Book review of Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives by Robert D. Richardson


“After the first death, no one else,” Dylan Thomas observes in his magnum opus, “refuses to mourn the death of a boy in a fire in London.” Over the years, that shocking line has helped me understand the impact of my first loss—the death of my mother, when I was 22—and why I still feel it, not only in how I deal with other crises, but also in how I view the world.

And so the acclaimed biographer Robert D. This is inevitable when reading Richardson’s remarkably insightful and very concise exploration of the course of early life-affecting grief, “Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to Their Greatest Losses.” of their lives. Unfortunately, Richardson (1934-2020), an expert on all three intellectual giants, died before this final book appeared.

This is not a self-help book, but Richardson provides comfort and solace by pointing out that even the most illustrious figures in our cultural history were not immune to the pain of suffering. Chapter after chapter we learn that they, too, struggled to make sense of the seemingly absurd: the death of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 19-year-old wife, long before his time; Henry David Thoreau’s older brother, 27-year-old John; and William James’ much-loved 24-year-old cousin, Minnie.

And when they came out of their mourning, like many of us, something had changed in them. For Emerson, Thoreau, and James, Richardson tells us, it was as if their loss marked their souls, changed their mindsets, and moved them forward in a different perspective and sometimes in a different direction than before. “All have faced disaster, loss, and defeat,” Richardson writes, “and their examples of resilience count among the lasting contributions of modern life. He tells the story of this journey from scrap to new sense of life.

It begins with Emerson (1803-1882), who had not yet become the famous sage of Concord when his wife of less than two years died of tuberculosis in 1831. He described his emotional state as “weak, debilitated by grief” and walked every day from his home in Boston, where he was a junior church minister, to visit her grave in Roxbury. During the next year, despite his inability to find spiritual comfort, he continued to fulfill his pastoral responsibilities dutifully. His faith wavered and changed as he moved from traditional Bible study to a rational analysis known as biblical criticism and increasingly sought and found inspiration in the field known as natural philosophy, which we now call science.

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His mood remained depressed, but his mind was stirred: could the cycle of life and death found in nature reveal to him the workings of the world in a way that mere belief could not? One day while walking, he opened his wife’s coffin to see with his own eyes the results of the natural decay of her body. Years later, Emerson would write of “the volatile foam of the present vanishing.” Richardson wonders if he was describing the irrevocable transience of life that had overcome him after his wife’s death, and this glimpse of the grave confirms it.

Soon after, he resigned from his church ministry and left for Europe. In Paris, in the huge botanical garden, the Jardin des Plantes, The beauty, grace and interconnectedness of all nature struck him like a vision. From that moment his sensibility and the defining theme of his writing crystallized, a revelation Richardson summed up as “regeneration by nature, not by Christ”. His journey was now decided. In the fall of 1833, his spirits revived, he returned to America, where he soon settled in Concord. There he remarried and began a new career as a naturalist, writer – and sage.

Richardson next turns to Emerson’s Concord neighbor and friend Thoreau (1817–1862). In January 1842, Thoreau’s brother John died of tetanus after shaving himself. Thoreau nursed him as best he could in his troubled final days, but in the pre-antibiotic era, there was no hope. Thoreau himself spent the next four weeks in bed. He was still unsteady when he woke up. “I feel like a wing floating in the atmosphere, with an immeasurable depth on each side,” he wrote.

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The loss of his brother took him another month to reconcile his beliefs about how the world worked. He found a turning point in nature, writes Richardson, as he changed, “from seeing the world as composed of immutable individuals to a vast whole of which everything and everyone is but a small fragment.” Thoreau embraced this new approach to the balance achieved by nature’s alternating cycle of autumn decay and spring renewal. Nature, he wrote, “reinvents itself without losing itself in new forms. . . . When we look at a field, we are not saddened because these particular flowers or grasses will wither – because their death is the law of new life.

He worked on these ideas in conversations and letters with Emerson, who himself was mourning the recent death of his 5-year-old son, Waldo, from scarlet fever. There was still no cure for the disease, either, and like Thoreau’s brother, young Waldo died within days. “I don’t understand the facts [of Waldo’s death] But his bitterness,” wrote Emerson in his journal. After this loss, Emerson and Thoreau grieve together, and as they begin to help each other heal, their shared comfort leads Thoreau to another realization: that friendship is also a necessary part of nature. “My friend is my true brother,” he wrote.

Emerson, who also served as Thoreau’s mentor, commissioned an article for the magazine he edited. That piece, appearing six months after his brother’s death, would be Thoreau’s first mature work, Richardson noted. His grief had dragged him down but led him to reconsider and reimagine his fixed views about the natural world—and in the process transformed him into the future author of “Walden.”

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James (1842-1910) is Richardson’s final case history. After James’s young cousin Minnie Temple died of tuberculosis in 1870, he felt “the void of all our egotistical anger”. Their warm friendship was based on their shared intellectual interests, including religious struggle and experience. That’s why Richardson thinks Minnie was uppermost in James’s mind when, a month after her death, he experienced what he described as a “severe neurasthenic attack” of “religious influence” that left him “a terrible fear of my own existence”. (His panic was so indelible that he would years later include it in “Varieties of Religious Experience”..) Yet three weeks after his horror, he enthusiastically wrote that he would prove his central, insightful insights into volition, self-autonomy, and practical strategies for changing habits, including suppressing negative thoughts. All these ideas, Richardson suggests, are James’ attempts to free himself from the thoughts and depression he had fallen into after Minnie’s death.

Richardson, who, as a college student, mourned the death of his 17-year-old brother from leukemia, describes each ordeal with empathy and compassion. His portrayal of his journey from raw vulnerability to life’s possibilities to renaissance invites us into his soul and speaks to us.

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After great pain: a new life emerges.”

How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James responded to the greatest loss of their lives

Princeton. 108 pp. $22.95.

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