Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Who Was the Man in the Hollow Tree?

There are a couple of conundrums in the Conclusion of Thoreau's Walden, posed but not answered in the notes of Walter Harding's Variorum Walden. The first is the identity of the man in the hollow tree:
I called on the king, but he made me wait in his hall, and conducted like a man incapacitated for hospitality. There was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree. His manners were truly regal. I should have done better had I called on him.
Emerson also said, "A divine man dwelt near me in a hollow tree," in his journals, according to Harding, who cites Edward Waldo Emerson, Emerson in Concord (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888), p. 210. In the chapter on Brute Neighbors in Walden, the hermit says, "Better not keep a house. Say, some hollow tree; and then for morning calls and dinner-parties!" Cf. also the following, in the chapter on Spring:
In April the pigeons were seen again flying express in small flocks, and in due time I heard the martins twittering over my clearing, though it had not seemed that the township contained so many that it could afford me any, and I fancied that they were peculiarly of the ancient race that dwelt in hollow trees ere white men came.
The second conundrum is the source of the "great deeds" quotation in the Conclusion of Walden:
This generation reclines a little to congratulate itself on being the last of an illustrious line; and in Boston and London and Paris and Rome, thinking of its long descent, it speaks of its progress in art and science and literature with satisfaction. There are the Records of the Philosophical Societies, and the public Eulogies of Great Men! It is the good Adam contemplating his own virtue. "Yes, we have done great deeds, and sung divine songs, which shall never die" -- that is, as long as we can remember them.

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