Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bodies

A brooch containing a watercolor of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1st wife Ellen Louisa Tucker. The brooch, now in the Concord Museum, was painted in miniature on ivory in Boston in 1829 and photographed on the cashmere shawl she is shown wearing in the portrait.
A friend of my sister and brother-in-law asked me on Facebook if I knew the story about American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and his wife's corpse. The answer was no, but the question piqued my curiosity, so here's what I found...

Just 2 years after they married, Emerson's 1st wife Ellen Louisa Tucker (1811-1831) died of tuberculosis. He visited her grave in Roxbury, Massachusetts, every day. On March 29, 1832, 14 months after Ellen had been laid to rest, the poet opened the coffin to have a look at his 20-year-old bride. "He had to see for himself," write his biographers. "Some part of him was not able to believe she was dead." He noted only that he had done so in his journal, and did not say much more about the exhumation of his son and mother 25 years later in 1857, when he moved their remains to Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Five-year-old Waldo Emerson, the 1st of 4 children he had with his 2nd wife Lidian Jackson Emerson, had died of scarlet fever in 1842 (read Emerson's poem about the boy's death here). "The sun shone brightly on the coffins, of which Waldo's was well preserved - now 15 years," he wrote. While he didn't record what he saw when the remains of his wife - and later his son - were exposed, the sight did influence his writing. "Struck by the horrible decay, Emerson solidly affirmed his belief in the opposition between spirit and mind, and body, with the recognition that while physical particulars change, the universal sense of life remains," say his critics. The 1st experience opened him up to the world and caused him to focus on the here and now.

There was speculation that Emerson believed in vampirism, but Caleb Crain puts it this way: "I doubt Emerson would have believed simple-mindedly in the New England vampire folklore, but I suspect he was aware of it, and it must have been part of the wider social context for his act." For more on the vampire myth, I refer you to Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber, who explains it (and explains it away). You may also want to read my post about Dante Gabriel Rossetti's exhumation of his wife in 1890, 8 years after she died, to retrieve some poems.


*Thanks, John. Did I miss anything?

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