By John Albee
I had now a precise object and need of seeing Emerson. I thought he could advise me how to become educated and where. For the school offered nothing I craved. Its methods were brutal and monkish; its regimen, that is, its dormitories and commons-table had barely kept some thousands of dyspeptic alumni in this world (and had sent I know not how many to the other), and maintained thereby the chief bulwark of a bad creed, a bad digestion. One of its disciples confessed to me that he got up in the morning a Unitarian, but toward night the gnawing in his stomach brought him back to Orthodoxy.
I therefore set out one damp day in May, 1852, in search of the oracle that was to answer my questions and be to me the voice of destiny. What trepidations and misgivings! The selfconscious student is thinking what sort of a figure he will cut; he remembers his youth and its insignificance to any but himself; and the greatness of the great is vastly exaggerated by the comparison. It seemed to me I was going to speak with a being, who, like the person in Plutarch’s story, only conversed with men one day in the year; the remainder he spent with the nymphs and dæmons; and that day, for the current year, had been allotted to me. The fact that I went clandestinely, that Emerson’s name and books were never mentioned nor known by anyone in my world, and that I was wholly unaware of the other members of his circle, called sometimes the Transcendentalists, or their works and influence, probably added a certain zest to the adventure. At the gate of the well-known walk it would have been easier to retreat than to enter. Such is the experience of those about to grasp what they have long awaited and desired. I went on, however, as one in the end always does. I entered, and giving my name, was welcomed in a manner that at once banished embarrassment.
Thoreau was already there. I think he had ended his experiment at Walden Pond some years before. Thoreau was dressed, I remember, in a plain, neat suit of dark clothes, not quite black. He had a healthy, out-of-door appearance, and looked like a respectable husbandman. He was rather silent; when he spoke, it was in either a critical or a witty vein. I did not know who or what he was; and I find in my old diary of the day that I spelled his rare name phonetically, and heard afterward that he was a man who had been a hermit. I observed that he was much at home with Emerson; and as he remained through the afternoon and evening, and I left him still at the fireside, he appeared to me to belong in some way to the household. I observed also that Emerson continually deferred to him and seemed to anticipate his view, preparing himself obviously for a quiet laugh at Thoreau’s negative and biting criticisms, especially in regard to education and educational institutions. He was clearly fond of Thoreau; but whether in a human way, or as an amusement, I could not then make out. Dear, indeed, as I have since learned, was Thoreau to that household, where his memory is kept green, where Emerson’s children still speak of him as their elder brother. In the evening Thoreau devoted himself wholly to the children and the parching of corn by the open fire. I think he made himself very entertaining to them. Emerson was talking to me, and I was only conscious of Thoreau’s presence as we are of those about us but not engaged with us. A very pretty picture remains in my memory of Thoreau leaning over the fire with a fair girl on either side, which somehow did not comport with the subsequent story I heard of his being a hermit. Parched corn had for him a fascination beyond the prospect of something to eat. He says in one of his books that some dishes recommend themselves to our imaginations as well as palates. “In parched corn, for instance, there is a manifest sympathy between the bursting seed and the more perfect developments of vegetable life. It is a perfect flower with its petals, like the Houstonia or anemone. On my warm hearth these cerealian blossoms expanded.”
I never saw Thoreau again until I heard him deliver in Boston Music Hall his impassioned eulogy on John Brown. Meantime the “Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers” had become one of my favorite books; and I have atoned for my youthful and untimely want of recognition by taking from my ocean beach a smooth pebble to his cairn at Walden. I gathered the stone in the ancient pharmaceutical manner, with the spell of one of Thoreau’s songs:
“My sole employment ’tis and scrupulous care
To place my gains beyond the reach of tides;
Each smoother pebble, and each shell more rare,
Which ocean kindly to my hand confides.”
In the conversation of an afternoon and evening it is impossible to relate all that was said; one thinks he never shall forget a word of such a memorable day; but at length it becomes overlaid in the chambers of the memory and only reappears when uncalled for. I find set down in my diary of the day two or three things which a thousand observers have remarked: that Emerson spoke in a mild, peculiar manner, justifying the text of Thoreau, that you must be calm before you can utter oracles; that he often hesitated for a word, but it was the right one he waited for; that he sometimes expressed himself mystically, and like a book. This meant, I suppose, that the style and subjects were novel to me, being then only used to the slang of schoolboys and the magisterial manner of pedagogues. He seldom looked the person addressed in the eye, and rarely put direct questions. I fancy this was a part of his extreme delicacy of manner.
As soon as I could I introduced the problem I came to propound—what course a young man must take to get the best kind of education. Emerson pleaded always for the college; said he himself entered at fourteen. This aroused the wrath of Thoreau, who would not allow any good to the college course. And here it seemed to me Emerson said things on purpose to draw Thoreau’s fire and to amuse himself. When the curriculum at Cambridge was alluded to, and Emerson casually remarked that most of the branches were taught there, Thoreau seized one of his opportunities and replied: “Yes, indeed, all the branches and none of the roots.” At this Emerson laughed heartily. So without conclusions, or more light than the assertions of two representative men can give, I heard agitated for an hour my momentous question.
At that period it seemed to me men acquired by mere industry whatever talents and position they possessed. Anybody could come to greatness by persistent study and effort; we were to be self-made men—that was the popular phrase of the time—regardless of whether the Creator had done little or nothing for us, and we were constantly reminded of Benjamin Franklin and that the way to the White House was always open to the sober and industrious young man. Sobriety and industry and frugality were the three commandments of the farm and the shop; and if the boy left his father’s field or bench for college or a profession he was enjoined to exemplify these principles in the exercise of his intellectual faculties and functions as he had been trained to do at home.
I was therefore somewhat confused in my notions regarding education by finding that Emerson, who as I then believed had made himself a great man, was also college bred. Whether from desire to follow his example, or because I was already nearly prepared for college, I found myself involuntarily coinciding with Emerson’s views rather than Thoreau’s whimsical opinions. Yet Thoreau had been to college; but at some strange epoch in his life he had broken with his past and many of the traditions and conventions of his contemporaries. He had resolved to live according to nature; and had the usual desire to publish the fact and explain the proceeding. It had never, however, the tone of apology; and it is our good fortune that he was not too singularly great to feel the need of communicating himself to his kind. Never has any writer so identified himself with nature and so constantly used it as the symbol of his interior life. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish Thoreau from his companions, the woods, the woodchucks and muskrats, the birds, the pond and the river. An inspired prescience foretold where to find the flower he wanted, and how to lure the little Musketaquid perch to his hand. Rare plants bloomed when he arrived at their secret hiding-places as if they had made an appointment with him; and the birds knew their lover’s old cap and never mistook his telescope for a gun. In his intercourse with nature his pilot was some prophetic thought which led him by sure instinct to its sympathetic analogon in nature. It was natural, therefore, that to such a man systems of education should seem hindrances; they interposed another’s will across the track of one’s native intuitions. To shake off such substitutes with all their baggage was his prime intention.
Besides these fragments of the hours I spent with Emerson, I find in my memoranda that he held a light opinion of things this side the water; that we Americans are solemn on trifles and superficial in the weighty; that there is no American literature [This was in 1852.]; Griswold says there is, but it is his merchandise—he keeps its shop. Had Emerson forgotten the Rev. Cotton Mather’s three hundred and eighty-two works? He said we needed some great poets, orators. He was always looking out for them, and was sure the new generation of young men would contain some. Thoreau here remarked he had found one, in the woods, but it had feathers and had not been to Harvard College. Still it had a voice and an aerial inclination, which was pretty much all that was needed. ” Let us cage it,” said Emerson. “That is just the way the world always spoils its poets,” responded Thoreau. Then Thoreau, as usual, had the last word; there was a laugh, in which for the first time he joined heartily, as the perquisite of the victor. Then we went in to tea in right good humor. I fear that I was invited to tea because I did not know how to take myself out of the house. I remember not much of the evening’s talk. Probably my measure was full; it was a peck, and here was a bushel. However, I have always felt that the silver cup somehow got into my tiny bag.
Source: Albee, John. Remembrances of Emerson (New York: Robert G. Cooke, 1901) pp. 16-25, 31-32