Ralph Waldo Emerson Handwritten Letter Found at the Brown University Library

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A previously unknown original letter of Ralph Waldo Emerson was recently discovered in the Library’s holdings when a patron brought a book to the Circulation Desk at the Rockefeller Library for check out. Penina Posner, a member of the Circulation staff in the Rockefeller Library, immediately noticed two peculiarities about the book. First, the book had never been catalogued. And second, it had what appeared to be an original letter by Emerson tucked into its pages. Thinking the letter might be one of importance, Posner brought the book and its contents to the attention of colleagues in special collections. They agreed the letter appeared to be authored by Emerson himself and sought out experts for verification.

In the letter, dated December 23, 1868 from Concord, Massachusetts, Emerson writes to J. W. Bailey, Treasurer of the Union for Christian Work, to thank him for sending a check, and concludes, “I learned much in my first visit to the great honor of the founders & friends of the Union for Christian Work.” It is signed “RWaldo Emerson.” The signature matches that on a check written by Emerson to his daughter Ellen, held in the Koopman Collection at the John Hay Library. The handwriting has also been confirmed as Emerson’s by curatorial staff at the Concord Free Public Library, where Emerson’s papers reside.

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​The letter, written when Emerson was 65, describes his visit to Providence, Rhode Island late in 1868. The organization Emerson visited, the ​Union for Christian Work, was founded at Providence that year by Henry Richmond Chace and other local volunteers to care for homeless boys living on the streets of the city. It offered “an activity room, reading room, classroom, and meeting room as well as security and a ‘home away from home’ atmosphere.” Initially, facilities were scarce, so most of the early club meetings were apparently held in Congregational churches. Eventually, the UCW had a facility at the corner of Eddy and Broad Streets. It continued operating under this name well into the 20th century and is considered a precursor to the Boys & Girls Clubs, according to the website of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

The Emerson letter will be collated with other Emerson correspondence already on file in the Manuscripts division at the John Hay Library and may be seen by appointment. To request an appointment, please send an email to manuscripts@brown.edu.