• Emerson's Eyes

    Louisa Thomas

    Fall 2017

    In the spring of 1825, a month after moving into a room in Cambridge and registering for Harvard Divinity School, Ralph Waldo Emerson began to lose his sight. He was not blind, but his vision was impaired enough that reading and study were impossible. It seems likely that Emerson’s condition was diagnosed as rheumatic inflammation, and that the root cause was tuberculosis—the disease that had afflicted his father, killed two of his brothers, took his wife, and ended the life of his protégé, Henry David Thoreau. Nearly one third of all deaths in Boston, in fact, were from the disease, which was incurable at the time but whose symptoms could be managed. Emerson visited Boston’s leading eye doctor, Dr. Edward Reynolds, who recommended surgery.

    Dr. Reynolds had trained in England under James Wardrop, who developed a procedure for relieving inflammation of the eye by puncturing the cornea with a cataract knife or couching needle. The knife was then twisted slightly, to keep the cornea from closing, and allowing the aqueous humor that had built up to drain through the small hole. It was a simple procedure, relatively safe and painless, though it was designed to bring only temporary relief and to be repeated as necessary. Emerson underwent the procedure twice, once that spring and once in the fall.

    He could neither read nor write during this period. By September, he was forced to teach, his old profession—money in the family was too tight for him to avoid it. But his ability to find fire on the page, to be inspired by reading and writing, was briefly snuffed out. It wasn’t until November that he could pick up a book and read again. His journal was empty until the following January. This, by itself, was remarkable. Emerson’s journal was where he recorded and worked out his thoughts, his impressions, his encounters. He had begun writing in it as a young man, searching and uncertain, not yet the famous essayist and philosopher he would become. Those early years were a time of intense intellectual and spiritual ferment and growth for Emerson, and his journal was his account of witness. It was everything to him: he called it the “Wide World.” When it was published, nearly a century after his death, it would fill sixteen volumes. But for the better part of a year, Emerson went dark.

    Dr. Reynolds’s surgeries were successful, since Emerson apparently never struggled with his vision again, and it is always dangerous to read too literal a meaning into a biographical experience. Emerson never wrote about his trouble with his sight as a young man. He alluded to it only passingly. During the period in which no entries were added to the “Wide World,” it is as if he and his universe disappeared. Yet an anxiety over blindness and an obsession with sight subsequently haunts Emerson’s work.

    Louisa Thomas is the author of two books, most recently Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. She is a contributor to the New Yorker's website.

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