Our movies and literature are full of heroes these days. They often have superpowers that lift them out of the ordinary mold, and their challenges are equally out of the ordinary, with circumstances or cosmic karma pitting them against world-destroying cosmic evils.
It’s all very exciting, but it isn’t very useful when what I really need is a model to emulate in my day-to-day life. From the time I was about eight years old, I’ve turned to Jo March, second sister, point of view character, and perhaps the “hero” of Little Women. Jo was someone I could really relate to. She was a tomboy, fighting the constraints of “proper lady-like behavior”. She loved reading, and hated doing chores. She wanted to write. She chafed against the reality of not having enough money to do all things she would have liked to do, and then felt guilty because she had a roof over her head and enough food when others she knew did not.
And she had a temper that often got her in trouble, which she struggled to control, from the first chapter of Little Women to the last chapters of Jo’s Boys. I have read Marmee’s advice to Jo at least a hundred times; I’m still working on following it.
I got a lot of mileage out of Jo, fictional though she was. When I had the opportunity to visit Concord as an adult, the Alcotts’ Orchard House was first on my list of tours.
Second was The Old Manse. Built by William Emerson, grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it passed into the Ripley family when William’s widow married Ezra Ripley. Ralph Waldo lived there for a year as a young man, before his own marriage led him to set up housekeeping in the Emerson House. Later, Nathaniel Hawthorne rented the house and lived there while he wrote the short stories that collectively became Mosses from an Old Manse. When he moved in with his new bride, Henry David Thoreau planted their kitchen garden to welcome them to Concord.
At some point in my Old Manse tour, the docent asked what we each did for a living. I mentioned that I taught several different sciences on line, and her face lit up with enthusiasm. “Oh, then you must learn about Sarah Bradford Ripley!” she exclaimed. “That’s the bookshelf where she kept her books, and some of them are still there!”
Finding out about Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley at the time was not all that easy. There were no biographies available, and few articles. All I knew from the tour was that she helped her husband run a school to prepare boys for Yale and Harvard, and that at her death, her pupil Geoarge Hoar, who went on to become U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, called her one of the most wonderful scholars of her time. Here, perhaps, was someone to learn about and emulate.
Although I only discovered it recently, Joan Goodwin published a biography, The Remarkable Mrs. Ripley: The Life of Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley shortly after my trip to Concord. Sarah herself, never published articles or books, but she wrote volumes of letters and kept diaries, and her family and those of her recipients kept many of these and shared them with Goodwin. Reading through her life’s story, I am humbled and inspired.
At the age of seven, Sarah asked her father if she could study Latin, and when he replied, “Certainly, study anything you like!”, she took him at his word. For several years, she worked with local tutors, then was able to attend boarding school and study Latin there, but her mother’s failing health and the absence of her father on long sea voyages made it impossible for her to stay at school, and her formal education ended. At home, though, while caring for her younger brothers and sisters, she continued to work her way through Latin classics, and began studying Greek, reading Homer and checking her understanding against a Latin translation of the Iliad given her by a local minister. For exercise, she ranged through the fields around her home, collecting and learning to identify all the plants she found. Until her death, her friends, family, and pupils sent her cuttings from all over the world, and New England botanists sought her help identifying specimens. She read botany, astronomy, chemistry, and physics texts, as well as English works in history, philosophy, and literature; she studied mathematics and its applications, and discussed anything and everything with anyone else who was interested.
When she married Samuel Ripley, the minister at Waltham, she was well equipped both to run his house and school, which eventually included nine of their own children and fourteen boarders. It became a center of intellectual society, connected as the Ripleys were to the Emersons, Thoreau, the faculty of Harvard, the ministers in charge of congregations throughout Boston and its environs, and the entire Transcendentalist movement. Her letters describe her exhaustion at baking pies for the hoards of company who would descend on the household each Sunday. To keep everything going, she learned to multitask. One of her students later described her sitting in her kitchen, rocking a cradle with her foot while shelling peas and listening to him recite his Greek lesson, which she corrected with out reference to any text.
If nothing else, I would like to learn time management from her.
The descriptions of her by her contemporaries emphasize her enthusiasm for learning, and her complete lack of pretension. She loved discussing ideas. One of the recurring expressions in Goodwin’s citations is that when any of her friends had the opportunity, they would invite vistors to come with them to visit her: “Oh, you must come and meet the remarkable Mrs. Ripley!” From these descriptions, it is clear that she had no desire to puff herself up, or put anyone else down. She simply wanted to learn, and wanted those around her to share that enthusiasm. When her friends traveled to Germany to study, she learned German and read German philosophers so that she could keep up with them. When Margaret Fuller proposed a Conversations series for women to meet and continue their higher education, Sarah was an ardent participant.
Sarah’s own honesty as she learned and contemplated what she read shows she was not without frustration and self-doubt. She wrestled constantly with her own religious conflicts when orthodox Christianity demanded faith and her own spirit demanded observation and experience. She withdrew from any public debate over the abolition of slavery: she could not condone owning another human being, but she saw no political solution that did not involve bloodshed (and indeed, her own son died as a Union soldier). Loyal to friends and family and former students, many of whom were from southern families, she prayed that none of them would kill each other in battle, and grieved at the loss of such promising lives whenever she received news that one of her students had been killed.
So, Jo, you may need to move over. I was intrigued at first by the docent’s report of Sarah’s academic accomplishments. But I am now challenged by her other accomplishments: a modesty and humility for her own work, an enthusiasm for the accomplishments of others, a dedication to teaching both Greek and moral discipline. She seems to have recognized her duty, called it friend, and proceded to meet it with grace and humility.
Is this not worth emulation?