Friends Like These: On Thoreau and Emerson
By Daegan MillerJune 24, 2019
Solid Seasons by Jeffrey S. Cramer
Those final words that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of his former protégé Henry David Thoreau have stunned audiences for over 150 years, and have largely fixed the story posterity has told of their relationship. That story goes something like this:
When Thoreau returned from college to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, there to begin his literary career, he found it already occupied. Emerson, 14 years Thoreau’s senior, had taken up residence just a few years before. It was from Concord that Emerson had launched “Nature” (1836), the founding work of American transcendentalism, and his career. By the time Thoreau unpacked his bags in 1837, Emerson was already a celebrity.
Concord is a small town now; it was tiny in the 19th century, perhaps too small for two writers of talent and ambition (to say nothing of the others who would soon crowd in: Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Ellery Channing, Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson). Nevertheless, for about 10 years Thoreau and Emerson were fast friends, spending hours in each other’s company trading ideas and workshopping manuscripts. It was on Emerson’s land that Thoreau built his cabin at Walden Pond in 1845 and there lived for two years, honing his craft and writing the manuscript of his first book, the one that failed to sell, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).
It was also during those Walden years that Thoreau emerged from Emerson’s shadow, politically (Thoreau played the radical to Emerson’s patrician), stylistically (in the Walden woods, Thoreau developed a new, distinct voice), and philosophically (he turned away from Emerson’s idealism to something more grounded in the everyday). Perhaps predictably, their friendship started to show signs of stress. From about 1850 until Thoreau’s death 12 years later, the relationship was a rocky one, marked by strife and the hurt feelings that culminated in the eulogy Emerson gave, which was eventually published in The Atlantic, and which cemented the perception of their friendship as intense, short-lived, and followed by years of friction.
There’s truth in this sketch, but Jeffrey S. Cramer’s new book, Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, fills in, for the first time, the highlights, shadows, and fundamental imbalances that never quite ruined Thoreau and Emerson’s friendship, even as it brought both men great pain.
One of the reasons that Thoreau and Emerson’s relationship has been so far incompletely rendered is the sheer volume of writing each generated. Thoreau’s journal, for instance, runs to two million words; Emerson’s, more than three. Each man wrote about friendship in dozens of essays, and in smatterings throughout their books. And then there are the collections of letters and reminiscences and ephemera to comb through — and that’s just the published stuff. Becoming a scholar of either Emerson or Thoreau takes years of dedication; becoming fluent in both is rare, and so previous takes on their relationship have, of necessity, been one-sided. Cramer is well positioned, as the curator of collections at the Walden Woods Project’s Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods Library, to tell Thoreau’s story, and he’s published seven volumes on everything from Walden to Thoreau’s most quotable aphorisms. But he’s also at home in Emersonia (he’s the editor of Penguin’s The Portable Emerson ), and one of the things that immediately struck me about Solid Seasons is the patient mastery of an enormous body of work. Even in our era of digital Ctrl-F searching and algorithmic surface reading, the depth and breadth of Cramer’s research is astounding: over 800 footnotes for a book barely 300 pages long.
The second thing that struck me is the book’s structure: it’s odd.
Cramer begins with “Solid Seasons,” a 100-page dual biography of Thoreau and Emerson that’s largely bereft of either argument or interpretation. There’s really no narrative, either, no tension or development, no arc or spiral or crisis or resolution or moral. There’s little context; this is not a reconstruction of a world past. Nor does Cramer meditate on his subjects’ interior states. It is, instead, a chronicle that skips lightly and chronologically from source to source. You can almost see Cramer’s outline, each fact — Lidian Emerson’s 1837 note that her husband had recently taken a keen interest in Thoreau; Thoreau’s 1846 journal observation that Emerson was “not so adequate to his task”; Emerson’s recollection, in 1878, as his mind was slipping, that Thoreau was his best friend — you can almost watch as each fact and source is scaffolded in and sentences mortared out from them. There’s very little motion to the biography, and it recalls an earlier style of writing history, one popular around the turn of the 20th century, when the ever-present fixation of American historians on objectivity and professional authority hardened into obsession in which nearly everything beyond the empirically verifiable was scrubbed in the name of historical purity.
Such an approach — taken by itself — isn’t all that strange, despite its antiquity; and you can find plenty of current books, written by both academics and amateurs, whose scheme is similar. What is odd is the way that Cramer doubles, even triples down on his empiricism in parts two, “Henry David Thoreau,” and three, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” which are composed exclusively of Cramer’s quoted source material, arranged chronologically. It’s as if his extensive footnotes aren’t enough — he gives the audience his unmediated archive.
This makes for slow, repetitive reading: Cramer will quote from a source in his biographical part one (as when Emerson wrote of Thoreau’s “old fault of unlimited contradiction”), and then reproduce the entire relevant passage in part two or three (“Henry Thoreau sends me a paper with the old fault of unlimited contradiction”). But, as I came to appreciate, such slowness and repetition is the book’s point, its strength; and what subtle motion there is comes from Cramer’s patient layering of sources one atop the other. It’s tidal, and like water running downhill, the book slowly sifts and sorts and reshapes how we understand each man.
For instance, one of the most common misreadings of Thoreau is that he was a misanthrope who fled from society to nature out of spite for everything human. But what Cramer reveals is a person intensely aware of how he was perceived and how his own intensity burned others: “I lose my friends,” Thoreau wrote in 1851, “by my own ill treatment, and ill valuing of them, prophaning of them, cheapening of them.” Friendship, for Thoreau, was strenuous, a “conjunction of souls,” a “glowing furnace in which all impurities are consumed,” a process that refined each person into the absolute best version of himself.
Such demands are exhausting, of course, and they drove people from Thoreau, which broke his heart: “Actually I have no friend. I am very distant from all actual persons — and yet my experience of friendship is so real and engrossing that I sometimes find myself speaking aloud to the ideal friend.” Nor were the woods, for Thoreau, the antithesis of society; “Would not a friend enhance the beauty of the landscape as much as a deer or hare?” he asks. What Cramer’s layered chronicle suggests, though never explicitly argues, is that a purifying friendship, in which each one of us is the best we can possibly be, is at the root of Thoreau’s environmental and social ethic, not wilderness nor misanthropy nor even individualism. “To insure health,” Thoreau wrote, “a man’s relation to Nature must come very near to a personal one; he must be conscious of a friendliness in her; when human friends fail or die, she must stand in the gap.”
Emerson was different, and one of the biggest surprises of Solid Seasons is to discover how much Emerson relied on the younger writer for inspiration. Thoreau was Emerson’s muse; “Self-Reliance” (1841) was inspired by the younger Concordian (“I admire this perennial threatening attitude,” he would write soon after “Self-Reliance” was published), and Emerson was constantly jotting down Thoreau’s phrases and cast-off ideas eventually to work them up into a lecture. But such admiration could turn sour, and by the mid-1840s it had begun to curdle; for Emerson, friendship was hierarchical, less a twinning of equals than a competition. “[T]hough I prize my friends,” he wrote in his essay “Friendship” (1841), “I cannot afford to talk with them and study their visions, lest I lose my own. […] [T]hou art enlarged by thy own shining, and, no longer a mate for frogs and worms, dost soar and burn with the gods of the empyrean.”
Emerson could never understand Thoreau’s perpetual rejection (it took him only five eulogistic sentences to condemn Thoreau for his ingratitude to Harvard, both men’s alma mater), never could square his earthiness (why would anyone pick huckleberries when greatness called?) until well after Thoreau’s death. Nor could Thoreau ever accept Emerson’s patrician pursuit of fame, which he dismissed as pandering. By the time Solid Seasons reaches its conclusion — with Emerson’s eulogy — it becomes clear that all those criticisms of Emerson’s were meant not as condemnation, but the words of someone baffled by a companion’s life, and reeling with the pain of loss. It wasn’t until Emerson began reading through Thoreau’s journals, in the wake of Thoreau’s death, that he understood their fundamental incompatibility:
That oaken strength which I noted whenever [Thoreau] 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, and ventures on and performs feats which I am forced to decline.
Each of us has a friend like Thoreau, someone more likely to criticize than praise; and we all have a friend like Emerson, who needs others so that he may shine more brightly. The wonder is not that Thoreau and Emerson’s relationship threw sparks, but that it burned as cheerily as it did, even as its embers cooled. “Friends such as we desire,” wrote Emerson, “are dreams and fables.”
When I finally finished Solid Seasons, when I closed its cover and laid it on my floor, I felt a remarkable presence, even though I was alone. It’s an idiosyncratic book, a minimalist history, Thoreauvian in its desire to be just as it is, generous in the way it bares itself, full of trust that readers are smart enough to spin conclusions for themselves, and intense in its demand that they elevate themselves to the task.
Daegan Miller is a writer, critic, and historian. His writing has appeared in The Point, Aeon, Bookforum, and 3:AM, among other places. His first book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent (2018), was chosen by The Guardian, LitHub, and EcoLit Books as a best of 2018.
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