Object of the Month

"The Other Emersons": The Correspondence of William, Ralph Waldo, Edward Bliss, and Charles Chauncy Emerson

William Emerson Miniature portrait, watercolor on ivory

William Emerson


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  • This miniature portrait of William Emerson is attributed to Thomas Seir Cummings, and was painted in 1833, at the time of Emerson's marriage to Susan Woodward Haven. The portrait came to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 2003 as part of one of the Society's most interesting recent acquisitions, the Emerson Family Papers. William Emerson, the older brother of poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, was one of eight children of the Rev. William and Ruth Haskins Emerson. Of the five Emerson children who survived to adulthood, four brothers: William (1801-1868), Ralph Waldo (1803-1882), Edward Bliss (1805-1834), and Charles Chauncy (1808-1836) engaged in a remarkable fraternal correspondence that makes up the bulk of the Emerson Family Papers. A fifth brother, Robert Bulkeley Emerson (1807-1859), suffered from a mental disability that left him a presence in the lives and letters of his brothers, but not a participant in their lively "round robin" correspondence.

    About William Emerson

    William Emerson was the author or recipient of the largest portion of the letters in the Emerson Family Papers. The early death of his father forced him to help raise and support his younger brothers and interrupt his own education, but he graduated from Harvard College in 1818, and studied theology and philosophy at the University of Gottingen in Germany from 1824 to 1825. He married Susan Woodward Haven of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1833. They settled in New York City, where he practiced law and later served as a county court judge on Staten Island. The Emerson Family Papers also includes correspondence by and about their three sons, William, John Haven, and Charles Emerson. In addition to his letters, the collection includes the senior William Emerson's diaries kept during the years he spent studying and traveling in Germany.

    "What poems are many private lives": Investigating the Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson through his Correspondence with his Brothers

    Even though Ralph Waldo Emerson and his father before him were early members of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the MHS is not a principal repository of Ralph Waldo Emerson's literary manuscripts or correspondence. Rather, the Emerson Family Papers is an example of the true strength of the Historical Society's manuscript holdings--one of thousands of collections of personal letters and diaries that inform researchers of the personal lives of individuals and families. The Emerson brothers' correspondence touches upon all manner of subjects pressing upon, or of interest to, four intellectually curious young men growing up in New England in the first decades of the nineteenth century who, because of the early death of their father, were forced to find their own way in the world. Here we see Ralph Waldo Emerson not as a solitary genius, but within the intimate web of family life: he was beholden to his older brother William for financial assistance and personal advice, and at an early age he, in turn, took on responsibilities for aiding three younger brothers, including the permanently disabled Robert. In the Emerson Family Papers we find Ralph Waldo, the poet-philosopher, but also the family banker. The early death of the two younger members of this foursome--Edward Bliss and Charles Chauncy Emerson died young, cut down in the 1830s by the great scourge of the age, tuberculosis-broke some of the main threads of these close family ties, but William and Ralph Waldo continued their intimate personal correspondence touching upon all aspects of their lives, both philosophical and practical, for fifty years.

    The Emerson Brothers: A Fraternal Biography in Letters

    Many of the letters in the Emerson Family Papers are published all or in part in The Emerson Brothers: A Fraternal Biography in Letters, by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). MHS Fellows Bosco and Myerson, the general and textual editors of The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, are extraordinarily prolific authors and editors; their Emerson Bicentennial Essays, drawn from a conference hosted by the Historical Society, was published in 2006. Professor Myerson first examined the Emerson collection when it was the property of William Emerson's great-granddaughter, Dr. Ethel Wortis, and he and Bosco were instrumental in bringing the Emerson Family Papers to the Massachusetts Historical Society as a deposit in 1993, and as the gift of Dr. Ethel Wortis's son, Dr. Michael Wortis, in 2003.

    Suggestions for Further Reading

    Bosco, Ronald A. and Joel Myerson. The Emerson Brothers: A Fraternal Biography in Letters. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Please see the online finding aid to the Emerson family papers.