. My research on this subject took me back to the Houghton Library at Harvard, where the bulk of his papers are kept, but also to the Boston Athenaeum (a private library), and the archives at the Concord Free Public Library – where I was fortunate to be present when a donor arrived with a letter written by Louisa May Alcott, and was permitted to be only the second person to read it!

I also took the time to research papers on fellow Transcendentalist, A. Bronson Alcott, and on New England witchcraft (including a fascinating trip to Salem); to attend a conference on Henry David Thoreau’s bicentennial; and to give a paper on ‘Growing Tomorrow: A Transcendental Education’ at a conference in Concord, Mass., on ‘The Alcotts, the Thoreaus and the Quest for Social Justice’. Much of the content of both conferences focused not only on the issues of the nineteenth-century but on those of our own – and it was interesting to see how little wider concerns differed between academics in the US and in the UK, and how relevant the lessons of Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ are still felt to be.

I was recently elected to the Board of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, and look forward to supporting the work of other academics in this field. For more information on the work of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, visit: https://emersonsociety.org/

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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