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.