Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives
By Robert D. Richardson.
Princeton University Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 128 pages, $22.95.

Reviewed by Paul Krause.

Death is a morbid topic, one that most people shy away from. The death of a loved one, a family member, or a friend is a surreal experience—one that is accompanied by tears, hugs, and the embraces of consolation. But is death an end or a beginning? Three of America’s most famous writers and intellectuals, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James, came to believe that death was a beginning, a moment of renewal and regeneration, not the finality of dissolution. 

Robert D. Richardson, before his own death in 2020, was one of America’s great historians and biographers of the Transcendentalist Era. Three Roads Back, his final gift to the world, is a brief snapshot into the “greatest losses” experienced by Emerson, Thoreau, and James, and how they responded to those losses and were born anew from those experiences.

If we still remember these men, it is probably along these lines: Emerson preached individual self-progression; Thoreau fell in love with a pond out in the woods near his family home; and William James had something to do with psychology and pragmatism (perhaps some even have a faint knowledge that he wrote a book about religious experiences). All true in a truncated sense of cultural inheritance, but if one is to only have a limited knowledge of Emerson, Thoreau, and James and their ideas which have shaped and influenced American culture, Richardson’s little book examining how these men arrived at their ideas through grieving and loss is the book to read.

Emerson’s Naturalistic Regeneration

Emerson’s road to Nature and his philosophy of individualist resilience and self-trust begins with the death of his first wife, Ellen. Her death caused tremendous grief and self-doubt within the young Unitarian minister (at the time). In this grief, Emerson eventually abandoned his dogmatic Unitarian faith, resigned from the ministry, and embarked on a consolation trip to Europe where he spent time with luminaries like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle. As Richardson explains, Emerson sought redemptive communion without the Sacrament of Communion; Emerson sought relations of love in friendship rather than in the Author of Love (God).

It was with Carlyle that Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophy began to take root. Carlyle was a vehement critic of the soulless materialism and utilitarianism of the day, expressing his own outlook of “the heroic spirit” in place of the sterile economism and materialism prevalent in the early nineteenth century. This rubbed off on the young Emerson, then only 30 years old and captivated by the Scottish sage. Finding Spirit in nature and in other humans became Emerson’s guiding belief.

Emerson, though he shook off the dogma of Unitarian Christianity, never really escaped its softer spirit (something many scholars, including Richardson, never want to emphasize though it is apparent to anyone educated in theology). “Regeneration, not through Christ, but through nature, is the great theme of Emerson’s life,” Richardson writes. “Emerson uses the language of redemption, regeneration, and revelation—terms for what we would now call resilience.” The redemptive regeneration and “resilience” that Emerson sought was not to be found in holy writ but nature itself, so this presentation goes. 

Yet this idea is not that far removed from the Protestant Christianity from which Unitarianism sprung, though Richardson, as already noted, leaves out this important caveat. Cotton Mather, for instance, argued that God revealed himself in two books: Scripture and Nature. All Emerson really did was drop the revelation of Scripture for the revelation of Nature which was already firmly entrenched as part of the Puritan-cum-Unitarian tradition. Emerson’s famous book, after all, is titled Nature. And as Richardson explained, Emerson’s naturalistic language is soaked in Christian rhetoric and ideas.

Nevertheless, Emerson’s move has had a tremendous impact on American consciousness and culture. The “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” individualism, now often ironically associated with American libertarianism and conservatism, was originally part of the progressive naturalism and individualism of Emerson who sought healing and self-transformation through one’s own immersive experiences rather than the inheritance of communal tradition (Unitarian Christianity in his specific instance). Healing in nature, nature as a revelatory guide about life, and the ability to find healing in the friendship of others rather than in prayer, God, or the church is the legacy of Emerson: the secularization of Christian concepts and ideas now embodied without connection to the Divine. Many Americans are the children of Emerson, often without knowing it.

Thoreau’s Wilderness Exodus

Richardson then turns to Henry David Thoreau. The death of Thoreau’s brother, John, alongside the death of Emerson’s young son, Waldo, profoundly moved Thoreau toward the path to Walden Pond. The alienation that Thoreau felt, thankfully, did not defeat him. “[S]till alienated, profoundly unsure of both his present situation and his future direction,” Thoreau ended up finding a new beginning in what conventional wisdom taught as finality. Richardson aptly summarizes this revelatory moment for Thoreau, “in 1842, [Thoreau] sees the dreadful events of the past two and half months not as an ending, but as a beginning.” 

Life, for Thoreau, rhymed with the music of nature. Fall and winter bring death. Spring brings new life. Summer brings the flourishing of life. Then fall and winter set back in. Rinse and repeat. The same is true for humans.

Rather than trying to stand apart from nature, Thoreau advocates a return to nature. “Thoreau’s writing,” Richard argues, “goes beyond the anthropocentric to an ecocentric or nature-centered vision [of life].” The death of Thoreau’s brother, whom Thoreau would eventually be able to remember as “my friend,” and his growing closer to Emerson after Emerson’s own loss and writing for the Dial, began nudging the infamous prophet of Walden Pond on that path we now remember him for.

Like Emerson, Thoreau continues along the path toward finding a healing spirit in nature, and how new beginnings can be found in the oasis of the garden after tremendous loss. One need only watch a handful of Westerns to realize how influential Thoreau’s legacy has been on American culture. Some past traumatic event is now the catalyst of a new beginning in the rich pastures and rolling hills of the American frontier which bring healing and new life to the protagonist, thereby living out their own mimesis of Thoreau.

William James: Death and Rebirth

Finishing with William James, Richardson examines how the death of James’s cousin, Minny Temple, “the most interesting, most tense, most intelligent young woman [he] knew,” led to his psychological convictions of the self-overcoming of the emotional passions of the ego which can burden it to the point of subjugating despair. Although James was in Europe as an already accomplished young scholar and student when he received the news of Minny’s death, it was only after hearing this devastating news that James experienced his vivid experience of self-loathing and fearfulness, the “horrible fear of my own existence” he recounted in Varieties of Religious Experience that would spur him on to worldwide fame.

Coming out of this experience, James became convinced that surrendering oneself to grief was to give up the fight that is life. One must grow stronger and freer from the experiences that bear down on one’s life, even those moments that seem to bring desolation and ruin in their wake. One must push on, push forward, push to new heights.

James’s relationship with Minny was partly influenced by their mutual interest in religious experience, especially Minny’s individualist Unitarianism, the imitative beauty of a virtuous and compassionate soul preached by America’s foremost Unitarian theologian named William Ellery Channing. Though James was anything but orthodox, he seemed to be moved by the beautiful soul of his cousin. Rather than perpetually indulge in grief at her sudden death, James was strengthened by her brief life and example to persevere and grow stronger: “[Minny’s] death marks the point at which William James began his climb out of depression and sickness.” James’s central psychological revelation was simple: you have the power to self-generate a new identity, a new direction, a new life. It took Minny’s death and James’s own depression and grief to awaken him to that new life.

The Legacy of Emerson, Thoreau, and James

Even in our darkest times, we are called to struggle, endure, and come out stronger because of it. That has not always been the case in what we now call “self-help.” The mass psychology and industry that is self-help, however far from Emerson, Thoreau, and James it may now be, is still rooted in their ideas. What these three thinkers have in common is now ubiquitously American: the individual can, and must, overcome the despair of loss and generate a new life from that loss. New beginnings ultimately start with the self: overcoming despair to create a new self, a new individual, that quintessential American ideal, has many manifestations. We might go as far as to say that today there are a variety of experiences that lead to self-renewal and self-regeneration.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView and the author of Finding Arcadia: Wisdom, Truth, and Love in the Classics (Academica Press, 2023) and The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated