Wives of Famous Men

Happy holidays! This week we’ll keep it short and sweet with a touch of humor. As I go about thinking of women in Jacksonville, many of the main players were the wives of famous men. Unlike their husbands, however, they left few records as to how they actually felt about their families, their marriages, and their roles in society. We always have to be careful to assume that money and prestige don’t necessarily equate with happiness.

The following story provides an apt illustration: Less than a year into his marriage to Lydian Jackson Emerson, noted American author Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal:

“A man’s wife has more power over him than the state has.”

 – in Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume V: 1835-1838 (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1965), 199.

Later, Lydian kept a journal of her own sarcastically titled, The Transcendental Bible. After many years of marriage to a man known for his reserve (and close relationships with female Transcendentalists), she jotted down,

“Never confess a fault. You should never have committed it and who cares whether you are sorry?”

– in Joel Meyerson, ed., Transcendentalism: A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 381-382.

Hm, you have to wonder what that’s about. On his own, Emerson is lauded as the great American philosopher. Ask his wife and you’ll find that while he was wandering in the woods and becoming a “transparent eyeball,” Lydian cooked his meals, darned his socks, tidied his mess, and bore and raised his children. In her world, there was very little time for transcendence. Her frustration with the “Sage of Concord” is well documented in the writings of friends like Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne. While I enjoy quiet solitude with Nature as much as the next gal, I’m also a sucker for a good backstory. Emerson’s published work tells us something about the ethos of antebellum New England, while Lydian’s reminds us that the ethos was not so easily applied to one’s daily life.

Women’s history. Keepin’ it real.

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