February 8, 2010

Emerson's first wife and Wild Apples

The death of Wallie, son of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was not the first loss in the life of the Concord Sage. Eleven years earlier, his first wife Ellen Tucker succumbed to tuberculosis on February 8, 1831.

The couple met in Concord, New Hampshire when she was 16. She was an intelligent young woman who enjoyed reading (she named her dog Byron). She did not hold back her affection for the slightly-controversial young minister. "I am entirely yours now and ever shall be," she wrote to him. Emerson took a full-time job, soon earning a whopping $1800 salary at the Second Church in Boston. Emerson and Tucker were married in 1829, two years after meeting, and they settled in Boston. She was already quite sick with the disease that would kill her.

Emerson was riding a wave of success and living a life of luxury thanks to his high salary. And, yet, he wrote of "a fair counterbalance to the flatteries of fortune." The counterbalance came in the form of Ellen's death at 9 o'clock in the morning on February 8, 1831. Her last words were recorded as, "I have not forgot the peace and joy." She was just under 20 years old.

Emerson's grief over the death of Ellen Tucker lasted a long time. He often visited her grave, wrote to her, and, most infamously, entered her tomb and opened the coffin in 1832. He began questioning his role as a minister and started thinking radical thoughts about religion. He also eyed Ellen's money. She had left him a fair amount of wealth, but her family did not want to pass it on. Emerson sued them and, in July 1837, the court granted him $11,674.79, making him an incredibly wealthy man.

Emerson later married again (to Lydia Jackson), and the new couple named their first daughter Ellen (allegedly at Jackson's insistence).

Exactly 29 years after Ellen Tucker's death, Emerson's protege Henry David Thoreau presented a lecture at the Concord Lyceum on February 8, 1860. In "Wild Apples," Thoreau praised the natural qualities of the fruit. "They cannot be too gnarly and crabbed and rusty to look at," he noted. Though wild apples are spicy or tart, Thoreau spoke of how much he enjoyed them, and suggested a brisk walk in the November air might make them more palatable. Emerson's daughter Ellen Emerson wrote "there were constant spontaneous bursts of laughter and Mr. Thoreau was applauded."

*Image of Ellen Tucker Emerson from "The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson," Harvard Square Library.


  1. Interesting background on the Wild Apples story. I have it downloaded on podcast from Librovox.org to listen to this week.

    Thanks as always for the insights.

  2. I hope you enjoy it! Thoreau's lectures are certainly interesting, interspersed with just enough humor that you wonder if it was intentional!