With the exception of Herman Melville, nineteenth-century American writers are better known for staying home than for venturing to exotic locales. Henry David Thoreau boasted that he had “travelled a good deal in Concord.” A move around the corner in Amherst, a distance of half a mile, left Emily Dickinson with “a kind of gone-to-Kansas feeling, and if I sat in a long wagon, with my family tied behind, I should suppose without doubt I was a party of emigrants!” Poe’s imaginary expeditions—to the South Pole and the Moon—confirmed Dickinson’s quip that “to shut our eyes is Travel.”
No one was more insistent on the virtues of staying home than Ralph Waldo Emerson, who dismissed travel as “a fool’s paradise” in his essay “Self-Reliance.” “It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans,” he wrote. “They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were.” Unimpressed by a passage in Emerson’s essay “Prudence” in which he argues that external circumstances should have no effect on one’s inner life, Melville scrawled in the margin, “To one who has weathered Cape Horn as a common sailor what stuff this is.”
And yet, as Brian C. Wilson notes in The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a vivid and painstakingly researched account of Emerson’s late-in-life, seven-week trek across the North American continent in 1871, for all his anti-travel vitriol Emerson “seemed to relish being on the road.” Before he turned thirty, he resigned from a secure position as pastor of the Second Church in Boston, when he felt he could no longer in good conscience administer communion. Moving to Concord, he adopted instead the riskier profession of itinerant lecturer, traveling light, as Wilson notes, with his “bright purple satchel…stuffed with books and papers.” Decrying the materialism of modern life in his widely read essays, Emerson was surprisingly bullish on trains, which he found “highly poetic” and to which he accorded an almost mystical power. “Railroad iron is a magician’s rod,” he wrote in his 1844 lecture “The Young American,” “in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.”
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Emerson famously wrote. But what he objected to in leisure travel was the same thing he reviled in classical education and institutional religion: their retrospective orientation. A voyager in search of past achievements “grows old even in youth among old things,” he maintained. “He carries ruins to ruins.” In his essay on Plato in Representative Men, by contrast, Emerson arrived at a brilliant theory of the potential benefits of travel. Since “our strength is transitional,” he wrote,
the experience of poetic creativeness…is not found in staying at home, nor yet in travelling, but in transitions from one to the other, which must therefore be adroitly managed to present as much transitional surface as possible.
To approach Emerson’s writing as itself a transitional surface might help explain something of its enduring appeal. His commentators can be divided, roughly, into those who think they know things that Emerson doesn’t know, and those who think Emerson knows things that we don’t know. Emerson has come under sustained attack from the first camp for being slow to publicly adopt the social causes of his more radical friends.1 Always opposed to slavery, he became a fervent abolitionist only after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, and his seemingly flippant resistance to philanthropy (“Are they my poor?”) has not worn well. But his reluctance to embrace settled “positions” is what makes Emerson the writer he is. The best commentary—and here I am thinking of Barbara Packer’s Emerson’s Fall (1982) and the work of Stanley Cavell, as well as John Jay Chapman’s brilliant essay of 18972—seizes on the provisional nature of his essays, their refusal of arguments, accumulated evidence, and political positions in favor of something caught in the word “essay” itself, with its connotations of experiments, trial runs, excursions with words. “I unsettle all things,” Emerson wrote in a Nietzschean moment in his essay “Circles.” “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back.”
When, at the age of sixty-seven, Emerson was invited to travel to California, he seized the chance. He had always been fascinated by the West, considering it a gateway to the future. “I am ready to die out of nature, and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West,” he wrote in an evocative passage in his great essay “Experience.” The invitation came from John Murray Forbes, a close friend who had worked (like many of his New England contemporaries) as a merchant in China before making a fortune in American railroads. The two men were linked by marriage: Forbes’s son William, a pioneer in the new technology of the telephone, was married to Emerson’s daughter Edith; the couple joined the expedition.
Emerson often traveled when he felt stalled: to Europe after he left the ministry and, around the same time, lost his first wife to tuberculosis when she was only nineteen; and again during the revolutionary unrest of 1848, when he heard Lamartine address the Assemblée nationale and met Tocqueville. In the spring of 1871, before his trip out West, Emerson was “tired and depressed,” Wilson notes. A course he was delivering at Harvard was an abject failure. Thirty students attended the first session, but the audience dwindled to four before the college canceled the final two lectures. Already showing signs of aphasia, which would deepen with time, Emerson “didn’t quite have the intellectual horsepower” for the task, according to Wilson, and seemed “befuddled” at the podium. The failure, in Wilson’s unduly harsh assessment, was not solely attributable to Emerson’s waning powers. He “had not managed to create a coherent course, which is not surprising given that he had never been much of a systematic thinker.” The dubious implication here is that Emerson would have been a better professor if he had been less Emersonian.
In addition to five members of the Forbes family, the traveling party was a microcosm of the Yankee progressive elite—“New England’s best,” in Emerson’s view. James Bradley Thayer was Emerson’s personal lawyer and later a distinguished member of the Harvard Law School faculty; his concept of judicial restraint proved highly influential, as, alas, did his advocacy of the infamous Dawes Act of 1887, which converted Native American lands to private property. (“Short and dirty creatures” was how Thayer described Indians met along the way.) During the journey west, Thayer wrote letters home to his wife, Sophia Ripley, whose parents had founded the utopian community of Brook Farm. Another traveler, Sarah Parkman Shaw Russell, had been a major financial backer of Brook Farm, while yet another, Annie Anthony, was engaged to the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s feckless son George. Also along for the ride was Garth Wilkinson James, known as Wilkie (or Wilky), a younger brother of Henry and William James.
The journey was shadowed by the recently ended Civil War. Both Will Forbes and Wilkie James were veterans, young men who had seen harrowing things and carried wounds into their postwar lives. A daring officer who had been kicked out of Harvard for a harmless prank, Forbes was captured in 1864 in a disastrous skirmish with John Mosby’s Raiders near Washington and spent several months languishing in a Confederate prison.3 While Henry and William James sat out the war, at their father’s insistence, their younger brothers were encouraged to enlist. Wilkie was seventeen—“touchingly young,” as Henry put it, “to have such big things…happen to him.”
Fired by the ideas of the ardent abolitionist Franklin Sanborn, his Concord Academy teacher and one of the secret backers of John Brown, Wilkie served as one of the officers (all of whom were white) in the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, founded in part to demonstrate the discipline and valor of the free African Americans who composed its fighting force. The Fifty-Fourth carried out the doomed raid on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment’s commander and a cousin of the Forbes family, was killed in the assault, which William James, at the commemoration of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s magnificent monument on Boston Common, compared to Thermopylae and Bunker Hill. Amid the confusion of the raid, an exploding shell hit Wilkie in the side and back, nearly killing him, while a projectile lodged in his foot. Hampered by wounds that never completely healed, he settled briefly in Florida, hiring black labor to grow cotton, and was harried by the Ku Klux Klan before returning to Boston—and Forbes’s welcome invitation—in 1871.
The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 had opened the West to tourism. As the principal owner of a major branch of the railroad, John Murray Forbes ensured that a luxury Pullman car, the Huron, awaited the travelers in Chicago, provisioned with its own kitchen, “apples and baskets of wine and other luxuries,” as well as African American porters, who would be all but unmentioned by the travelers. Much of The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson consists of a detailed account of the eleven-day journey from Concord to San Francisco, with subsequent side trips to Yosemite and the Napa Valley. Emerson was a national figure, arguably the most famous and influential intellectual in the country, and locals took notice of his presence. George Pullman himself, the entrepreneur of the sleeping car, made a point of meeting Emerson’s party in Chicago.
Wilson has delved into guidebooks and newspapers, memoirs and public records, to build a rich sense of what it might have been like to arrive in the makeshift towns and railroad crossings along the way. With no bridge across the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Huron was loaded onto a riverboat and hitched to a train on the other side, in Omaha, where the Union Pacific Railroad began. Among the passengers on the ferry, amazingly, was the former Confederate officer who had tried to shoot Will Forbes in the face during the skirmish with Mosby.4
Wilson gives a particularly detailed account of mushrooming, post–Gold Rush San Francisco, from the splendors of the Occidental Hotel (“Heaven on the half shell,” according to Mark Twain) to the obligatory tour of Chinatown, with its bordellos and opium dens. Forbes, reminded of his own residency in China, was surprised by “how calmly Emerson seemed to take it all in,” but Wilson offers a plausible reason: “His wife Lidian being a habitual user of laudanum for her chronic maladies, Emerson understood opium addiction.” Emerson gave a handful of lectures in the city, the texts of which Edith, knowing how easily he could be persuaded to speak at a moment’s notice, had stuffed into his trunk.
Since few of Emerson’s letters and journal entries from the trip survive, Wilson relies on Thayer’s correspondence as well as his later published account, A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson (1884). We get an insider’s look at Emerson shaving “in his berth while the cars are going,” hurtling past antelope and the occasional elk or wolf. During long hours crossing the plains, Emerson deciphered, with the help of a German dictionary, Goethe’s “sayings,” even as Thayer, Eckermann-like, recorded Emerson’s own. After mentioning an acquaintance who had qualms about calling himself a Christian, since he didn’t agree with all of his church’s tenets, Emerson brushed aside such concerns, remarking that when he himself “was called a Platonist, or a Christian, or a Republican, he welcomed it. It did not bind him to what he did not like. What is the use of going about and setting up a flag of negation?”
In “scruffy” Salt Lake City, Emerson insisted on seeking out Brigham Young, who had led the Mormon migration to Utah and served as the first president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Writing to his friend Thomas Carlyle, Emerson described Young, seventy at the time, as “a strong-built, self-possessed, sufficient man with plain manners.” Young had no idea who Emerson was and initially blew off his request for an account of Mormon religious beliefs and practices. Back on the Huron, Emerson studied a pamphlet about the church and read one of Young’s sermons, which he “greatly liked,” according to Thayer, for its “power” and “homespun sense.”
Thayer, by contrast, found Young’s sermon “a strange discourse” laced with “religious fanaticism and vulgar dishonesty.” Wilson, who is a professor of comparative religion at Western Michigan University, also seems mystified by Emerson’s enthusiasm for the Mormon faith. Archly titling a section “Peaches and Polygamy,” he spends too much time on a subject that Emerson mostly ignored, other than mentioning that Mormonism gave the women in the traveling party heartburn. Wilson is surprised that Young and Emerson, Yankee contemporaries, could
go on to found such diametrically opposed religious movements: one that championed “self-reliance” and became the basis of American individualism, and the other championing a rigorous, theocratic communitarianism that was designed to last into eternity.
But this is a limited and somewhat caricatured view of Emerson, who cannot be said to have “founded” a religious movement based on anything. It’s true that Emerson believed that revelation had not ended with the Old Testament prophets and Jesus. He had argued as much in his Divinity School Address at Harvard in 1838, when he had suggested, scandalously, that prophecy was more likely to come amid the natural splendors of the New World than from the pulpits of the established church:
I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men, and chiefly of those Hebrews, and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also.
That’s exactly why he was so interested in later spiritual eruptions, like those of Walt Whitman and Joseph Smith, even as he joked, after reading Mormon tracts, “One would think that after this Father Abraham could go no further.”
Emerson’s encounter with John Muir—another prophetic voice, whom Wilson seems to find more congenial—is the high point of California Days. So intense and extensive is Wilson’s interest in their relations, tracking their interaction long after the California sojourn, that one almost feels the book owes its existence to this meeting. Wilson makes a strong case that Muir’s commitment to environmental preservation owed a great deal to his early reading of Emerson (particularly the short book Nature), and that Emerson’s visit confirmed Muir’s conviction that development of the West must not come at the expense of its natural wonders.
For Emerson, the momentous meeting with Muir seems to have been inspired in part by his visit to the San Francisco studio of the great photographer Carleton Watkins, another Emerson enthusiast, who had pioneered the use of the “mammoth-plate” camera, producing extraordinarily detailed 18-by-22-inch glass negatives. Watkins was best known for his fine-grain images of Yosemite and the great trees in its environs. “It is entirely likely,” Wilson notes, “that Emerson’s desire to see these trees in person dated from his first glimpse of Watkins’s images.”
A mutual friend had alerted Muir, a Scottish immigrant who was thirty-three at the time, to Emerson’s imminent arrival. Muir was living above a sawmill in a makeshift, cantilevered rookery, or “hang nest,” from which he could see the granite face of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and the valley below. Muir sent Emerson an invitation, the first of a series of what can only be described as love letters, invoking the natural world for which Muir, the co-founder of the Sierra Club, became the great champion. “I invite you [to] join me in a months worship with Nature in the high temples of the great Sierra crown beyond our holy Yosemite,” he wrote, adding with light sacrilege, “In the name of Mounts Dana and Gibbs of the grand glacial hieroglyphics of Tuolumne Meadows and Bloody canyon, in the name of a hundred glacial lakes of a hundred glacial daisy gentian meadows.”
Emerson was seduced. Muir reminded him of Thoreau, another self-reliant young man who had learned to live in the woods. Emerson later addressed Muir as “the right man in the right place in your mountain tabernacle.” When the eastern party organized an excursion from Yosemite to see the Mariposa Big Trees, Emerson urged Muir to come along. Muir accepted on the condition that Emerson promise to camp with him in the grove. “At this,” Muir recalled, Emerson “became enthusiastic like a boy, his sweet perennial smile became still deeper and sweeter, and he said, ‘Yes, yes, we will camp out, camp out.’”
As they rode through the Sierra Forest, Emerson seemed to sink into a trance, letting the reins hang loose and the bit slip from his horse’s mouth. But there was to be no camping out by a bonfire, since the other travelers insisted that “Mr. Emerson might take cold.” Theodore Roosevelt, Muir’s partner in wilderness preservation, later told him, “I always grudged Emerson’s not having gone into camp with you. You would have made him perfectly comfortable and he ought to have had the experience.”
Emerson left too early for Muir. “It is as if a photographer should remove his plate before the impression is fully made,” he wrote, urging Emerson to prolong his stay. “You are yourself a sequoia,” he said. “Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren.” Once again, to Muir’s frustration, Emerson’s “sadly civilized friends” prevailed. As the party mounted their horses and rode away, Emerson lingered: “He turned his horse, took off his hat and waved me a last good-by. I felt lonely, so sure had I been that Emerson of all men would be the quickest to see the mountains and sing them.”
An outbreak of chicken pox, which Emerson’s son had contracted, delayed his return to Concord. Edith cajoled her father into a detour to Niagara while his family was in quarantine. Still enraptured by the sublimity of Yosemite, Emerson scoffed at Niagara: “I can see it anytime.” Meanwhile, Muir, in a series of passionate letters, implored Emerson to return to the land of big trees: “I will have a hut & horse ready for you…. You will lose no time, nothing but civilized sins.”
Another reminder of the trip came when the California writer Bret Harte, whose lively tales of prospectors and sex workers were a major influence on Mark Twain, visited Concord. Emerson waxed lyrical about the transformation from primitive to civilized society in California. As evidence of the advance of “Anglo-Saxon” (i.e., white New England) culture, he mentioned that log cabins were often outfitted with pianos. Harte corrected him:
Do you know that, on the contrary, it is vice that brings them in? It is the gamblers who bring in the music to California. It is the prostitute who brings in the New York fashions of dress there, and so throughout.
Emerson’s mental decline accelerated after the trip. His lectures—like a pot of tea on its “third or fourth infusion,” according to Walt Whitman—grew increasingly incomprehensible. Lecturing on memory, of all things, he read the same page twice. Lidian thought, mistakenly, that a journey down the Nile would restore his flagging spirits. Henry Adams was also on the Nile that spring, honeymooning with his own miserable spouse, Clover, a gifted photographer. Teenaged Theodore Roosevelt was there as well—Emerson met him rowing on the Nile. It was precisely the kind of retrospective tourism in ancient lands—carrying ruins to ruins—that Emerson had railed against for much of his life.
Even amid decline, there was occasional poetry in Emerson’s befuddlement. On one occasion, he was groping for the word for umbrella. “I can’t tell its name but I can tell its history,” he hazarded. “Strangers take it away.” In March 1882, a month before his death, he was led to the funeral, in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, of his old friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “Where are we?” Emerson asked, before wondering aloud, “And who is the sleeper?”
See, for example, Robert A. Gross’s The Transcendentalists and Their World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). Emerson and Thoreau “stood apart from the moral crusades of the day,” according to Gross. “Emerson long resisted a public stand on behalf of abolitionism.” ↩
See Chapman, “Emerson,” in The Shock of Recognition, edited by Edmund Wilson (1955). “What difference does it make whether a man who can talk like this is following an argument or not?” Chapman writes. “People are not in general influenced by long books or discourses, but by odd fragments of observation which they overhear, sentences or head-lines which they read while turning over a book at random or while waiting for dinner to be announced. These are the oracles and orphic words that get lodged in the mind and bend a man’s most stubborn will. Emerson called them the Police of the Universe. His works are a treasury of such things.” Chapman captured the “Nietzschean side of Emerson,” according to Wilson, “or rather Chapman and Nietzsche both feed themselves from Emerson’s fire.” ↩
A cousin of Melville’s was involved in efforts to capture the elusive Mosby. Melville himself joined a search party, the subject of his narrative poem “The Scout Toward Aldie.” ↩
See Arthur Stanwood Pier, “Major William Hathaway Forbes and Colonel John Singleton Mosby: A Chapter from the Civil War,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, third series, Vol. 70 (Oct 1950–May 1953), p. 73. Wilson does not mention the encounter. ↩