Three Roads Back
(Princeton University Press, 2023)
Reading this book is like walking through a forest in autumn when the leaves are changing and forest foliage bursts with color and rot, and the leaves, wet from a fall storm, cause you to slip and skin your knee on a log, and thorns from some malevolent plant pierce your skin, and you bleed and you curse nature, but then you look up and ancient trees obscure your view, trees that precede you and will outlive you and which form a canopy, a leafy arch against a blue, cloudless sky; and it is this kind of moment when all that matters is the sunlight, the sensation of the breeze on your face, and somewhere, amid the seasons, between the death of fall and winter and the renewal of spring, there is a reason to keep walking.
In other words, this is a small book with much to consider.
“Loss has been much on my mind lately,” Robert Richardson wrote, in 2019, to his mentee Megan Marshall, offering her solace and hope in the face of losing her beloved life partner. A foreword from Marshall introduces the present volume, a posthumous final effort from the celebrated biographer Richardson, who died in 2020.
To be honest, I usually avoid reading forewords. I often find them to be inauthentic, half-hearted attempts to persuade readers to keep turning the pages of unworthy books. I didn’t know Marshall’s work—I spent most of my academic career reading books about cognitive linguistics and auto-ethnography—so I didn’t come to her foreword with any expectations, or with the pressure to praise what she had to say because of what she has achieved (a 2014 Pulitzer for a biography of Margaret Fuller). I simply took her words in—and immediately I felt understood. I found myself tearing up like a lunatic in the middle of coffee shops every time I turned a page. Now, these words, Richardson’s words, “Loss has been much on my mind lately,” in Marshall’s opening, are what I think of just about every day, after losing my brother to leukemia in 2020.
Like Marshall, I seem to seek books or words or anything to understand my grief—not in order to understand, but to find a way to continue onward, to thrive.
Isn’t that the point of literature, or one of them? Isn’t that the point of studying how others process loss and defeat? To feel, to be moved, to lose your emotional composure in public over words that affirm your experiences and offer healing?
This is a quick read, but it is also a book worth savoring, especially if you’re grappling with grief and loss. To feel seen in grief, to have your grief witnessed, is powerful and essential. This emotional pull, this beautifully authentic book, continues from Marshall’s foreword until the last page of Richardson’s final work.
I’ll be honest—I’m no expert on Emerson, Thoreau, or William James, and I was perplexed when this assignment and I crossed paths. However, one doesn’t have to know anything about these authors to be moved by this book. Richardson is an excellent guide with a straightforward, insightful voice whose commentary on these literary “giants” is moving precisely because he distills their experiences with the most human of all experiences—loss and grief. However, his focus on resilience, or what Emerson, Thoreau, and William James did to galvanize themselves after losing those they cherished and to honor the dead, is a way of finding meaning and purpose in our lives. This is where resilience comes from. It comes from action, it changes our perspective—and this is what Emerson, Thoreau, and William James did.
Emerson left the Unitarian ministry after his young wife died. Shortly after her passing, a bereft and physically weak Emerson boarded a brig called the Jasper, sailing for Europe. He was so ill the captain hesitated to let him board. He eventually reached Paris in 1833 and visited the Jardin des Plantes. For Emerson, the Jardin des Plantes offered insight and reinvigoration on the intricacies and order of the natural world, and that extended to living and dying. Emerson was enthralled by the ornithological collections, carefully preserved. “The force of life entirely overpower[ed],” Richardson writes, “the feelings of loss and despair he had so recently plumbed.”
For Thoreau, losing his brother John after a gruesome death from gangrene that started from a shaving cut prevented him from writing anything at all for months. One snowy night, he walked to his friend Emerson’s house, and would speak only to Emerson about John’s death—and anything else. Despair overtook their households that January, for Emerson’s son, little five-year-old Waldo, died from scarlet fever. Thoreau leaned in on nature, which led to Walden and the famous insights his masterpiece offers and continues to offer.
While shared grief, nature, and friendship connected Emerson and Thoreau’s lives, it wasn’t instantly obvious to me, at first, how William James would fit in this slight but powerful book. Richardson, however, made James’s inclusion clear. If Emerson found resilience through self-reliance, and Thoreau found that nature, and the laws of life and death, showed him how to live, then William James shows us how to cope with the emotion of grief, particularly when emotional darkness squashes the desire to stay alive. James fell into deep despair after his cousin Minny Temple died unexpectedly. James suffered what he called an “acute neurasthenic attack, with phobia,” and later described the experience in The Varieties of Religious Experience, only lightly disguising himself as the patient in the mental asylum, “a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches…” Seven weeks after Minny Temple died, James came to one of the most important revelations in a journal entry: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Whether James’s despair and grief over Minny Temple’s death is directly related to this insight cannot be stated unequivocally, but his revelation of how humans experience the world, and their role in it, was the genesis of modern-day Western psychological thought.
I visited my hometown recently. It’s a small town in Northeast Arkansas nestled in a geological anomaly, Crowley’s Ridge, an oasis of towering American beech trees and luscious sugar maples. Just a few miles outside of the ridge, the landscape changes to flat, mostly treeless rice fields. I thought of my brother and the trees of our youth, how we played in the creek near our house, or how we complained about the thankless, endless task of raking leaves from the many trees on our family’s land. He’s buried in a state nearby, but there is an oak tree next to his grave, like the trees of our childhood.
The cruelty of grief and loss is how the mundane goes on. The leaves near my brother’s grave will fall. They will grow again. It’s the living we do—the noticing of nature’s never-ending cycle of crash and reclamation, as Emerson and Thoreau noted, or the belief that we have free will, which bolstered James—then enables us to continue with our lives as the cruelty of grief dissipates. “Resilience is not in general quirky or unusual, nor is it a resource available only to those of iron will who can alter their views or transcend their feelings,” writes Richardson. “Resilience is built into us and into things.”
Richardson is a clear and masterful guide along these three roads back, with the unfolding of details, and a kind voice. He is an astute observer of the human spirit, and of how three of America’s most essential voices in philosophical thought and literature came to find their insights and how they lived. His “documentary biography” method brings both dimension and depth, and provides intimate details from letters, journal entries, and literary works that show Emerson, Thoreau, and William James as human beings—human beings who suffer like anyone else and who encourage us to keep walking.