“The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. … We made that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmur of much sober talk, making amends then to Walden vale for the long silences. Broadway was still and deserted in comparison. At suitable intervals there were regular salutes of laughter, which might have been referred indifferently to the last-uttered or the forth-coming jest. ” — Henry David Thoreau, “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” Walden
This is Henry’s tribute to his friend William Ellery Channing, a fellow dreamer who was considered unambitious and undisciplined by the people of Concord. Years after Henry’s death, Channing told Emma Lazarus, “half the world died for me when I lost Mr. Thoreau. None of it looks the same as when I looked at it with him.”
Henry then speaks of another “welcome visitor… A true friend of man; almost the only friend of human progress… He is perhaps the sanest man and has the fewest crotchets of any I chance to know; the same yesterday and tomorrow.” This was Bronson Alcott, educational reformer, vegan (before the term was coined), abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, and a man often criticized for his failure to earn a decent living. His daughter Louisa May became a bestselling author, fictionalizing the Alcott household in Little Women.
Remember these two friends whenever you hear someone say that Henry was antisocial or a misanthrope.
But he wasn’t a perfect friend. After extended tributes to Channing and Alcott, he mentions a third friend almost in passing:
“There was one other with whom I had ‘solid seasons,’ long to be remembered, at his house in the village, and who looked in upon me from time to time; but I had no more for society there.”
This was Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s friend — formerly his mentor — who had inspired and supported his early writing efforts, in whose home Henry had lived, and on whose land Henry built his little house at Walden Pond. Henry had looked up to Emerson as a role model, and his early writings sound a lot like Emerson and echo his ideas, but eventually he found his own voice and Emerson didn’t always like the result… and the two strong-minded men grew apart.
“By early 1853 their relations had been strained, often bitterly, for some time,” writes biographer Robert Richardson. Emerson thought Henry was too contrary, too critical and argumentative, and he thought Henry lacked ambition. For his part, Henry complained in his journal that year that Emerson was “assuming a false opposition where there was no difference of opinion.” (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, p. 299)
Even so, when Emerson’s mother died in November 1853, Henry was there, helping with funeral arrangements. Henry made a telling entry in his journal a few days later: “If there is any one with whom we have a quarrel, it is most likely that that one makes some just demand on us which we disappoint.”
For the rest of Emerson’s life, long after Henry’s early death, he considered Thoreau his best friend. Even in senility, he would ask his family to remind him of the name of his friend. They knew who he meant.
As for Henry’s terse reference to Emerson in Walden, Richardson says, “It is the saddest sentence in the book, because of what it does not, will not say.”
(End of chapter: “Former Inhabitants; & Winter Visitors”)
(About “A Year in Walden”)