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Book Launch and Discussion

Join Megan Marshall and Lawrence Buell as we celebrate a book launch for Robert D. Richardson’s posthumously published, Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives with Foreword by Megan Marshall. The event is free and open to the public. Sponsored by Princeton University Press and the Thoreau Society.

From their acclaimed biographer, a final, powerful book about how Emerson, Thoreau, and William James forged resilience from devastating loss, changing the course of American thought

In Three Roads Back, Robert Richardson, the author of magisterial biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James, tells the connected stories of how these foundational American writers and thinkers dealt with personal tragedies early in their careers. For Emerson, it was the death of his young wife and, eleven years later, his five-year-old son; for Thoreau, it was the death of his brother; and for James, it was the death of his beloved cousin Minnie Temple. Filled with rich biographical detail and unforgettable passages from the journals and letters of Emerson, Thoreau, and James, these vivid and moving stories of loss and hard-fought resilience show how the writers’ responses to these deaths helped spur them on to their greatest work, influencing the birth and course of American literature and philosophy.

In reaction to his traumatic loss, Emerson lost his Unitarian faith and found solace in nature. Thoreau, too, leaned on nature and its regenerative power, discovering that “death is the law of new life,” an insight that would find expression in Walden. And James, following a period of panic and despair, experienced a redemptive conversion and new ideas that would drive his work as a psychologist and philosopher. As Richardson shows, all three emerged from their grief with a new way of seeing, one shaped by a belief in what Emerson called “the deep remedial force that underlies all facts.”

An inspiring book about resilience and the new growth and creativity that can stem from devastating loss, Three Roads Back is also an extraordinary account of the hidden wellsprings of American thought.

MEGAN MARSHALL is the author of three biographies: The Peabody Sisters, winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography; Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction; and Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, a finalist for the Christian Gauss Award in Literary Criticism of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  She’s the Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor at Emerson College, a past president of the Society of American Historians, and the recipient of the 2022 BIO (Biographers International Organization) Award for “contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography” as well as the 2022 Walter Harding Distinguished Service Award for “scholarly achievement that furthers the mission of the Thoreau Society.”

LAWRENCE BUELL is Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature Emeritus at Harvard University and author, among other books, of Literary Transcendentalism (1973), The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Invention of American Culture (1995), Emerson (2003), and the forthcoming Thoreau: Writer, Thinker, Doer, Icon (2023). He is member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a recipient of the Thoreau Society Medal and the Modern Language Association’s Jay Hubbell Award for Lifetime Contributions to American Literature Studies.


Jan 24 2023


7:30 pm - 8:30 pm

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Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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