The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

X. Thoreau

§ 4. Emerson

After his college days comes an episode which his biographers seem inclined to slur over, perhaps from a false sense of the dignity of biography, and that is the two years, from 25 April, 1841, to May, 1843, which Thoreau spent under Emerson’s roof. By the time Thoreau left Harvard, Emerson had become a power in the spiritual life of America. His brief career as a Unitarian minister was already far behind him; he had made his pilgrimage to Europe; he had penetrated the wilds of Scotland to Craigenputtock because one Thomas Carlyle, another unrecognized genius, lived there. He had given in Boston those lectures on Great Men and The Philosophy of History which foreshadow the great address commonly called the declaration of independence for American literature. He had brought out his Scottish friend’s odd book, Sartor Resartus, a publication which accelerated the Transcendental movement. Emerson discovered the youth Thoreau as a true poet, and communicated the discovery in a letter to Carlyle. Thoreau became a member of Emerson’s household, apparently as general “help,” a relationship which all Americans will understand but which will be the despair of Europeans.

  • The most practical and handy person in all matters of every day life, a good mechanic and gardener, methodical in his habits, observant and kindly in the domestic world,
  • is the character Emerson gives him. There must have been a cash nexus, but the essence of the relationship was the tie uniting master and pupil, sage and disciple. This long and close association with the great literary force of that time had no slight effect in moulding Thoreau’s character and determining his bent.
  • His biographer, who knew him personally, says that he imitated Emerson’s tones and manners so that it was annoying to listen to him.
  • The imitation of Emerson in Thoreau’s writing is equally apparent. Lowell saw and condemned it in his criticism of A Week. In prose there is the sentence which reads like an oracle. It may be the profoundest wisdom, or it may be the merest matter of moonshine. When Thoreau writes “Ancient history has an air of antiquity,” or, “Give me a sentence which no intelligence can understand,” the critic can only fall back on the Gilbertian comment upon the young man who “expresses himself in terms too deep for me.” The imitation of Emerson’s poetry is even more marked and results in what Lowell calls Thoreau’s “worsification.” He had no candid friend to tell him what Dryden told “Cousin Swift.” There was, on the other hand, no little benefit in mere contact with such a personality as Emerson, much more in continual and close intercourse with him. The stimulus to thought must have been most potent, and Emerson’s influence could not but stiffen Thoreau in his natural independence and confirm him in his design of living his own life.