Friday night and Saturday went pretty well as far as my part in the network merger goes. It went so well in fact, that I didn’t have to work today like I thought I would. As a result, I was able to read Emerson.
Emerson wrote Thoreau as a eulogy after Thoreau died at the age of 44 from tuberculosis. Emerson was 59 and the essay is his last sustained piece of writing. The essay is beautifully written, a tribute to his best friend and someone Emerson thought a superior person. It is a deeply felt and intimate portrait and considered one of the best pieces ever written on Thoreau.
The essay begins straightforwardly by giving the usual biographical details:
Henry David Thoreau was the last male descendant of a French ancestor who came to this country from the Isle of Guernsey….He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 12th of July, 1817. He was graduated at Harvard College in 1837, but without any literary distinction.
After college Thoreau taught private school with his elder brother, John Jr. who died in 1841 from tetanus. Thoreau didn’t teach long at the school and turned to working for his father, a pencil manufacturer. He designed a better pencil than was being made at time. Everyone assumed he had it made, he’d found his work, but Thoreau told them all that he “should never make another pencil” because he couldn’t see the point in doing again what he had already done once.
Emerson praises Thoreau for his courage at not pursuing a profession to which he had no affinity for the sake of duty or satisfying friends and family; for declining to “to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well.” When he needed money, Thoreau preferred short-term work doing manual labor. Eventually, however, he earned a sufficient income as a land-surveyor.
Thoreau never married, never went to church, never voted. He did not drink wine or smoke and was a vegetarian (he ate no flesh which might mean he still ate fish but I could find not any specifics). Thoreau liked to say “no” and Emerson admired him for it to a point but thought his renunciations and withdrawals went a bit overboard. It is not hard to imagine how Thoreau, who tended toward the hermetic, could needle Emerson who believed we needed a balance between society and solitude. Of course it went both ways because Thoreau thought Emerson spent too much time in the world.
But Thoreau had a certain rigidity in his character that Emerson describes thusly:
There was somewhat military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise
And then Emerson does something curious, he quotes one of Thoreau’s friends as saying, “I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.” That friend, was Emerson who wrote the quotation in his journal after his friendship with Thoreau experienced a major rift.
They had had quarrels and rifts before but they had always been minor and they made up pretty quickly. This rift, however, was different. There was no one thing that caused it, rather is was a build up of tensions between the two that finally became too much. In 1849, Emerson returned from a year abroad, most of that time spent in England on a lecture tour that resulted in Emerson’s lecture series and book English Traits. Thoreau had lived most of that year in Emerson’s house with Emerson’s wife, Lidian, and Emerson’s children. In spite of Thoreau’s prickliness and reserve with adults, he loved children and Emerson’s children adored Thoreau. Thoreau, who was 31, was also a bit overly fond of Lidian, sixteen years his senior. Though he never acknowledged he loved her, what else is one to think with diary entries and letters that say things like, “others are of my kindred by blood or of my acquaintance but you are mine” (Richardson, Emerson the Mind on Fire).
Between Thoreau becoming overly attached to Emerson’s family, Emerson’s enthusiasm for his trip and praise for the English (Thoreau was skeptical of this praise), they were already on shaky ground. Add to that the difficulty Emerson had in getting Thoreau’s book A Week published, its poor sales and Emerson telling Thoreau it was a weak book, Thoreau’s rigidity, and the high expectations the two men had of each other, the rift becomes no surprise. But this time they didn’t make up right away. This time they didn’t make up for two years. After their reconciliation, they remained good friends until Thoreau died in 1862. And in spite of everything, Emerson can still say
Thoreau was sincerity itself, and might fortify the convictions of prophets in the ethical laws by his holy living. It was an affirmative experience which refused to be set aside. A truth-speaker he, capable of the most deep and strict conversation; a physician to the wounds of any soul; a friend, knowing not only the secret of friendship, but almost worshipped by those few persons who reported to him as their confessor and prophet, and knew the deep value of his mind and great heart. He thought that without religion or devotion of some kind nothing great was ever accomplished: and he thought that the bigoted sectarian had better bear this in mind.
And while Emerson notes that Thoreau’s virtues “sometimes ran to extremes,” and his poetry wasn’t all that great, he praises him for being a “speaker and actor of the truth,” an idealist, a naturalist of the first order, a pleasure to walk with, an excellent observer, and a man who “lived for the day, not cumbered and mortified by his memory.” He says that there was “no truer American.”
Thoreau had good, rather serendipitous luck too. Emerson tells that
One day, walking with a stranger, who inquired where Indian arrowheads could be found, he replied, “Everywhere,” and, stooping forward, picked one on the instant from the ground. At Mount Washington, in Tuckerman’s Ravine, Thoreau had a bad fall, and sprained his foot. As he was in the act of getting up from his fall, he saw for the first time the leaves of the Arnica mollis.
Emerson says that Thoreau honored certain plants. There was a bass-tree Thoreau would visit every year in July when it bloomed. “He thought the scent a more oracular inquisition than the sight, more oracular and trustworthy. The scent, of course, reveals what is concealed from the other senses. By it he detected earthiness.”
In the essay Emerson includes a number of quotes from Thoreau that he gleaned from Thoreau’s journals and letters or that Thoreau said to him in conversation. A number of them reveal a surprising sense of humor:
“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.””The chub is a soft fish, and tastes like boiled brown paper salted.”
Or a certain poetry:
“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”
And of course, wisdom:
“How can we expect a harvest of thought who have not had a seed-time of character?””What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.”
Emerson always thought Thoreau lacked ambition, preferring to be “the captain of a huckleberry party” instead of “engineering for all America.” Nonetheless, Emerson concludes his essay eulogy:
The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst of his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that he should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.
Thoreau may have not had ambition, he may have died young with projects and plans uncompleted, but I’d say he still managed some “engineering for all America.”
Next week’s Emerson: Carlyle