On this day in 1882 Ralph Waldo Emerson died, aged seventy-eight. Though Emerson’s last decade was one of increasing debility, the Sage of Concord was still invited to speak across America and Europe, and he was still able to pack them in, though many came to see and honor rather than to hear the old talks on the familiar themes, redelivered now with the prompts of his daughter, Ellen, from the wings. At times Emerson could make a joke of his afflictions, aphasia and senile dementia. When unable to summon the word ‘umbrella’ he said, “I can’t tell its name, but I can tell its history. Strangers take it away.” But because he was gregarious by nature, his “perpetual forgetfulness” was an increasing frustration and inhibition: “I have grown silent to my own household under this vexation, & cannot afflict dear friends with my tied tongue.” Although the famous story of Emerson forgetting Longfellow’s name while eulogizing him at his funeral is apocryphal, he did say to Ellen as they stood by the coffin, “Where are we? What house? And who is this sleeper?”
But his decline made him all the more beloved in Concord. In the summer of 1872, Emerson then sixty-nine and already infirm, fire destroyed most of his home, a loss which left him badly shaken. But that autumn he carried through with plans to make a final trip to England and then Egypt; this allowed his friends and neighbors to get to work on his homecoming. When Emerson’s train reached Walden woods the whistle began to blow, and kept blowing until it reached the station; the crowd which greeted him was so large that Emerson asked if the day was some sort of holiday; the band played “Home, Sweet Home,” the schoolchildren sang, and everyone paraded to Emerson’s front gate, over which the townspeople had constructed a huge floral arch, and behind which they had reconstructed his burned-out house. Emerson went inside to find even his books and manuscripts in their accustomed place, and then returned to thank his neighbors “for this trick of sympathy to catch an old gentleman returned from his wanderings.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.