The Tale of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson had a long history together – starting with their first official meeting in 1841 when Thoreau was only 23 years old.

Henry David Thoreau

American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher

Emerson welcomed a young Henry David Thoreau into his household and was perplexed by the level of his intellectuality and reasoning. Before this, Thoreau had followed and admired the works of Emerson and had always looked up to him as a role model. Their meeting may have been by chance, but it also may have been fated to happen – considering the history they would later make together. Let’s briefly explore the timeline of the relationship between both men.

The Meeting

Although Henry David Thoreau was officially accepted to join the household of Emerson in 1841, it is believed the pair had met as far back as 1835, when Emerson conducted lectures at Harvard, with Thoreau being one of his students. Still, at this point, Emerson didn’t know who Thoreau was, given that there were hundreds of students receiving his lecture. 

Thoreau was a big fan of Emerson and was amazed by his works – particularly one of his books titled ‘Nature.’ Thoreau’s ideals clicked with that Emerson’s and all he wanted to do was to connect with him. A few months later, Emerson started noticing the rather amateur works of Thoreau and a few others and liked them. 

However, after graduation, followed by a series of unsuccessful tries to make a meaningful life in society, plus the tragic loss of John, his older brother, Thoreau was left depressed and even brain sick at some point. Emerson reached out and invited the broken man to come to live in his house. This marked the beginning of their “mentor-to-friend,” “friend-to-colleague” relationship.


The Dial Magazine 

When Henry David Thoreau began living with Emerson’s family, one would expect a much fairer life’s treatment, but that wasn’t the case. This is because poor Thoreau was doing too many odd jobs – that he almost felt like a houseboy in Mr. Emerson’s household.

For Thoreau, living and seeing his idol daily was worth all the hardship he could face there. His patience and perseverance paid off soon as Emerson began growing fond of him more and more – not only for his domestic industriousness but also for his intellectual level, which was quite impressive for a man his age. 

It wasn’t long later, that Emerson became confident enough to entrust the administrative duties of his household to Thoreau for when he was not around and traveling. Emerson also introduced Thoreau to The Dial, a magazine outlet he and Margaret Fuller founded for young transcendentalist writers such as Thoreau to get published. Thoreau was fortunate for such privilege as it was through it that he became friends with other great writers and thinkers. 

An Ambitious Thoreau 

After a while of staying at Emerson’s household, and steady publishing and editing for The Dial, Thoreau became more ambitious and wanted to land a job writing and editing for New York publishers. Emerson meant to help out, so he sent Thoreau to go live with William, his brother. 

While Thoreau stayed with William for a short duration, long enough for his application to be reviewed, he began tutoring Williams’ son. Unfortunately for Thoreau, he didn’t get the job with The New York Publishers, so he traveled home to Concord and worked on his journals for a short while before embarking on his Walden pond experience.

Lidian Jackson Emerson

Through Emerson, Henry David Thoreau got to meet Lidian Jackson. Lidian was the second wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson and had four children with him. However, when Thoreau began living with Emerson’s household, he became suspiciously close with Lidian, and both shared emotional bonds and connected very well – and some historians even suggested they may have shared a romantic relationship.

Lidian began drawing close to Thoreau following a series of physical and emotional abandonment by her husband, who was rarely around because he was too busy touring Europe promoting his works. And when he was around, Lidian would find it extremely hard to connect with him as Emerson was fanatically transcendentalist in ideas. This was close enough to be anti-Christianity, and she was a stout believer.

When Emerson wasn’t around, Lidian found in Thoreau, an understanding man with whom she could deeply connect on these levels. Their fondness for each other lasted for many years but was kept a secret. And even when both were hundreds of miles away from each other, they still wrote letters of warmth and love for each other.

Emerson’s Impact on the Life and Career of Henry David Thoreau

The influence Emerson had on Thoreau’s life, and career was huge and can be seen in different timelines of their relationship. First, it started at Harvard College, where Emerson – although ignorant of who Thoreau was – imparted knowledge to Thoreau and a dozen others. 

And then Emerson came through again when Thoreau was in mourning and feeling despondent after losing his brother. Emerson invited him to come to live with him, and even though the subsequent treatment that followed wasn’t exactly enjoyable for Thoreau, it was an important event that kept him on course for an estimable career. 

Next was how Emerson introduced Thoreau to The Dial magazine, where Thoreau started honing his writing skill and also meeting other great minds and thinkers like himself. An important lesson Thoreau learned from Emerson at this stage was the art of writing every day and keeping a journal. 

Thoreau would never forget to implement this for the rest of his life, and amazingly after his death, his friends found that his journal contained a few million words which they later published posthumously.

Another impact, and very likely the biggest, Emerson had on Thoreau was bringing him up in the transcendentalist way and allowing him to borrow his land at Walden woods, a place where Thoreau, who have the tranquility of mind and body to write his first books, and experience an event on which he would then craft his masterwork, and have his name carved in the history books of American literature.


Did Thoreau have an affair with Emerson’s wife?

Thoreau’s relationship with Emerson’s second wife, Lidian, was very deep and complicated, but there’s not a single evidence that shows they consummated their relationship, and even Thoreau never revealed nor talked about what they shared in that manner. 

When did Thoreau and Emerson first meet?

Thoreau began living in Emerson’s household in 1841. However, the pair had previously but unofficially met at Harvard college – during the time, Emerson was a lecturer and Thoreau a student. 

What was Emerson’s opinion of Henry David Thoreau?

Despite Thoreau being a young, amateur writer, Emerson had held him in high esteem and often felt surprised at the level of his intellectuality. 

Victor Onuorah
About Victor Onuorah
Victor is as much a prolific writer as he is an avid reader. With a degree in Journalism, he goes around scouring literary storehouses and archives; picking up, dusting the dirt off, and leaving clean even the most crooked pieces of literature all with the skill of analysis.
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap