The Writing on the Wall

 Flowers from Mt. Monadnock, NH picked and pressed by Thoreau (photograph by Tim Walsh)

Flowers from Mt. Monadnock, NH picked and pressed by Thoreau (photograph by Tim Walsh)

Most people who know me well know that I have great enthusiasm for Henry David Thoreau. When I started here at the Bruce Museum I was quite excited to find out that we had a few items in the collection related to Thoreau. One such item is a letter penned by Thoreau to Ralph Waldo Emerson's wife, Lidian. We have all heard the term "six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon", well, this one one degree of separation from one of the greatest writers in US history! Needless to say, I was eager to take a look at it. Unfortunately, the letter could not be located. It was donated by Ms. Agnes Bell Clark in 1927 (along with dried flowers hand-pick and pressed by Thoreau). All I could find in our archives was a couple of newspaper articles announcing that the letter, along with other Thoreau-related items were placed on exhibit in 1945 for the centenary of his time at Walden Pond (1845-1847).

I have searched for the letter for just over a year. As with any museum collection that dates back for nearly one-hundred years, sometimes things become misplaced. Fortuitously, last week while researching some other objects I happened to stumble upon the letter! Its location was never recorded accurately. As a collection manager this drives me crazy to no end, but it is also what I live for...uncovering these types of mysteries. My excitement could hardly be controlled. I immediately sat down to try and transcribe it. Thoreau's handwriting was awful and many researchers have stumbled trying to correctly transpose it to type. I also posted a photo of the letter the a social media page for The Thoreau Society. From that post I was alerted to the fact that the letter was known to scholars as far back as circa. 1958. I was hoping this was truly a 'lost' letter and would be a new find. Alas though, it was not new, but rather an important one. In their book entitled The Correspondence of Henry Thoreau, Walter Harding and Carl Bode (1958) describe the letter as:

This beautifully affectionate letter is one of the most controversial Thoreau ever wrote.. Was he in love with Lidian Emerson when he wrote it? Canby (Thoreau, p. 160) feels that in it Thoreau “was perilously close to love, by any definition” and uses it as the keystone of his theory that “Thoreau was what the common man would call in love with Emerson’s wife” (p. 163). Dr. Raymond Adams in reviewing Canby’s Thoreau (American Literature, XII [March, 1940], 114) says on the other hand: “I think Mr. Canby shows that there was a slight mother-fixation about the Thoreau-Lidian Emerson relationship, but nothing more.” Unfortunately neither of the letters the Mrs. Emerson wrote before and after receiving this letter has survived. They might have helped to answer the question. To almost anyone who will read the text with an open mind, this is a love letter.
 Letter from Thoreau to Lidian Emerson. Note the old style of folding the page to create its own envelope (photograph by Tim Walsh)

Letter from Thoreau to Lidian Emerson. Note the old style of folding the page to create its own envelope (photograph by Tim Walsh)

 Thoreau's handwiting is legend in its sloppyness and has challenged many researches attempting to transpose his writings (photograph by Tim Walsh)

Thoreau's handwiting is legend in its sloppyness and has challenged many researches attempting to transpose his writings (photograph by Tim Walsh)

This is why I love museums...they are repositories of the past, and treasures abound within their walls'. For a pdf of the transcribed letter click here.

I would like to thank Corrine Hosfeld Smith for providing me copies of the transcription and associated citation quoted from above. Ms. Smith is an former librarian and writer on Thoreau.

Tim Walsh
Manager of Natural History Collections and Citizen Science