In the summer of 1869, Transcendentalist philosopher, essayist, and famed Concordian Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was presented with a challenging task. Harvard College assigned him to obtain donations from fellow members of the Class of 1821. The College wished to raise a sum of $500,000, a substantial sum even today.
Emerson did not rush to this task, remembering how few of his classmates had chipped in a few years earlier, when he sought donations towards the building of Harvard’s Memorial Hall.
On June 1, Emerson wrote to a number of his fellow alumni, including former Massachusetts state representative Charles W. Upham (1802-1875). Houghton recently acquired this unpublished letter. Describing the situation, Emerson wrote, “I found my name on the Committee to work in obtaining subscriptions for the proposed sum of $500,000 to be raised in ten years by the friends of Harvard College, to lift it out of a poverty which is becoming ridiculous…I write today to the best friends the College has in our distinguished band…Can you & will you act in this?”
Pages 4 and 1 of the letter (click on the images to enlarge them):
Pages 2 & 3:
In addition to this newly-acquired letter, Houghton’s collection includes a number of both Emerson’s letters to his classmates and his classmates’ replies. In a letter to classmate William Bradley Dorr (1803-1875), worded very similarly to his letter to Upham (they were written the same day), Emerson wrote, “I went to [Benjamin] Reed, & he was well disposed. I went to [John Lowell] Gardner, & he at once told me that he would give five thousand dollars. [James Russell] Lowell promised $500, but I understand he will now give 1000…I write today to Upham…” (bMS Am 1189)
In his reply to Emerson, Edward Kent (1802-1877) wrote: “I am fully satisfied that our old mother is ‘in distress & in need of immediate relief‘” (emphasis Kent’s) (bMS Am 1280 (1766)).
Whether Emerson succeeded in raising all the money he needed still needs to be determined; both the reports of President Charles Eliot and Treasurer of Harvard do not mention this rather alarming deficit.
In MS Am 1189. Purchased with funds from the Ralph Waldo Emerson Fund.
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