Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives
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- Jan 24, 2023
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In Three Roads Back, Robert Richardson, the author of magisterial biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James, tells the connected stories of how these foundational American writers and thinkers dealt with personal tragedies early in their careers. For Emerson, it was the death of his young wife and, eleven years later, his five-year-old son; for Thoreau, it was the death of his brother; and for James, it was the death of his beloved cousin Minnie Temple. Filled with rich biographical detail and unforgettable passages from the journals and letters of Emerson, Thoreau, and James, these vivid and moving stories of loss and hard-fought resilience show how the writers’ responses to these deaths helped spur them on to their greatest work, influencing the birth and course of American literature and philosophy.
In reaction to his traumatic loss, Emerson lost his Unitarian faith and found solace in nature. Thoreau, too, leaned on nature and its regenerative power, discovering that “death is the law of new life,” an insight that would find expression in Walden. And James, following a period of panic and despair, experienced a redemptive conversion and new ideas that would drive his work as a psychologist and philosopher. As Richardson shows, all three emerged from their grief with a new way of seeing, one shaped by a belief in what Emerson called “the deep remedial force that underlies all facts.”
An inspiring book about resilience and the new growth and creativity that can stem from devastating loss, Three Roads Back is also an extraordinary account of the hidden wellsprings of American thought.