First published The Thoreau Society Bulletin
The American Renaissance is a period especially rich in connections among its writers. So many books have been written about them, sometimes focusing on one person--for example, Emerson among the Eccentrics; sometimes attempting to sketch a larger set of relationships, as in American Bloomsbury. And the biographies, one person the focus of everything, everyone else a supporting character--as is never the case in life, except from the perspective of each inescapable ego; in life, some are more famous, or accomplish more than most, but everyone is a supporting character. Sometimes, the individual seen in the context of movements, great events, and cultural realities: A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau. Occasionally, the stories of families--Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Relationships ranging from close, rich ones, such as Emerson and Thoreau: Figures of Friendship, to elusive, tantalizing ones, webs of proximities and cross-references, as with Douglass and Melville: Anchored Together in Neighborly Style.
I love to think about these intertwinings. You could call it a genre. I don't claim any new information; most of what I will say here is well-known. I don't call this scholarship; I call it indebtedness to scholars. I call it reading, and noticing, and being affected by certain passages, and certain details that couldn't be better if you had made them up.
For example, Whitman and Thoreau's first meeting. Luckily, Bronson Alcott was there to record it, and he was aware even then that he had together in the same room two special specimens, two examples of homo erectus transcendentalist Americanus, two wild men, or at least men connected with wildness, theoretical or actual. So even then, on that day in Brooklyn, November 10, 1856, long before either one of them were classics, Alcott sensed that this was an extraordinary meeting.
But what happened, of course, was not a great dialogue of geniuses; instead, it turned out to be an instance of ordinary awkwardness, the common experience of not quite knowing what to say:
I hoped to put [Whitman] in communication direct with Thoreau, and tried my hand a little after we came down stairs and sat in the parlor below; but each seemed planted fast in reserves, surveying the other curiously,-- like two beasts, each wondering what the other would do, whether snap or run; and it came to no more than cold compliments between them. Whether Thoreau was meditating the possibility of Walt's stealing away his "out-of-doors" for some sinister ends, poetic or pecuniary, I could not well divine, nor was very curious to know; or whether suspected or not that he had here, for once, and the first time, found his match and more at smelling out "all Nature," a sagacity potent, penetrating and peerless as his own, if indeed not more piercing and profound, finer and more formidable. I cannot say. At all events, our stay was not long[...]
And there's the detail of three great writers ice-skating together. How often does that happen? But we have this picture, set down by Rose Hawthorne, of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau out there on the ice on a winter day, three men engaging in the recreation and existential physical act of ice-skating. It's a glimpse of life in 19th century New England, a human detail-- but beyond that, we also have their different skating styles described: one "pitching head forward, half lying on the air," as if skating into a strong wind; and another skating upright and stiff, like a gliding statue, "stately and grave"; and the third leaping and pirouetting in "Bacchic dances" across the ice. In my American Literature classes I present this picture after we've studied all three, as a kind of a quiz, asking the students to match the skating style to the writer. I do this primarily to help them get a better sense of what this advice-giving, judgmental writer was like, this guy who comes across as such a pain-in-the-neck in a first reading of Walden. It's important for students, and anybody else, to know that Thoreau was not the enemy of joy.
And there are the descriptions they wrote of each other. Sometimes it seems that in all the biography and literary criticism that has followed, nobody has topped the vivid insights that they set down about each other. Hawthorne, uncomfortable among Transcendentalists, uncomfortable with overly enthusiastic admirers, could write in his reserve magnificent character sketches, compassionate and penetrating. When Thoreau was about to leave Concord for his stay in New York City and Staten Island, Hawthorne wrote in his notebook a paragraph that condenses, with great delicacy, a good deal about Thoreau. His sketch includes Thoreau's dilemma as a young man about vocation, is probably the earliest reference to Thoreau as being clueless, and also gives first-hand testimony of what conversation with him could be like. It's a great glimpse of two introverts enjoying each other's company:
I am glad, on Mr. Thoreau's own account that he is going away; as he is physically out of health, and, morally and intellectually, seems not to have found exactly the guiding clue; and in all respects, he may be benefitted by his removal;--also it is one step towards a circumstantial position in the world. On my account, I should like to have him remain here; he being one of the few persons, I think, with whom to hold intercourse is like the wind among the boughs of a forest-tree; and with all this wild freedom, there is high and classic cultivation in him too.
The line about Thoreau---"I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree," is well-known, thanks to Emerson including it in his eulogy, and we wouldn't want to be without that description. But it's good to put beside it Hawthorne's tree imagery that says something else about Thoreau.
Hawthorne did equally well describing Melville, on his trip to the Holy Land, which was supposed to be therapeutic for the increasingly depressed Melville, who had dedicated Moby Dick to him--another one of the great connecting details of American literature. But Melville's life and career had been an increasing struggle since then. When I read Moby Dick I always think about what it must have been like to have this pouring through one's mind and being, such energy and bounty, a grand armada of action, fact, nature, imagination, speculation, fury, violence, longing, loneliness, and humor--and to finish it, and dedicate it to a man you admire, an artistic hero, someone alive to receive this huge gesture of admiration--and then, to have it be over. The story of Melville's decline into obscurity is well-known, but I don't see how anyone could do better at capturing Melville in melancholy than Hawthorne did in his brief description.
Hawthorne was serving as U.S. consul in Liverpool when Melville stopped in. He jokes a little, making a comment about Melville's luggage, "the least little bit of a bundle, which, he told me, contained a night shirt and tooth-brush," and he adds the sentence, "He is a person of very gentlemanly instincts in every respect, save that he is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen." But then he get serious. They go for a walk, and sit down among sand hills, "sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind;" they smoke cigars together. Hawthorne wrote afterward:
Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had 'pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated'; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists--and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before--in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than the rest of us.
The nuance and fairness and respect of this account make it extremely poignant. I read it and think of the man who had the experience of having Moby Dick flow through him. Moby Dick is a book by an agnostic in high spirits, dazzlingly high spirits and intellectual abundance. But now the high spirits are gone, and the agnosticism remains. I hate to think of Melville leaving from his visit with Hawthorne, alone, on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but how fortunate we are to have that high and noble dimension of him rendered in the precise strokes of Hawthorne's comment.
Another variation of intertwinings comes as major biographical and philosophical connections. For example, the fact that Emerson owned the land where Thoreau built his cabin, which was more than serendipity but rather literary symbolism expressing itself in fact. Or, the symbolic nature of the fact that Thoreau was handyman and gardener at the Emerson home, doing carpentry and pruning trees while Emerson was on the road lecturing. I think the difference in the effect, the texture, of their prose styles is beautifully suggested in that simple fact.
Sometimes the interweaving is slender, or a near-miss. I am thinking of Emily Dickinson, at a little distance from the Concord epicenter geographically, and in other ways as well, but one of the most brilliant presences in the whole picture--a flare of yellow, green, and black; an intensity in a white dress, off to one side. The fact that Emerson stayed next door at Austin's house when he came to town to lecture, and Emily did not go next door to meet him, is a nice detail suggesting her reclusiveness or her independence, or both. And then there is Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a major connector in the whole tapestry. Is there anyone else who makes a clear line of personal, face-to-face contact between Emily Dickinson and Thoreau, let alone Dickinson and John Brown? He was seven years younger than Thoreau, and seven years older than Dickinson, the admiring younger man to one, and the older authority figure to the other, and he was sensitive to the power of both.
But there's another line between Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, one more slender than Higginson. What symbolic value does it contain? Maybe none--maybe it's just interesting, serendipitous, delicious. Thoreau never met Dickinson. That would have been an interesting encounter--or maybe it would have been more awkward and anti-climactic than Thoreau and Whitman's first meeting. But Thoreau did meet another key player in the Dickinson story: Mabel Loomis Todd. Along with Higginson, she edited the first collections of Dickinson's poetry that were published. Todd did most of the work; Higginson provided the prestige and an introduction. She was also the beautiful young faculty wife who came to town and soon became Austin Dickinson's adulterous lover--you know the story. And she played her key role in saving Dickinson's work from oblivion. It might have happened without her, but she was there, hearing a call and answering it, following her impulses with determination.
Mabel never saw Emily face to face, except in her coffin, but she did see Henry, and he held her in his arms. However, it was not a romantic moment, and she wouldn't have remembered it, because she was a baby at the time. Her father, Eben Loomis, was a friend of Thoreau's, and when he brought his new daughter Mabel to Concord, he showed her off to Henry and let or made him hold her. Thoreau was awkward in holding her, the story goes--afraid he might drop her, and he was relieved to pass her back. So there it is: long-faced, celibate Thoreau holding in his arms the beautiful, passionate adulterer and editor to be. Who knew? Not either of them. But it happened--ironic, inconsequential, fleeting, and real. Sometimes, in their vivid juxtapositions and resonant alignments, these intertwinings, these little stories, feel something like poetry.