Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Thoreau's Declaration of Independence from Emerson in Walden

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Thoreau's Declaration of Independence from Emerson in Walden

Article excerpt

When Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson became friends in 1837, Emerson, who was already a major literary figure in New England, assumed the role of Thoreau's mentor and patron. In return, he expected Thoreau, then a Harvard undergraduate fourteen years his junior, to become an important writer and a leader of his generation of Americans. During Thoreau's two-year sojourn with the Emersons between 1841 and 1843, both Emerson and Thoreau began to suspect that the younger man would not live up to expectations and their friendship was strained. After the critical and commercial failure in 1849 of Thoreau's first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the two fell out with one another, leaving Thoreau with an overburdening sense of indebtedness to his former mentor for his patronage. Thus, in his second book, Walden (1854), Thoreau had much to prove to himself, to Emerson, and to the reading public who, if they knew of Thoreau at all, considered him an imitator of Emerson. In response to this challenge, in Walden, Thoreau makes a theme of his need to emancipate himself from indebtedness and then declares his independence from Emerson in his discussions of hospitality and natural "correspondence." In his passages on hospitality, Thoreau absolves himself of his debts to Emerson by disqualifying his patronage and hospitality, and in his discussions of nature he appropriates and transforms Emerson's doctrine of "correspondence" into his own "ecocentric" theory of nature, repaying Emerson for his patronage with the kind of originality that had always been expected of him.

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In a passage on hospitality in his essay on "Manners" (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson admits that he, like many of his contemporaries, is an imperfect host.

   For what is it that we seek, in so many visits and
   hospitalities? Is it your draperies, pictures, and decorations?
   Or, do we not insatiably ask, Was a man in the house? I may
   easily go into a great household where there is much
   substance, excellent provision for comfort, luxury, and taste,
   and yet not encounter there any Amphitryon, who shall
   subordinate these appendages. I may go into a cottage, and
   find a farmer who feels that he is the man I have come to see,
   and fronts me accordingly. It was therefore a very natural
   point of old feudal etiquette, that a gentleman who received a
   visit, though it were of his sovereign, should not leave his
   roof, but should wait his arrival at the door of his house. No
   house, though it were the Tuileries, or the Escurial, is good
   for anything without a master. And yet we are not often
   gratified by this hospitality. Every body we know surrounds
   himself with a fine house, fine books, conservatory, gardens,
   equipage, and all manner of toys, as screens to interpose
   between himself and his guest. Does it not seem as if man
   was of a very sly, elusive nature, and dreaded nothing so
   much as a full rencontre front to front with his fellow? It were
   unmerciful, I know, quite to abolish the use of these screens,
   which are of eminent convenience, whether the guest is too
   great, or too little. We call together many friends who keep
   each other in play, or, by luxuries and ornaments we amuse
   the young people, and guard our retirement. Or if, perchance,
   a searching realist comes to our gate, before whose eye we
   have no care to stand, then again we run to our curtain, and
   hide ourselves as Adam at the voice of the Lord God in the
   garden.... But.... the first point of courtesy must always be
   truth, as really all the forms of good-breeding point that way. (1)

True hospitality, Emerson claims, would not consist in the "appendages" a host has to offer his guest--his "draperies, pictures, and decorations" along with ample provisions for "comfort, luxury, and taste"--but in a host's offering himself to his guest. And yet, he owns that "a full rencontre front to front" with visitors is not always tolerable, and thus at times one cannot help interposing "screens" between oneself and one's guests to "guard" one's own "retirement. …

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