What Ellen Tucker Emerson said

Concord, Mass.

My sister and I stopped by the Barrow Book Store today; they have a great stock of books related to Transcendentalism, and the owner of the store, Pam Fenn, knows books by and about Transcendentalists. Pam told me this story, which she heard from a descendant of Hawthorne (I have shortened and altered the story as Pam told it to me):

In her girlhood, Ellen Tucker Emerson went through a time when she swore a lot. (Swearing in those days did not mean using the f-word, it meant taking the name of God in vain.) This embarrassed her family. Once, Ellen was invited to a birthday party, and her parents weren’t going to let her attend because of her swearing; but she finally convinced them to let her. She left, but came back ten minutes later. Her parents knew what had happened and began to discipline her, but she yelled that they should stop. “I came back because the g———d party is next week,” she cried.

Probably not a true story. But who knows.

Why Thoreau did not succeed in his own lifetime

Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote: “Perhaps if Thoreau could have been a religious fanatic, he would have prospered better.”

This is from The Memoirs of Julian Hawthorne, ed. Edith Garrigues Hawthorne (New York: Macmillan, 1938). Julian Hawthorne knew Thoreau, and like Thoreau was raised in part in Concord’s Unitarian church. This is one of the most perceptive commentaries on Thoreau I have read.

Had he lived a few decades later, Julian would have been a revered bestselling author; as it was, he had to live up to his father’s reputation, and so tried to write in a high literary style which was not his native tongue. After writing a concise and trenchant one-sentence critique of Thoreau, Julian follows it with a paragraph filled with less insightful and less well-written judgments. Here’s the whole paragraph:

Perhaps if Thoreau could have been a religious fanatic, he would have prospered better. He had no small mixture in him of the fanatic. But his faith in God was not that towering flame which the great religious reformers have manifested; the acid rationality was too strong in him. He was no barren atheist, but he had not fathomed the great secret, and could not preach without it. He had almost a rage for sincerity — to be as sincere as a bird, a tree, or a wolf; and the compromises and skilful locution of the church revolted him. If we cannot explain the Trinity, let us not affirm belief in it. He accepted the designation of Transcendentalist as committing him to nothing, but he did not regard himself as a disciple of Emerson or [Bronson] Alcott. His virtue was that he was a misfit anywhere in human congregations; he must be himself, and nobody, not even he, knew exactly what that was.

The middle of the paragraph is not really worth reading, but that last sentence is almost as good as the first. Put those two sentences together, and you have an image of someone who could have started a millennial cult. Actually, thinking back to the time when I was a tourist guide in Concord, some of today’s followers of Thoreau have all the characteristics of cultists, so maybe Thoreau did by accident found a cult; just not a very successful one.