Penn State Brandywine Professor of English Phyllis Cole was honored last month with the prestigious Distinguished Achievement Award of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. An active member of the group for more than two decades, Cole said the award was not only a surprise, but also humbling.
"The company I am in makes this a really significant honor," she said. "The people who have won this award are nationally and internationally-known Emerson scholars, at a time when Emerson's stock is very high. It's a recognition by a group of people I really value."
Cole is also only the second woman to receive the honor since the award was created in the early 90s by the society, which she called a "constituent author society of the American Literature Association."
The award was given to recognize Cole as a scholar of Ralph Waldo Emerson and "a good citizen of the society," for which she served as president from 2004-2006, but most of all to give praise to a book published 13 years ago--"Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism" (Oxford, 1998).
Cole explained that her book on Waldo's aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, explores the idea that while Waldo's philosophy revolved around the concept of originality and self-reliance, "he was original through his aunt. He even corresponded with her while at Harvard, and she was telling him which books to read. She pioneered in expressing the ideas of individualism and worship of God in nature that were later the creed of American Transcendentalism." Cole concluded that Emerson was more reliant on others than people realized. Her book focuses on Mary Moody's role in helping "Waldo become who he was. Before the "Father of the Literary Canon," as he's called, "was the woman."
Doing her research in the 1980s, Cole discovered that Mary Moody was a voluminous letter writer and even found in Harvard's Houghton Library her fifty-year-long diary, which at that time the university didn't realize it had.
"This was not only key to Waldo's growth but also an amazing, prodigious accomplishment by a woman of her era," Cole said. "Now women's diaries and letters have become a whole literary study." She said this unearthing of history was part of her own process of becoming a feminist.
Mary Moody's "Almanack," as she named her diary, is now being edited for publication by the Brown Women Writers project as part of a "huge online database," Cole said. "Others are doing that amazing work, but I'm glad to have prompted them to it."
With the award comes a certificate and medallion depicting Ralph Waldo Emerson's likeness, which Cole said she will wear proudly with her Penn State Brandywine cap and gown.