The Emerson-Thoreau
Correspondence: Emerson In Europe

By F.B. Sanborn

The Atlantic Monthly, June 1892 

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Letters I - V:
CONCORD, October 24, 1847.
DEAR SOPHIA, — I thank you for those letters about Ktadn, and hope you will save and send me the rest, and anything else you may meet with relating to the Maine woods. That Dr. Young is both young and green too at traveling in the woods. However, I hope he got “yarbs” enough to satisfy him. I went to Boston the 5th of this month to see Mr. Emerson off to Europe. He sailed in the Washington Irving packet ship; the same in which Mr. [F. H.] Hedge went before him. Up to this trip the first mate aboard this ship was, as I hear, one Stephens, a Concord boy, son of Stephens the carpenter, who used to live above Mr. Dennis’s. Mr. Emerson’s stateroom was like a carpeted dark closet, about six feet square, with a large keyhole for a window. The window was about as big as a saucer, and the glass two inches thick, not to mention another skylight overhead in the deck, the size  of an oblong doughnut, and about as opaque. Of course it would be in vain to look up, if any contemplative promenader put his foot upon it. Such will be his lodgings for two or three weeks; and instead of a walk in Walden woods he will take a promenade on deck, where the few trees, you know, are stripped of their bark. The steam-tug carried the ship to sea against a head wind without a rag of sail being raised. 

    I don’t remember whether you have heard of the new telescope at Cambridge or not. They think it is the best one in the world, and have already seen more than Lord Rosse or Herschel. I went to see Perez Blood’s, some time ago, with Mr. Emerson. He had not gone to bed, but was sitting in the woodshed, in the dark, alone, in his astronomical chair, which is all legs and rounds, with a seat which can be inserted at any height. We saw Saturn’s rings, and the mountains in the moon, and the shadows in their craters, and the sunlight on the spurs of the mountains in the dark portion, etc., etc. When I asked him the power of his glass he said it was 85. But what is the power of the Cambridge glass? 2000!!! The last is about twenty-three feet long. 

    I think you may have a grand time this winter pursuing some study,—keeping a journal, or the like, — while the snow lies deep without. Winter is the time for study, you know, and the colder it is the more studious we are. Give my respects to the whole Penobscot tribe, and tell them that I trust we are good brothers still, and endeavor to keep the chain of friendship bright, though I do dig up a hatchet now and then. I trust you will not stir from your comfortable winter quarters, Miss Bruin, or even put your head out of your hollow tree, till the sun has melted the snow in the spring, and “the green buds, they are a-swellin’.” 

     This letter has been given to explain some of the allusions in the first letter to Emerson in England. Perez Blood was a rural astronomer living in the extreme north quarter of Concord, next to Carlisle, with his two maiden sisters, in the midst of a fine oak wood; their cottage being one of the points in view when Thoreau and his friends took their afternoon rambles. Sophia Thoreau was the youngest of the family, and was visiting her cousins in Maine, the “Penobscot tribe” of whom the letter makes mention, with an allusion to the Indians of that name near Bangor. His letter to her and those which follow were written from Emerson’s house, where Thoreau lived as a younger brother during the master’s absence across the ocean. It was in the orchard of this house that Alcott was building that summer-house at which Thoreau, with his geometrical eye, makes merry in the next letter. 
CONCORD, November 14, 1847.
DEAR FRIEND, — I am but a poor neighbor to you here, — a very poor companion am I. I understand that very well, but that need not prevent my writing to you now. I have almost never written letters in my life, yet I think I can write as good ones as I frequently see, so I shall not hesitate to write this, such as it may be, knowing that you  welcome anything that reminds you of Concord. I have banked up the young trees against the winter and the mice, and I will look out, in my careless way, to see when a pale is loose or a nail drops out of its place. The broad gaps, at least, I will occupy. I heartily wish I could be of good service to this household. But I, who have only used these ten digits so long to solve the problem of a living, how can I? The world is a cow that is hard to milk, — life does not come so easy, — and oh, how thinly it is watered ere we get it! But the young bunting calf, he will get at it. There is no way so direct. This is to earn one’s living by the sweat of his brow. It is a little like joining a community, this life, to such a hermit as I am; and as I don’t keep the accounts, I don’t know whether the experiment will succeed or fall finally. At any rate, it is good for society, so I do not regret my transient nor my permanent share in it. 

    Lidian [Mrs. Emerson] and I make very good housekeepers. She is a very dear sister to me. Ellen and Edith and  Eddy and Aunty Brown keep up tragedy and comedy and tragic-comedy of life as usual. The two former have not forgotten their old acquaintance; even Edith carries a young memory in her head, I find. Eddy can teach us all how to pronounce. If you should discover any rare hoard of wooden or pewter horses, I have no doubt he will know how to appreciate it. He occasionally surveys mankind from my shoulders as wisely as ever Johnson did. I respect him not a little, though it is I that lift him up so unceremoniously. And sometimes I have to set him down again in a hurry, according to his “mere will and good pleasure.” He very seriously asked  me, the other day, “Mr. Thoreau, will you be my father?” I am occasionally Mr. Rough-and-tumble with him that I may not miss him, and lest he should miss you too much. So you must comeback soon, or you will be superseded. 

    Alcott has heard that I laughed, and so set the people laughing, at his arbor, though I never laughed louder than  when I was on the ridgepole. But now I have not laughed for a long time, it is so serious. He is very grave to look at. But, not knowing all this, I strove innocently enough, the other day, to engage his attention to my mathematics. “Did you ever study geometry, the relation of straight lines to curves, the transition from the finite to the infinite? Fine things about it in Newton and Leibnitz.” But he would hear none of it, — men of taste preferred the natural curve. Ah, he is a crooked stick himself. He is getting on now so many knots an hour. There is one knot at present occupying the point of highest elevation, — the present highest point; and as many knots as are not handsome, I presume, are thrown down and cast into the pines. Pray show him this if you meet him anywhere in London, for I cannot make him hear much plainer words here. He forgets that I am neither old nor young, nor anything in particular, and behaves as if I had still some of the animal heat in me. As  the building, I feel a little oppressed when I come near it. It has no great disposition to be beautiful; it is certainly a wonderful structure, on the whole, and the fame of the architect will endure as long as it shall stand.. I should not show you this side alone, if I did not suspect that Lidian had done complete justice to the other. 

    Mr. [Edmund] Hosmer has been working at a tannery in Stow for a fortnight,  though he has just now come home sick. It seems that he was a tanner in his youth, and so he has made up his mind a little at last. This comes of reading the New Testament. Wasn’t one of the Apostles a tanner? Mrs. Hosmer remains here, and John looks stout enough to fill his own shoes and his father’s too. 

    Mr. Blood and his company have at length seen the stars through the great telescope, and he told me that he thought it was worth the while. Mr. Peirce made him wait till the crowd had dispersed (it was a Saturday evening), and then was quite polite, — conversed with him, and showed him the micrometer, etc and he said Mr. Blood’s glass was large enough for all ordinary astronomical work. [Rev.] Mr. Frost and Dr. [Josiah] Bartlett seemed disappointed that there was no greater difference between the Cambridge glass and the Concord one. They used only a power of 400. Mr. Blood tells me that he is too old to study the calculus or higher mathematics. At Cambridge they think that they have discovered traces of another satellite to Neptune. They have been obliged to exclude the public altogether, at last. The very dust which they raised, “which is filled with minute crystals,” etc., as professors declare, having to be wiped off the glasses, would erelong wear them away. It is true enough, Cambridge college is really beginning to wake up and redeem its character and overtake the age. I see by the catalogue that they are about establishing a scientific school in connection with the university, at which any one above eighteen, on paying one hundred dollars annually (Mr. Lawrence’s fifty thousand dollars will probably diminish this sum), may be instructed in the highest branches of science, — in astronomy, “theoretical and practical, with the use of the instruments” (so the great Yankee astronomer may be born without delay), in mechanics and engineering to the last degree. Agassiz will erelong commence his lectures in the zoological department. A chemistry class has already been formed under the direction of Professor Horsford. A new and adequate building for the purpose is already being erected. They have been foolish enough to put at the end of all this earnest the old joke of a diploma. Let every sheep keep but his own skin, I say. 

    I have had a tragic correspondence, for the most part all on one side, with Miss ——. She did really wish to — I hesitate to write — marry me. That is the way they spell it. Of course I did not write a deliberate answer. How could I deliberate upon it? I sent back as distinct a no as I have learned to pronounce after considerable practice, and I trust that this no has succeeded. Indeed, I wished that it might burst, like hollow shot, after it had struck and buried itself and made itself felt there. There was no other way. I really had anticipated no such foe as this in my career. 

    I suppose you will like to hear of my book, though I have nothing worth writing about it. Indeed, for the last month or two I have forgotten it, but shall certainly remember it again. Wiley & Putnum, Munroe, the Harpers, and Crosby & Nichols have all declined printing it with the least risk to themselves; but Wiley & Putnam will print it in their series, and any of them, anywhere, at my risk. If I liked the book well enough, I should not delay; but for the present I am indifferent. I believe this is, after all, the course you advised, — to let it lie. 

    I do not know what to say of myself. I sit before my green desk, in the chamber at the head of the stairs, and attend to my thinking, sometimes more, sometimes less distinctly. I am not unwilling to think great thoughts if there are any in the wind, but what they are I am not sure. They suffice to keep me awake while the day lasts, at any rate. Perhaps they will redeem some portion of the night erelong. 

    I can imagine you astonishing, bewildering, confounding, and sometimes delighting John Bull with your Yankee notions, and that he begins to take a pride in the relationship at last; introduced to all the stars of England in succession, after the lecture, until you pine to thrust your head once more into a genuine and unquestionable nebula, if there be any left. I trust a common man will be the most uncommon to you before you return to these parts. I have thought there was some advantage even in death, by which we “mingle with the herd of common men.” 

    Hugh [the gardener] still has his eye on the Walden agellum, and orchards are waving there in the windy future for him. That ‘s the where-I‘ll-go-next, thinks he; but no important steps are yet taken. He reminds me occasionally of this open secret of his, with which the very season seems to labor, and affirms seriously that as to his wants — wood, stone, or timber — I know better than he. That is a clincher which I shall have to avoid to some extent; but I fear that it is a wrought nail and not break. Unfortunately, the day after cattle show — the day after small beer — he was among the missing, but not long this time. The Ethiopian cannot change his skin nor the leopard his spots, nor indeed Hugh — his Hugh. 

    As I walked over Conantum, the other afternoon, I saw a fair column of smoke rising from the woods directly over my house that was (as I judged), and already began to conjecture if my deed of sale would not be made invalid by this. But it turned out to be John Richardson’s young wood, on the southeast of your field. It was burnt nearly all over, and up to the rails and the road. It was set on fire, no doubt, by the same Lucifer that lighted Brooks’ lot before. So you see that your small lot is comparatively safe for this season, the back fire having been already set for you. They have been choosing between John Keyes and Sam Staples, if the world wants to know it, as representative of this town, and Staples is chosen. The candidates for governor — think of my writing this to you! — were Governor Briggs and General Cushing, and Briggs is elected, though the Democrats have gained. Ain’t I a brave boy to know so much of politics for the nonce? 

    But I shouldn’t have known it if Coombs hadn’t told me. They have had a peace 
meeting here, — I shouldn’t think of telling you if I didn’t know anything would do for the English market, — and some men, Deacon Brown at the head, have signed a long pledge, swearing that they will “treat all mankind as brothers henceforth.” I think I shall wait and see how they treat me first. I think that nature meant kindly when she made our brothers few. However, my voice is still for peace. So good-by, and a truce to all joking, my dear friend, from 

H. D. T.
    Upon this letter some annotations are to be made. “ Eddy “ was Emerson’s youngest child, Edward Waldo, then three years old and upward, — of late years his father’s biographer. Hugh, the gardener, of whom more anon, bargained for the house of Thoreau on Emerson’s land at Walden, and for a field to go with it; but the bargain came to naught, and the cabin was removed three or four miles to the northwest, where it became a granary for Farmer Clark and his squirrels, near the entrance to the park known as Estabrook’s. Edmund Hosmer was the farming friend and neighbor with whom, at one time, G. W. Curtis and his brother took lodgings, and at another time the Alcott family. The book in question was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, finally published by James Munroe, of Boston, who was then Emerson’s publisher. 

    The next letter must set out before an answer could come to the first one. 

CONCORD, December 15, 1847.
DEAR FRIEND, — You are not so far off but the affairs of this world still attract you. Perhaps it will be so when we are dead. Then look out. Joshua ZR. Holman, of Harvard, who says he lived a month with [Charles] Lane at Fruitlands, wishes to hire said Lane’s farm for one or more years, and will pay $125 rent, taking out of the same a half, if necessary, for repairs, — as for a new bank-wall to the barn cellar, which he says is indispensable. Palmer is gone, Mrs. Palmer is going. This is all that is known or that is worth knowing. Yes or no? What to do? 

    Hugh’s plot begins to thicken. He starts thus: eighty dollars on one side;  Walden, field and house, on the other. How to bring these together so as to make a garden and a palace? 

            $80 . . . .  [large rectangle labled "field"]   [square labled "house"] 
1st, let  $10  go over to unite the two last. 
              $6  for Wetherbee’s rocks           [square within large rectangle, 
                    to found your palace on.            suggesting house in field] 

            $64  — so far, indeed, we have already got. 
              $4  to bring the rocks to the field. 
  Save  $20  by all means, to measure the field, 
                   and you have left 
           $40  to complete the palace, build cellar, 
                   and dig well. Build the cellar yourself, 
                   and let well alone, — and now 
                   how does it stand? 
           $40  to complete the palace somewhat like this.  [two rectangles form "T"] 

    For when one asks, “Why do you want twice as much room more?” the reply is, “Parlor, kitchen, and bedroom, — these make the palace.” 

   “Well, Hugh, what will you do? Here are forty dollars to buy a new house, twelve feet by twenty-five, and add it to the old.” 

    “Well, Mr. Thoreau, as I tell you, I know no more than a child about it. It shall be just as you say.” 

    “Then build it yourself, get it roofed, and get in.” 

    “Commence at one end and leave it half done, 
      And let time finish what money’s begun.” 

      So you see we have forty dollars for a nest egg; sitting on which, Hugh and I alternately and simultaneously, there may in course of time be hatched a house that will long stand, and perchance even lay fresh eggs one day for its owner; that is, if, when he returns, he gives the young chick twenty dollars or more in addition, by way of “swichin,” to give it a start in the world. 

    The Massachusetts Quarterly Review came out the 1st of December, but it does not seem to be making a sensation, at least not hereabouts. I know of none in Concord who take or have seen it yet. 

    We wish to get by all possible means some notion of your success or failure in England, — more than your two letters have furnished. Can’t you send a fair sample both of young and of old England’s criticism, if there is any printed? Alcott and [Ellery] Channing are equally greedy with myself. 

     C.T. Jackson takes the Quarterly (new one), and will lend it to us. Are you not going to send your wife some news of your good or ill success by the newspapers? 
MANCHESTER, December 2, 1847.
DEAR HENRY, — Very welcome in the parcel was your letter, very precious your thoughts and tidings. It is one of the best things connected with my coming hither that you could and would keep the homestead; that fireplace shines all the brighter, and has a certain permanent glimmer therefor. Thanks, ever more thanks for the kindness which I well discern to the youth of the house: to my darling little horseman of pewter, wooden, rocking, and what other breeds, — destined, I hope, to ride Pegasus yet, and, I hope, not destined to be thrown; to Edith, who long ago drew from you verses which I carefully preserve; and to Ellen, whom by speech, and now by letter, I find old enough to be companionable, and to choose and reward her own friends in her own fashions. She sends me a poem to-day, which I have read three times! 

    I believe I must keep back all my communications on English topics until I get to London, which is England. Everything centralizes in this magnificent machine which England is. Manufacturer for the world, she is become, or becoming, one complete tool or engine in herself. Yesterday the time all over the kingdom was reduced to Greenwich time. At Liverpool, where I was, the clocks were put forward twelve minutes. This had become quite necessary on account of the railroads, which bind the whole country into swiftest connection, and require so much accurate interlocking, intersection, and simultaneous arrival that the difference of time produced confusion. Every man in England carries a little book in his pocket, called Bradshaw’s Guide, which contains timetables of every arrival and departure at every station, on all the railroads of the kingdom. It is published anew on the first day of every month, and costs sixpence. The proceeding effects of electric telegraph will give a new importance  to such arrangements. 

    But lest I should not say what is needful, I will postpone England once for all, and say that I am not of opinion that your book should be delayed a month. I should print it at once, nor do I think that you would incur any risk in doing so that you cannot well afford. It is very certain to have readers and debtors, here as well as there. The Dial is absurdly well known here. We at home, I think, are always a little ashamed of it, — I am, — and yet here it is spoken of with the utmost gravity, and I do not laugh. Carlyle writes me that he is reading Doomsday Book. 

    You tell me in your letter one odious circumstance, which we will dismiss from remembrance henceforward. Charles Lane instructed me, in London, to ask you to forward his Dials to him, which must be done, if you can find them. Three bound volumes are among his books in my library. The fourth volume is in unbound numbers at J. Munroe & Co.’s shop, received there in a parcel to my address, a day or two before I sailed, and which I forgot to carry to Concord. It must be claimed without delay. It is certainly there, — was opened by me and left; and they can inclose all four volumes to Chapman for me. 

    Well, I am glad the Pleasaunce at Walden suffered no more; but it is a great loss as it is, which years will not repair. I feel that I have balked you by the promise of a letter which ends in as good as none, but I write with counted minutes and a miscellany of things before me. 

Yours affectionately, R. W. E.
[On a separate sheet this message:] 

    Will Mr. Thoreau please to bear in mind that when there is good mortar in readiness Mr. Dean must be summoned to fit the air-tight stove to the chimney in the schoolroom ? — unless Mr. T. can do it with convenience himself. 

    Mr. Lane was the English owner of the farm in Harvard, where he lived with the Alcotts; and Emerson had the care of his property in America, now that he had gone back to England. In the letter which follows “Whipple” is E. P. Whipple, the essayist, then a popular lecturer, and the “traveling professor” is Agassiz. 

CONCORD, December 29, 1847.
MY DEAR FRIEND, — I thank you for your letter. I was very glad to get it; and I am glad again to write to you. However slow the steamer, no time intervenes between the writing and the reading of thoughts, but they come freshly to the most distant port. I am here still, and very glad to be here, and shall not trouble you with any complaints because I do not fill my place better. I have had many good hours in the chamber at the head of the stairs, — a solid time, it seems to me. Next going to give an account to the Lyceum of my expedition to Maine. Theodore Parker lectures to-night. We have had Whipple on Genius, — too weighty a subject for him, with his antithetical definitions new-vamped, — what it is, what it is not, but altogether what it is not; cuffing it this way and cuffing it that, as if it were an India-rubber ball. Really, it is a subject which should expand, expand, accumulate itself before the speaker’s eyes as he goes on, like the snowballs which the boys roll in the street; and when it stops, it should be so large that he cannot start it, but must leave it there. [H. N.] Hudson, too, has been here, with a dark shadow in the core of him, and his desperate wit, so much indebted to the surface of him,  — wringing out his words and snapping them off like a dish-cloth; very remarkable, but not memorable. Singular that these two best lecturers should have so much “wave” in their timber, — their solid parts to be made and kept solid by shrinkage and contraction of the whole, with consequent checks and fissures. 

    Ellen and I have a good understanding. I appreciate her genuineness. Edith tells me after her fashion: “By and by I shall grow up and be a woman, and then I shall remember how you exercised me.” Eddy has been to Boston to Christmas, but can remember nothing but the coaches, all Kendall’s coaches. There is no variety of that vehicle that he is not familiar with. He did try twice to tell us something else, but, after thinking and stuttering a long time, said, “I don’t know what the word is,” — the one word, forsooth, that would have disposed of all that Boston phenomenon. If you did not know him better than I, I could tell you more. He is a good companion for me, and I am glad that we are all natives of Concord. It is young Concord. Look out, World! 

    Mr. Alcott seems to have sat down for the winter. He has got Plato and other books to read. He is as large-featured and hospitable to traveling thoughts and thinkers as ever; but with the same Connecticut philosophy as ever, mingled with what is better. If he would only stand upright and toe the line! — though he were to put off several degrees of largeness, and put on a considerable degree of littleness. After all, I think we must call him particularly your man. 

    I have pleasant walks and talks with Channing, James Clark — the Swedenborgian that was — is at the poorhouse, insane with too large views, so that he cannot support himself. I see him working with Fred and the rest. Better than be there and not insane. It is strange that they will make ado when a body is buried, but not when he thus really and tragically dies, or seems to die. 

    Away with your funeral processions, — into the ballroom with them! I hear the bell toll hourly over there. (a)

    Lidian and I have a standing quarrel as to what is a suitable state of preparedness for a traveling professor’s visit, or for whomsoever else; but further than this we are not at war. We have made up a dinner, We have made up a bed, we have made up a party, and our own minds and mouths, three several times for your professor, and he came not. Three several turkeys have died the death, which I myself carved, just as if he had been there; and the company, too, convened and demeaned themselves accordingly. Everything was done up in good style, I assure you, with only the part of the professor omitted. To have seen the preparation (though Lidian says it was nothing extraordinary) I should certainly have said he was a-coming, but he did not. He must have found out some shorter way to Turkey, — some overland route, I think. By the way, he was complimented, at the conclusion of his course in Boston, by the mayor moving the appointment of a committee to draw up resolutions expressive, etc., which was done. 

    I have made a few verses lately. Here are some, though perhaps not the best,— at any rate they are the shortest, —on that universal theme, yours as well as mine, and several other people’s — 

The good how can we trust! 
Only the wise are just. 
The good, we use, 
The wise we cannot choose; 
These there are none above. 
The good, they know and love, 
But are not known again 
By those of lesser ken. 
They do not choose us with their eyes, 
But they transfix with their advice; 
No partial sympathy they feel 
With private woe or private weal, 
But with the universe joy and sigh, 
Whose knowledge is their sympathy. 
Good-night. HENRY THOREAU.
     P. S. I am sorry to send such a medley as this to you. I have forwarded Lane’s Dial to Munroe, and he tells the expressman that all is right. 

Sanborn’s Note: The town almshouse was across the field from the Emerson house. - back

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