When we think of Henry David Thoreau, we think of him in Walden. Indeed, readers could be forgiven for imagining that he spent his entire adult life there, planting beans and bouncing pebbles on the frozen surface of the pond. But, in fact, Thoreau spent a little over two years in the cabin. The rest of the time he lived as a paying guest at his family’s boarding house in Concord, Massachusetts. Yes, he sang the praises of perpetual motion. (“I think the moment my legs start to move my thoughts start to sink,” he once wrote.) Yet he largely held onto his burrow, with one notable exception: an extended sleepover, in two separate chapters, at the home of his great friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Thoreau first joined the Emerson House in April 1841. By this time, Emerson was flirting with community ideals and undoubtedly found the idea of a guest of the house more acceptable than hauling manure in. the utopian enclosure next to Brook Farm. Also, Emerson adored his young friend. He viewed Thoreau as a disciple, a factotum, a personal healer. “I work with him like I shouldn’t without him,” Emerson told his brother William, adding that the last member of the household was “a scholar and a poet and as full of promising buds as a young apple tree.”
At first, of course, Thoreau was really the junior partner in the relationship. Emerson was already an established writer and theological maverick, having published “Nature” (1836) and relinquished his chair at Second Church in Boston. Thoreau was a recent college graduate who had faded as a teacher. Fourteen years younger than his host, he did his best to walk like Emerson and speak like Emerson – a feat of imitation that poet James Russell Lowell described as “extremely amusing.” It was the cult of heroes on steroids, with a strong filial touch.
It was also something more than that. Shortly before making a brief trip with his idol, Thoreau wrote in his diary: “Our friend’s is a sanctuary as holy as that of any God, to be approached with sacred love and fear. This sense of friendship as a spiritual endeavor, a merging of soul mates, flowed both ways. So is the ability to bring joy and ultimately to inflict pain. You could say that the story of Thoreau and Emerson was a love story. It was complicated, however, by Thoreau’s growing attachment to his mentor’s wife.
Lidian Emerson was an unlikely object of love for Thoreau. She was, in 1841, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two with mixed feelings about her marriage – she revered her husband, whom she called Mister Emerson, but viewed his denigration of Christianity with increasing distress. It’s not that Lidian was a Bible fanatic. His sense of belief was eclectic, encompassing Calvinist rigor and the Unitarian sun. (She had even gone through an anchorite phase as a teenager, starving herself and jumping over furniture to build her character.) Yet she was troubled by Waldo’s views – “Make your own Bible,” he once wrote – and, feeling isolated from his smiling swan-necked bride, began to prepare for the long wedding journey.
She was also an endearing neurotic person. If, during the tidying up of the house, she had put a bigger book on a smaller one, she would wake up in the middle of the night to correct the bad arrangement. She felt the strongest empathy for every living being – cows, cats, chickens – and preferred to escort a spider outside rather than kill it. Over the years, she retreated into the hypochondriac mists, keeping four or five large medicine books by her bed and dosing herself, in her husband’s words, with “poppy and oatmeal”. Without a doubt, Lidian was ill from time to time. But, like so many women of the time, she likely went to bed to silently protest household chores and emotional starvation.
In this scene came the short, simple, fiery figure worshiping Waldo de Thoreau. I can’t imagine any kind of traditional flirtation between the two. Indeed, Thoreau was so shy that he could not cross Emerson’s kitchen, with his two young daughters, without blushing. Plus, they were two busy human beings: Lidian ran a bustling household, feeding not only his own family, but also a parade of Emerson fanboys and transcendent tourists; Thoreau, any day, planted trees, played with the children, or built a nifty wooden box for his mentor’s gloves.
There are certainly fossilized clues here and there of a growing report. Failed to bring her husband back into the Unitarian fold, Lidian instead shared his spiritual impulses with Thoreau. On January 24, 1843, while Emerson was away to give a lecture, Thoreau informed him that Lidian “almost persuades me to be a Christian, but I fear falling into paganism so often.” Lidian herself was pleasantly surprised by the presence, however fleeting, of Thoreau in church. On another occasion, touched by her thunderous excitement at receiving a music box as a gift, she noted, “I love human nature better than I do.”
None of this is the makings of romance. Yet something was up. A deep feeling has germinated during those long days in the White House on the Cambridge toll highway. It is strange not to have any trace of this feeling as it developed, as Thoreau and his entourage have documented their lives as something close to real time. You had hardly experienced anything before you wrote it. But perhaps Thoreau’s growing attachment to Lidian was just too radioactive and too treacherous for him to engage on paper.
No, that would have to wait until he left the Emerson House. He remained there, with a few brief interruptions, until May 1843. At that time, Thoreau found a way to escape his mentor’s gravitational orbit while remaining attached to the family: he moved in with D’s brother. ‘Emerson, William, at Staten Island. There he would teach William’s son, recoil in horror at Manhattan’s urban density, and, apparently, long for Lidian. On May 22, shortly after his arrival, he wrote her a letter:
The letter continues for some time in this vein. It’s very elated, to say the least – a reflection of Thoreau’s powerful feelings for Lidian and also a sort of evasive maneuver, a scramble, since those feelings were forbidden by definition. If she was his sister, she certainly couldn’t be an object of sexual desire. That doubled for the moon, whose pristine glow is beautifully sanitizing in this context. The letter continues with one of Thoreau’s finest claims, particularly encouraging during a time of pandemic containment: “Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as having friends at a distance. They do the latitudes and longitudes. Then it cools down to a milder temperature, regarding the kids and Emerson’s aging mother, “whose face I would be happy to see Concord’s face here this summer.” Thoreau could hardly have ended on a more respectable note.
Maybe, you say, it was an isolated explosion of a lone man. Perhaps, too, it was just an example of the breathless vocabulary of friendship that was common then and less so now. But this letter was followed by another, on June 20, after Lidian replied. (Her answer is lost.) Thoreau tells his correspondent that he went to the top of a hill at sunset to read what she wrote. The words are alive for him, almost audible: “Your voice does not sound like a voice, but comes as much from the blue sky as from the paper. Then he moves on to another heavenly metaphor: