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  • Ralph Waldo Emerson's Gloves, and: Paper Horses
  • Jean Frémon (bio) and Cole Swensen (bio)

In the dining room of Ralph Waldo Emerson's house at Concord (where the books are kept not on bookshelves but in cases fitted out with a handle at each end so that they could be quickly rescued in case of a fire), one chair is different from all the others: it has been augmented with a small drawer made from the same wood and fitted under the seat. This chair was, the guide tells us, that of the master of the house. The credit for this innovative carpentry goes to Henry David Thoreau, who, for two years and two months, occupied the famous cabin in the neighboring woods, a cabin that he had built with his own hands from various recycled materials. It's still there—or rather, it has been reconstructed so that it can be visited on the banks of Walden Pond.

The story goes that Emerson, who didn't particularly like the preacher, always managed to arrive very late to church. And each week, he gave the same excuse: that he had had to search (and in vain) for his Sunday gloves. So Thoreau set about meticulously making this little drawer under the seat of the master's chair so that he would have a specific place to put these gloves and would, therefore, always know where to find them.

In his 1842 journal, Thoreau observed that Emerson's talents were without equal, and that the divine in man had never been so readily, precisely, and gracefully expressed. Little inclined to sanctimony, Thoreau wanted to spare his friend from subterfuge. The best thoughts, thought he, are free from morality. The brutality of fact, as Francis Bacon would put it later. And the preacher of the meeting house to which Emerson was always late is silent on these matters and will always be so, for one who knows never preaches.

Deluge of white light.Calendar of the soul's tides.A flake of snow on my sleeve. [End Page 21]

Thoreau always had two notebooks—one for facts, and the other for poetry. But he had a hard time keeping them apart, as he often found facts more poetic than his poems. They are, he said, translated from the language of the earth into that of the sky. Thoreau knew that the imagination uses facts to fabricate images and even delicate architectures. One summer night, looking up into the sky at a particularly beautiful, scintillating star, he thought perhaps another traveler somewhere else along the coast was, like him, looking up at that same star and said, "Of what unsuspected triangles are stars the apex?" [End Page 22]

Paper Horses

Every morning, the peasants who worked the rice paddies around the Emperor Uda's palace complained that they found their fields trampled. They were convinced that phantom animals came each night to eat up all the seedlings they'd planted the day before. And because of this destruction, they refused to pay taxes on their harvest, arguing that, in fact, there hadn't been any. It's only fair, they claimed, that the palace guard should protect the emperor's subjects from ghosts, whether they're human, animal, or mythic.

The chamberlain, who didn't believe in ghosts, threatened to throw the peasants in jail, though in reality, he was in no great hurry to do so, for he knew that an imprisoned peasant was even less likely than a free one to pay taxes on the harvest that wasn't going into his barns. And though he didn't believe in ghosts, he wasn't inclined to let them get away with such things, either. So he sent a guard to watch over the rice fields. The soldiers saw nothing and heard nothing, but they couldn't be everywhere at once, and early one morning, one thought he saw something—a few shadows galloping toward the palace—but he'd also caught himself dozing and thought it might well have been a dream, so he mentioned it to no one. But as he was crossing the palace foyer...


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pp. 21-23
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