New England Transcendentalism flourished in the mid-nineteenth century, during a period of rapid technological change that brought more reading matter more cheaply into the hands of more people than ever before. In translating ideas into print, the thinkers associated with the movement—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody among them—benefited from the enhanced efficiency of new production methods. But the technology of their time did not yet extend to the process of composition. Authors still wrote out their drafts by hand and provided manuscript copy to publishers and printers. Moreover, the Transcendentalists were attached to modes of oral and manuscript communication—lectures, moderated conversations, correspondence, and shared journals—that both stimulated and were stimulated by the printed word. The coexistence of these interconnected forms of expression engendered a significant body of primary documentation in both manuscript and print.
Long after the deaths of Emerson, Thoreau, and their comrades in thought, their manuscripts, papers, and early editions of their works became the raw material for research and the desiderata of collectors, but the process was gradual. It began with the efforts of those who had known the Transcendentalists personally and tended their memory by stewarding their manuscripts and editing them for publication. After Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850, Emerson collaborated with William Henry Channing and James Freeman Clarke to compile Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (published in 1852), which incorporated passages from Fuller’s surviving manuscripts. In 1874, Sophia Thoreau deposited her brother’s journal volumes, notebooks, and other manuscripts (including his property surveys and fields notes) in the newly-established Concord Free Public Library. When she died in 1876, Thoreau’s friend Harrison Gray Otis Blake inherited all but the surveys and field notes, which were bequeathed to Concord’s library. Miss Thoreau also gave the library several dozen books from her brother’s personal collection. Thoreau’s previously unpublished work was edited for publication after his death (1862) by Sophia, Emerson, Blake, Ellery Channing, and Frank Sanborn. Emerson’s literary executor and biographer James Elliot Cabot organized and cataloged the great man’s manuscripts and supervised the publication of his complete writings. Frank Sanborn edited titles by Thoreau and by Ellery Channing (both rather too freely, by modern editorial standards) and, drawing on manuscripts to which he had free access, prepared books on Thoreau, Alcott, Emerson, and Channing.
For materials to become collectible, there must be a market for them. Most of the New England Transcendentalists were not particularly collectible in their own time. As a very public intellectual and a household name in America and abroad, Emerson alone surpassed the small, elite audience to which Transcendental writers generally appealed. With the slow development of American literature as an academic discipline, the literary output of the movement gradually attained broader interest and research value.
In 1924, the Stephen H. Wakeman Collection of nineteenth-century American writers was sold at auction at the American Art Galleries in New York. The Wakeman Collection contained manuscripts, letters, first editions, and inscribed and personal copies of printed books. Some of the Emerson and Thoreau items in it sold at higher prices than anyone could have predicted just a few years before. As the twentieth century advanced, American books and manuscripts continued to rise in price both as their research usefulness intensified and as aging readers began purchasing holographs and first editions of titles by favorite authors of their youth. Societies were formed to encourage recognition and study of Thoreau (1941), Emerson (1989), and Fuller (1992). In the latter half of the century, bibliographical studies and definitive scholarly editions further highlighted the research and market value of manuscript and printed materials. The University of Pittsburgh issued a series of descriptive bibliographies that included volumes on the writings of Emerson and Thoreau. The National Endowment for the Humanities committed major funding to the Princeton Edition of Thoreau’s writings (now known as the Thoreau Edition) as well as to editions of Emerson’s writings and Fuller’s letters. At the outset of the twenty-first century, digital initiatives have increased awareness of the importance of a variety of document types to understanding the work and the world of nineteenth-century writers.
As interest in Transcendental authors has waxed, rich private and institutional collections of their manuscript and printed legacy have been gathered. Often the efforts of private collectors come to enrich the holdings of publicly accessible research libraries and archives, through either gift, purchase, or a combination of both. The Concord Free Public Library was founded in 1873 as something of a shrine to Transcendentalism. Over time, sustained donor generosity and judicious purchasing have made it a major nineteenth-century research collection. In 1909, J. Pierpont Morgan purchased Thoreau’s manuscript journals, which now form one jewel in a multi-faceted library and museum open to scholars. The Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association deposited Emerson’s manuscripts, private library, and family papers in Harvard’s Houghton Library (founded in 1942). Clifton Waller Barrett’s collection, formed with the assistance of the Seven Gables Bookshop in New York, was dedicated at the University of Virginia in 1960, and includes major holdings of Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau. Later in the twentieth century, in researching and extensively publishing on Transcendentalism, Joel Myerson—Carolina Distinguished Professor of American Literature at the University of South Carolina (now Emeritus)—built up a significant personal collection that was acquired by the university over a period of years under a gift/purchase agreement.
Collectors of all types rely on a network of connections to locate and obtain material within their scope. The relationships between private collectors, dealers, institutions, donors, scholars, and authors’ descendants are complex. Those who buy, sell, or seek materials within a well-defined subject area like Transcendentalism depend on one another for information, access, and good will. Cooperation in passing along tips on available items and collaboration in combining resources via publication, exhibition, and Web presentation benefit private and institutional collectors alike, as well as those who sell rare and unique items and those who need them for scholarship.
In some ways, the recent popularity of online auctions has complicated the task of collectors. Uninformed sellers who know that they can make more money by offering items individually rather than in clusters break up collections, destroying context. Buyers uninterested in research are tempted by the thrill of the chase and the ease of placing a bid to go after items that, if won, may well remain inaccessible to scholars forever. Moreover, the tendency to approach cultural heritage as a commodity to be sold at the highest price works against the underlying principles of intelligent collecting. In the essay “Experience,” Emerson himself underscored the priority of meaning over monetary value: “A collector recently bought at public auction, in London, for one hundred and fifty-seven guineas, an autograph of Shakespeare; but for nothing a school-boy can read Hamlet and can detect secrets of highest concernment yet unpublished therein."
Serious collecting requires subject knowledge, respect for content and for the coherence of organic collections, and the discipline to build on strength, deliberately, over time. The exhibition “Collecting Transcendentalism”—a collaboration of the Concord Free Public Library and the Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth-Century American Literature at the University of South Carolina—explores the development of two important research collections that document the work of the New England Transcendentalists and suggests some of the challenges and satisfactions of thoughtful collection-building.
1. Display poster: text against background photograph by Alfred Winslow Hosmer of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and William Torrey Harris on grounds of Orchard House and Hillside Chapel (Concord School of Philosophy), [ca. 1885].