Emerson Photo Emerson & Thoreau

A Beautiful Friendship

Thoreau photo

June 6, 2000 Edited by Peter Y. Chou


Emerson & Thoreau

Emerson became acquainted with Thoreau in 1837 when he was 34 and Thoreau a 20-year old Harvard senior. On Sunday, April 9, 1837, Mrs. Lucy Brown who was boarding at Thoreau's parents' house on Main Street in Concord, brought Thoreau to visit her brother-in-law, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau had read Emerson's Nature in April and again in June 1837. Thoreau began his journal on October 22, 1837 evidently at Emerson's urging at their next meeting in late October 1837 when Emerson shared his huge library with him. Thoreau first appears in Emerson's Journal on February 11, 1838. In his entry of February 17, 1838, Emerson comments on Thoreau's “simplicity & clear perception” and records his walk with Thoreau on April 26, 1838. It's interesting on those two meetings with Thoreau, Emerson went out again at night for a stroll under the stars to listen to the wind, a frog & Nature.

We find this lively interaction between Emerson and Thoreau in Robert D. Richardon's Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995):

A visitor in 1852 named John Albee has left the fullest description of how Emerson and Thoreau got along together in public. Thoreau was already at Emerson's when Albee arrived. “He was much at home with Emerson: and as he remained through the afternoon and evening, and I left him still at the fire side, he appeared to me to belong in some way to the household.” Emerson continually deferred to Thoreau, Albee recalled, “and seemed to anticipate his views, preparing himself obviously for a quiet laugh at Thoreau's negative and biting criticism, especially in regard to education and educational institutions.” Albee had come to find out how to get the best kind of education.

Emerson pleaded always for the college; said he himself had entered at fourteen. This aroused the wrath of Thoreau, who would not allow any good to the college course. And here it seemed to me Emerson said things on purpose to draw Thoreau's fire and to amuse himself. When the curriculum at Cambridge was alluded to, and Emerson casually remarked that most of the branches of learning were taught there, Thoreau seized one of his opportunities and replied “Yes indeed, all the branches and none of the roots.” At this Emerson laughed heartily... in the evening Thoreau devoted himself wholly to the children and the parching of corn by the open fire.

— John Albee, Remembrances of Emerson,
      Robert G. Cooke, 1901, NY, pp. 18-19, 22

Emerson's Journal

At the "teachers' meeting" last night my good Edmund [Hosmer] after disclaiming any wish to difference Jesus from a human mind suddenly seemed to alter his tone & said that Jesus made the world & was the Eternal God. Henry Thoreau merely remarked that "Mr Hosmer had kicked the pail over." I delight much in my young friend, who seems to have as free & erect a mind as any I have ever met. He told as we walked this afternoon a good story about a boy who went to school with him, Wentworth, who resisted the school mistress' command that the children should bow to Dr Heywood & other gentlemen as they went by, and when Dr Heywood stood waiting & cleared his throat with a Hem! Wentworth said, "You need not hem, Doctor; I shan't bow."

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, February 11, 1838

My good Henry Thoreau made this else solitary afternoon sunny with his simplicity & clear perception. How comic is simplicity in this doubledealing quacking world. Every thing that boy says makes merry with society though nothing can be graver than his meaning. I told him he should write out the history of his College life as Carlyle has his tutoring. We agreeed that the seeing the stars through a telescope would be worth all the Astronomical lectures. Then he described Mr. Quimby's electrical lecture here & the experiment of the shock & added that "College Corporations are very blind to the fact that that twinge in the elbow is worth all the lecturing." Tonight I walked under the stars through the snow & stopped & looked at my far sparklers & heard the voice of the wind so slight & pure & deep as if it were the sound of the stars themselves revolving.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, February 17, 1838

Yesterday P.M. I went to the Cliff with Henry Thoreau. warm, pleasant, misty weather which the great mountain amphitheatre seemed to drink in with gladness. A crow's voice filled all the miles of air with sound. A bird's voice, even a piping frog enlivens a solitude & makes world enough for us. At night I went out into the dark & saw a glimmering star & hear a frog & Nature seemed to say Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, & not like the foolish world hanker after thunders & multitudes & vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, April 26, 1838

Yesterday with Henry T. at the pond... I hear the account of the man who lives in the wilderness of Maine with respect, but with despair... Henry's hermit, 45 miles from the nearest house, [is not] important, until we know what he is now, what he thinks of it on his turn, & after a year. Perhaps he has found it foolish & wasteful to spend a tenth or a twentieth of his active life with a muskrat & fried fishes.

My dear Henry,
A frog was made to live in a swamp,
but a man was not made to live in a swamp.
Yours ever, R.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, May 11, 1858

Henry T. remains erect, calm, self-subsistent, before me, and I read him not only truly in his Journal, but he is not long out of mind when I walk, and, as today, row upon the pond. He chose wisely no doubt for himself to be the bachelor of thought & nature that he was— how near to the old monks in their ascetic religion! He had no talent for wealth, & knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance. Perhaps he fell, all of us do, into his way of living, without forecasting it much, but approved & confirmed it with later wisdom.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, June-July, 1862

In reading Henry Thoreau's Journal, I am very sensible of the vigor of his constitution. That oaken strength which I noted whenever he walked or worked or surveyed wood lots, the same unhesitating hand with which a field-laborer accosts a piece of work which I should shun as a waste of strength. Henry shows in his literary task. He has muscle, & ventures on & performs feats which I am forced to decline. In reading him, I find the same thought, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond, & illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generality. 'Tis as if I went into a gymnasium, & saw youths leap, climb, & swing with a force unapproachable— though their feats are only continuations of my initial grapplings & jumps.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, June, 1863

Thoreau's Journal

“What are you doing now?” he asked. “Do you keep a journal?” So I make my first entry to-day. To be alone I find it necessary to escape the present— I avoid myself. How could I be alone in the Roman emperor's chamber of mirrors? I seek a garret. The spiders must not be disturbed, nor the floor swept, nor the lumber arranged.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, October 22, 1837

At R.W.E.'s. The charm of the Indian to me is that he stands free and unconstrained in Nature, is her inhabitant and not her guest, and wears her easily and gracefully. But the civilized man has the habits of the house. His house is a prison, in which he finds himself oppressed and confined, not sheltered and protected. He walks as if he sustained the roof; he carries his arms as if the walls would fall in and crush him, and his feet remember the cellar beneath. His muscles are never relaxed. It is rare that he overcomes the house, and learns to sit at home in it, and roof and floor and walls support themselves, as the sky and trees and earth. It is a great art to saunter.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Monday, April 26, 1841

Emerson again is a critic, poet philosopher, with talent not so conspicuous, not so adequate to his task; but his field is still higher, his task more arduous. Lives a far more intense life; seeks to realize a divine life; his affections and intellect equally developed. Has advanced farther, and a new heaven opens to him. Love and Friendship, Religion, Poetry, the Holy are familiar to him. The life of an Artist; mover variegated, more observing, finer perception; not so robust, elastic; practical enough in his own field; faithful, a judge of men. There is no such general critic of men and things, no such trustworthy and faithful man. More of the divine realized in him than in any: A poetic critic, reserving the unqualified nouns for the gods.

Emerson has special talents unequalled. The divine in man has had no more easy, methodically distinct expression. His personal influence upon young persons greater than any man's. In his world every man would be a poet, Love would reign, Beauty would take place, Man and Nature would harmonize.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Undated 1845-47.

Talked, or tried to talk, with R.W.E. Lost my time— nay, almost my identity. He assuming a false opposition where there was no difference of opinion, talked to the wind— told me what I knew— and I lost my time trying to imagine myself somebody else to oppose him.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, May 24, 1853

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