Behind All Those Transcendental Men


By Joan W. Goodwin

Northeastern University Press

400 pp., $35

How does it happen that people sometimes clump together in yeasty lumps?

Did it happen in St. Louis in the first half of the 19th century? In Philadelphia? In New York? Did anything compare to the heady ferment in the neighborhood of Boston, the intellectual rising bread?

In this wonderful book by Joan Goodwin, we witness the quivering excitement in the New England air and meet all the local sages. They were largely a passel of talkative parsons, sometimes cranky, often opinionated, always fascinating: Ezra Ripley, his son Samuel, and his step-grandson Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, and Jones Very. There were laymen as well: Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and that "sleeper" among them, Henry David Thoreau. What a clutch of earnest scribblers and talkers! "The Remarkable Mrs. Ripley" is a biography of a woman who knew most of them, who was their equal, but who was dwarfed by the fact that she was female.

Sarah Bradford Ripley is the perfect example of the old sexist proverb, "Behind every man there is a great woman." Ripley was behind a number of great men. She was the brilliant mentor of her nephew Ralph Waldo Emerson and the patient teacher of countless young boys who learned their Greek and Latin at her knee before going to Harvard College.

It was an era of excited change. The glue that cemented New England communities to the old Puritan religion had come unstuck. The Unitarian heresy pried it apart, and then there was an even wilder rebellion.

Where was Ripley in this tempestuous time? Alas, she was only a remarkable woman. Emerson called her "the finest woman I ever saw." But although admired by all, she was excluded from the councils of the mighty.

Instead, she carried a heavy burden of domestic duties. One admirer remembered Ripley "seated in a rocking chair rocking a baby's cradle with her foot, knitting children's socks with her fingers, while with her voice she at once corrected and encouraged a small boy in his Virgil."

Poor Ripley - as a fervent student of the latest movements in philosophy, mathematics, natural science, and the classics, she was forever "forced to quit the regions of eloquence and poetry to attend to the minutiae of family concerns." She wished "there were any hole to creep out of this most servile of all situations, a country clergyman's wife."

Her eager correspondence with that other aunt of young Waldo's, Mary Moody Emerson, provided an intellectual feast, although Ripley might sometimes have liked to dodge the moral pummeling. How, demanded cousin Mary, could Ripley become a skeptic?

Ripley herself regretted it. "Without faith, creation is a blank," she confessed. But alas, it is "denied to certain minds, and submission must take its place." It was an uncomfortable posture for a clergyman's wife. Submission meant suppressing her doubts and putting aside her own ambitions to live in the achievements of her men.

That was all very well, but if women in the year 1860 were to live only in the lives of their men, it must have been especially shattering to watch them march away to join the Union Army.

Of course, home life and its duties went on. A rich part of this book is the loving attention to the ups and downs of daily life - the births, the babies and children, and the concern with their prospects.

Her nephew Ralph Waldo Emerson did not include women when he praised the ideal American scholar as "Man Thinking," but to Joan Goodwin, after her examination of the life of Sarah Bradford Ripley, "It seems high time to consider Woman Thinking." To Mary Moody Emerson, Ripley "spread as broad a sail, for woman, as old Columbus himself."

* Jane Langton writes mystery novels in Lincoln, Mass.

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