Emerson’s watershed moment

On March 29,1832, 28-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the tomb of his young wife, Ellen, who had been buried a year and two months earlier. He was in the habit of walking from Boston out to her grave in Roxbury every day, but on this particular day he did more than commune with the spirit of the departed Ellen: he opened the coffin. Ellen had been young and pretty. She was 17 when they were engaged, 18 when married, and barely 20 when she died of advanced tuberculosis. They had made frantic efforts at a cure, including long open-air carriage rides and massive doses of country air. Their life together had been stained almost from the start by the bright blood of Ellen’s coughing.

Opening the coffin was not a grisly gothic gesture, not the wild aberration of an unhinged lover. What Emerson was doing was not unheard of. At least two of Emerson’s contemporaries did the same thing. […] Emerson opened not only the tomb or family vault but the coffin itself. The act was essential Emerson. He had to see for himself. Some part of him was not able to believe she was dead. He was still writing to her in his journals as though she was alive. Perhaps the very deadness of the body would help a belief in the life of the spirit. […] We do not know exactly what moved Emerson on this occasion, but we do know that he had a powerful craving for direct, personal, unmediated experience. This is what he meant when he insisted that one should strive for an original relation to the universe. Not a novel relation, just one’s own. […]

Emerson’s own journal entry from this March day was terse: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” They had been utterly in love, and for a moment, on September 30, 1829, their wedding day, the future had seemed clear. Notes and letters flew back and forth. They traveled and wrote verses together and laughed at the Shakers who tried to woo them to celibacy. She intended to be a poet, he a preacher. He had accepted a pulpit in Boston and they set up a home that became at once the center of the Emerson family, as both his mother and younger brother came to live with them. Now, a little more than a year after Ellen’s death, Emerson’s life was unraveling fast. Though he was a much-loved minister in an important Boston church, he was having trouble believing in personal immortality, trouble believing in the sacrament of communion, and trouble accepting the authority and historical accuracy of the Bible. The truth was that Emerson was in a fast-deepening crisis of vocation. He could not accept his ministerial role, he was unsure of his faith, and he felt bereft and empty. He was directionless.

At Ellen’s grave that day in Roxbury in 1832 Emerson was standing amidst the ruins of his own life. More than 10 years had passed since he left college. Love had died and his career was falling apart. He was not sure what he really believed, who he really was, or what he should be doing. […]

In the months immediately ahead he continued to walk to Ellen’s grave every day but now his concentration on death was broken and he reached a major watershed in his long struggle with religion. He would live no longer with the dead. “Let us express our astonishment,” he wrote in his journal in May, “before we are swallowed up in the yeast of the abyss.”

Before the year was out, Emerson had resigned his pulpit, moved his mother, sold his household furniture, and taken ship for Europe. He set out on Christmas Day, 1832. A northeast storm was on its way as the ship sailed from Boston, plunging into the grey expanse of the North Atlantic.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Richardson, Robert D. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995: 3-5.


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