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.

Smartweed

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.