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My Friend, My Friend: The Story of Thoreau's Relationship with Emerson Hardcover – July 8, 1999

4.2 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

From the day they met in 1837, an intimate friendship developed between Emerson and Thoreau despite a 14-year age gap. Independent scholar Smith draws deeply on their journals and letters to chronicle the evolution of their friendship. The two drew so close, Smith maintains, that Thoreau began to "talk like Emerson and to use the same gestures," while Thoreau declared that they were "like gods to each other." From 1837 to 1847, writes Smith, this camaraderie fueled the creative and intellectual fires of both men. In spite of their closeness, however, their friendship suffered as well. Thoreau tired of Emerson's insistence on mentoring him, and Emerson grew impatient with Thoreau's contentiousness. Moreover, Emerson's low opinion of Thoreau's writing fed Thoreau's animosity. The rift was healed, though, in 1858 when Emerson experienced a serious illness and Thoreau rushed to his side. Smith's study provides an instructive glimpse into the ways that the seeds of personal relationships produce the fruits of intellectual endeavor. Recommended for large public and academic libraries.AHenry L. Carrigan Jr., Westerville P.L., OH
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

The classic literary mentoring tale is fully imagined, through graceful writing and the right amount of psychologizing. Although the American Renaissance is temptingly rife with material, independent scholar Smith never breaks his focus on Emerson and Thoreau's difficult three-decade friendship. Moving from the pair's meeting at Harvard, where Emerson was a teacher and Thoreau a young student, to Thoreau's residence at Emerson's home and year at the Emerson-owned Walden site, to Thoreau's death from consumption, Smith charts the men's lives and minds without inducing claustrophobia. Frequent quotes from Emerson's and Thoreau's journals provide psychological insights, and Smith's judicious interweaving of crucial characters like wife Lidian Emerson and competitors for Emerson's attention Waldo Giles and Ellery Channing provides relief. Smith's quiet takes on the familiar story are also refreshing, such as his assessment of daughter Ellen Emerson's fate as her parents' caregiver. The book vividly re-creates the hardscrabble life of the writer: familiar to many authors will be Thoreau's fruitless attempts to gain paying literary work (and his refusal to write for a ladies' magazine). Emerson's endless lecture tour of popular works provided income but left little time for new writing and made him so little seen by his young son that the boy asked Thoreau to become his father. Thoreau, with his periods of depression, reclusiveness, and ``fragile'' sexual identity, both complemented and was at odds with Emerson's drive, charisma, and ability to find solutions. Similarly, they learned from each other's writing styles, methods of observation, and literary aims. ``We are attracted toward a particular person, but no one has discovered the laws of this attraction,'' concluded Thoreau. Smith's gift is making the ambiguities, nuances, and importance of this friendship come alive. If only Emerson and Thoreau had been Edwardian women, Masterpiece Theatre would have its next miniseries. (10 illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press (July 8, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1558491864
  • ISBN-13: 978-1558491861
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,562,615 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
This dual biography deserves far more attention than it is likely to get. That's a shame, because it skillfully explores not only the complex relationship between two great men, but the very nature of friendship itself.
Living in an age that obsesses about sexuality in all relationships, it is hard for us to understand the place that the concept of mystical friendship held for tne intellectual rebels of the early 19th century. Emergson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller and the rest of their circle explored this theme over and over--in platonic love affairs that crashed and burnt on the rocks of sexual attraction, in attempts at communal life that foundered when individuals could not give themselves to the needs of the group, and as we see so clearly in this biography, in negotiating the shoals of the mentor/protege relationship.
The focus of the book is the mentor role that was so comfortable for Emerson and increasingly frustrating to his protege, Thoreau. Emerson, whose fame grew throughout the period of this friendship never truly respected Thoreau's achievements, particularly not his masterwork, Walden, though he was instrumental in supporting Thoreau through the many years it took to produce that masterwork. It is ironic that in our time Thoreau's work still sells and still maintains its relevance to new readers while the once famous Emerson is now only a dim presence of interest only to scholars of American Intellectual History.
Smith does the biographer's job masterfully, drawing heavily on primary sources to give the reader enough information to draw his own conclusions about what might have been going on inside both men as their friendship evolved.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A fine work, though occasionally as depressing as the protagonists occasionally were. In the end, what do we learn? People are people - the rich, the famous, the ignored, the poor. No amount of fame or wealth can make anyone happy. Whether Thoreau would have been happy had he married is an open question. Possibly it would have been as thorny as his relationship with Emerson, as thorny as Emerson's was his wife, as Channing's was with his own, just as examples. But, had he married, or had he found more fulfillment in the company of men and women, it is doubtful that Thoreau would have produced the masterworks he did, particularly Walden, because, as he said, he could not do the work and be around people. Would his wife and children been okay with his going off to live beside a pond, or gone with him? There are, of course, many famous and accomplished people who manage both, but, no doubt where the discoverer/writer's family can accept their spouse or father/mother spending inordinate time on their pursuits. He may have been a fine husband and certainly father, but I don't think we would know his name today.

One little nitpick. There are passages in Thoreau's journal the author could have spent more time on and quotation at length would have been worthwhile. Just as examples:

"I had two friends. The one offered me friendship on such terms that I could not accept it without a sense of degradation. He would not meet me on equal terms, but only be to some extent my patron. He would not come to see me, but was hurt if I did not visit him. He would not readily accept a favor, but would gladly confer one.
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Format: Hardcover
Harmon Smith has provided us with an engaging story of a friendship between two of America's leading thinkers and writers of the 19th century--Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Friendship was central to the Transcendental Movement, a platonic ideal that never quite materialized, so it is here as Smith puts their lives under the microscope. He captures their humanity in a way no other biographers have, because he is able to separate the mythic "Henry David Thoreau" from the human. The cautions come when Smith turns away from the microscope to record a narrative that often includes his own projections into the minds and hearts of his subjects. Worst of all is his use of the old Oedipal complex of Freud projected onto Henry and his mother Cynthia. There is little to no substantiation for such a supposition, and so one must realize where the book fails to use a wise discretion. It is, nevertheless, a wise and wonderful portrait of a friendship that lasted three decades.
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Format: Hardcover
Casual readers should not be put off by the academic or esoteric treatment suggested by the title of this book. For _My Friend, My Friend_ serves as a good overall biography of both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and describes in understandable terms the transcendental movement as well. The added focus is what each man thought of friendship in general and how it pertained to his relationship with the other. Newbies to the works and lives of these two men would do well to start their education with this volume. Ardent fans of either writer will find they disagree with some of the author's suppositions, though, especially in the discussion of how the men's real lives differed with the public personas they each created. Even so, it's an engaging read.
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