Waldo & Henry: A Dialogue

by Lyle Penner

The transcendentalists were perhaps as much about relationships as they are about ideas so I've attempted to write a fictional journal dialogue between Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and the person who was his closest friend for over 20 years, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Emerson, being 14 years the elder, began as a teacher/mentor figure for the young Thoreau. An interesting friendship grew evolved.

(NOTE: Some of the text comes from their actual personal journals and correspondences. However, this is not an attempt at an historical record.)

The time is 1837, when Emerson is 34 years old, a budding lecturer, and Thoreau at 20, is enrolled as a student at Harvard College. Waldo has just given his "American Scholar" address to the Harvard seniors, one of whom is this promising lad called Henry David Thoreau.

After my talk to the senior class, I was distinctly impressed with this young lad who drank my words right in. he seemed extremely bright but I could see in his eyes that he wanted to challenge everything I had to give him. - Emerson

Emerson: After my talk to the senior class, I was distinctly impressed with this young lad who drank my words right in. He seemed extremely bright but I could see in his eyes that he wanted to challenge everything I had to give him. I took him aside after the lecture, and told him if he wanted to learn how to see and to think well, that he should begin putting down his thoughts on paper, in a journal. From there, I said, integrity may grow as from a seed. Thoreau - he's about 5' 7", firmly built, of light complexion, strong, serious blue eyes with a grave aspect. He says he wears strong grey trousers everywhere, including college, because he sometimes needs to brave scrub-oaks and to climb trees for a hawk's or a squirrel's nest. I like that. I hope one day this Thoreau lad will find his way to the banks of the Concord with me where we can talk. There is much talk to be done.

Thoreau: One has to aim high in life to attain anything of value. Reading Emerson's "Nature" is pure inspiration to this end. I feel overjoyed by his keen insights, that one need not think too highly of cultures past, and claim one's own genius. If one looks deep enough - in the God-given soul - I see things with great clarity and do not fear another's opinion. Looking within oddly comes to the fore when I am close to the earth. The Concord and Merrimack rivers are prime feeding grounds for inspiration. On their banks I feel truth is close by, as if inside my skin. Nothing there seems to be an obstacle, O to paddle silently in my hand-made canoe. Ignorance parts as I slip downstream toward the reeds. I can't help but laugh at the rich fools in Boston society who are arrogant about what is acceptable, lovely and good. They are crybabies of routine. They seem not to have the same ears and eyes. My brow cringes in resentment, I'm afraid. They are moving this young country down the same path to destruction as those who run England and the Continent.

Emerson: Henry and I took a walk to the Cliff, with its spectacular view over the valley. Warm, pleasant, misty weather which the great mountain amphitheatre seemed to drink in with gladness. A crow's voice filled all the air with sound. In the woods is perpetual youth.

O my dear Henry. How I enjoy his fight, his battle with long held but no longer relevant truths. He wants to be a singular man, and I shall not doubt this wish even a little. He is a free spirit who will not compromise his principles. He seems bred to no profession, he doesn't seem intent on marrying, he refuses to pay a tax to the state, he eats no flesh nor drinks wine. I've never seem him use tobacco, and though a naturalist, he uses neither a trap nor a gun.

I fret a little with how sure he is sometimes, how he is without the common touch, or a tender tone. I think many will not listen to him because he is so contrary. I hope they do come round to hear what he has to say sometime. Henry lives for the day! He is industrious, organized, and highly values his every moment. Because he is not restricted by any employer or authority, I dare say he is the only man of leisure in town!

Thoreau: Waldo, a friend I shall say, is both wise and sincere. This cannot be doubted. But his mind flies off in fancy I fear. He seemingly lives and talks as if his feet are not touching this dark earth. The otters on the Merrimack and the oak acorns on the river bank speak quiet truths that Waldo does not seem to hear. But later, in reflection, when I read what he writes, I am sometimes quite amazed with what he sees.

Emerson: The world is new for each person. You think in your idle hours that there is literature, history, science, behind you so accumulated as to exhaust thought and prescribe your future...In your sane hour you shall see that not a line has yet been written; that for all the poetry that is in the world your first sensation on entering a wood or standing on the shore of a lake has not been written yet. It remains for you; so does all thought, all objects, all life remains unwritten still.

Thoreau: Emerson is a critic, poet, philosopher, with talent not so conspicuous, not so adequate to his task; but his field is still higher, his task more arduous. He lives a far more intense life; seeks to realize a divine life; his affections and intellect equally developed. He has advanced farther, and a new heaven opens to him. Love and Friendship, Religion, Poetry, the Holy are familiar to him. He lives the life of an Artist; more varied, more observing, finer perception; not so robust, elastic; practical enough in his own field; faithful; a judge of men. There is no such general critic of men and things, no such trustworthy and faithful man as he. More of the divine is realized in him than in any other. A poetic critic, reserving the unqualified nouns for the gods... His personal influence upon young persons greater than any man's. In his world every man would be a poet, Love would reign, beauty would take place, Man and Nature would harmonize. What an honor it is to know Waldo. Being in his presence is like being on a mountain and drinking in the air of lofty thought.

Emerson: O my brave Henry. I am glad to have him in my house, to look after Lidian and Ellen and Edward while I am out lecturing. He loves those kids like his own. He is like a father to them. And Lidian doesn't mind someone in the household who can fix the back fence with ease, or split the wood each evening with no complaint. Henry sees the material world as a means and a symbol. He sees the limitations and poverty of those he talks with - even in my family - so that nothing seems concealed from such terrible eyes.

Emerson does love his walks in the woods, but would have trouble finding a home there. I laugh at the thought. A rather clumsy man he is. -Thoreau

Thoreau: Emerson does love his walks in the woods, but would have trouble finding a home there. I laugh at the thought. A rather clumsy man he is. I remember the little story told about when his boy Waldo - may he rest in peace - said to him when watching him work with a shovel in the yard: "Daddy, I wish you would not dig your leg."

Emerson: Thoreau has asked me to use some of my land by Walden pond for a hut he wants to build next year. His idea seems very grand indeed. I hope solitude will bring out something worthwhile in print later on. I will already plan on it. But I think I will miss him here at home.

Thoreau: I went to these woods to see if I could live deliberately. To confront only the essential facts of life. To see if I could learn what it had to teach and not when I came to die discover that I had not lived. I want to live deeply and suck the marrow out of life. Waldo has graciously allowed me to use his land to build this simple, modest hut. I am greatly pleased with this decision. P.S.: I suspect this is not what Waldo would have done himself.

Emerson: I find that the best talk is between two souls. When a man meets his accurate mate, then life is delicious. I do love my walks. It is a welcome respite from the mornings I spend writing, no matter how arduous that poetry-making has been. And I would have to say, that among Channing, Alcott and Thoreau (and yes, Margaret [Fuller] too), I find Henry is my favourites to walk with. One can expect a robust exchange of ideas with Henry beside you. He's not one to agree with all one has spoken, although I'm sure he goes back home and drinks in the truth that is sometimes contained within.

Thoreau: God is speaking quietly in these woods, and I hope to listen to what he has to say. I can't compromise this time I have, as society does, for any disruption might pull me away from my goal. May no man persuade me otherwise. The seasons will be my teachers. I the student. Unless I try to do something beyond what I have already mastered, I will never grow.

Emerson: I admire Thoreau's perennial threatening attitude, it feels like when one goes under an overhanging precipice. It is wholly his natural relation and there is no assumption at all. Yet I also find something "military" in Thoreau's nature. He is not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he does not feel himself except in opposition. He wants a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillor. He requires a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum to call his powers into full exercise. For instance, on hearing any proposition, his first instinct is to controvert it, and in a manner never affectionate but superior and didactic! And, I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he has no great ambition.

Emerson, later: As hermetic and stoic as he is, Henry is really fond of sympathy, and throws himself heartily and childlike into the company of young people who he loves, and who he is delighted to entertain, with the varied and endless anecdotes of h, is experiences by field and river..and he is always ready to lead a huckleberry-party or a search for chestnuts or grapes.

Emerson, again: Musing on my last trip to England visiting Carlyle and others, I believe England is the country of success, and success has a great charm for me, more than for those I talk with at home.

Thoreau: I am in great contempt for things England and European. I am skeptical of English success, materialism, steam, speed, talk and books, and why is Emerson so impressed with what goes on over there?

Emerson: Thoreau was held in prison last night for not paying his poll tax of a dollar and change. A fool perhaps. I don't know what to make of it. His aunt told me she, knowing how Henry is about such matters, had already paid the tax saving Henry all this trouble! I shall visit him there before he is let out to enjoy his fresh air again.

Thoreau, in prison: The true place for a just man in a unjust society is a prison. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Any man more right than his neighbours constitutes a majority of one. I choose only to follow the state to the extent of the universal values. No farther.

Thoreau, later: All men are dreaming of friendship, and its drama - which is always a tragedy - is enacted daily. The true friend says: "I never asked thy leave to let me love thee-- I have a right. I love thee not as something private and personal, which is your own, but as something universal and worthy of love, which I have found. O how I think of you. Consent only to be what you are. I alone will never stand in your way."

Thoreau: One day two young women stopped at the door of my hut and asked for some water. I answered that I had no cold water but I would lend them a dipper. They never returned the dipper, and I had a right to suppose that they came to steal. They were a disgrace to their sex and to humanity. Pariahs of the moral world. Evil spirits that thirsted not for water but threw the dipper into the lake. Such as Dante saw...They will never know peace till they have returned the dipper. In all the worlds this is decreed.

I wish Waldo was here. Since my brother John died I think of my friend more and more.

Thoreau: I was amused by Emerson telling me on our walk that he drove his own calf out of the yard, as it was coming in with the cow, not knowing it to be his own! He also says that he and Agassiz broke some dozens of ale-bottles, one after another, with their bullets, in the Adirondack country, using them for marks! It sounds rather Cockneyish! He says that he shot a plover for Agassiz, and this, I think he said, was the first game he ever bagged. Think of Emerson shooting a plover (with shot) for Agassiz, and cracking an ale-bottle with his rifle at six rods! They had to later cut several pounds of lead out of the tree.

Emerson: Thoreau was a born protestant! He declines to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well. If he slights and defies the opinion of others, it is only that he is never more intent to reconcile his practice with his own belief. Never idle or self-indulgent, he prefers, when he wants money, earning it by some piece of manual labour agreeable to him, as building a boat or a fence, planting, grafting, surveying or other short work.

Thoreau: After lecturing twice this winter I feel that I am in danger of cheapening myself by trying to become a successful lecturer, to interest my audiences. I am disappointed to find that most that I am and value myself for is lost, or worse than lost, on my audience. I fail to get even the attention of the mass. I should suit them better if I suited myself less. Waldo has spoken along the same lines, and I am beginning to agree with him more each time. To read to a promiscuous audience who are at your mercy the fine thoughts you solaced yourself with far away is as violent as to fatten geese by cramming, and in this case they do not get fatter. Still Emerson goes on lecturing, this time up to Bangor, Maine and New Hampshire. How does he do it so? Recently I asked him if the lecturing business was as good as it used to be. Emerson said it was as good as ever; guessed the people would want lectures as long as he or I lived.

Emerson: It distresses me to sometimes think about Henry. His character has grown by leaps and bounds yet he still lives hidden in his solitariness. A life of ragged independence, that is what he is. Culture to him means so little, as if only he could see the truth placed in this world. Haven't the Carlyles and others across the sea pondered the same life problems as he? Hawthorne has spoken to me about Henry's "Iron-poker-ishness" and uncompromising stiffness." I used to rush to his defense, but now I have to agree sometimes with this description of my Henry. I'm secretly glad that I wish no school or followers to spoil my name and work, but want to convert men to themselves. And this is how I think the moral sentiment would want it to be.

Thoreau: I had a giant belly laugh when Channing came to call on me Tuesday last. He called Emerson "a terrible man to deal with-- one has to be armed at all points. He threshes you out very soon; is admirably skilful, able to go anywhere and do anything. Those nearest to him feel him hard and cold; no one knows even what he is doing or studying...Nobody knows what his real philosophy is; his books do not tell it. Women do not like him; he cannot establish a personal relation with anyone, yet he can get on agreeably with everyone."

Thoreau, in a letter to Emerson in Europe: Lidian has become a very dear sister to me. I give rides on my shoulder to your son Eddy, now aged 3. He says "Mr. Thoreau, will you be my father?" But then Eddy climbed up the sofa, the next day, of his own accord, and kissed the picture of you right on the shirt, he did.
Emerson: I must hurry home, perhaps I have already been "superseded"...

An Argument Ensued

Thoreau: I had a friend who offered me friendship on such terms that I could not accept it, without a sense of degradation. He would not meet me on equal terms, but only be to some extent my patron. He would not come to see me, but was hurt if I did not visit him. He would not readily accept a favour, but would gladly confer one. He treated me with ceremony occasionally, though he could be simple and downright sometimes; and from time to time acted a part, treating me as if I were a distinguished stranger; was on stilts, using made words. Our relation was one long tragedy, yet I did not directly speak of it. I do not believe in complaint, nor in explanation..We grieve that we do not love each other, that we cannot confide in each other. I could not bring myself to speak, and so recognize an obstacle to our affection.

The laborers whom I know, the loafers, fishers, the hunters, I can spin yarns with profitably, for it is hands off; they are they and I am I still. Yet Emerson sometimes grates on me like no other. One day he is my friend, praising my every word in the Merrimack River text. The next he has turned cross, with no end of critical words for the same work. What kind of man, and friend, does he think he is? When I gave him criticism on his latest essay, he didn't alter a word before it was published! Later, on another issue, assuming a false opposition where there was no difference of opinion, he talked to the wind - told me what I knew - and I lost my time trying to imagine myself somebody else to oppose him.

Emerson: The health and integrity of man is self-respect, a regard to natural conscience. All education is to accustom him to trust himself, discriminate between his higher and lower thoughts, exert the timid faculties until they are robust, and train him to help himself.

Thoreau: I remember an oriental philosopher who said: "Although friendship between good men is interrupted, their principles remain unaltered. The stalk of the lotus may be broken, and the fibres remain connected." Such it is, I feel, between Waldo and myself. The only danger in Friendship is that it will end.

Emerson: Squatting in the snow to count the rings in a sawn-down hickory, Henry took a severe cold. He has stayed at home for days on end, with a few experimental trips to the post office. I'm afraid of the worst for my brave Henry. He doesn't seem to be getting any better.

I'm thinking more each day about our best times we had together. It was such a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. Under his arm he carried an old music-book to press plants. And he could never bear to hear the sound of his own steps, the grit of gravel; and therefore never willing walked in the road, but in the grass, on mountains and in woods. His senses were so acute and he loved Nature so well that he became very jealous of cities. The axe was always destroying the forest. "Thank God," he said, "they cannot cut down the clouds." No one is, or should I say was, quite like him.

New York Tribune: Henry D. Thoreau, the genial writer of the natural scenery of New England, died at Concord on Tuesday, May 6, 1862 after a protracted illness (of consumption) of more than 18 months. Mr. Thoreau, in spite of the racy individuality of his character, was much beloved and respected by his townsmen, and his writings have numerous admirers. He was honored with a public funeral from the Town Hall of Concord, on Friday, the 9th. Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a poignant and fitting eulogy.

Emerson, later: The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that he should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. 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.

(Sources: Emerson Among the Eccentrics by Carlos Baker; Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson Jr.; Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time by Joel Porte; "Walden", A Great Books program on The Learning Channel.)

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