Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Thoreau and Emerson

I plan to spend the coming weekend discussing aspects of Walden by Henry David Thoreau with friends and fellow students at the Spring Weekend sponsored by the Basic Program of Liberal Education of The University of Chicago.  Here is a brief note about a moment between Emerson and Thoreau that demonstrates a bit of Thoreau's interests and character.

Twenty-three-year-old Henry David Thoreau moved into Ralph Waldo Emerson's home in Concord, Massachusetts on this day in 1841. During his two-year stay, Thoreau was gardener, general handyman and companion-protogé for Emerson, this last a role that he had taken up some years earlier. The following is from a journal entry Emerson made on this day in 1838:
"Yesterday afternoon I went to the Cliff with Henry Thoreau. Warm, pleasant, misty weather, which the great mountain amphitheatre seemed to drink in with gladness. A crow's voice filled all the miles of air with sound. A bird's voice, even a piping frog, enlivens a solitude and makes world enough for us. At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Nigra [Niagara]."

By all accounts, Emerson had an easier time learning about the woods from Thoreau than Thoreau had learning about society from Emerson. In his eulogy for Thoreau twenty years later, Emerson recalled how "it was a pleasure and privilege to walk with him," though he would "as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree." But Thoreau may not have seen any criticism in the comparison to an elm; when Emerson described Harvard as a place where one could enjoy all the branches of learning, Thoreau responded, "Yes, indeed, all the branches and none of the roots."

Source:  "Today in Literature"


Ruth said...

Sounds like an interesting discussion to me. My architecture professor introduced us to Walden and Self Reliance together, and at least for Walden, it has remained with me all of my life. I have since forgotten Self Reliance, but it has been important enough for me to keep with me all these years - over 20! I will reread it again somewhere in TWEM reading list.

Brian Joseph said...

I love both Thoreau and Emerson.

Together they seem to have created all sorts of ideas that have reverberated down the years.

It sounds like you are all set to have a great discussion.

James said...


I do not remember when I first read Walden, but I reread it four years ago and found it overflowing with wisdom and comments relevant to my life. I am glad it remains important to you as well.

James said...


I am more of a Thoreau fan than one of Emerson, but both writers challenge you with their ideas and wisdom.

Charles Ellsworth said...

Will you be posting more about Thoreau and Emerson? I hope so. Thanks.
Charles at http://propheticvisionsblakeandoconnor.blogspot.com/)

James said...


I certainly expect to post further commentary on Thoreau.