The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson coverThe California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Brian C. Wilson
read by L.J. Ganser
Tantor Audio, 8 hours and 35 minutes
print edition published by University of Massachusetts Press (May 27, 2022)
$15.30 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, documenting a railroad trip that the Sage of Concord took to California late in his life, shows us that Emerson was not as New England-centric as we might believe.

Emerson had been slated to give a series of talks at Harvard, but aging as he was, he struggled with preparing those lectures. Emerson’s friend, railroad magnate and philanthropist John Murray Forbes suggested a railroad trip to California for which Forbes would make the arrangements. Those making the trip included Emerson’s daughter Edith and her husband, Forbes’s son. Fortunately, Emerson’s friend, James Bradley Thayer was in that group as well because it is to him we owe much of our knowledge of the expedition. Few of Emerson’s letters home to his wife Lidian survive, but we have Thayer’s (puzzlingly unsuccessful) book A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson along with letters to his wife Sophie to document the events.

Forbes was not one to do things in a small way. For the trip he arranged for the party to travel in a private Pullman car which would meet them in Chicago. The car had a sitting space which was converted into a dining room for meals, a separate sleeping space, and a full kitchen. The car was fully staffed with employees of the Pullman company.

Author Brian C. Wilson goes into detail about the trip and describes the travelers’ daily routines and the operation of their private car. In Utah, the group made a detour to Salt Lake City so Emerson could meet Mormon leader Brigham Young. Wilson makes a long diversion into the history of the Mormon religion and Young’s establishment of Salt Lake City as the center for the religion. Odd, as all this is somewhat tangential to Emerson’s thought and interests and to the trip as a whole.

Wilson’s detail about the group’s journey across the continent and through the Sierra Nevada is such that that their arrival in San Francisco seems almost anti-climactic. Once there, the men in the group make an odd choice for entertainment. They visit some rather sleazy venues in Chinatown. But it wasn’t all about slumming. Although Emerson gave up his role as a Unitarian minister early in his career, the Unitarians still claimed him, and when San Francisco Unitarians learned of his arrival they insisted he offer lectures. Anticipating this, daughter Edith had made sure several lectures made their way into Emerson’s trunk.

The travelers split up their San Francisco time with a visit to Yosemite, a journey that the time took four days. Wilson writes the trip would be difficult, “requiring travel by ferry, railroad, stagecoach, wagon, and finally horseback.” (Terry and I would drive to Yosemite from the South Bay in five hours or so.) Not only did they enjoy the beauty of the region, but a young John Muir wanted to meet Emerson and took the group on a trip through the region.

The author tells us that there is little record of the journey home and concludes the book with an account of Emerson’s final years. He also recounts the lives of his traveling companions after the trip.

When a book is produced in its audio format by Tantor you know it will be a quality production. This is no exception. L.J. Ganser’s narration is superb. I could quibble about his pronunciation of the term “placer mining” and of Kearney Street in San Francisco, but his work is so listenable and so professional that these lapses are insignificant.

If Emerson and the Transcendentalist world fall within your realm of interest, do not miss this book.

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