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Thoreau in Love

Condé Nast 8-10 minutes 10/11/2021

When we think of Henry David Thoreau, we think of him at Walden. Indeed, readers might be forgiven for imagining that he passed his entire adult life there, planting beans and bouncing pebbles off the frozen surface of the pond. But, in fact, Thoreau spent little more than two years in the cabin. The rest of the time, he lived as a paying customer at his family’s boarding house in Concord, Massachusetts. Yes, he sang the praises of perpetual motion. (“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” he once wrote.) Yet he largely stuck to his burrow, with one notable exception: a protracted pajama party, in two distinct chapters, at the home of his great friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau first joined the Emerson household in April of 1841. At that point, Emerson was dallying with communitarian ideals, and doubtless found the idea of a house guest more palatable than carting manure at the nearby utopian compound of Brook Farm. Also, Emerson adored his young friend. He viewed Thoreau as a disciple, factotum, personal healer. “I work with him as I should not without him,” Emerson informed his brother William, adding that the newest member of the house was “a scholar & a poet & as full of buds of promise as a young apple tree.”

At the outset, of course, Thoreau was very much the junior partner in the relationship. Emerson was already an established writer and theological maverick, having published “Nature” (1836) and ditched his pulpit at Boston’s Second Church. Thoreau was a recent college graduate who had washed out as a schoolteacher. Fourteen years younger than his host, he did his best to walk like Emerson and talk like Emerson—a feat of mimicry that the poet James Russell Lowell described as “exquisitely amusing.” This was hero worship on steroids, with a strong filial twist.

It was also something more than that. Shortly before taking a brief trip with his idol, Thoreau wrote in his journal, “Our friend’s is as holy a shrine as any God’s, to be approached with sacred love and awe.” This sense of friendship as a spiritual undertaking, a fusion of kindred souls, flowed in both directions. So did the capacity to bring joy and, ultimately, 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 love object 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 disparagement of Christianity with mounting distress. It’s not that Lidian was a Bible-thumping zealot. Her sense of belief was eclectic, encompassing Calvinist stringency and Unitarian sunshine. (She had even gone through an anchorite phase as a teen-ager, starving herself and jumping over furniture as a character-building exercise.) Yet she was troubled by Waldo’s views—“Make your own Bible,” he once wrote—and, feeling isolated from her smiling, swan-necked spouse, began girding herself for the long voyage of matrimony.

She was also an endearingly neurotic person. If, in the course of straightening out the house, she had put a bigger book on top of a smaller one, she would awake in the middle of the night to correct the wicked arrangement. She felt the most powerful sort of empathy for every living thing—cows, cats, chickens—and preferred to escort a spider outside rather than kill it. As the years went by, she retreated into the hypochondriacal mists, keeping four or five stout medical textbooks by her bed and dosing herself with, in her husband’s words, “poppy and oatmeal.” No doubt Lidian was sick from time to time. But, like so many women of the era, she probably took to her bed as a silent protest against domestic drudgery and emotional starvation.

Into this scene came the short, homely, ardent, Waldo-worshipping figure of Thoreau. I cannot imagine any sort of traditional flirtation between the two. Indeed, Thoreau was so shy that he was unable to pass through the Emerson kitchen, with its two young maids, without blushing. In addition, these were two busy human beings: Lidian ran a bustling household, feeding not only her own family but a parade of Emerson fanboys and transcendental tourists; Thoreau, on any given day, would be planting trees, playing with the children, or constructing a cunning wooden box for his mentor’s gloves.

Certainly there are fossilized hints, here and there, of a growing rapport. Having failed to bring her husband back into the Unitarian fold, Lidian shared her spiritual impulses with Thoreau instead. On January 24, 1843, when Emerson was away lecturing, Thoreau informed him that Lidian “almost persuades me to be a Christian, but I fear I as often lapse into Heathenism.” Lidian herself was pleasantly surprised by Thoreau’s attendance, however fleeting, at church. On another occasion, touched by his uproarious excitement at having received a music box as a gift, she noted, “I like human nature better than I did.”

None of this is the stuff of romance. Yet something was afoot. Some deep feeling germinated during those long days in the white house on the Cambridge Turnpike. It is strange to have no record of that feeling as it developed, because Thoreau and his circle documented their lives in something close to real time. You had hardly experienced a thing before you had written it down. But perhaps Thoreau’s growing attachment to Lidian was simply too radioactive, and too treacherous, for him to commit to paper.

No, that would have to wait until he left the Emerson household. He remained there, with some brief interruptions, through May, 1843. At that point, Thoreau found a way to escape his mentor’s gravitational orbit while still remaining tethered to the family: he moved in with Emerson’s brother William, in Staten Island. There he would tutor William’s son, recoil in horror from the urban density of Manhattan—and, apparently, pine for Lidian. On May 22nd, not long after his arrival, he wrote her a letter:

I believe a good many conversations with you were left in an unfinished state, and now indeed I don’t know where to take them up. But I will resume some of the unfinished silence. I shall not hesitate to know you. I think of you as some elder sister of mine, whom I could not have avoided—a sort of lunar influence—only of such age as the moon, whose time is measured by her light.

The letter goes on for some time in this vein. It is very exalted, to say the least—a reflection of Thoreau’s powerful feelings for Lidian and also a kind of evasive maneuver, a mussing of the trail, since those feelings were forbidden by definition. If she were his sister, she certainly couldn’t be an object of sexual desire. That went double for the moon, whose virginal glow is nicely sanitizing in this context. The letter continues with one of Thoreau’s loveliest affirmations, especially heartening during a time of pandemic lockdowns: “Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance. They make the latitudes and longitudes.” Then it cools down to a chummier temperature, with regards passed along to the children and to Emerson’s aging mother, “whose Concord face I should be glad to see here this summer.” Thoreau could hardly have ended on a more respectable note.

Perhaps, you say, this was an isolated outburst from a lonely man. Perhaps, too, it was simply 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 20th, after Lidian had written back to him. (Her reply is lost.) Thoreau tells his correspondent that he has gone to the top of a hill at sunset to read what she has written. The words are alive for him, almost audible: “Your voice seems not a voice, but comes as much from the blue heavens, as from the paper.” Then he moves on to another celestial metaphor:

The thought of you will constantly elevate my life, it will be something always above the horizon to behold, as when I look up at the evening star. I think I know your thoughts without seeing you, and as well here as in Concord. You are not at all strange to me.