The Transcendental Friendship of Emerson and Thoreau

More than a century and a half after his death, Henry David Thoreau looms larger in the American consciousness than ever. His detailed reflections on plants, weather and the turn of the seasons in 19th-century Concord, Mass., helped shape modern environmental thought. Today, in a culture where mental and physical decluttering has become trendy, many see the appeal of Thoreau's experiment in scaled-down living, celebrated in “Walden.” And Thoreau's worry over the speed and distraction of emerging technology chimes neatly with our prevailing anxieties about social media.

Thoreau's skepticism about institutional authority also seems as much a commentary on our day as his own. His preoccupations, and the engaging personal style with which he expressed them, resonate with modern audiences. His call for civility sounds, in our coarsened age, thoroughly relevant: “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”

In the past few years, Thoreau has been the subject of three biographies: Laura Dassow Walls's “Henry David Thoreau,” Kevin Dann's “Expect Great Things” and Michael Sims's “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau.” They've been complemented by two recent and particularly insightful critical studies, Robert M. Thorson's “The Boatman” and Richard Higgins's “Thoreau and the Language of Trees.” Editor Geoff Wisner has enriched the mix with “Thoreau's Animals” and “Thoreau's Wildflowers,” two fresh curations of Thoreau's nature writings. In “The Guide to Walden Pond,” published last year, Mr. Thorson offered a historical tour of Thoreau's famous stomping ground. Now we have “Solid Seasons,” by Jeffrey S. Cramer, an engaging account of the friendship between Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson—his mentor, friend and fellow writer.

The reputation of Emerson is currently at low ebb. He is best known for “The American Scholar,” an 1837 speech that declared America's cultural independence from the Old World, and “Self-Reliance,” his essay about the blessings of noncomformity. Emerson's aphorisms, including his oft-quoted proverb “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” still brighten the national conversation. But they originated in essays larded with long-winded disquisitions that lean toward arid abstraction. Emerson's essays often indulge in the dry homiletics of the pulpit—not surprisingly, considering that he was a former clergyman. His essays were frequently drawn from well-received speeches, suggesting that he was better heard than read. On the cold page of posterity, their antique grandiloquence sometimes carries a whiff of attic must.

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