Manuscript Damage

Before her death, Mary Moody Emerson bequeathed her remaining manuscripts to her grand-niece, Ellen Tucker Emerson. As a result, when the Emerson family home burned in 1872 the manuscripts nearly perished in the flames along with the Emersons’ other possessions.

Fortunately rescued by the Emerson family’s Concord friends and neighbors, the frail Almanacks now evidence considerable disarray and damage in the form of burning, singing, mold, and water damage; moreover, the edges of nearly every page continued to erode. In 2008, Harvard University’s Houghton Library preserved the manuscripts by enclosing each Almanack page in mylar, thus making possible our ongoing editorial work.

Mary Moody Emerson’s nephew Ralph Waldo also participated in Almanack manuscript preservation, first by borrowing her Almanacks and letters and copying selections into his journals. Moreover, in the late 1850s and in selective and non-chronological fashion he excerpted favorite passages from the Almanacks–some of which no longer survive–into three indexed notebooks. Within just the first twenty-seven pages of one notebook, for example, he combines snippets from fascicles dating from 1848, 1829, and 1844. Further, two decades after fire devastated the family’s home, Ralph Waldo’s heirs hired Concord historian George Tolman to transcribe Mary Emerson’s Almanack manuscripts in their entirety.

These “scribal witness” (firsthand) transcribers benefited from a better copy of the Almanacks than now exists, so our edition supplies their transcriptions for damaged text. Occasionally, however, both Tolman and Waldo Emerson corrected or revised Mary Moody Emerson’s original prose, and, moreover, Emerson’s early and late interventions both disordered his aunt’s manuscripts and essentially created a new “anthology” of the Almanacks.

Mary Moody Emerson’s manuscripts bear distinct traces of these early forms of user-generated content or “transformissions,” Randall McLeod’s apt description of how a text is “transformed as it is transmitted.” Discussing the errors that creep into reprintings of Renaissance texts, McLeod observes that such alterations create new critical interpretations: “By attending to such examples of text’s mis-self-representation, we can gauge something of what I call its ‘transformission’–how it was transformed as it was transmitted” (Random Clod, “Information on Information,” Text 5 [1991], 246).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s