Literary Daybook, May 6

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
May 6, 2002 11:00AM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On May 6, Dorigen makes her promise to Averagus.
-- "Canterbury Tales (The Franklin's Tale)" (1386)
by Robin Cook

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1862, Henry David Thoreau died, at the age of 44, from bronchial and respiratory problems. He is buried with Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts on Author's Ridge, in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery -- though the Walden Pond site is more often regarded as his monument.

Thoreau was an integral but prickly member of the Transcendentalist community in Massachusetts, as might be expected from the writer of "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude." Even Emerson grew to dislike his friend's Waldenisms, if only for stylistic reasons: "Always a weary, captious paradox to fight you with," he wrote in his journal. In his journal, Thoreau shows how he could get just as tired of Emerson's smooth "palaver," his "repeating himself, shampooing himself, [as if] Christ himself." Thoreau was not without friends, but most seemed to side with Emerson. One said, "I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree." Robert Louis Stevenson did not know Thoreau, but had read him, and had also read Emerson's funeral eulogy of him. Stevenson was as gregarious as Thoreau was private, and seemed to judge his unsociability as a good and natural thing: "It was not inappropriate, surely, that he had such close relations with the fish."


In his funeral eulogy, Emerson regretted that Thoreau always "wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory," and wished that his priorities had been different: "instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party." But Emerson praised Thoreau's many gifts, accepted that the "born protestant" was a unique spirit, and chuckled over the tastes of one who, in answer at the dinner table to a question about which dish he preferred would say, "the nearest." And the eulogy included a poem -- in Thoreau's own poetry, said Emerson, "the thyme and marjoram are not yet honey" -- which paid sincere tribute to the rare, deep woods flower:

A queen rejoices in her peers,
And wary Nature knows her own,
By court and city, dale and down,
And like a lover volunteers,
And to her son will treasures more,
And more to purpose, freely pour
In one wood walk, than learned men
Will find with glass in ten times ten.

It seemed as if the breezes brought him,
It seemed as if the sparrows taught him,
As if by secret sign he knew
Where in far fields the orchis grew.


-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.

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