Thoreau & Emerson

If there are two names which will be immediately associated with the expansion of our awareness of the world of Nature and the development of a scientific and political Ecology, they will be Gilbert White in the remote shire of Selborne, England in the l780's, and Henry David Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts some sixty years later. English language studies in biology had been pursued since the early 17th century, but the idea of a generalized observation of a given site with all its divergent forms of life was something new, and it made a great mark on the thinking of the evolved post-industrial world of the 20th century. We have learned to use our eyes and our minds when walking in the woods, recording the subtle changes which are taking place even as human populations overflow and be-swarm the planet. Nature studies are still a pleasure for the observing walker, but they are also a warning for overstepping industries which believe profit is their purpose without regard to what they leave behind. We all know this so well that I hardly need speak further.

Thoreau lived in the world of the Concord Transcendalists, although he was not of their group and had very different ideas from that curious group of advanced radicals who thought they could set marks for changing the world. In this setting Ralph Waldo Emerson was a central figure as philosopher, author and brilliant lecturer as the years went on. It was in the late l830's that a meeting between the then guru and a young man, some fifteen years his junior, who has opted out of his family's interest in running their pencil factory, to walk the woods and fields around Concord as his occupation, building a small shack as a retreat for a two years period of pregnant solitude. But as Thoreau has become a by-name for Nature Study, the reputation of Emerson has somehow receded into the history of mid-19th century America, with his long train of books and essays giving mere hints of the dynamic personality of the brilliant lecturer traveling the Eastern States in his buggy with an armful of notebooks. If his ideas were not always clear, his face and voice were absolutely striking and memorable, although that part of the Emerson legend, like the improvisatory legend of Sebastian Bach, is only recorded in a handful of contemporary comments.

Emerson's son Edward Waldo Emerson (1844-1930), who attended Harvard Medical School and edited his father's collected works years later, published a curious little book of reminiscences and notes as "Emerson in Concord" in l888/. This seems to have been rare enough to be surprisingly absent from the searchable booksellers lists now current. I happened to be musing over a copy of this book which had been on my shelf for years, and was surprised to find a reference to the first meetings of Thoreau and Emerson, with Emerson's comment on his young new friend. I found these few pages too interesting to be left in the book as I closed it, so am copying it here as a minor document of some interest to those of us concerned with Thoreau and his work. I may have been sensitized to Thoreau and Walden in part by once having in my hands Thoreau's copy with his marginal notes, a prize item in Middlebury's Abernethy Collection. Everything about Thoreau and Walden has a certain air of magic these days.

The following marked section is from Edward Emerson's book "Emerson in Concord", with Ralph Emerson's words in the usual quotes:

The history of Mr. Emerson's first acquaintance with Mr. Thoreau is this. When the former was delivering a new lecture in Concord, Miss Helen Thoreau said to Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Emerson's sister "There is a thought almost identical with that in Henry's journal," which she soon after brought to Mrs. Brown. The latter carried it to Mr. Emerson, who was interested, and asked her to bring this youth to see him. She did, and thus began a relation that lasted all their lives of strong respect and even affection, but of a Roman character.

In 1838 he writes: "I delight much in my young friend who seems to have as free and erect a mind as any I have ever met."

Mr. Thoreau stood the severest test of friendship, having been once an inmate of Mr. Emerson's house for two years. He was a little troublesome a member of the household, with his habits of plain living and high thinking, as could well have been, and in the constant absences of the master of the house in his lecturing trips, the presence there of such a friendly and sturdy inmate was a great comfort. He was "handy' with tools, and there was no limit to his usefulness and ingenuity about house and garden. To animals he was as humane as a woman. But was by no means unsocial, but a kindly and affectionate person, especially to children, whom he could ceaselessly amuse and charm in the most novel and delightful ways. With grown persons he had tact and high courtesy, although with reserve. But folly or pretense or cant or subserviency excited his formidable attack, and like Lancelot he would:

    Strike down the lusty and long practiced knight
    And let the younger and unskilled go by
    to win his honor and to make his name.

But also with those whom he honored and valued like his friend Emerson, a certain combative instinct and love of paradox on his part often interfered with the fullest enjoyment of conversation, so that his friend says of him, "Thoreau is, with difficulty, sweet." In spite of these barriers of temperament, my father always held him, as a man, in the highest honor. He delighted to being led to the inner shrines of the wood-gods by this man, clear-eyed and true enough to be trusted with their secrets, who filled the portrait of the Forest-seer of the Woodnotes, although these lines were writen before their author came to know Thoreau.

In 1852, writing to a friend whom he would induce to come to Concord, Mr Emerson says: ----

"If Corinna or the Delphic Sibyl were here, would you not come with breathless speed? Yet I told you that Elizabeth Hoar was here, and you come not. If old Pan were here you would come, and we have young Pan under another name, whom you shall see, and hear his reeds if you tarry not." And earlier the journal celebrates this invaluable new-found guide: ----

"I am sometimes discontented with my house, because it lies on a dusty road and with its sills and cellar almost in the water of the meadow. But when I creep out of it into the night or morning and see what tender and majestic beauties wrap me in their bosom, how near to me is every transcendent secret of Nature's love and religion, I see how different it is where I eat and sleep. This very street of hucksters and taverns the moon will transform into a Palmyra, for she is the apologist of all apologists and will kiss the elm-trees alone, and hides every meanness in silver edged darkness. Then the good river-god has taken the form of my valiant Henry Thoreau here, and introduced me to the riches of his shadowy starlit, moonlit stream, a lovely new world lying as close and yet as unknown to this vulgar trite one of streets and shops, as death to life, or poetry to prose. Through one field we went to the boat, and then left all time, all science, all history behind us and entered into nature with one stroke of a paddle. Take care, good friend! I said, and I looked West into the sunset overhead and underneath and he, with his face toward me, rowed toward it, ---- Take care: you know not what you do, dipping your wooden oar into this enchanted liquid, painted with all reds and purples and yellows, which glows under and behind you. Presently the glory faded and the stars came and said, Here we are . . . . . These beguiling stars, soothsaying, flattering, persuading, who, though their promise was yet never made good in human experience, are not to be contradicted, not to be insulted, nay, not even to be disbelieved by us. All experience is against them, yet their word is Hope and shall forever leave experience a liar."

The year after his friend's death he read his manuscript journals, submitted to him by Miss Sophia Thoreau, with great pleasure and almost surprise, and wrote out in his own ---

"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 would shun as a waste of strength, Henry shows in his literary task. He has muscle, and ventures on and performs feats which I am forced to decline. In reading him I find the same thoughts, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond and illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed by a sweeping generalization. Tis as I went into a gymnasium and saw youths leap and climb and swing with a force unapproachable, though their feats are only continuations of my initial grapplings and jumps."

Edward Emerson goes on to objec to the attack on Thoreau by James Russell Lowell's essay on Thoreau, in which he accuses him of imitating Emerson in thought and word, and attacks him apparently on a personal level as vulgar and somehow unhealthy. Apparently he touched on the matter of male emotional relationships, which were then unmentionable although now the subjectcalls forth eager historical investigation, of which this summary on 19th century American homosexuality can be noted as a brief introduction.

What I find interesting here is the fact that a number of creative thinkers in 19th century America were so direct in finding a way to register a range of emotions which in their personal repertoire, could not be expressed within the confines of contemporary marriage. At the present time we tend to see homosexuality as an in-built trait, possibly of genetic origin. But in a sexually repressive society like that of the mentally free but personally tight Transcendentalists, it is no surprise to find male relationships developing as a natural framework for imaginative and artistic thinking. When Edward Emerson says about Thoreau and Emerson's first meeting, that "thus began a relation that lasted all their lives of strong respect and even affection, but of a Roman character", he had clearly read through his father's intimate journals, which he was about to edit and publish fifteen years later, and certainly must have had impressions of his own about the tone of their relationship.

It is interesting that the volume from which I took the above passages was in the possession of a young lady from Boston in 1904, from her dated signature inside the cover, and although she made no notes in the margin elsewhere, she drew a strong pencil line beside the passage I have quoted above, which apparently interested her. I question whether she was thinking of male homosexuality in a day when Freud had hardly made a mark in Vienna let alone at Boston. So it must have been the emotional quality of the passages in Emerson's writing which focused her attention, and I suspect that she thought the suggestion of feelings between the two men to be admirable and wholesome. Were a man and a woman to paddle out in the evening on a pond lighted by the evening sunset, would this not be acceptable and in fact quite lovely? Did she feel that because it was two men in a boat the situation was twisted and reprehensible, in Mr Lowell's hostile and critical words "low-life and unhealthy"?

I would not want to go back and update Miss Mary's opinions, telling her our new truth about the situation, because our penchant for searching out homosexual traits in literary history is not at all in the direction of telling the truth. We have a fashion in recent years now turning into an obsession, about discovering homosexuality, which is not a great deal different from the searching out of Adultery in the age of Hawthorne. This search gives prime place to the result, and we turn the whole of history lopsided by testing everyone on the basis of sexual preference, ending up by conflating sexual personality with the larger dimension of personality.

As Melville knew from his years on board ship, there is a kind of homosexuality which results from deprivation, which is also a common happening in any army under stress. This may also apply to a period on any society in which the roles of men and women are so formalized and restricted that neither men nor women can get the full advantage of emotional contagion from the opposite gender. In l9th century America the roles of man and woman were considered first in terms of family and mutual amily responsibilities. The husband was to provide shelter and income, the wife's duty was to run a household thriftily, to raise a brood of children despite high infant mortality, and to be comforting to her man personally and psychologically. Warmth was of course good but a marginal extra, and deep emotional feelings and imaginative mind-play were only found in the small minority of the educated few. In such a setting, men might find better emotional contact with other men and Emerson was apparently looking for something of this kind in his imaginative relationship with Thoreau. Just so Emily Dickinson might better find a deep relationship with a woman rather than bind herself with a man whose idea of marriage was conventionally limited and constructed on the single track of traditional contract.

It is always interesting to discover something new, and when I browsed Edward Emerson's book pulled from the back of a shelf, I had no information about the homosexual inquisition having touched either Thoreau or Emerson. Reading the passages I have quoted, I agree with what Boston's Miss W. must have thought, that they are finely written and show an admirable openness of mind and feeling. Only as I read on did I wonder if modern literary Critics had already turned their investigative sex-scope on Thoreau and his guru. Reading the passages again, I must stick with my first appreciation of good words coming from meaningful relationships, and having carefully erased the young lady's pencil lines which I found in the margin when I first opened the book (which I do not wholly understand) I decided to get a soft pencil and put them back where they belong. Truth is a long process and a point like 1904 at the beginning of a new century would be as good a place to halt and look around to get one's bearings. It would be just as good as today at the start of a new millennium, with our new fashions of amateur psychological criticism, standing where we are in the course of time exactly one hundred years later.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College