The intellectual and emotional bond between two major 19th-century writers is revealed in their own words.
When they first met in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the acclaimed author of Nature, his first essay collection, and had launched his career as a public lecturer; Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), just graduated from Harvard and living in Concord, Massachusetts, soon was pulled into Emerson’s orbit. The two men took long walks together, and Thoreau often was found at Emerson’s dinner table. The connection between them was noticeable: Friends commented on Thoreau’s “unconscious imitation” of the cadences of Emerson’s speech. “Mr. Emerson does talk like my Henry,” Thoreau’s mother remarked. For the next 25 years, they enjoyed a rare, fertile friendship. “Their influence was, from the very beginning, mutual,” writes Cramer (editor: Essays by Henry D. Thoreau: A Fully Annotated Edition, 2013, etc.). Editor of many works by Emerson and Thoreau and curator of collections at the Walden Woods Project’s Thoreau Institute, Cramer brings both authority and sensitivity to his biographical overview and to a judicious selection of excerpts from the men’s prolific writings. Emerson thought Thoreau “uncommon in mind and character”; Thoreau’s praise of Emerson was effusive: “More of the divine realized in him than in any,” he wrote in his journal in 1846. Both men prized friendship as a meeting of minds and as emotional sustenance. “Friendship,” Emerson wrote, “should be a great promise, a perennial springtime.” From Thoreau, he received a gift: “in flesh and blood and pertinacious Saxon belief, my own ethics.” Despite shared admiration, their friendship was not without tensions. Thoreau often was unsatisfied, “discouraged so far as my relation to him is concerned.” At times, he felt unrecognized and disappointed. “Talked, or tried to talk, with Emerson,” he complained in 1853. Emerson found Thoreau lacking drive—“instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party”—and often reticent, even cold. Thoreau, he remarked, after the younger man died, “was with difficulty sweet.”
A deeply sympathetic dual biography.