Emerson & Thoreau

April 26: In his journal entry for this day in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a pleasant afternoon spent with Henry David Thoreau, and a lesson learned:

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 Niagara.

The two men were new friends at this point, and Emerson's other journal references to Thoreau from around this time exhibit a similar delight: "My good Henry Thoreau made this else solitary afternoon sunny with his simplicity & clear perception. How comic is simplicity in this doubledealing quacking world." But Emerson seems to have enjoyed his time in the woods with Thoreau more than Thoreau enjoyed town with Emerson. In a journal entry for this day in 1841, occasioned by a visit to Emerson's, Thoreau notes that "the civilized man" suffers for it:

His house is a prison, in which he finds himself oppressed and confined, not sheltered and protected. He walks as if he sustained the roof; he carries his arms as if the walls would fall in and crush him, and his feet remember the cellar beneath. His muscles are never relaxed. It is rare that he overcomes the house, and learns to sit at home in it, and roof and floor and walls support themselves, as the sky and trees and earth.

It is a great art to saunter.

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." Not that Thoreau would have minded the metaphor: 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."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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