Review: The remarkable friendship of Emerson and Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson (Composite photo: Alison Hamilton/Wikimedia, iStock).

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were both preoccupied with the topic of friendship. In many cases, it is hard to differentiate between the two men’s ideas. Yet while Emerson writes explicitly of Thoreau, Thoreau mostly alludes to Emerson only through abstract expressions about friendship; direct references are rare. In Solid Seasons, Jeffrey S. Cramer explores the deep friendship between the two literary titans.

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Solid Seasonsby Jeffrey S. Cramer

Counterpoint Press. 368p $26

Biographers of 19th-century personalities have a rich storehouse of commonplace material that modern-day biographers may lack, in the form of letters and paper journals. In fact, “Thoreau’s journal contains around two million words; Emerson’s over three million.” Indeed, Emerson’s question to Thoreau if he kept a journal prompted Thoreau to begin keeping one. This is just one example of the profound influence that Emerson had not only on Thoreau’s writing but also on his everyday habits.

Those of us who have been blessed with mentors may know that marvelous feeling when the relationship evolves into friendship, and this seems to have been the case with Emerson and Thoreau.

For Emerson, friendship could be “entireness, a total magnanimity and trust.” To Thoreau, it encapsulated the “unspeakable joy and blessing that results to two or more individuals who from constitution sympathize.” For us as readers, it helps to remember that friendship is, ultimately, a Christian concept. “A sweet friendship refreshes the soul,” says the Book of Proverbs (27:9). And much of the Gospels consists of Jesus modeling how we should relate to others, with the lovingkindness that is the hallmark of a cherished friendship. Before the disciples were anything else to each other, they were friends, united by their following of the same itinerant preacher, who, in turn, became their friend, too. It is in sharing beliefs that many people come to be friends, and this was true for the disciples as they evolved into apostles.

Those of us who have been blessed with mentors may know that marvelous feeling when the relationship evolves into friendship, and this seems to have been the case with Emerson and Thoreau. The much older Emerson advocated on behalf of Thoreau in the early days of their relationship and then came to admire Thoreau as a greater talent than himself, a possibility that could only have come to be if he first thought of Thoreau as an equal.

At one point, Thoreau begins to doubt the friendship, and writes often of these questions in his journal. “During this period,” writes Cramer, “Thoreau was constantly writing of his personal turmoil about their friendship, while Emerson was, in comparison, relatively silent about it. He continued to recognize that Thoreau ‘gives me, in flesh and blood and pertinacious Saxon belief, my own ethics. He is far more real, and daily practically obeying them, than I; and fortifies my memory at all times with an affirmative experience which refuses to be set aside.’”

Thoreau: "Nothing makes the earth so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes."

“Friendship is evanescent in every man’s experience, and remembered like heat lightning in past summers. Fair and flitting like a summer cloud,—there is always some vapor in the air, no matter how long the drought, there are even April showers.” Thoreau wrote. “Surely from time to time, for its vestiges never depart, it floats through our atmosphere. It takes place, like vegetation in so many materials, because there is such a law, but always without permanent form, though ancient and familiar as the sun and moon, and as sure to come again.”

Cramer speculates that “perhaps Emerson avoided the despair that Thoreau felt because each of Emerson’s acquaintances contributed only one part of the whole that made up his family of friends.” Thoreau seems to concur about the way that friendships can expand our world, even if his was smaller than Emerson’s: “Nothing makes the earth so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.” Thinking of the friends I have met around the world does indeed make the world not only spacious, but closer, knowing I have kindred spirits from Latin America to Eastern Europe.

In any crisis, the first thing I long for is a friend to share it with. Having lived through many crises, I know how hard it can be to find a friend who is able to accompany us in our darkest hours. According to some theologians, we should think of Christ as our most steadfast friend, the one who will always see the best in us and want the best for us—and who will never leave us, come what may. Emerson and Thoreau’s friendship illuminates this model, in which each party is a wellspring of good will toward the other.

Thoreau: “Emerson has special talents unequalled. His personal influence upon young persons is 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.”

Their shared love of nature largely brought them together in Concord, Mass., where they walked frequently, in addition to dining with one another. As Emerson wrote: “So much only of life I know by experience, so much of the wilderness have I vanquished and planted, or so far have I extended my being, my dominion. I do not see how any man can afford…to spare any action in which he can partake.”

Thoreau, writing again on friendship, wrote of a necessary quality that usually existed between himself and Emerson: “Perhaps it is only essential to friendship that some vital trust should have been reposed by the one in the other.” Emerson, too, felt a strain in their relationship, but perhaps not so deep as the rift that Thoreau imagined. Where Thoreau saw crisis, Emerson perceived only annoyances: “his disposition to ‘maximize the minimum’ which Emerson scorned by saying ‘that will take [Thoreau] some days.’” Although he admired Thoreau as “a person of extraordinary health and vigor, of unerring perception, and equal expression,” he also complained that “he is impracticable and does not flow through his pen or (in any of our legitimate aqueducts) through his tongue.”

Still, the two remained friends for most of their lives, through such tragedies as Emerson’s loss of a child and until Thoreau’s early death. Thoreau’s admiration for Emerson shines through as he writes: “Emerson has special talents unequalled. His personal influence upon young persons is 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.” Perhaps this was reflective of his own experiences with Emerson.

The first third of this book chronicles their friendship, largely through quotations from their writings, and then provides readers a section of each man’s writings on friendship. This is a rich cornucopia for Emerson and Thoreau enthusiasts, who will feel the pulse of each man’s heart beat through the words as they come alive on the page.

In the end, theirs was a reciprocal friendship, one built on experiences as much as on ideas, nurtured by geographical closeness.

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