This Wednesday marks the 200th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth. He is celebrated for many things, but his masterpiece is Walden. While many deserved accolades will be bestowed on Thoreau this week, I would like to recognize his champion, the great encourager Ralph Waldo Emerson. The extent of his great heart will never be fully known, but he certainly touched Thoreau, Walt Whitman and even Abraham Lincoln.
Henry David Thoreau was a twenty year-old scholarship student at Harvard when he met Emerson in 1837. Emerson, fourteen years Thoreau’s senior and independently wealthy, had recently shaken the intellectual world of New England with the publication of Nature.
Emerson instantly recognized the potential of the young man and took him under his wing. Beyond mentorship, he was also his biggest cheerleader to the rest of the world and used his influence to gain a stage for Thoreau. I’m so glad Emerson befriended the young man because Thoreau died young at only 44, an age when many writers are only getting started.
He did the same for Walt Whitman.
When Emerson read Leaves of Grass by Whitman, he did something few do: he picked up his pen and wrote a letter of praise to the obscure journalist. Who can say what effect this encouragement had on one so destined for greatness himself?
I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.
God bless him.
One final example is from a meeting he had with President Abraham Lincoln. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time of his presidency, Lincoln was popular with the people but snubbed as a rube by the “upper class.” Emerson was considered the brightest intellectual light of his time and the epitome of sophistication. They met in Washington on February 2, 1862, introduced by US Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts – a friend of both.
All we know of the meeting is this excerpt from Emerson’s diary the next day –
The President impressed me more favorably than I hoped. A frank, sincere, well-meaning man with a lawyer’s habit of mind, good clear statement of fact, correct enough, not vulgar as described, but with a sort of boyish cheerfulness, or that kind of sincerity and jolly good meaning that our class meetings on Commencement Days show, telling our old stories over.
When he has made his remark, he looks up at you in great satisfaction and shows all of his white teeth, and laughs.
Meeting the human being changed Emerson.
A short time later when the President was assassinated, Emerson had this to say –
Everybody has some disabling quality. In a host of young men that start together and promise so many brilliant leaders for the next age, each fails on trial ; one by bad health, one by conceit, or by love of pleasure, or lethargy, or an ugly temper, – each has some disqualifying fault that throws him out of the career. But this man was sound to the core, cheerful, persistent, all right for labor, and liked nothing so well.
I particularly love the absence of politics in that statement. It’s hard to know how much influence Emerson had over Lincoln during his key decision making years, but in the end, Lincoln certainly influenced the great scholar. In this age of bravado, there is still a lesson to be learned in how leadership and encouragement go hand in hand.