Thursday, June 04, 2009

Stuff: Ralph Waldo Emerson, vampire slayer?

Though I fear unto death the notion that I may give somebody their next schlocky high concept quality-lit-meets-genre-thrills concept, I have to mention this awesome new-to-me post by Caleb Crain, regular NY Times and The Nation contributor and the brilliant mind behind the exquisite Steamboats Are Ruining Everything Blog.

Combining a strange in curiously succinct entry in Ralph Waldo Emerson's diary with some info from The Encyclopedia of New England, Crain asks: Did Emerson think his first wife was a vampire?

From Crain's post:

New England vampires didn't speak in faux-Hungarian or lurch about, waggling unkempt fingernails. Without using the word "vampire," however, New Englanders did believe that people who died of consumption (i.e., tuberculosis) could suck the life out of those above ground who still loved them, especially those in their own family. To remove the threat, you had to dig up the corpse. You were looking for flesh still on the bones---and blood still in the heart. If you found it, you could turn the body face down and rebury it. Or you could burn the flesh off the skeleton and then re-inter the bones. For good measure, you might also arrange the bones in special patterns. Exhumations and reburials of recent consumption victims happened across small-town New England throughout the nineteenth century; the Encyclopedia of New England lists cases in 1793, 1794, 1796, 1799, 1807, 1810, 1817, 1827, 1830, 1854, 1874, 1889, and 1892, among other years.

Emerson's first wife was Ellen Louis Tucker. Ralph and Ellen were married in 1829. She was 18 years old. They were married for less than two years. In 1931, Ellen died of consumption (the old timey name for TB).

On March 29, 1831, Emerson wrote in his journal the cryptic and brief entry, "I visited Ellen's tomb and opened the coffin".

From Crain's blog again:

Here's my question: Did Emerson fear that his first wife was a vampire? Robert Richardson famously began his biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire with an account of Emerson opening the grave of Ellen Tucker Emerson on 29 March 1832. To Richardson, the act was a sample of Emerson's existential courage; it demonstrated his willingness to see all of life, including death. Richardson noted that the practice wasn't unheard of; Rufus Griswold and James Freeman Clarke also opened their wives' coffins. But the doing of a thing by Rufus Griswold is not much of an extenuation. (I can't quickly lay hands on whether Mrs. Griswold or Mrs. Clarke died of consumption, but if they did, I'm willing to include them too in my speculation.)

In Waldo Emerson: A Biography, Gay Wilson Allen saw the exhumation of the first Mrs. Emerson more darkly: "the act remains so unnatural as to seem almost insane."

In several respects, the Emerson case fits the profile. Ellen died of tuberculosis, and at the time that Emerson opened the coffin, his brothers Charles and Edward were endangered by the same disease. Emerson himself suffered greatly in his mourning of Ellen, and might have wondered about her hold on him. 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.

Crain's question is intriguing. Still, it should be put in context. Weird as it sounds to modern ears, the exhumation of loved ones just to gaze upon them one more time is was not unheard of in the Nineteenth Century. As president, the famously fatalistic Abraham Lincoln had his son William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln exhumed for viewing. Contemporaries thought this was evidence of Lincoln's melancholy and sentimental nature, but they did not think it so odd as to label him crazy. That said, it wasn't like people did this sort of thing every day. It is a frustratingly open question as to just what Emerson was doing.


Sasquatchan said...

Mrs. Griswold or Mrs. Clarke

Bringing in Chevy Chase/National Lampoons into the equation ? ;)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Well, Marty Moose was one of the 19th Century's leading transcendentalist thinkers. 'Till the bottom dropped out of transcendentalism in '97 and he went in to the amusements racket.