The Life of Waldo — Continuing a Walk Through Sleepy Hollow

Shadows of Emerson and the residents of the Old Manse loom in this week's continued exploration of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

The following is part 11 of an ongoing Sleepy Hollow series.

Leaving the grave of , we'll walk down the narrow path to get closer to that five-foot, rough-hewn chunk of rose quartz. [Photo 1] Quartz is plentiful in the earth's crust; but a quartz stone of this size, colored rose by the presence of  iron, manganese, and possibly titanium or lithium, is striking. A fitting symbol to mark the grave of the nature-loving Transcendentalist leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson (1803–1882), the philosopher, lecturer, essayist, abolitionist, and poet, led America's 19th century literary movement — indeed, America's literary movement. It was he who brought Bronson Alcott and his family to Concord; who influenced Thoreau to keep a journal; who was one of the four founders of the Transcendental Club, making Concord the center of the Transcendentalist movement. Emerson, during his Harvard student days, decided to go by the name "Waldo."  So we will too. The biographer Walter Harding describes Waldo's Transcendentalism as the belief that there is "a body of knowledge innate within man and that this knowledge transcended the senses .... This knowledge was the voice of God within man — his conscience, his moral sense, his inner light, his over-soul."

Emerson developed his themes of individualism and freedom in lectures and many published essays, including Nature, Self-Reliance, The Over-Soul, and The Transcendentalist. The lines on the bronze plaque, "The passive master lent his hand / To the vast soul that oer him planned" [Photo 2] are from his poem “The Problem.”

From age 26 through 33, Waldo's life was tumultuous: In 1929 he both married Ellen Tucker and was ordained a Unitarian minister. He served as a junior pastor at Boston's Second Church, but soon disagreed with church officials on many issues, including public prayer and the administration of communion. He mused in his journal that "We worship in the dead form of our forefathers," and "Have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it is necessary to leave the ministry."

Ellen died of tuberculosis in 1831, after just two years of marriage. Waldo resigned the ministry in 1832. His brother Edward, who worked in Daniel Webster's law office, suffered a "mental collapse" and died in 1834. His brother Charles died of tuberculosis in 1836.  In 1834, Waldo moved to Concord to live with his step-grandfather, Ezra Ripley, in the home now called The Old Manse. [Photo 3]

Take a moment to consider step-grandpa Ripley's remarkable life: Waldo's grandfather, Rev. William Emerson, had built the Manse in 1770.  Five years later, he witnessed the American Revolution begin at nearby Old North Bridge, and soon departed for Ft. Ticonderoga as a chaplain in the Continental Army. William never returned to Concord, but died of "camp fever" and was buried in Rutland, Vt. When George Washington's troops occupied Harvard dormitories in 1775, the college was temporarily moved to Concord.  Ripley, a Harvard theology student, moved into the Manse with the newly-widowed Phebe Bliss Emerson. In 1776, Ripley returned to Cambridge and graduated from Harvard. In 1778, he was ordained minister of Concord's First Parish and, in 1780, he married the widow Phebe. Living in the Manse, Ripley served as the "good if sometimes harsh" minister of the First Parish for almost 63 years, a Concord record.

Back to Waldo's story. In 1835 he married Lydia Jackson of Plymouth Mass. They bought a Concord home that they called "Bush," [Photo 4] and moved in. It still sits on Cambridge Turnpike at the corner of Lexington Road and is seasonally open to the public. Lydia's gravestone, adorned with a frieze of tulips, stands to the left of Waldo's. [Photo 5]

But wait!  Why does Lydia's stone say "Lidian?" Some say Waldo called her Lidian to avoid having New Englanders call her "Lydiar Emerson."  *See "Boston Accent," Boston Globe editorial (7/17/11): In New England pronunciation, "'ear' sometimes takes the place of word-ending vowels."

Others point to Waldo's apparent omniscience, quoting his remark to a cousin that "the philistines baptized her Lydia, but her name is Lidian." The stone to the right of Waldo's, "Ellen Tucker Emerson," [Photo 6] is that of a daughter of Waldo and Lidian.

You're right — that was Waldo's first wife's name. Biographers seem to agree that it was Lidian who proposed that name for their daughter.  The Emersons had a second daughter whom Waldo wanted to call Lidian, but his wife would not agree and the baby girl was named Edith. The Emerson's first child was a son named Waldo, whom Ralph Waldo described as "a piece of love and sunshine."

Lidian and Waldo senior were devastated when young Waldo died of scarlet fever at age five. Emerson's poem "Threnody" is in memory of little Waldo: "The South Wind brings / Life, Sunshine, and desire, / And on every mount and meadow / Breathes aromatic fire; / But over the dead he has no power, / The lost, the lost he cannot restore; / And, looking over the hills, I mourn / The darling who shall not return."

The Emerson's named their second son Edward Waldo.

Emerson gave over 1,500 public lectures during his life. The first, "The Uses of Natural History," was delivered in Boston in 1933. He later turned it into the essay Nature. In it, he expresses his philosophy of science: "Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word ... I wish to learn this language ... that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue."

James Elliot Cabot, Waldo's close friend and official literary executor and biographer, wrote that Emerson appeared to have regarded the natural history of the intellect as "the chief task of his life." In 1837 Emerson became friends with Henry David Thoreau. As Waldo was awkward with tools, Thoreau became his carpenter, as well as his intellectual brother and life-long friend, practically a member of the Emerson family. That year, Waldo gave a speech called The American Scholar before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge. In it he encouraged Americans to develop their own style of writing, free from European constraints. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. called the lecture America's "Intellectual Declaration of Independence." To James Russell Lowell it was "an event without former parallel on our literary annals."

However, another member of the audience, Rev. John Pierce, called it "an apparently incoherent and unintelligible address." Pierce was in the minority; Waldo's lectures were generally well received. He stood tall and handsome with a beautiful smile and a deep musical voice, showed great respect for and bonded with his audience, and was soon being called "The Sage of Concord." But some, like Pierce, found his lectures disjointed.

After one talk, James Russell Lowell said "It was as if, after vainly trying to get his paragraphs into sequence and order, he had at last tried the desperate expedient of shuffling them."

Just last year, two English professors at the University of Hartford called Emerson's prose "obscurantist" and "peripatetic," and wrote that the typical English student gains little from reading Emerson "other than a rough appreciation for what it must be like to sit in the company of a boorish deity."

*See "Giving the Boot to the Sage of Concord."

I believe, however, that most scholars would agree with Yale Professor Harold Bloom that Emerson "helped define U.S. identity in the 19th century," and that "his views on power, rejection of Old Europe and belief in a personal god are even more influential today, pervading American culture and politics."

*See "The Sage of Concord." 

No, I didn't shuffle the paragraphs above. Should I have done so?  


— Harry Beyer, a licensed town guide, has lived and walked in Concord since 1966.

Harry Beyer July 24, 2011 at 08:59 PM
Year inflation: As JHB points out, Waldo's first lecture, "The Uses of Natural History," was delivered in 1833, not 1933.
Ginger Lang July 24, 2011 at 11:40 PM
Interesting article, Harry. I have always liked the pink quartz and Lidian's headstone with the frieze of tulips. Ginger Lang


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