Preserving History - Fall 2004 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Fall 2004

Preserving History

Whether or not one is a scholar of American literature, it is quite likely that the name of Ralph Waldo Emerson is recognizable as a famous nineteenth-century American writer. Yet, chances are that the name of Mary Moody Emerson is unfamiliar, despite the incredible influence that she had in molding her nephew Ralph's writing. Through the painstaking work of a Penn State Altoona professor, her co-editors, and her students, this influential woman's lifetime study and speculation on a range of important nineteenth-century topics will be brought to light.

Mary Moody Emerson was the aunt of nineteenth-century American writer and Transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Beginning as a young woman in 1807 until she died in 1863, she kept a diary, a philosophical journal numbering 1,046 pages that she called her "Almanack." While reflecting her wide reading and speculations on a variety of topics, it primarily records her ideas as developed from a comprehensive study of German philosophy and Calvinist theology. As such, it serves as an important spiritual and intellectual autobiography for a woman who was enormously influential in molding her famous nephew's later writings.

The fire-damaged, fragmentary manuscript is housed in the Houghton Library of Harvard University, where it was "discovered" twenty years ago by Penn State Delaware Professor Phyllis Cole. Cole, who then was researching the Emerson family, authored a biography of Mary Moody Emerson, published in 1998, in which she provides definitive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson actually "borrowed" his aunt's words in his essays on American Transcendentalism.

With Professor Cole and Professor Noelle Baker of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Sandy Petrulionis, Penn State Altoona associate professor of English, seeks to produce a scholarly, textual edition of Mary Moody's Almanack. Expecting the project to take several years, Petrulionis embarked on this work in 2002. Utilizing two Penn State Altoona students majoring in English, Petrulionis took on the task of transcribing approximately two-thirds of the manuscript. When published, Petrulionis expects the work to provide a significant contribution to the history and scholarship of early nineteenth-century American literature and women's studies.

A Labor of Love

Using work study grants, Petrulionis hired junior Jeannette Burgan and senior Jessica Sidler. In the fall of 2003, these students began the arduous task of transcribing the Almanack. Working from a paper copy of Mary Moody's handwritten manuscript, the students are typing the document word for word, including all punctuation and irregular spelling. They record all undecipherable words, cancellations, and manuscript anomalies in brackets for later review.

The process itself is slow and complex; in this case, it is made even more difficult by the state in which the Almanack was found. Not only was the journal fire-damaged and worn, the 1,046 page manuscript was not even paginated. One page may not pick up from the page before due to its burnt condition.

Or one page may consist of a small scrap of paper written on for a couple of years or months and then flipped upside down and written on in a different handwriting style from decades later. In some instances, it is easy to decipher the chronology of the writings because Emerson mentions historical events.

Yet in still many more instances, the journal entries are not dated and accurate chronological placement is nearly impossible.

When described as simply the transcription of words on paper, the students' work may seem tedious or unexciting. Yet their experience has been anything but boring.

The Almanack isn't the journal of a woman who detailed with whom she had lunch or what kind of bread she cooked. It is the story of an educated and brilliant woman, single her entire life, who had something to say about everything and memorialized these thoughts in an intellectual and spiritual diary. Her struggle to hold onto her traditional religious notions and Calvinism in the face of the Transcendental movement and romantic idealism is explored and developed over a lifetime.

Often, upon entering the office in which the students work, Petrulionis would overhear Burgan or Sidler exclaim "Whoa! Look what Mary said today!" States Petrulionis, "They'll read me a quote and it'll connect with a philosophy class or a sermon from church. They've even noticed the connection between Mary's writing and that of her nephew's and they'll say 'didn't Ralph Waldo Emerson say something like this? But look – Aunt Mary said it here 50 years earlier!' It's a real education for them, in so many ways."

Burgan echoes her professor's observations. An education major who also teaches English at a local faith-based high school, Burgan relates to Mary Moody Emerson's life journey. "I feel like she's a relative of mine; I wish I knew her. She writes pages upon pages of heart-wrenching doubts and fears about her faith. It really reflects my own doubts and anxieties about religion, and actually has given me some answers. I know that she wrote this as a woman in the nineteenth-century but there really is no generation gap between us."

A Unique Opportunity for Undergraduates

Petrulionis has been fortunate to work with two talented undergraduate students for this research project. She notes that, "typically, this kind of research would be done by graduate school students. But I believe that, if you can find talented English students with a passion for literature and an attention to detail, undergraduates are perfectly capable to do the work."

This project has given Burgan and Sidler the opportunity to learn and apply the fundamental scholarly principles of textual editing and to become experts in recognizing the nuances of the various conventions of nineteenth-century handwriting - a valuable skill for any editorial work they may undertake as graduate students or scholars of English.

Burgan already has seen the value of her work in terms of professional connections. When studying at Oxford University during the summer of 2003, she encountered a professor who knew of Penn State Altoona and the Mary Moody Emerson project and was impressed with Burgan's involvement.

In addition, last spring the student duo co-presented a workshop with Petrulionis to high school English students during Penn State Altoona's annual "Wordplay" event. First, they familiarized the audience with the general subject of textual editing. Then Burgan and Sidler presented an entertaining session on the importance of Mary Moody Emerson as a forerunner of transcendentalism and the significance of her Almanack as an example of an intellectual woman's private writings and life record. The students joined Petrulionis this fall at the University-wide English conference, where they made a similar presentation to Penn State's English faculty.

Burgan describes the transcription process as slow and methodical, noting that she will often work almost two hours and only transcribe one page. Has she learned anything from the editing process? "Yes," she laughs. "Patience."

To date, these Penn State Altoona students have transcribed approximately one-third of the manuscript. It is hoped that they will complete their work by May 2005. At that time, Petrulionis will begin the editorial process, starting with comparing the transcription to the microfilm version of the Almanack and later to the holograph manuscript at the Houghton Library. Although the editors do not yet have a publisher for the Almanack, knowing the current popularity of women's writings, Petrulionis is optimistic about its appeal.

Petrulionis reflects, "An editorial project like this one takes years and years from start to finish. It is a labor of love for everyone involved at every stage. Thanks to Penn State Altoona's work study program, we've been fortunate to have the expertise of two talented and dedicated students at this initial stage of the transcription process. Jessica and Jeannette have both connected with Emerson's writings and ideas—from more than a century ago—in a way that's almost eerie."

The Thoreau Society

Her love for 19th-Century American literature developed in high school and grew during graduate school. And her passion for the authors of this period has brought the world's oldest organization devoted to an American author to Penn State Altoona. Sandy Petrulionis, associate professor of English at the College, serves as the Thoreau Society's executive secretary and brings a wealth of opportunities to her students by getting them involved and connected with the Society and its members.

While working on her Ph.D. in English at Georgia State University, Sandy Petrulionis had focused primarily on the works of Herman Melville. But her dissertation director happened to be the general editor for the journal volumes in the series The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, the scholarly, textual edition of all of Thoreau's works, published by Princeton University Press. Realizing the great opportunity that this could be, Petrulionis asked to be hired as his research assistant.

Textual editing is an arduous and time-consuming process. Petrulionis worked on Volume 8 of the projected 16 volumes of Thoreau's journal in this series, which are edited from the 46 manuscript notebooks Thoreau kept from 1837 until his death in 1862. These notebooks contained approximately two million words. While a 14-volume edition of Thoreau's journal was published in 1906, it was far from accurate or complete. At that time, common practice in textual editing included correcting the author's spelling and words and making editorial "guesses" about unclear handwriting. Often editors changed words and meaning entirely. However, today's scholarly editors usually adhere to a form of editing in the purest sense. Spelling is not changed, and the editor's personal biases and opinions are not interjected.

Petrulionis' editing was done by reading copies of Thoreau's original journal manuscript kept in New York's Morgan Library. She completed the editing of Volume 8 for her dissertation, which was published in 2002. Yet her involvement with Thoreau was far from over.

Currently, Petrulionis is writing a book, "Murder to the State": The Antislavery Movement in Henry D. Thoreau's Concord, detailing the antislavery movement in Concord, Massachusetts. From her editing of Thoreau's journal, she learned that Thoreau actually had been involved in helping fugitive slaves in Concord during the 1850s. Further probing revealed that, while men like Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson often are credited with being instrumental in Concord's antislavery movement, they were led to this work by the activist women in their families and community. Finding out that there was a strong female antislavery society in Concord, and that these women had inspired the men to get involved, has excited and inspired Petrulionis in her work.

Petrulionis' evolving interest in Thoreau led her to the Thoreau Society, the oldest organization dedicated to the legacy of an American author. Established in 1941, with a current membership totalling 1800 and including 24 countries, the Thoreau Society holds an annual gathering each July in Concord. After serving on the Society's Board of Directors for two years, Petrulionis became its executive secretary in 2002. While the Society is headquartered in Concord, in an effort to bring opportunities to Penn State Altoona students, the College agreed to handle all membership-related activities of the Society and house its website on the College's server.

Students have become involved with the Society in different ways. Dustin Brandt, a May 2004 graduate of Penn State Altoona, designed a new website for the Society while a work study student. A number of students have worked on administrative functions related to membership, involving contact with the Society's staff in Concord. But most exciting to Petrulionis and the students is the annual Thoreau Society conference. Time and budget permitting, these students have gone to Concord and Walden Pond for this academic conference. As Petrulionis describes, it's far from being a stuffy, lecture-based event at a hotel. Petrulionis' students staff registration tables, help with meals, attend conference sessions, tour the important landmarks and authors' homes, and make incredible connections with important scholars in this field.

States Petrulionis, "When our students travel to Concord, they receive a mini-tour of 19th-century American literary shrines and historic sites. In one location, they can walk around Walden Pond and see the site of Thoreau's cabin, and they can tour the homes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Experiences like this bring the authors alive in ways that talking about them in the classroom cannot equal."