Thoreau suffered a severe mental and physical collapse on the sudden deaths, within days, of his brother John, and the equally sudden shock, just 10 days later, of little Waldo Emerson.  He was as close as brothers can be to John, and had lived in the Emerson household with little Waldo. He loved children.

His collapse was sudden and to doctors, mysterious and life-threatening.

John had died of lockjaw, and Henry had held him for hours as he went through excruciating spasms that threw his head back, and bent his back backward, over and over.

Several days later Henry took on all of John’s symptoms, terrifying his family and friends. They were relieved when this episode of involuntary physical mimicry subsided and his own death was no longer in question. But Henry went through a long period of convalescence when he wrote nothing, and was more or less housebound, unable to continue his daily journal writing or walking.

The collapse still seems frightening to me, and his recovery through writing somewhat miraculous. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack was his eulogy for John and therapy for Henry.

His despair and recovery came to mind as I read portions of an academic report from two Princeton economists who described white working-class Americans caught in a deadly “sea of despair.” Consider these charts:



I know what led me to juxtapose these charts and Thoreau’s “sea of despair.” I take Thoreau’s recovery to be rather miraculous, and I wondered what miracle would rescue working class whites from their “sea of despair.” [That’s the term Case and Deaton use.]

I plead utter ignorance on this score. Writing journals and taking walks will not rescue these victims of deadly depression. Jobs would be the more obvious answer. And of course Washington’s strong-man appeals to the weak, depressed, and forgotten. Yet the juxtaposition of this sea of despair and Thoreau’s remains somehow poignant to me.

Perhaps my readers will have a way to make sense of it.


14 comments on “A SEA OF DESPAIR

  1. dirk says:

    my very limited grasp of Thoreau on loss/mourning (mostly via you and Branka) is that he was able to generalize the particulars of his life into the larger framework/rhythms of life and community, but we are now in an age when the titanic death throes of the industrial age have not only seen pharmaceutical companies degenerate into drug pushers but we are now a destructive factor at the geological level/scale, and here I think Thoreau’s world was a very foreign one to our age of the anthropocene.

  2. Steve Webb says:

    Looking this over, Ed, it occurs to me that Thoreau was less than half the age of this study’s demographic, which suggests that perhaps his youth is ultimately what saved him from the worst. He still had many more lives to live, so to speak, and maybe they beckoned to him as his sickbed grew tiresome and his vital sap began to rise. By the time most people get to be 50-years-old their prospective lives are things of memory; they are saddled with one life that they must follow through with, and it had better be a good one. Another contrast with the study’s age-group is that Thoreau was righteously sober all his life, needing neither drink nor drugs to give his life interest or to ease its pain. In addition, he was too intellectually and spiritually fascinated by the world event to consider suicide as a personal option. If I read those graphs correctly, it appears that the better educated among this middle-aged group fared better than the less well educated. Perhaps education—the ability to read, reflect, and develop a “philosophical” outlook on life—helps in facing down modern life’s anxieties. Also, there is that aspect of Thoreau’s character that Robert Richardson called his “cold courage,” the lesson Thoreau seems to have taken from John’s death and which he cultivated for the rest of his life. As we know, his own death is a classic of serene acceptance, even of good humor. Maiden aunt: “Henry, have you made your peace with God?” Thoreau: “Why, aunt, I hadn’t known we’d quarreled.”

    But Dirk has an excellent point. Today not even youth, sobriety, education, courage, and humor may be adequate to protect a person from our increasingly demented Zeitgeist. How would Thoreau cope, one wonders?

    • efmooney says:

      This really helps, Steve. I felt rather silly posing a question and just leaving it hanging, but you and Dirk have helped me take steps toward understanding HDT’s ability to escape a temporary onslaught of ‘failure to thrive.’ Today’s paper reports on Swedish refugees told they must leave, and the youngsters especially falling into a coma. I’ll reread your illuminations.

  3. Steve Webb says:

    I saw that, too. I’m suddenly reminded of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, passed when Thoreau was thirteen-years-old. He surely would have been aware of all those forcible “relocations,” which went on for an entire decade. He was a college man of twenty-one when the Cherokee, under the same Act of ethnic cleansing, were evicted in 1838—the infamy known as the Trail of Tears. You do have to wonder how those people endured. Sixteen thousand Cherokee alone were uprooted from their homes and caste across the Mississippi. Thousands perished along the way. A world of shame, and just keeps going on.

  4. efmooney says:

    Yes, the parallel is astounding.

  5. As regards Thoreau, too little seems to have been written about how the point (explicit or implicit) of his year on Walden Pond was to try to recover from his brother’s death. (And perhaps Emerson understood this when he allowed Henry to stay on the land?) If the text of Walden is somehow the conclusion of this mourning process, then one might decide that the cure was a kind of denial — the brother not being directly mentioned in the text, let alone either he or death being given a chapter. I wrote a little about this at the end of my Agni essay on The Unsaid (available online). There is, in any case, this proposition in Walden; “If we are really dying, let us hear the
    rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.” I take him to mean that he prefers to live as if he, and others, were not mortal, until, as if by surprise, a strange day comes.

    I am not an epidemiologist, but would ask if — the gruesome and sad rate of increase notwithstanding — the overall mortality numbers (e.g. less than 200 deaths per 100,000 people) are high compared, say, to heart disease, diabetes, or traffic fatalities?

    Best, William (anchored at Zeteo and Montaigbakhtinian)

    • Steve Webb says:

      As I understand it, Thoreau brought to Walden Pond an early MS of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” the narrative of his 1839 boating trip with John, and completed the book just before leaving Walden more than two years later. The book begins with several epigraphs, the first of which is an obvious and touching dedication to his brother. While Thoreau was working on “A Week,” he was also keeping a journal of his Walden experiences and working on the first (almost unrecognizable) draft of ”Walden,” which he continued to develop and refine over the next seven years. One might say that “A Week” is Thoreau’s “We” book, the commemoration of Henry and John on the stream of time, while “Walden” is his “Me” book, the poetic/philosophical reawakening to his individual life. (I hope that’s not too fanciful. Ed, help me out here.)

      You raise a very interesting question, William, about whether Emerson made the Walden property available to Thoreau in order to help him fully recover from John’s death—understanding recovery, perhaps, as the therapeutic process of writing “A Week.” You also bring into clear focus a couple of themes that have always fascinated me about Thoreau: his views on death and dying as physical realities, which at times sound almost callous; and his views on the prospect of immortality, or more accurately, of transcending death in life. I am thinking of the wonderful paragraphs in “Spring” that conclude: “All things must live in such a light. O Death, where was thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory, then?”

    • efmooney says:

      On the epidemiology: I guess we want to know if deaths from heart disease, diabetes, or traffic fatalities rise at the same rate as death by overdose, alcohol, and suicide. That is,does the ‘sea of despair’ lift all causes of death for this subsection of the population.

      • Steve Webb says:

        I haven’t read the study to see if the researchers define despair in any precise way. Their premise seems to be that if people are overdosing on drugs, drinking themselves to death, and jumping off bridges, etc., then they are in a state of despair or hopelessness almost by definition. It just seems intuitive to correlate those kinds of deaths with despair and also to conclude that if deaths by those causes are on the upswing, then despair too must be on the upswing. By contrast deaths by heart disease, diabetes, or traffic accident don’t correlate with despair in a similar intuitive way. I mean, that’s not the first thing that pops into my head. The news that aunt Sally died of diabetes does not immediately suggest to me that she despaired of life, and even if I know that she did despair of life, I don’t know how one would go about determining that her despair in any way caused or influenced her having diabetes. Whatever the statistics are for these causes of death, it would seem farfetched to assume that the deeper cause must be despair.

  6. efmooney says:

    John dies in 1842. Thoreau went to Emerson’s woodlot (1845) to write his elegy to John — he dedicates Week on the Concord –1849 — to John; the book is the tale of their common venture, taken about 10 years earlier (1839). Walden is published 9 years after his building the cabin in which he lived only 2 years. So the chronology of his writing is only loosely tied to the chronology of his life.

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