The Emerson-Thoreau
Correspondence: The Dial Period

By F.B. Sanborn

The Atlantic Monthly, May 1892 

Note: These letters of Emerson and Thoreau are all from 1843. Sanborn's article was published almost 50 years after they were written. 

Thoreau Reader: Home - Emerson in Europe


    IN reading the invaluable Memoirs of Emerson by Mr. Cabot, those who knew how intimate were the relations between the Concord poet-philosopher and his younger neighbor, the poet-naturalist, must have been surprised to see how little Thoreau is mentioned there. Only two pages out of eight hundred treat distinctly of Henry Thoreau and are specified in the index; and though Dr. Emerson's pleasing volume concerning his father and his Concord friends deals more liberally with Thoreau and his brother John, yet no hint is given that a copious and important correspondence went on between Emerson and Thoreau at two different periods, ó in the year 1843, when Thoreau assisted in editing the Dial, and in 1847-48, when Emerson was in England, and Thoreau, dwelling in the Emerson family at Concord, entertained the traveler with domestic news very dear to the affectionate husband and father. These letters have been in my hands for ten years past, and there seems to be no reason now why they should not be given to the public. They will, I think, open a new view of Thoreauís character to those readers ó perhaps the majority ó who fancy him a reserved, stoical, and unsympathetic person. In editing the small collection of Thoreauís letters which he made in 1865, three years after the writer's death, Emerson included only one of the epistles to himself in the year 1843, though several of those addressed to Mrs. Emerson from Staten Island were published. I shall omit this printed letter, while giving Emerson's letter to which it is a reply.(note)

    In the early part of 1843 Thoreau was still living in Emerson's family, of which he became an inmate in April, 1841, and to which he returned in the autumn of 1847, after closing the chapter of his Walden hermit-life. In the first of the following letters he returns his thanks to Emerson for the hospitality thus afforded; and I have no doubt that a beautiful poem called The Departure, which I first printed in the Boston Commonwealth in the year following Thoreauís death, was written twenty years before ó in 1843 ó to commemorate his first separation from that friendly household when he went, in the spring of 1843, to reside as tutor in the family of Mr. William Emerson, at Staten Island, N. Y. The letter numbered I., however, was written by Thoreau in the Emerson household at Concord to Emerson at Staten Island, or perhaps in New York, where he was that winter giving a course of lectures. 

Emerson in New York & Thoreau in Concord:  I - VI

    And now the localities of the two friends are reversed in the letters which follow. Mr. Emerson had returned to Concord in March, and in May Mr. Thoreau had gone to Staten Island, into the family of Emersonís elder brother, William, where he was teaching the eldest son, William, and studying New York, at long range or at close quarters. The first letter in the series comes from Emerson. 

Emerson in Concord & Thoreau on Staten Island:  VII - XI

Emerson in Concord & Thoreau on Staten Island:  XII - XVI

    Soon after [the last] letter was received by Thoreau at Staten Island he returned to Concord, and there lived with his father, mother, and two sisters, Helen and Sophia, until he went, in March,1845, to live in the Walden woods. He was so near his friend Emerson in 1844-47 that few or no letters passed between them. The Dial perished in the mean time, ó the number for April, 1844, being the last of the sixteen, and containing a few of Thoreauís promised translations from Pindar. From that time until 1849 he was at work on his first book, The Week. Ellery Channing, in 1844-45, had gone to New York to help Horace Greeley edit the Tribune, and had afterwards sailed up the Mediterranean and made his short visit to Rome; Hawthorne had left the Old Manse and entered the Salem custom house; and Alcott had bought the Wayside estate (which Hawthorne afterwards occupied), and was gardening there in 1846-47. Finally, after many invitations, Emerson decided to visit England, and in the autumn of 1847 Thoreau left his Walden hut to reside in Emersonís house at the village, and to renew the correspondence of four years earlier. This will make another chapter. 


Sanborn's Note:  The earliest note which I find from Emerson to Thoreau bears no date, but was doubtless written in 1840 or 1841, for at no later time could the persons named in it have visited Concord together. Thoreau must have been living with his father and mother in the Parkman house, where the Library now stands. 

    MY DEAR HENRY, ó We have here G. P. Bradford, R. Bartlett, G. W. Lippitt, C. S. Wheeler, and Mr. Alcott. Will you not come down and spend an hour? 
Yours,                                           R. W. E.  Thursday, P. M.
There is also a brief note asking Thoreau to join the Emersons in a party to the Cliffs (Fairhaven hill), and to bring his flute. Living near each other, the two friends did not often write until 1843. - back

Page image of the original article - from Cornell University's Making of America

Thoreau Reader: Home - Emerson in Europe