City Gardens: Thoreau in New York

Article excerpt

The names Emerson and Thoreau immediately conjure up certain associations in those even peripherally aware of American cultural history. New England. Transcendentalism. Nature. Waiden Pond. Perhaps hobgoblins and self-reliance. Those with more interest in the two men would be aware that Thoreau spent time in Emerson's home and living on his property and that the relationship was, as the euphemism goes, complicated.

But there is a lesser-known aspect to the Emerson-Thoreau relationship involving a place not normally linked to either of them, New York City, and another Emerson in addition to the famous one. William Emerson, Ralph Waldo's brother, lived on Staten Island, New York, from 1837 to 1864, serving as a Richmond County judge. And for several months in 1843, Henry David Thoreau worked as a tutor to William Emerson's son Willie and spent a great deal of time wandering the fields and beaches of the rural island that was still many years away from formal incorporation into the city. Thoreau also made frequent trips into Manhattan on Commodore Vanderbilt's ferry. Through his correspondence with Waldo in Concord and the letters exchanged between Waldo and William, we have a record of this interval in Thoreau's life, as he began to redefine the writer's place in - and apart from - an increasingly urban and commercial America.

In a letter of March 12-13, 1843, Waldo Emerson outlines for his brother some reasons Thoreau wants to take up William's offer to tutor his son and reside with the family in New York. Thoreau would like "to be the friend and educator of a boy & one not yet subdued by schoolmasters."1 Emerson continues: "I have told him that you wish to put the boy & not his grammar & geography under good & active influence that you wish him to go to the woods & to go to the city with him & do all he can for him." Thoreau, then, wanted to shape young Willie, to provide the kind of education he felt lacking in the young people of his time, one based on experience as much as books, relying on direct contact with the world as a means of ethical growth. An education that would not "subdue" independence, what Emerson calls (in "Self-Reliance") "the nonchalance of boys" that represents "the healthy attitude of human nature." Thoreau would share with the boy his own learning process in exploring - and confronting - New York.

However, as Emerson writes to William on April 3, Thoreau doesn't want too much sharing, too much closeness to the family. Above all, he desires a room of his own, "to be at night the autocrat of a chamber be it never so small - 6 feet by 6 - wherein to dream, write & declaim alone." Thoreau seeks this solitude in proximity to the city, where he hopes for "literary labor from some quarter." The pattern of Waiden Pond is already established: minimal expenditure on basic needs, a private space in sylvan surroundings not far from the larger community, work allowing time to write, read, and think. The goal was always, as he writes in his journal around that time, "to live as I could, not devoting much time to getting a living."2 The phrase "to live as I could" suggests both limitation and freedom: the position at William Emerson's home and the literary marketplace of the city provide for but also potentially threaten the work of writing that Thoreau so much values. It is a question of how time is to be used - in getting a living or in "living," which implies work in which time is redeemed rather than wasted or equated with money. Thoreau perhaps hoped that by being near New York but not in it, residing with a family but in his own private space, he could achieve this balance of society and solitude, livelihood and vocation.

The visit did not start out propitiously. "I have been sick ever since I came here," Thoreau writes on May 23. He isn't sure of the cause: "a cold, bronchitis, acclimation, etc. still unaccountably." He awaits "experiences" but feels "a great way off from New York" at his Staten Island perch. …