I thought that Ralph Waldo Emerson would write about Henry Thoreau’s death. I expected Emerson to make some note of his feelings or describe what he had done after hearing of Henry’s death, but there is no note of Thoreau’s death in Emerson’s journals. Emerson and Henry had been wearyingly close. Thoreau had lived in Emerson’s house for extended periods on at least two occasions. For even longer, Thoreau had been a handy fixit-man and firewood cutter for Emerson.
Emerson knew Thoreau’s death was coming. In January 1862, Emerson wrote the header “Old Age” in his GL journal. “As we live longer,” Emerson wrote, “it looks as if our company were picked out to die first, & we live on in a lessening minority.” Emerson listed friends in England and Rome who had died. Here, Emerson noted, Mary Howell Russell, a friend of his wife Lidian, had died, and he jotted also “I am ever threatened by the decays of Henry T.”
On the first of April 1862, when Thoreau lay immobile, dying, in bed, Emerson went to Walden Pond, where he walked across the ice. The next day he wrote in his journal, “I walked across it again. I fancied it was late in the season to do thus; but Mr. Thoreau told me, this afternoon, that he has known the ice to hold to the 18th April.” Henry’s mind remains like the ice, but his body is melting.
Emerson noted later that the ice remained unbroken on 18 April despite the warmth of the day, and Mr. Channing, he noted, had been on the ice the day before.
May 6, 1862, went without remark in Emerson’s journal. It was later in the month that he wrote the header:
“Books bequeathed to me
by Henry D. Thoreau.”
The books were mostly Hindu religious myths and other writings on eastern art and philosophy. Thoreau had introduced Emerson to Asian myths.
Through June and July, Emerson read Thoreau’s journals. “Henry T. remains erect, calm, self-subsistent, before me, and I read him not only truly in his Journal, but he is not long out of mind when I walk, and, as today, row upon the pond. He chose wisely no doubt for himself to be the bachelor of thought & nature that he was,—how near to the old monks in their ascetic religion.”
Emerson began to quote from and comment on Thoreau’s journal. “He loved the sweet fragrance of Melilot,” Emerson recalled and then, in response to a description of Henry’s, “He is very sensible of the odor of waterlilies.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne was living in Concord when Henry died, and he also failed to mention the death in his journals. Hawthorne had noted well the living Thoreau. As Hawthorne planned his move to Concord, which had been encouraged by Emerson, Thoreau had planted a garden for Hawthorne and his new wife—Emerson had hired Henry to do the gardening. Hawthorne would rent a house that had been in Emerson’s family, a house that Hawthorne would call the “Old Manse” in stories that would add to his fame. Within days of Hawthorne’s arrival at the Old Manse, he tells us in his journal:
“Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character—a young man with much of the wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own.”
Only a few months later, in the spring, Thoreau told Hawthorne that he was leaving Concord—Henry had been living in Emerson’s house and Hawthorne noted that “Emerson appears to have suffered some inconveniency from his experience of Mr. Thoreau.” Hawthorne wrote, “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 hearing the wind among the boughs of a forest-tree; and, with all this wild freedom, there is high and classic cultivation in him too.”
Ellery Channing began in the days after Henry’s death to write his biography. On the day that Henry died, Channing went to the Alcotts’ home to tell them the news. Like Channing, Bronson Alcott had been deeply affected by Henry, and, hearing of Henry’s death, Alcott walked to the Thoreau house to kiss the forehead of his beloved friend.
Louisa May Alcott, who had attached to Henry a young girl’s romantic fantasies, wrote about Thoreau’s death. “On Tuesday at eight in the morning he asked to be lifted, tried to help do it but was too weak and lying down again passed quietly and painlessly out of the old world into the new,” Alcott wrote to Sophia Foord, who had also admired Henry. Louisa Alcott was displeased that Emerson had disavowed Henry’s wish not to have a church service at his death. “Emerson,” Louisa wrote, “ said his sorrow was so great he wanted all the world to mourn with him.” She disliked the address that Emerson read at the funeral. In Louisa’s mind, Henry might have belonged to her. “It was a lovely day, clear, and calm, and springlike,” she wrote to Foord, “and as we all walked after Henry’s coffin with its pall of flowers, carried by six of his townsmen who had grown up with him, it seemed as if Nature wore her most benignant aspect to welcome her dutiful and loving son to his long sleep in her arms."
It was 6 May 1862 when Henry died.
* * *
“As we live longer . . .” p. 165 in Allardt, L. and D. W. Hill (eds.), 1982. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume XV, 1860-1866. Belknap Press, Cambridge.
“I walked across it again. . .” p. 249. ibid.
“Books bequeathed to me . . .” p. 252. ibid.
“Henry T. remains erect, calm . . .” p. 261. ibid.
“He loved the sweet . . .” and “He is very sensible . . .” p. 263. ibid.
“Mr. Thoreau dined with us . . .” p. 105 in Arvin, N. (ed.), 1929. The heart of Hawthorne’s Journals. Barnes and Noble, Inc., New York.
“Emerson appears to have suffered . . .” p. 113, ibid.
“On my account . . .” p. 112-113, ibid.
The story of Channing telling Alcott of Henry’s death is from Saxton, M., 1995. Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. Noonday Press, New York.
“On Tuesday at eight . . .” p. 247-248, ibid.