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Did Emerson Visit Thoreau in Jail?

While the playwrights of The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail were adept at weaving many actual Thoreau facts, events, and quotes into their text, one key scene is firmly fictitious. At the very least, it cannot be proven to be true. And it happens to be one that everyone remembers or recites. Even people who have never read the play or have never seen it performed seem to know these lines. It’s the memorable exchange that concludes Act 1, when Henry Thoreau is locked into the jail cell and Ralph Waldo Emerson comes to see him:

Waldo: Henry! Henry! What are you doing in jail?

Henry: Waldo! What are you doing out of jail?

Henry’s not-so-subtle point is that he is taking action against the injustices of government, while his friend Waldo is choosing not to do so. This brief but powerful dialogue is a terrific way to end the first act and to mirror the disagreements and disparate points of view that the two friends will face later on. But as far as we can tell, the scene never happened in real life. We have no proof that Emerson ever went to the jail the night Henry was behind bars, or that the great man was even in Concord that day. Neither man recorded such an encounter in their journals, writings, or letters; and none of their friends did, either. Henry’s Aunt Maria paid the poll tax during the night – not Aunt Louisa, as it happens in the play – and Henry was released the next morning to go on his way, to collect huckleberries, and to return to his house at Walden Pond. Whether or not he saw Emerson that day is left to speculation. It is possible that the next time the friends met, Emerson asked Thoreau why he had gone to jail. And Thoreau would have responded, “Why did you not?” But even a conversation like this one is not provable through primary or secondary sources.

Those of us who talk a lot about Thoreau with others -- especially in our capacities as tour guides and interpreters at sites around Concord, Massachusetts -- hear this scene repeated by unknowing visitors on a regular basis. They assume the dialogue is fact. We then have opportunities to put their assumptions into context and to be able to further discuss the night Thoreau spent in jail: both the real incident of 1846, as well as the 1970 play of the same name. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition.