Concord, Massachusetts

Ralph Waldo Emerson
& Henry David Thoreau

Ralph Waldo Emerson, pillar of the Transcendentalist movement, came to Concord anything but transcendent. He was a young man afflicted by doubt, sadness, and straitened circumstances. Being without money has a way of tarnishing all of life’s experiences, and Ralph Waldo Emerson was no stranger to poverty. His father had died when he was a boy, leaving a wife and three sons, so his mother had started taking in boarders. Even so, she could not make ends meet. As one biographer described it, a family friend “found the family one day without any food, except the stories of heroic endurance with which their aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, was regaling them. Emerson and his brother Edward had but one overcoat between them, and had to take turns going to school.”1 He was accepted at Harvard at an early age, and waited tables to defray tuition. But he was an unspectacular student. His brothers were more brilliant than he.

Pursued by what seemed a growing whiff of failure, Emerson turned unsuccessfully to teaching, and later head-mastering, at a school in his mother’s house. He then decided to go into the ministry, and actually landed a well-paying position. But his talents did not extend beyond the pulpit. A well-worn anecdote has him visiting the deathbed of a Revolutionary War veteran. He fumbled for words of comfort and, finding none, changed the subject to glassmaking. The old man reared up in his bed and bellowed, “Young man, if you don’t know your business, you had better go home.”


Soon afterward, death struck home for Emerson. In 1831 he lost his wife, Ellen Tucker, to tuberculosis. The same year he left the ministry because he had grave doubts about his religion’s emphasis on the “Lord’s Supper.” He had little regard for his talents. He lacked the common touch. “What is called a warm heart I have not,” he said. And perhaps he thought too much, or too critically, to be a minister.

Expecting a settlement from the death of his wife, he went on a journey through literary Europe, stopping at the mythic locales that figured in the classics he had studied. He met many of the sages of the day, including Thomas Carlyle and the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Upon his return he found himself again at loose ends. He toyed with the idea of establishing a colony of like-minded individuals in the wilds of Maine, but that plan came to naught. It was perhaps with a sense of having nowhere else to go that he decided in October of 1834 to move with his mother to Concord, Massachusetts, into the Old Manse.

The aging house, with its giant cooking hearth in the kitchen, was a remnant from the colonial era. Its owner, the minister Ezra Ripley, had been attached to the same church for 63 years, and seemed to have commanded that all time in his home, and in Concord, stand still. Behind the Manse ran the Concord River, which Nathaniel Hawthorne later described as “the most unexcitable and sluggish stream that ever loitered imperceptibly towards its eternity – the sea.”2

Above Emerson’s head in the attic were stored the thousands of sermons Ripley had given, concerning sin, human weakness, and abnegation. To Emerson they belonged to yesteryear. As he had said in his address at Ripley’s funeral:

“These Puritans, however in our last days they have declined into ritualists, solemnized the heyday of their strength by the planting and liberating of America. Great, grim, earnest men, I belong by natural affinity to other thoughts and schools than yours, but my affection hovers respectfully about your retiring footsteps, your unpainted churches, strict platforms, and sad offices; the iron gray deacon, and the wearisome prayer, rich with the diction of ages.”

Emerson was more aligned with William Ellery Channing, who had written in 1820 that the “ultimate reliance of a human being is and must be on his own mind.” This concept became a cornerstone of Emerson’s philosophy. When he arrived at the Old Manse, he may have viewed it as no more than a relic, and Concord as no more than a backwater. But it was at least a pleasant one into which to paddle his rudderless boat.

The October air was crisp in Concord, carrying a foretaste of winter. A decade before, when Emerson tried to lay himself in the bosom of Nature, he had found it lacking: “When I took my book to the woods I found nature not half poetical, not half visionary, enough….I found that I had only transplanted into the new place my entire personal identity, and was grievously disappointed.” Later, on a hilltop near the Old Manse, Emerson gazed upon the spectacle of morning with lofty emotion. He rhapsodized about how “the long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”3 In the inspirational environs of Concord, Emerson metamorphosed into what he described as a “transparent eyeball.”

Wandering the countryside, the newly observant Emerson found that: “Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon that no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.”4 Even when he went into the local taverns and listened to the talk of the common folk, he heard the way in which nature influenced their speech. “The immediate dependence of language upon nature…gives that piquancy to the conversation of a strong natured farmer or back-woodsman which all men relish.”5

Stimulated by the good clear air of the coming winter and the strong beer and talk in the taverns, he began to feel like himself again—or, rather, more than himself. When he paused from his writing in the second floor study of the Old Manse, he could spy a little bridge over the Concord River through the bottle-thick glass. At that very spot, the “shot heard round the world” that started the American Revolution had been fired. For a man whose thoughts were bent on achieving an intellectual revolution in the New World, there could have been no more inspiring sight.

Around this same time, Emerson’s income prospects also underwent a revolution. Two decades before baseball was invented, Emerson engaged in an early game of hardball. He took the Tuckers to court to get his share of his wife’s inheritance. He prevailed, to the tune of over $1,000 per year. Around this time he also began doing the lyceum circuit, a decent source of extra income.

The Lyceum Orator and His Powers of Enchantment

The Lyceum movement had its roots in the democracy of ancient Greece. Aristotle had founded his school at the Lyceum, just outside Athens, in 335 B.C. In the early 1800’s, a swelling hope for the prospects of their fledgling democracy caused many American towns and cities to build their own Lyceums. These were halls that traveling lecturers could teach in, and were meant to improve the lot of any who cared to attend.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, possessor of a thrilling and suggestive speaking voice, was a big draw. As future president Rutherford B. Hayes described, “The precious words dripped from his mouth in quick succession, and noiselessly sank into the hearts of his hearers, there to abide forever, and, like the famed carbuncle in an Eastern cave, shed a mild radiance on all things therein. Perhaps no orator ever succeeded with so little exertion in entrancing his audience, stealing away each faculty, and leaving the listeners captive at his will.”

34-year-old Lidia Jackson of Plymouth, Massachusetts, still unmarried and well on her way to spinsterhood, was moved by one of Emerson’s speeches in the 1830’s. She was even introduced to him at one of his three lectures in Plymouth. So affected was she, in fact, that she was visited soon afterward by a curious vision: She and Emerson were gliding down a set of stairs, in wedding clothes. According to one version of events, “When the vision faded, she found herself blushing from embarrassment and claiming aloud, ‘I don’t deserve this.”6 But she had a second vision, and then shortly thereafter received a letter from Mr. Emerson. In it, the orator, who did not trust himself to eloquently speak of this matter of the heart, soberly professed that: “I am rejoiced in my Reason as well as my Understanding by finding an earnest and noble mind whose presence quickens in mine all that is good and shames and repels me from my own weakness. Can I resist the impulse to beseech you to love me?”

Lidia worried that she did not have the skills that were needed to be a good wife. But Emerson argued his case persuasively, and eventually he won out. There was only one requirement: Lidia, whom Emerson had rechristened as the more poetic “Lidian,” must agree to come and live in Concord. In making his case, again by letter, he told her he must be close to nature. “A sunset, a forest, a snow storm, a certain river-view, are more to me than many friends & do ordinarily divide my day with books. Wherever I go therefore I guard & study my rambling propensities with a care that is ridiculous to people, but to me is the care of my high calling.” Though reluctant to leave Plymouth, she agreed to the move. What she did not know was that she would be hosting the world.

Build, Therefore, Your Own World

Emerson’s insistence upon staying in Concord probably had much to do with what he had been conceptualizing at the Old Manse. His essay “Nature,” published as an anonymous work in 1836, was one of those publications whose influence greatly outweighs its sales. The essay was intended to relegate conventional Puritan thinking to the attic. “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?” Emerson asked. “The sun shines to-day also.” In a series of tightly-worded pages, he argued that, in the new age that was upon him, man should turn his gaze to Nature. The breathtaking enchantment of dawn was part of Nature’s portfolio, but there was much more to be learned by its close study. “The world is emblematic,” Emerson maintained. All that we saw in Nature we could apply to our human condition. In one of the most striking passages of the essay he wrote:

What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, weeds and plants, blight, rain, insects, sun,—it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields. But the sailor, the shepherd, the miner, the merchant, in their several resorts, have an experience precisely parallel and leading to the same conclusions. Because all organizations are radically alike. Nor can it be doubted that this moral sentiment which thus scents the air and grows in the grain, and impregnates the waters of the world, is caught by man and sinks into his soul.

Emerson concluded by exhorting his readers to consider what they had, to treasure what surrounded them, and to transcend themselves: “All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you can have and do….Line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without the fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.”

In a concrete sense, Ralph Waldo Emerson built and funded his own world in Concord. Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame, was an off-and-on resident of Concord—a great thinker and talker who had founded a well-respected school for children in Boston. He then lost it by publishing a book in which he recorded the candid conversations of children about the Gospels. Some of the comments out of the mouths of babes were deemed blasphemous. The early success of Temple School was Alcott’s high water mark in terms of reputation and, perhaps, income. After its demise he moved to Concord and it was his friend Emerson who paid for many of Alcott’s follies, in order to keep him within his orbit. Emerson also helped the Hawthornes, even though he was not a big fan of Hawthorne’s writing. He underwrote a short-lived but landmark literary periodical called The Dial. And he increased his dominion in real estate terms, buying up parcels throughout the town and by the shores of the kettle-hole pond left behind by a retreating glacier, whose name was to become as famous as Concord’s: Walden Pond. During the residence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord became a great draw. As Hawthorne described it in Mosses from an Old Manse:

Uncertain, troubled, earnest wanderers through the midnight of the moral world beheld his intellectual fire as a beacon burning on a hill-top, and climbing the difficult ascent, looked into the surrounding obscurity more hopeful than hitherto. The light among the chaos—but also, as were unavoidable, it attracted bats and owls, and the whole host of night birds, which flapped their dusty wings against the gazer’s eyes, and sometimes were mistaken for fowls of angelic feather. Such delusions always hover nigh whenever a beacon fire of truth is kindled.

The Reach of the Boarding House

Something should be said about the place of the boarding house in the general subsistence economy of America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, for a great many American authors— including Thomas Wolfe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—were marked by them. The boarding house was the refuge of the house-owning but cash poor families in America. In a century that became known as the “golden age” of domesticity in America, the boarding house concept was at odds with the idea of the self-sufficient and contained family unit that the country held dear. But it was a means of survival.

Boarding house families came in several varieties. There were those family units, like Emerson’s, that had lost their breadwinner. Others needed to supplement an income that had gone into decline, as was the case of Thoreau’s aunts, who kept the boarding house where Thoreau’s family lived. John Thoreau, grandfather of Henry David Thoreau, had come to Boston from France in 1773 and, starting with a single hogshead of sugar, had amassed a sizable fortune. But by the time his grandson was born, assets were dwindling again. The house was, for many years until the Thoreau pencil factory got off the ground, the family’s steady source of income.

Growing up no stranger to strangers seems to have made Ralph Waldo Emerson able to tolerate company, even to invite it. “I seek a garret,” was Henry David Thoreau’s take on the matter when he graduated from Harvard and returned to his home town. Unlike the gregarious Emerson, he would have no qualms about retiring into solitude in the very midst of the Concord tumult.

“And By the Rights I Soared Above to Show You My Peculiar Love.”
— Henry David Thoreau
from the journal of Henry David Thoreau
Henry Seidel Canby’s Thoreau, 1939

Henry David Thoreau was a bit of an odd bird to begin with. He had quite a beak on his face, and he walked around Concord with his bright eyes constantly fixed on the ground. It is not that he was shy, just that there were so many interesting things crawling, squirming, or darting around on the ground for him to observe. He was built close to the ground anyway, not particularly tall, and he looked very humble in his homespun clothes. Unlike Emerson, who became “something of a country squire,” smoking cigars to “mask his diffidence,”7 there was nothing sartorial about Thoreau.

Thoreau was a native of Concord, which had started out as a milldam near the intersection of a few roads. Like the stems of ferns, the roads had branched into fronds and the fronds unfurled into spinnae of farms and other businesses, such as the pencil factory that Henry’s father founded. But it couldn’t have been much closer to nature. Roads and buildings merely interrupted the flow of the fields and streams. And fences and boundaries were just interruptions to Thoreau, who felt that he was as much a part of the land as the Native Americans had been.

In his 20th year, Thoreau had advanced beyond being just a wild boy to a “parcel of vain strivings tied by chance bond together.” For that was how he described himself in the poem he tied to a bunch of violets and tossed into the window of Lucy Jackson Brown, a boarder at the aunts’ house and several years his senior. Exactly what point he was trying to make is a bit unclear. He was surer about his feelings, but perhaps just as unclear, two years later when Ellen Sewall came to town to visit one of the lodgers at the boarding house.

According to Thoreau’s biographer, Henry Seidel Canby, who interviewed surviving relatives, Ellen was one of those girls “with that irradiant beauty which is as much temperament and character as beauty of feature and of countenance.”8 She blew into town from Eastern Massachusetts and swept Thoreau and his brother John off their feet in the three weeks that she stayed in Concord.

When Ellen returned to Scituate, the Thoreau brothers set out on their boating trip down the Concord and Merrimack rivers, a voyage that Thoreau later immortalized in a book. Of the two brothers’ rivalry there is not a ripple in his journals, and some believe that the two did not speak of their mutual love. What is known is that almost immediately upon their docking in Concord, John went off to Scituate, with chaperones, and proposed to Ellen. Apparently she accepted. And then recanted.

Ellen’s father strongly doubted that either of the Thoreau boys would be good providers. The fact that they both pursued her must have been vexing in the extreme. When Henry David Thoreau sent a letter proposing to her, her father instructed her to write back in a “short explicit and cold manner.”9 She did. With that the love affair was over. “I did not think so bright a day / Would issue in so dark a night,” he wrote in a poem.

In his journal, Thoreau fashioned himself an intellectual solution: “To sigh under the cold cold moon for a love unrequited is but a slight on nature; the natural remedy would be to fall in love with the moon and the night and find our love requited.” He was never to propose to anyone ever again.

Emerson Owns This Field, and That Shoreline…

Without Emerson, Thoreau might never have been launched on a writing career, or gone to the woods to write Walden. From early on, attempts had been made to pair the two men. But they did not take to each other at first. The matchmakers bided their time, for in the swirl of society that was Concord, one needed only to wait and another chance to put them together would arise.

There was much in the boy for Emerson to like. What better companion for Emerson’s nature walks could there be than Thoreau, who knew every inch of Concord’s wilderness as if it were his own back yard and whose curiosity was unending? What better living proof, furthermore, of Emerson’s views on Nature? Thoreau once wrote in his journal:

And for my afternoon walks I have a garden, larger than any artificial garden that I have read of and far more attractive to me,—mile after mile of embowered walks, such as no nobleman’s grounds can boast, with animals running free and wild therein as from the first,—varied with land and water prospect, and, above all, so retired that it is extremely rare that I meet a single wanderer in its mazes.

Was he not, in that passage, describing the same sensibility that Emerson had reserved for the poet in “Nature”: the idea that neither a Miller, nor a Locke nor a Manning owned the landscape? By 1838, Emerson and Thoreau had achieved a communion so profound that it verged on interchangeability. A college classmate of Thoreau’s noted that, with his eyes closed, he could not tell his friend’s voice from Emerson’s.

Notwithstanding his wit and his admiration of Emerson, Thoreau was a bit of a trial conversationally. His style interrupted Emerson’s flow. “Henry Thoreau’s conversation consisted of a continual coining of the present moment into a sentence and offering it to me,” Emerson confided in his journal.

Thoreau was also one of those friends that comes along from time to time, who possesses enough individual charm or brilliance that he almost induces you to overlook the fact that he thinks he is doing you a favor every time you do him a favor. “It is difficult to begin without borrowing,” as he would phrase it later in Walden, “but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise.” Thoreau accepted much generosity from Emerson with the attitude that Emerson was enriched by the giving.

In 1842, Emerson invited Thoreau to move into his home. Installed in “The Bush,” Emerson’s spacious house, Thoreau fixed things and built things and entertained Waldo Junior, while keeping up his peregrinations in the countryside. He rarely seemed to cross paths with his patron and seldom mentioned him. But he got along famously with Lidian, whose marriage to Emerson was less than the romantic ideal and who had by that time, perhaps, often said to herself in a different tone, “I don’t deserve this.” As desirous as Emerson had been for a marriage of true minds, he had little time to cultivate it. He was often on the lecture circuit or busy entertaining. Lidian was sickly (and may have been a bit of a hypochondriac). She witnessed a cold side of her husband that was perhaps the other face of his genius. As Canby wrote of Emerson in his biography on Thoreau: “A psychologist today would say, I think, that in love, which gives and takes without movement of the mind, he was inhibited.”10 Henry David Thoreau, significantly more earthy and warm-blooded, a constant presence at The Bush, seems to have been the cock of the yard. And perhaps this is why in 1843 Emerson shipped him off to New York City, to gain some perspective on life.

New York was not the place for Thoreau. He struggled to commit his thoughts to paper. “In writing, conversation must be folded many times thick,” he informed Emerson in a letter. Perhaps the change of environment stalled his creative process. Of what use were the busy streets of Manhattan to a soul that would consider it a luxury to be immersed to his chin in a swamp, “scenting the sweet-fern and bilberry blows and lulled by the minstrelsy of gnats and mosquitoes”? Thoreau pined for home. He could not sell New Yorkers on his brand of genius.

Still struggling to find a way in the world that paid, Thoreau returned to his beloved Concord. He got engaged in the pencil making business again. He had aspirations of buying a farm, which foundered. But he eventually made a proposal to clear a bit of Emerson’s property near Walden Pond known for its stubborn brush as the “Briars” and to build himself a structure which he would eventually give back to his patron. A deal was struck.

I Went to the Woods Because I Wished to Live Deliberately

Thoreau went to the briar patch with a borrowed axe. He had to make a clearing and cut timber for his house. It was late March of 1845 but the dregs of winter remained. Ice covered the pond, though it was not completely sealed, and snow flurries fell upon him as he worked.

The “house is still but a porch at the entrance of a burrow,” he maintained in Walden. “Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects,” he said, “the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped.” In the background of all his abjurations to simplify lay one simple practicality: Thoreau himself had no money to spare. This business of building a house and living in the woods was going to be “entered into without the usual capital.” And if he were to stay long enough to get a book out of the experience, he would have to husband his resources.

“The fruit a thinker bears is sentences,” he wrote in his journal. And in Canby’s opinion, the secret to his durability in our canon was his effort to take flashes of insight and “then anxiously develop the impression until a sentence was made that was true to the original inspiration, yet communicable to the reader.”11 In order to do so, he had much need for solitude as well as time for observation of nature. Of all the acts of largesse attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps it is his loan of the unused tract of land near Walden Pond that paid the most dividends.

To be sure, Thoreau meant to take full advantage of his opportunity. Off he went to the woods every day to cut and hew timbers for the frame, rafters and roof. Around noon he’d take a break amid the pine slashings to read the newspaper in which he had wrapped his bread and butter and eat the pine-scented lunch. He was in no rush to complete the project; he did not move in until July 4 and may have set that date as his target from the beginning. Around the middle of April he bought a shanty from an Irishman who worked for the railroad. On the day he took possession, he passed the vacating family on the road. They had all their earthly belongings in one bundle and were headed for new horizons like stalwart pioneers. He did not say whether he praised them for their economy but by all lights he should have.

By early May Thoreau was ready for a house-raising, with the help of some of his acquaintances. It wasn’t that he needed their help, he explained, but, in keeping with his “generous course” of making himself available for assistance, he felt it was a prime opportunity to offer them an “occasion for neighborliness.” A month of finishing took place. A sturdy chimney was built. And by Independence Day, Thoreau was able to exult in his own economy. In Walden he toted up the costs for his superior burrow and they came to $28.12.

Building the house was the first achievement. But the lasting achievement was in the writing. Thoreau would bathe in the pond after his morning activities (perhaps reading, or writing, or hoeing his beans), to wash the dust from himself or to smooth out “the last wrinkle that study had made.”12 And then he would make a daily choice: whether to keep to the woods to observe the animals or go into town to watch the people. He’d become an observer. But he was not a hermit. He had his acquaintances in town, and the people who came by to visit his cabin. He had plenty of time for his thoughts. He would “set sail” for his “snug harbor in the woods, having made all tight without and withdrawn under hatches with a merry crew of thoughts, leaving only my outer man at the helm, or even tying up the helm when it was plain sailing.”13

He was one hundred years too late to need to be a settler. The train had come to Concord. The town possessed a station, a general store, many merchants. And yet Thoreau was able to cast himself into that primitive state in the few months that it took to make his cabin. There was a major difference though. The settlers of the 1700’s had been afraid of the woods, afraid of what lurked in the wilderness and afraid of themselves— casting all of their faith in God. Thoreau wrote a new chapter. He did so by joining woodcraft to the philosophy of Emerson and the Romantics.

“The roots of letters are things,” Thoreau stated in Walden, in an echo of Emerson’s own thoughts. “Natural objects and phenomena are the original symbols or types which express our thoughts and feelings…”14 From the crazed ice on the shores of Walden Pond to the honking of geese, his symbols are beautifully etched. Read his passage on a war of ants and you will see how closely it resembles the wars between men.

Walden was Thoreau’s laboratory and his classroom:

When I see…this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,—had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body.

We return to Nature, in which Emerson had written: “There is a property in the horizon that no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet.” For two years, two months and two days, Henry David Thoreau occupied that property. And there he lived the poetic life to the fullest. For it was in that cabin and in those surrounding woods that he painstakingly folded the stiff paper of insights into sentences, which he then folded again, compressing his two-year experience into one cycle of the seasons.

The original cabin lasted for years in its place until it finally was carted off and subsumed into somebody’s garage, an act of New England frugality that Thoreau would have applauded. It has since been rebuilt to his careful and detailed specifications. Walden Pond is now a park. These days it is rarely frozen by the end of March. Throughout the summer season, bathers cluster at one edge of the pond, with an otter’s eye view of the water that Thoreau made so famous.

In summer, it is good to connect with the playfulness of Thoreau’s writing over the sound of children splashing at the water’s edge. But in the winter or early spring, when the pond is nearly deserted, it is easier to cast oneself back in time. It is never difficult, anyway, to summon up Thoreau’s spirit; one need only go camping or stay in a cabin for a few days and nights. The ties of everyday life in “civilization” begin to loosen. To read Thoreau out in the woods is like having him at your side.

The Pleasures of Friendship Without Stain Like Sallies Into Some Fabled Cloud-Land, Remote and Golden…

Thus Bronson Alcott described his visits to Emerson later in his life, visits that so exalted his brain that it usually took a day and a night’s sleep just to restore him for his “customary rounds of study.” In 1848, just after the Walden Pond experiment ended, Emerson was somewhat less complimentary about his conversations with Thoreau. He was: “like a woodgod who solicits the wandering poet and draws him into antres vast and desarts idle, & bereaves him of his memory, & leaves him naked, plaiting vines & with twigs in his hands.”15

Such a likely friendship it seemed at first. And yet the two men were so unalike. Emerson, the elder statesman, first stretched out his hand, but it took a long time for Thoreau to warm to him. Certainly someone as unbending as Thoreau must have had trouble accommodating himself to anyone. To accept as a friend the great Emerson, who had an enviable wife, money and fame, must have been hard. And yet, because of his uncompromising nature, he probably approached the matter with idealism that rose as close to Alcott’s fabled “cloud-land” as a friendship is ever likely to get.

The experience at Walden Pond appears to have mellowed Thoreau. Sophia Hawthorne, the wonderfully perceptive touchstone of the day, said of seeing her former neighbor at the Salem Lyceum: “His lecture before was so enchanting. Such a revelation of nature in all its exquisite details of wood thrushes, squirrels, sunshine, mists and shadows, fresh vernal odors, pine tree ocean melodies, that my ear rang with music, and I seemed to have been wandering through copse and dingle! Mr. Thoreau has risen above all his arrogance of manner and is as gentle, simple, ruddy, and meek as all geniuses should be.”

In time, warmth creeps into Emerson’s journals as well, with a recognition of their similarities, and a respect:

In reading him, I find the same thought, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond, and illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generality. ’Tis as if I went into a gymnasium, and saw youths leap, climb, and swing with a force unapproachable,—though their feats are only continuations of my initial grapplings and jumps.16

Henry David Thoreau occupied 45 years in the middle of Emerson’s life. And it was with a sense of profound regret that Emerson said goodbye to Thoreau in his funeral address: “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.”

Emerson drifted into forgetfulness by the end of his long life. Such a revered figure and a Concord institution was he that, when his house partially burned down, townspeople and friends raised money to restore it and sent him to Europe during the reconstruction. When he returned, he was greeted by a parade. He had, by his writings, his lectures, his generosity, and his very eminence, increased the capabilities of the New World in myriad ways. The works of Emerson were a dazzling spring flower in the blossoming of New England.


A Journey Through Literary America




Explore the fascinating stories of 26 great American authors with images of the places that inspired them to write. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers. With over 140 photographs throughout, the images add mood and dimension to the writing – and they are often shockingly close to what the featured authors described in their own words. Lushly illustrated, and beautifully designed, the book is as much of a pleasure to look at as it is to read.

This is a volume for the literary enthusiast, the armchair traveler or the intrepid reader. It is a handsome and beautifully illustrated companion for those who seek to learn more about authors they have read and those who wish to discover new writers.

  1. Nathan Haskell Dole, “Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson” (From the Introduction to Early Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson), http://www.emersoncentral.com/others/life_of_ralph_waldo_emerson.htm#dole ( July 2009).
  2. From the Introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” Chapter III: Beauty.
  4. Emerson, “Nature,” Chapter I: Nature.
  5. Emerson, “Nature,” Chapter IV: Language.
  6. Samuel A. Schreiner, The Concord Quartet: Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Friendship that Freed the American Mind, 30.
  7. From the brief biography of Emerson that precedes Nature in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, 992.
  8. Henry Seidel Canby, 111.
  9. Words taken from Ellen Sewell’s letter to Henry David Thoreau’s Aunt Prudence, who had also chaperoned John on his visit to Scituate.
  10. Canby, 82.
  11. Ibid., 399.
  12. Henry David Thoreau, “The Village,” Walden, 150.
  13. Ibid., 152. 
  14. From The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Houghton Mifflin, Volume XVIII, 389, 390, as quoted in Canby’s Thoreau.
  15. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Journal, August 1848.
  16. Ibid., June 1863.