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Comparing and Contrasting Thoreau and Emerson

Updated on December 30, 2019
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Ryan has always been a fan of Transcendentalist writing, and took a class in college specifically focusing on the literary works of the era.

Henry David Thoreau, in a daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham in June 1856, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a albumen print by Southworth & Hawes around 1857. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons and the George Eastman House Collection)
Henry David Thoreau, in a daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham in June 1856, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a albumen print by Southworth & Hawes around 1857. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons and the George Eastman House Collection)

The Transcendentalist movement in literature was one that introduced a philosophical belief in the unification of all things, the "goodness" of mankind, and the superiority of insight over logic. During this time period in the 19th century, authors took this belief to their writings, each of them preaching about the same overall message, but in their own individual style. Two of those authors, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, became prominent figures through their beliefs of mankind’s relationship with nature, but it is important to note the significant differences between the two.

Thoreau’s approach towards the movement can best be seen in one of his most famous works, Walden. Early into Walden, Thoreau says “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them”. In this quote, Thoreau explains how the “finer fruits” of life, the luxuries, and the satisfaction that comes with being independent, are pushed to the side in the grand scheme to achieve “superfluously coarse labors” and some form of validation. His call to push back against the system, the government, and the agendas that they encouraged was forefront in his writing. Walden summarizes his opinions about resisting the government and living only in the independence of oneself, which is a subtle but significant difference from Emerson’s writings. Emerson believed in independence as well, but thought of it more as a spiritual obligation and necessity, instead of as a rebuttal to the government. This can be seen in his piece “Nature”. Emerson claims that “in the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, -- he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me”. In this, Emerson cites the excitement of mankind when in the presence of nature. His argument is not to run away from something, it is to run towards something else. While those may seem like the same thing, Emerson wants his readers to understand that it is not the act of escaping something, it is becoming who you are - part of nature.

Not only are humans reflections of nature, but nature is a reflection of them as well.

While there may have been differences in the message each writer wanted to express, the one major aspect that they agreed upon is our connection as humans to nature. Both authors preached about how we are a part of nature, included in its vast beauty, and will always belong to nature first and foremost above our other societies. This comes as no surprise, as these are all themes that define the Transcendentalist writings. Emerson claims that “nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it”. The concept that nature represents mankind and vice versa held a constant presence in Emerson’s writing. Similarly, Thoreau enjoyed personifying nature, to make it seem more human like and relatable to the reader. One such example in Walden says that “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature”. In this quote, Thoreau does more than just call it “Earth’s eye” - he says a beholder can see a reflection of themselves in it both physically and metaphorically. In the conclusion that these philosophers share, not only are humans reflections of nature, but nature is a reflection of them as well.

The respect for nature that both authors possessed was remarkable. They truly believed that happiness and fulfillment would be achieved for anyone who let go of their material belongings and embraced their connection with the natural world around them. Thoreau and Emerson’s writings reflect that belief, but it should be noted that their motives differed. While Thoreau's message was to reject government, Emerson's was to embrace the nature that we are part of. Ultimately, however, their writings were a major part of the transcendentalist movement and inspired others to follow the same goal.

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