Friends, this introductory fragment from a book I long intended to write but perhaps will never get to do, for your edification.
Thoreau and Mr. Emerson: A friendship
Friendship, like marriage or any other relationship, offers plenty of room for misunderstanding and irritation. Your best friend isn’t necessarily the person you would choose to deliver your eulogy. That doesn’t make the friendship any less precious.
It was like that for Emerson and Thoreau. Their friendship had plenty of obstacles, not least the personalities of the two. Over the years, each man’s journal from time to time reproaches the other for his insufficiencies, or finds the other wrong-headed.
Thus, when Thoreau in 1846 allows himself to be jailed rather than pay his annual poll-tax to a state that condones human slavery, Emerson writes: “The State is a poor, good beast who means the best: it means friendly. A poor cow who does well by you, – do not grudge it its hay…. Don’t run amuck against the world. Have a good case to try the question on. It is the part of a fanatic to fight out a revolution on the shape of a hat or surplice, on paedo-baptism, or altar-rails, or fish on Friday…. But wait until you have a good difference to join issue on…. You will get one by and by. But now I have no sympathy….”
And Thoreau says to himself in January, 1852, “I doubt if Emerson could trundle a wheelbarrow through the streets, because it would be out of character. One needs to have a comprehensive character.”
Each complains of his disappointment that the other will raise such unnecessary obstacles to their closer approach.
Emerson, at some point in his journal, says if he knew only Thoreau he would think the cooperation of good men impossible.
Thoreau, in 1853: “Talked, or tried to talk, with R.W.E. Lost my time — nay, almost my identity. He, assuming a false opposition where there was no difference of opinion, talked to the wind — told me what I knew — and I lost my time trying to imagine myself somebody else to oppose him.”
The friendship was not made easier by the differences between them: Emerson was famous, was a husband and father, and was well-traveled — twice to Europe in Thoreau’s lifetime. Thoreau — mostly by choice — was none of these. The 14 years that separated them played a part, too: Emerson could remember the War of 1812, for instance; and had called on old John Adams on the day that John Quincy Adams took office as president. And it may be of some importance that Emerson had been raised mostly among boys and men, Thoreau mostly among girls and women.
Obstacles there were a-plenty. New England scholar Perry Miller once made merry over the rancor that “perfumed these transcendental friendships.” True enough.
Yet when Emerson left Concord in 1847 for a prolonged visit to Europe, it was Henry Thoreau who came to live with the Emerson family, at Emerson’s request. When Emerson’s mother died and someone had to escort Emerson’s half-witted brother Bulkeley from the farm where he spent his life, and watch over him during the funeral, and return him safely to the farm, it was to Thoreau that Emerson turned. “When Mr. Carlyle visits Concord,” Emerson wrote once, “I intend to introduce him to Henry Thoreau as the man of Concord.” And Emerson, toward the end of his life, when his memory had gone, turned to his wife one day and said: “What was the name of my best friend?”
“Oh yes, Henry Thoreau.”
His best friend. Emerson knew so many famous men. He could go anywhere and be assured that his self-made fame would precede him. This correspondent of Carlyle; this man who had met with Lincoln and so many leaders of the Union, this man who had re-shaped American thought, and thus the world, had Henry Thoreau as his best friend.
More to the point, how?