The relatively obscure release of Ralph Waldo Emerson s first book, Nature, in 1836, gave few clues to the celebrity and influence which would later be enjoyed by its author. The piece was originally published anonymously but did mark the beginning of Emerson s future role of mentor, lecturer, and teacher. His scope was wide, attracting a number of admirers across Massachusetts, reaching audiences from both his literary works, as well as his numerous appearances on the university lecture circuit.
One such admirer was a young Massachusetts neighbour, Henry David Thoreau. A schoolteacher by trade, Thoreau ended up as a boarder at Emerson s home, beginning a lasting, if not frustrating, friendship. This complex relationship introduced Thoreau to the literary world, as well as to the art of lecturing, as performed by Emerson.
One such lecture, delivered by Emerson in 1837 to a Harvard audience, spoke about the past, present, and future of The American Scholar. Twenty-five years later, in 1862, shortly after his death, a monthly periodical published an article constructed from Thoreau s journals, entitled simply Walking. Though very different in general subject matter, both pieces contain very similar philosophies, applicable to many areas of life and society. The application of these philosophies from one work to the other, show not a taste of plagiarism, but rather act as a testament to the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson on the thoughts and ideas of Henry David Thoreau.
One recurring theme of this era of American literature was the idea of establishing independence for the United States from the historical ties to Europe. A cry went out for Americans to marvel in the wonders of their own backyard, rather than to look overseas to the previously dominant western European nations. Emerson was no exception to this movement and took time during his The American Scholar lecture to speak of the need for the present generation of Americans to establish their own history: Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this. Emerson called for active, original thought on the part of American scholars and criticized those who wrote as they: set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. His criticism more specifically, was directed to those scholars who looked abroad for inspiration, only to find: That which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journies into far countries, [are] suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts. Emerson s argument can be summed up with his observation that: Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote.
Variations of these same sentiments are present in Thoreau s look at the wonders of Walking. Thoreau shares Emerson s concerns over western dominance on American culture but is more direct in his approach: We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure. He understands the preoccupation of his country with the historical east explaining that Americans: find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does not yet exist distinctly in our idea. As the American identity grows, so will American culture. Thoreau s outlook is one of enthusiasm and anticipation though. He looks around him to see great things happening in all scopes of American life leading him to comment that: these facts are symbolical of the height to which the philosophy and poetry and religion of her inhabitants may one day soar. This isn t to say that Thoreau does not pay homage to the traditions started overseas though, he simply sees the move from east to west as a progression: From the East light, from the West fruit. With that in mind, Thoreau suggests to take what you can from the past, but never forget that: we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.
Another topic prevalent in Emerson s address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society was the discussion of man individually versus man in society. Emerson saw the emergence of the individual as a sign of the times. This had been the case previously but the emphasis had shifted entirely onto society working as a whole, not the coming together of its parts. This shift saw a return to the importance of man as a single unit, though still able to function in a group. Emerson saw this as a crucial balance as: this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. Emerson viewed this dual role as paramount to the way we view the world: you must take the whole society to find the whole man. It is the duty of this whole man to contribute to the best of his ability, being rewarded for his efforts: he who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom. The vitality of man in Emerson s society was simple: The world is nothing, the man is all.
Thoreau s approach to man and his relationship with his surroundings is similar, but with a slight difference. He also professes a need for less rigorous association between man and society, but in view of a greater association with nature, one of Emerson s favourite topics. Thoreau s transformation begins with a new approach to perceiving the social hierarchy, which would have us: regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society. Elements of a civilization are fine and necessary to Thoreau, but there must always be an aspect of rawness and purity to keep things interesting: I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated. This would seem simple enough, but for the fact that: while almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society, few are attracted strongly to nature. Perhaps there are some convinced of their worth only as a laborer lacking in formal education, but this is at the heart of both men s arguments, and as Thoreau states: the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men. To get back to nature and cultivate oneself as a man of the earth, whatever profession he may be, is a return to man s origins and roots.
Finally, Emerson tackles the title topic of his lecture The American Scholar, the American scholar himself. Emerson found himself addressing the students at a time when he saw: the survival of the love of letters amongst a people too busy to give to letters anymore. As men were separated to fulfill various necessary functions, the: scholar is the designated intellect. Emerson sees an ideal state of scholar being one where man is capable of original thinking and analyzing, not merely able to regurgitate information, which has been written or recorded by another man. To be well read is certainly important to a scholar, but to Emerson the real importance lies in one s own knowledge. He stresses the importance of not forgetting the true source of knowledge taught to scholars: Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the workyard made. As also illustrated by Thoreau later, in Emerson s view there is no place for elitism or class separation. Learned men are present everywhere but: Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind. Emerson wanted his audience to see the virtues of understanding rather than memorizing, the importance of enlightenment rather than social acceptability. He encouraged the seeking out of the truly important matters: Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. And at the end of the day, books are not the only ingredient of intellect: Only so much do I know, as I have lived.
This sentiment was shared entirely by Thoreau in his journal compilation. Experience is true knowledge, nothing is gained just by the act of obtaining knowledge. Thoreau illustrates this with his literal and symbolic love of walking: I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. It is never enough to merely complete an act just for the sake of it, there must be genuine intent behind it to be enriched. Unfortunately, as humans: there is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. In learning, Thoreau expresses the undeniable importance of nature. How can one understand the world around him if he does not the constitution of that same world? He notes there have been many attempts by authors to write on the subject of nature but, for a reader, the crucial aspect of first-hand experience is missing: I do not know where to find in any literature, ancient or modern, any account which contents of that nature with which even I am acquainted. This may come from a desire, when recounting experience to others, one tends to be at a loss to truly recreate the scene, making it undesirable for a reader to look to others experiences rather than their own. This might explain why: in literature it is only the wild that attracts us. Dulness is but another word for tameness. Thoreau goes as far to say this vital wildness is missing from most great English literary works, saying they: [breathe] no quite fresh and in this sense wild strain. It is an essentially tame and civilized literature.
Both emerging during a time of Transcendentalists, both Emerson and Thoreau explored and debated many similar themes, such as the role of the individual, popular to their era. The movement within America toward intellectual independence provided diverse material for many discussions, both oral and published, for many writers of the time, beginning with Emerson and spreading to many others. Through his mentorship of Thoreau, Emerson molded public opinion not only through his own influential body of work, but also by nurturing and supporting the career of his younger peer. There is no doubt of the crucial role played by Emerson in the maturing work of Thoreau. Emerson provided the framework within which Thoreau was able to create and explore his own intellectual independence.
Thoreau, Henry David, Walking, in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Nina Baym (New York, 1998) p. 1953 – 1976