Sunday, March 12, 2023

The Landlord

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
From Henry David Thoreau: Walden, The Maine Woods, Collected Essays & Poems

Village Tavern, 1813–14, oil on canvas by German American painter John Lewis Krimmel (1786–1821). Courtesy Toledo Museum of Art.
For two years Henry David Thoreau lived in the Concord, Massachusetts, home of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Having worked as the gardener and handyman, as tutor and babysitter for the Emerson children, and as the resident junior scholar, the 25-year-old decided it was time to move on with his life. “I find myself better than I have been,” he wrote in February 1843 to Emerson, who was visiting his brother William on Staten Island, “and am meditating some other method of paying debts than by lectures and writing, which will only do to talk about. If anything of that ‘other’ sort should come to your ears in New York, will you remember it for me?”

The Emerson brothers discussed the matter and came up with the idea of allowing Henry to stay on Staten Island for a while, earning his keep by tutoring William’s eight-year-old son. “I expect to leave Concord, which is my Rome, and its people, who are my Romans, in May, and go to New York,” Thoreau wrote to his friend, Richard Fuller, a student at Harvard (and brother of editor and essayist Margaret Fuller). “So I will bid you good-by till I see you or hear from you again.”

Thoreau spent half a year in New York, from May through November of 1843, and would often take the ferry to Manhattan. Although he enjoyed the farm country and beaches of Staten Island, he scorned the city, condemning it within a month after his arrival:
I don’t like the city better, the more I see it, but worse. I am ashamed of my eyes that behold it. It is a thousand times meaner than I could have imagined. It will be something to hate, — that ’s the advantage it will be to me: and even the best people in it are a part of it, and talk coolly about it. The pigs in the street are the most respectable part of the population. When will the world learn that a million men are of no importance compared with one man?
Thoreau was not in New York simply to teach William Emerson’s son and to sightsee; he also hoped to meet with editors of the better-paying New York magazines and convince them to publish his work. Earlier that year, while still in Concord, Thoreau met John O’Sullivan, the founding publisher of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review and a close friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived less than a mile away from the Emersons. In a letter to Emerson, who was traveling at the time, Thoreau reported:
Mr. O’Sullivan was here three days. I met him at the Atheneum [a recently formed association that had a reading room], and went to Hawthorne’s to tea with him. He expressed a great deal of interest in your poems, and wished me to give him a list of them, which I did; he saying he did not know but he should notice them. He is a rather puny-looking man, and did not strike me. We had nothing to say to one another, and therefore we said a great deal! He, however, made a point of asking me to write for his Review, which I shall be glad to do.
After arriving in New York, Thoreau wrote to his parents that “it is ‘quite a day’s training’ to make a few calls in different parts of the city.” The round trip between Staten Island and Manhattan, including the walk to the ferry and the walk from the Battery to wherever in the city he needed to go, often took up more than half a day, leaving little time for appointments. In addition to visiting O’Sullivan in the offices of the Democratic Review, he met several friends of the Emersons, including a few literary notables who would prove instrumental for his future career. In June Thoreau visited the theologian Henry James, Sr. (whose second son, the future novelist Henry James, had been born just two months earlier) and found him “a refreshing, forward-looking and forward-moving man, and he has naturalized and humanized New York for me.” He also met Horace Greeley, the powerful publisher and editor of the New-York Tribune who would later act as Thoreau’s de facto literary agent.

Overall, however, Thoreau was discouraged, frustrated by the lack of interest in his writing. “Literature comes to a poor market here; and even the little that I write is more than will sell,” he complained to Emerson. He also worried that, often ill and distracted, he wasn’t fulfilling his obligations to his hosts: “I do not feel myself especially serviceable to the good people with whom I live, except as inflictions are sanctified to the righteous.”

Worse, O’Sullivan rejected his first submission to the Democratic Review, which Thoreau regarded as his best prospect. Emerson had suggested that Thoreau write a review of The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery, by the German American engineer John Adolphus Etzler, whose booklet presents a ten-year plan for creating a paradise that would eliminate the need for labor by using technological advances powered with wind, solar, and hydro energy. A dabbler in utopian idealism, O’Sullivan expected a serious and considered discussion of Etzler’s vision; what he received instead was “Paradise (To Be) Regained,” Thoreau’s critique skewering technological utopianism and mocking Etzler’s essay—often by simply quoting at length a few of the sections Thoreau regarded as risible.

Although O’Sullivan told Thoreau he could not publish the piece as it was written, he invited him to submit another essay. Desperately homesick and anxious for some modicum of success to show for his stay in New York, Thoreau quickly wrote “The Landlord,” a somewhat whimsical familiar essay extoling the merits of innkeepers who provide hospitality and a semblance of home to weary travelers. He admitted to his mother that “they have printed a short piece that I wrote to sell.” Robert D. Richardson calls it “surely the least characteristic piece Thoreau ever allowed into print.” The Emerson scholar Sherman Paul, however, argues that “The Landlord” displays “how Thoreau, who was never a popular writer, faced the major problem of audience,” an accommodation that became essential for the brilliance of his later travel writing. “He experimented with tone and humor, refusing to forsake his serious themes or make them subserve narrative.”

John O’Sullivan apparently felt the same way and accepted the essay immediately; “The Landlord” appeared in the October number of the Democratic Review. Surprisingly, he also surrendered to Thoreau’s refusal to tone down the critique of Etzler’s book, and the review appeared in the following month’s issue without alteration.

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Under the one word, house, are included the school house, the alms house, the jail, the tavern, the dwelling house; and the meanest shed or cave in which men live, contains the elements of all these. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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