Two lilies

I recently started reading Jeffrey Cramer’s Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One benefit of 19th century literary friendships is the wealth of written evidence they leave behind. Future biographers researching friendships between modern-day writers will have to pore over emails, texts, and tweets rather than the letters and journal entries Cramer read in writing his book.

Asiatic dayflower

Both Thoreau and Emerson kept journals and maintained voluminous correspondence, albeit not always with one another. In the portion of Cramer’s book I’ve read so far, Thoreau is more emotionally intimate with Emerson’s wife, Lidian, than with Emerson himself, sending her letters that could pass as journal entries, so intricately do they chronicle his thoughts.

Front yard ferns

The problem with writerly friendships–especially friendships between two journal-keepers–is that writers are very good at talking to themselves. Isn’t a journal entry nothing more than a letter to an anonymous audience that is never sent? When you are accustomed to pouring your heart on paper for an audience of none, it’s easy to think–erroneously and egotistically–that anyone willing to receive and read such correspondence actually understands and empathizes with you.

But while the blank page has no desires or concerns of its own, friends are not blank pages. There is a very real way that two friends who are also writers can correspond at cross-purposes, even when communicating face-to-face. Each person wants their own needs met–each speaker longs to be listened to–and these desires can clash rather than finding a complement.


In a radio interview about his book, Cramer said Emerson and Thoreau had contrasting views of friendship. Emerson had many friends and drew different things from each, but Thoreau had few friends and strove (unsuccessfully) to have all his social and emotional needs met by one. This difference is a recipe for relational disaster, perhaps, and it helps explain the tense complications of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s friendship. What started as a conventional mentorship between an established writer and an idealistic protege deteriorated as it became clear that Thoreau would always be his own man, a nonconformist who marched to a different drum.

Enchanter's nightshade

But longevity is not the only (or best) way to judge a friendship. Although their relationship would ultimately grow strained, both Emerson and Thoreau were forever influenced by the insights of the other. In a passage Cramer quotes near the beginning of his book, Thoreau compares long-time friends to two trees who stand apart but whose roots intermingle. Above ground, two venerable trunks might seem distant and disconnected, but beneath the surface, they take sustenance from the same soil.

Gone to seed

One of the interesting things about maintaining a daily writing practice is the way you can compare today’s mindset with what you were feeling last week, last month, last year, or beyond. On any given day, I might scribble words into my journal, type words into a file I save on my laptop, or post words to my blog. On some days, I might do all three. The result of so much daily writing is a cumulative record of my own psychological weather patterns: a vast supply of data chronicling my own inner climate.

Late afternoon wetlands

Two weeks ago, for example, I re-read an essay I’d started to write about a month ago. I’d intended to post it as a blog entry illustrated with photos I’d taken at a football game J and I had attended in September, but I never got around to sorting through those photos, much less polishing and posting the accompanying essay. I’d started the essay about a month into the current semester, and the novelty of the term is apparent in every line: this is something I could have written only near the beginning of the academic term, when I was still feeling fresh, eager, and energetic.

Japanese knotweed seeds

Two weeks ago when I re-read that essay, I was in the midst of a phenomenon I’ve come to call the “dark night of the semester,” that point in every academic term when you’re tired, overwhelmed with work, and frankly feeling like you’ve lost your way. During this dark night, you look at your own syllabus with disgust, realizing nothing you’d intended to do with your class makes any sense; you lament your career choices, feeling you are the last person on earth cut out to work with undergraduates; and you find yourself silently muttering much too frequently a mantra of “I’m too old for this shit.” During the dark night of the semester, the thought of facing a classroom full of students, a folder full of student papers, or your own endless to-do list fills you with nausea, and the thought of trying to teach anyone anything makes you want to curl up and cry. If this dire ebb in your morale and motivation happens to hit when your students, too, are feeling sick, discouraged, and depressed, heaven help you all as you face a perfect storm of academic ennui: a dark night of despair that threatens to derail the entire semester.

Flying kite

Usually, my “dark night” arrives around week five of the semester: a little more than a month into it, when the novelty of the new term has worn off. This year, perhaps because I’m still new to Framingham State, the semester had more than the usual share of novelty hanging around it, so the dark night arrived around week ten: later than usual, but undeniable all the same. Even when the dark night tarries, I’ve learned, it never fails to arrive, eventually.

Tall grass

One torturous aspect of the dark night of the semester is being subject to the syllabus, assignments, and other teaching materials you’d designed months before, when you were feeling optimistic. Looking at the number, kind, and frequency of writing assignments you’d chosen to require, for instance, you can’t help but wonder what you were thinking. Who was I way back when I thought assigning X or requiring Y was a good idea…and who am I now that I’m actually having to grade the stuff I asked my students to submit? Because of my daily writing practice, I have a written record of both of these people: in my words, at least, I can watch Dr. Jekyll gradually transform into Mr. Hyde.


Years ago, when I was researching Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brief career as a Unitarian minister, I read that he recycled his sermons as he traveled from pulpit to pulpit, revisiting and revising the ones he delivered on multiple occasions to various audiences. Writing and delivering a fresh sermon every week is a daunting task: what about weeks when your faith is ebbing or inspiration is difficult to find? Because of this practice of re-using sermons he’d written previously, Emerson once stopped in the middle of reading an old sermon, nonchalantly remarked “I no longer believe this,” and then continued reading as if nothing unusual had happened.


I have to admire and even envy the gall, gumption, and grit Emerson displayed in this instance. For all the creeds we proclaim in churches, temples, or shrines, who among us has the nerve to state, loudly and proudly, “I no longer believe this”? Emerson was a life-long journal keeper, so even though he stopped writing (and recycling) sermons when he gave up his career as a Unitarian minister, Emerson never gave up the daily writing habit. The same man who famously wrote that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” had ample opportunity in his daily writing practice to watch his mind change, backtrack, and contradict itself. “Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson insisted, “and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” You simply have to love the nerve of someone who dares to waffle with such bold intensity.

Turkey tails

It’s difficult—the hardest thing on earth, perhaps, a task even harder than teaching—to remain true to our own convictions. Given the optimistic statements uttered at the beginning of an academic term, how closely can you hold to those ideals when the dark night descends? “I no longer believe this” is what I wanted to shout from the rooftops when I re-read that essay two weeks ago, but at the same time, I fully recognized that when I wrote it, I believed it entirely. So which utterance is the full and simple truth: an optimistic declaration of what I believe on a good day, when I’m brimming with energy and ideals, or a fatigued and despairing recantation of everything that statement stands for?

Sunlit trail

Today was a brisk and bright day, and I enjoyed an afternoon walk even though I’m still buried in last week’s paper piles. This past week’s classes went well after I’d tweaked my original approach, and I hope that tomorrow’s classes will go well, too: even if we can’t accomplish everything I’d set out to do this semester, I’m seeing small steps in the right direction, and I cling to that hope. This morning when I re-read that essay from nearly a month ago, I found myself nodding with nearly every word. It seems the dark night of this particular semester has abated a bit, with a glimmer of light presaging an eventual dawn.

Today’s photos come from a walk I took last weekend, starting at the Brook Farm Historical Site in West Roxbury–where 19th century Transcendentalists tried (unsuccessfully) to establish a pastoral commune–and wending toward nearby Millennium Park and back.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

Last weekend, on the way home from an afternoon walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, I stopped at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to visit Authors Ridge, where Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and both Bronson and Louisa May Alcott are buried. It was late afternoon, with the sun leaning low behind towering trees that cast long, slanting shadows: a preview of oncoming darkness. A steady trickle of tourists wandered through fallen leaves and slanting sunbeams to quietly examine the various stones while I waited for the quiet crowds to disperse before paying my own respects.

Thoreau family plot

I’ve visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery a few times before, but typically on foot rather than by car. When I first moved to the Boston area, I’d take the commuter rail to Concord a couple times each year, walking from the train station to Walden Pond, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, or the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge: a pedestrian pilgrimage where the journey to and from my destination took as long (and was just as interesting) as the visit itself.

Authors Ridge

If you drive to Sleepy Hollow, you’ll find dignified stone pillars pointing you toward Authors Ridge, and once you reach that eminent destination, you’ll find a small parking area where you can stop alongside one or two other cars. The folks who run Sleepy Hollow Cemetery make it easy, in other words, to make a pilgrimage to Authors Ridge: they know that’s what countless tourists come to Concord to see. It felt a bit too easy, however—a bit like cheating—to drive into the cemetery this way, as if I were checking Thoreau, Emerson, and the rest off a sightseeing bucket list: after you’ve made the requisite stop to see the stones, what’s next?

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The fact that so many tourists come to Concord specifically because of its storied history—Concord being not just the birthplace of the American Revolution, but the hotbed of the American Renaissance—was apparent before I’d even arrived at the cemetery, when we’d stopped downtown for a cup of chowder. The family next to us had an inexpensive copy of Walden sitting on their table, and our waitress asked us whether we were taking a break from shopping. “Is this what it’s come to,” I thought to myself, “that Thoreau’s backyard has become a place for Sunday shopping trips and literary sightseeing, that copy of Walden probably coming from the pond’s own gift shop?” This is, of course, a particularly cranky thought: even Thoreau wasn’t so misanthropic as to reject visitors to his cabin, and if you’re going to preserve ponds, cemeteries, and wildlife sanctuaries, you have to fund them with a certain amount of souvenir-selling.

Alcott family plot

I felt a bit sad visiting Authors Ridge on Sunday, but not because Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts would mind being visited by respectful tourists: wouldn’t any author be happy to know her or his words live on? Someone had left flowers on Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne’s graves, and Henry David Thoreau’s humble tombstone—a marker no different from any of the other stones in the Thoreau family plot, marked simply with the name “Henry”—was adorned as usual with offerings from previous pilgrims: stones, coins, and a pair of plastic pens even though Thoreau would have surely preferred pencils. Down the way from both the Hawthorne and Thoreau family plots, I overheard one family conferring with a stranger, trying to determine what they might have missed. “Emerson is down that way,” the stranger remarked, gesturing beyond the scattered family, who had fanned out among the weathered stones. “Oh, no,” the mother answered, presumably speaking for the rest. “We don’t like Emerson.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson's grave

What made me sad as I stood among sleepy stones in the setting sun on a late-autumn afternoon wasn’t the fact that some tourists pick favorites but the memory of those other times I’ve visited Authors Ridge: times when I was still in graduate school, actively engaged in scholarship on Thoreau and 19th century American literature. Back then, I wanted to be like Thoreau, believing that if I pursued a PhD, completed a dissertation on Thoreau and American nature writing, and attained a tenure-track job, I could join a coterie of literary academics who do what my own professors did, inspiring undergraduates with the intensity of their literary passions. Looking back, it all seems so idealistic, this notion that if I studied, researched, and wrote about what I loved, the academy would love me back, allowing me to make a decent living writing, teaching, and inspiring.


Instead, some eight years after I finished that dissertation and completed that PhD, I’m no closer to securing full-time employment within academia. Instead of teaching Thoreau to upperclassmen, I teach college freshmen how to write academic papers: a noble enough endeavor that brings its own satisfaction, but one so undervalued by the academy, most colleges believe it merits only part-time pay. Standing before Thoreau’s humble stone, I quietly lamented how far I’ve fallen from my own erstwhile hopes: while I once aspired to be an eminent scholar, now I’m merely another passing tourist, having forgotten more about Thoreau than most folks will ever know.

Mary Moody Emerson

Surely Thoreau himself knew more than a bit about the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams, having written a passage in his 1852 journal that rings sadly true:

The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.

Afternoon light

I’m in my woodshed-building years, my own late afternoon sun leaning long toward the horizon as I cobble together a patchwork of part-time jobs with the materials I’d gathered to build a career. Thoreau himself worked a ragtag assortment of jobs after deciding he wasn’t cut out to be a teacher: writer, Lyceum lecturer, handyman, surveyor. Did Thoreau ever look back on his life with a sense of disappointment, wondering silently, “For this I went to college?” In his own middle-age, did Thoreau ever feel he had wasted his precious potential?

Louisa May Alcott's grave

Emerson, at least, felt Thoreau underachieved during his too-brief lifetime, offering in Thoreau’s eulogy a backhanded compliment:

Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!

Overlooking Cat Pond

Thoreau had no ambition? It depends, of course, on what you consider “ambitious.” Perhaps Thoreau collects more mementos on his simple grave than Emerson does on his monumental one because Thoreau’s goals had a longer, more subtle scope, with Emerson writing for his own age and Thoreau writing for the ages. “We don’t like Emerson,” that woman remarked, and perhaps what she detected in Emerson’s prose was an urgent prudishness that so earnestly pursued self-culture, no room remained for anything other than enterprise and command. Aren’t there plenty of people doing and leading, scheming and engineering? Perhaps the wisdom gained from pounding beans is that at the end of years, “only beans” is nothing to sneer at.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

Thoreau died at the age of 44, my own age come January. They say that middle age is when you realize you’ll never read Proust; for me, as a writer, middle age is when I’m coming to realize I’ll never write another Walden. Is pounding out blog posts or pouring over pile after pile of student papers worth the toil? At the end of days, do either potential or ambition matter, or only what you build with them?