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RELIGION | BOOK REVIEW

Exploring the Meaning of Friendship

MY FRIEND, MY FRIEND; The Story of Thoreau's Relationship With Emerson By Harmon Smith; University of Massachusetts Press; $29.95, 216 pages

March 11, 2000|NICK OWCHAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Nick Owchar is an assistant editor of Book Review

Ever since "the shot heard round the world" was fired at Concord in 1775, that quaint town in the sleepy Massachusetts countryside has been the unlikely nest of revolutionary fervor. There, in the 1830s, a small group of thinkers, led by a tall gentleman with mutton chop sideburns, criticized Christianity and its sibling religions for claiming that they alone could put people in touch with the divine.

That dignified figure was the ex-minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, leader of the Transcendentalist movement. In crowded lecture halls, Emerson told audiences to shake off their Calvinist guilt and look to nature, not Scripture, for "the ideal and holy life." In "My Friend, My Friend," Harmon Smith revisits that oft-told story of the philosophical flowering of 19th century New England, but focuses his attention exclusively on Emerson and Henry David Thoreau during their long, sometimes strained relationship.

Smith suggests that, while they urged the public to "find God in nature," privately both men were engaged in another hunt: to understand the meaning of friendship. Emerson was active, dynamic, charismatic; Thoreau was often combative, moody--and yet their friendship endured for three decades until Thoreau's death at 45 from tuberculosis. "We are attracted toward a particular person," Thoreau once said, "but no one has discovered the laws of this attraction." Not a study of their writings, Smith's book thoughtfully renders their attempt to find ideal friendship, but without melodrama or excessive psychologizing.

The book opens in 1834 with Emerson's move to Concord with his wife, Lidian. Years before, Emerson had lost his young, tubercular first wife, Ellen, and had undergone a religious crisis. He had resigned his pastorate as a Unitarian minister in Boston--something Ellen's estate enabled him to do. Smith describes him as ill-matched with Lidian, who missed the bustle of Boston. Seeking companionship elsewhere, he read some poetry by Thoreau, then a Harvard senior, and recognized him as someone "whose mode of perception followed the same patterns as his own."

Emerson cultivated many friendships in his lifetime, particularly with young men of intellectual promise, and Smith shows how Thoreau vied with rivals like William Ellery Channing and Samuel Gray Ward for the Concord sage's attention. Emerson's personality could be hard to read; coolness and detachment alternated with sudden, solicitous desires to help people.

But among the dilettantes who flocked around him, Emerson enjoyed the solitary Thoreau. Thoreau impressed him with his conversation and a mystical ability to "transcend the humdrum experience of life." Emerson even invited him, at two different times, to live with his family. As the men grew older, however, their mentor-disciple relationship wore on Thoreau. The poet J.R. Lowell stung him when he wrote that Thoreau's ideas were derivative and asked, "With good fruit of your own, can't you let neighbor Emerson's orchards alone?"

A competitive spirit inevitably arose between them--their journals mark the change, especially in the phrases they used to describe each other. Early in the friendship, Thoreau refers to Emerson as "my real brother" and later, as Emerson's success and preoccupations grew, to Emerson's "diabolical formality" which made it so that "I cannot get within 10 feet of [him]." Emerson's early references to "Henry young and brave" are eclipsed by complaints about Thoreau's gloominess, his inability to find a niche or publish a successful book, not to mention his hovering presence as a house guest. (One can't help but chuckle when Smith writes, "Emerson agreed readily . . . that Henry build a one-room house" on Emerson's property at Walden pond.)

Smith's account of the Walden years is sure to make the metropolis dweller yearn for the days when a person could mingle with merchants in the marketplace and, just down the lane, find the perfect solitude of a holy hermit. Ultimately, Smith decides, the answer to why their friendship endured lies in the fact that petty irritations and misunderstandings were overcome by Emerson's and Thoreau's recognition of each other's genius. Illness, too, proved to unite them: Smith tells how Emerson sat at Thoreau's bedside, reading to him and reporting the sighting of "the first purple finch of spring" and where the ice had broken on Walden pond.

"My Friend, My Friend" abruptly ends with Emerson's eulogy at Thoreau's funeral in 1862. Smith tells a good story, though it is even better when read alongside a study with a larger context, like Carlos Baker's "Emerson Among the Eccentrics." Read alone, however, it is an honorable tribute to the greatness of these two men, especially Emerson: A man must be great if, after the untimely loss of many loved ones (including his 5-year-old son, Waldo), he can still preach that we live in a benevolent universe.

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