Thoreau and Emerson, Together Again

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouched.jpgLast month, I received my Walden Woods/Thoreau Institute newsletter--always a welcome piece of mail bearing good news about education and preservation at Walden Pond. Even better, this newsletter had a bit of rare book news. Bookseller Mark Stirling of Upcountry Letters, who specializes in the Transcendentalists, sold (at a discount) his personal collection of Emerson material to the Thoreau Institute. Stirling wrote to me recently, "I was pleased that the items were returning to their hometown, so to speak, and that they would be available for study."

As one would assume, the Institute's Thoreau collections are fabulous, but in Stirling's words, "it needed Emerson, his essential associate in the history of ideas." The vast collection is primarily manuscript and association items, accumulated by Stirling over the course of twenty years. Some fine examples, according to Jeff Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute in Massachusetts, are a first edition, first state copy of Nature, a manuscript leaf from Emerson's lecture, "Reform," and one of only five hundred printed copies of An Oration, Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, August 31, 1837 ("The American Scholar").
"We were excited to be able to add to our extensive holdings many rare and unique items," said Cramer. (We interviewed Cramer a few years ago about the TI and the collections there.) He added, "One particularly moving item stood out among the rest: it is a fragment of a previously unpublished autograph letter by Emerson's aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, dated a few days before Emerson's first wife Ellen would die of tuberculosis, in which she wrote: 'Ellen has been very low for some time--last sat. was able to ride a little. Waldo has borne his personal trials--has done & labored so much for his family that it is grievous to find him so tired--he is discouraged about his lovely flower who has so captivated his affections.' This letter transforms the iconic Emerson into a man who we see grieving for the wife he is about to lose."

Stirling said the acquisition of this collection is a prime example of "the core mission of the academic library." And while he misses some of the books and wishes he could easily refer to them at home in Nevada, "the excitement of the new owner is a powerful reward. I thought that keeping the Emerson collection would no longer be serving any meaningful purpose ... I feel good about the sale."

Cramer, who also just won the Umhoefer Prize for his book, The Quotable Thoreau, invites interested people to come see the new additions at the Thoreau Institute Library.