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Emerson & Thoreau: Figures of Friendship

Emerson & Thoreau: Figures of Friendship

Scott F. Parker gets friendly with Emerson & Thoreau.

Emerson and Thoreau are lumped together in the American cultural memory for their leading roles in American transcendentalism, and also for their personal relationship. Emerson & Thoreau: Figures of Friendship, edited by John T. Lysaker and William Rossi, offers compelling biographical background on their famous friendship, as well as insightful scholarship on their main writings about friendship: Emerson’s essay ‘Friendship’, and the ‘Wednesday’ section of Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).

The book’s bold aspiration is to be that rare hybrid: an academic work urgent enough to change the reader’s life. Following Emerson and Thoreau’s “at once… literary-philosophical and… existential concern” with friendship, in their introduction, Lysaker and Rossi write that “the present collection’s real concern is with friendship itself… Thus we would expect this book to enrich our readers’ collective sense of what friendship involves, what it requires, and how we might fare better on our paths.” (p.8.) If this ambition isn’t unfounded, it’s due as much to the breadth and importance of the subject, friendship, as it is to the transcendental inspiration of the sources. From Aristotle to the Romantics, a consideration of friendship has featured prominently in views of how to live, and as Lysaker and Rossi write, “like few folds in mortal life, friendship seems a necessary part of the good.” (p.1.) In an era when friends are publically counted in the hundreds, and made anew with the click of a Facebook button, we might pause at the ‘necessary.’ Or does discerning a distinction between quantity and quality just highlight the necessity of sincere friendship?

“With the increased commercialization of every sphere of life, a certain degree of calculation infects even the most innocuous activities, eg, what we wear, how we ‘spend’ our free time, and with whom. What may be missing is thus less company than meaningful company,” they say on p.2.

In both Emerson’s and Thoreau’s thinking, friendship is indispensable in bringing about our better selves: our flourishing cannot occur without the challenges and opportunities for growth our friends provide us. In Thoreau’s words: “friends do not live in harmony merely, as some say, but in melody.”

On the terms I think Lysaker and Rossi want to be taken, their book would have to treat the reader like a Thoreauvian or Emersonian friend, and rather than simply harmonize with the views they already hold, hit notes of resonance that lead the reader to a richer self. This is a noble and generous goal, but ultimately the book’s register leads it to fall somewhat short of this ideal, for at its core Emerson & Thoreau remains an academic book. This is no knock against it – at least, not a very hard knock – and it’s not to imply that ‘human interests’ don’t lie within; but it is to say that the scholarship is front and center, and the author-reader relationship is left in the margins. The detached scholarly tone, especially in contrast to Emerson’s and Thoreau’s more personable prose, often left me feeling less a witness to events or a participant in experiences than a recipient of intellectual reportage, wondering, “Is this how you talk to your friends?” Yet even if the authors do not cultivate a meaningful friendship with their readers, the book’s scholarship nevertheless makes it worth reading.

Lawrence Buell addresses the intersection of theory and practice for Emerson and Thoreau, who “notoriously [define] friendship in such exalted terms as to threaten to make it inoperable,” (p.17.) Buell demonstrates how their respective dispositions shaped both their thinking about friendship, and the rocky friendship they shared. His essay, along with Barbara Packer’s treatment of gift-giving, provide helpful biographical and intellectual context for reading ‘Friendship’ or ‘Wednesday.’

The book’s second and third sections are devoted to Emerson’s and Thoreau’s major writings on friendship. Beginning these sections, I desired a refresher from the source materials, and regretted that neither was included. Both ‘Friendship’ and A Week are in the public domain, and neither text is terribly long – they would have made nice appendices. But the texts aren’t necessary. The exegesis is so thorough that a clear sense of them emerges. Russell B. Goodman offers a paragraph by paragraph reading of Emerson’s ‘Friendship’; and a similar if less detailed picture of Thoreau’s ‘Wednesday’ comes into focus in essays by Rossi and Alan D. Hodder.

Among the scholarship, there are moments of inspiration throughout. Consider this from David M. Robinson’s essay, ‘In the Golden Hour of Friendship’:

“What Emerson seems to discover – and the essay ‘Friendship’ is the narrative of this discovery – is that friendships “are not glass threads and frostwork, but the solidest things we know.” However true it might be that two souls can never completely merge, this [knowledge of incompatibility] is useless information – the stuff of idle curiosity, of ‘wine and dreams’… such insights are corrosive of desire itself, starving the spirit and undermining the richness and depth of our experience.” (p.62.)

And besides inspiration, there is real advice. Here’s Lysaker, reading Emerson, borrowing from Aristotle, echoing Thoreau: “Unlike those of pleasure and use, ethical friendships set terms that do not admit of compartmentalization. Instead, they claim us at every point along the circumference of our being” (p.90); or “Ethical friendship, in seeking another self, should seek enlargement and not agreement.” (p.91.) These implorations to self-cultivation, the book suggests, are the essence of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s notions of friendship.

Following Emerson’s famous statement, “I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them,” Goodman writes, “we must take our leave of friends, we must take our leave of books” (p.73); or, in Naoko Saito’s words, “Ultimately, Thoreau must leave the reader too, and the reader must move on from Walden and whatever light it has conferred. But through the act of leaving, the other does not simply leave us behind: he leaves us with the act of pursuing our own light.” (p.182.) For Emerson and Thoreau, and Emerson & Thoreau, books, like friends, are always in the service of our self-cultivation, always leading us on to our future selves, and always reminding us to have a life independent of them.

© Scott F. Parker 2010

Scott’s book Coffee: Grounds for Debate, co-edited with Mike W. Austin, is forthcoming from Wiley-Blackwell's ‘Philosophy for Everyone’ series. He has contributed chapters to Golf and Philosophy, Football and Philosophy, and Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy.

Emerson & Thoreau: Figures of Friendship, edited by John T. Lysaker and William Rossi, Indiana University Press, 2009, 222pps, $22.95 pb, ISBN: 978-0253221438.

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