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Fascinating Transcendental Fiction
on May 18, 2005
In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson was known throughout New England as a captivating lecturer and writer, as well as an eligible widower. Lydia Jackson heard him speak in her hometown of Plymouth, and she felt honored and almost unworthy when the great man afterward engaged her in personal conversation. Any number of women would gladly have exchanged places with her. But it was *she* whom Emerson sought out and *she* to whom he proposed marriage. (And *she* of whom he also demanded a name change and a move to Concord, but that's beside the point...)
Theirs was to be an intellectual match of equals and a real partnership, which was an unusual and ambitious undertaking for the time. But after the arrival of their first child, Waldo and Lidian fell into the traditional roles that marriages generally adhere to. For Lidian, the experience resulted in feelings of abandonment and unappreciation. She was often the last to know Waldo's travel plans for lecture tours. She became jealous of every female guest who spent time in parlor discussions with her husband -- with or without good reason -- especially Margaret Fuller. This was *not* the fulfilling life she had imagined.
And so, wanting more, she turned to a close family friend for conversation, caring, and concern - Henry David Thoreau. History has shown that the two were friends. In this novel, they become a bit more intimate, with Lidian being the instigator. In the 21st century, we're not surprised by this kind of turn of events, for we read similar headlines about celebrity marriages and third-party affairs on the front covers of grocery store rags. Those of us who are Thoreau fans would like to think that he would have been above that kind of behavior. And Lidian too, for that matter. They were *Transcendentalists*, for heavens sakes!
I was prepared to hate this book because I knew I disagreed with the Lidian-Henry relationship it describes. But I can't hate the book. It is a work of fiction, after all. I think it's otherwise a fair and valid portrayal of Lidian's life as Mr. Emerson's wife. Too frequently we hear about Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his second wife fades into the background, if she's mentioned at all. Reading this novel will provide a little more perspective into the daily life of the most influential man in 19th-century Concord. The moral of the story is: be careful what you wish for.