January 11, 2011

Thoreau: Nature does not recognize it

"I begin my letter with the strange sad news that John Thoreau has this afternoon left this world," wrote Lidian Emerson, wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson on January 11, 1842. "He died of lockjaw occasioned by a slight cut on his thumb." John, age 27 at the time, was the older brother of Henry David Thoreau. The two shared a love of the outdoors and spent a week together traveling along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (the younger Thoreau later wrote about it while living at Walden Pond).

John's lockjaw came from accidentally cutting himself on New Year's Day. The cut, bandaged without initial concern, soon became infected. His death within ten days was anything but peaceful: he suffered violent muscle spasms and his body stiffened in painfully difficult positions. It is said that he finally died in the arms of his younger brother, who soon developed what he called "sympathetic lockjaw" and showed similar symptoms to his brother, despite never suffering any cut. "It is strange — unaccountable," Emerson wrote in a letter. Just as Henry recovered, the Emersons' son Waldo died of scarlet fever.

Though observers called him calm, Henry David Thoreau stopped recording in his journal for a time and temporarily lost interest in the natural world he loved so much. "How plain that death is only the phenomenon of the invidividual or class," he mused. "Nature does not recognize it, she finds her own again under new forms without loss." Soon, however, the death of his brother inspired him to embrace his own life more.

The death of friends should inspire us as much as their lives. If they are great and rich enough they will leave consolation to the mourners before the expenses of the funerals. It will not be hard to part with any worth, because it is worthy. How can any good depart? It does not go and come, but we. Shall we wait for it? Is it slower than we?

This journal entry was later re-worked into a passage from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Here, Thoreau concluded, "our Friends have no place in the graveyard."

*For this post, I must acknowledge Jeffrey S. Cramer's I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau (2007) and Robert Sullivan's The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant (2009).

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