During the 1860s, Emerson became aware of the decline of his powers and began to feel the loss of many in his circle of family and friends. His mother had died in 1853, his brother Bulkeley in 1859. Thoreau died in 1862, his aunt Mary in 1863, Hawthorne in 1864, his brother William in 1868.
Emerson continued lecturing through the 1860s and beyond, but no longer possessed his earlier intellectual vigor. Harvard finally forgave him for his Divinity School address of 1838 and invited him back in 1866 to receive an honorary degree, in 1867 to deliver a Phi Beta Kappa oration, and in 1870 to present a course of lectures (“Natural History of Intellect”).
His lecture schedule exhausted the aging Emerson. Moreover, his health and stability were badly shaken in 1872, when his home in Concord burned.
In the 1870s, Emerson published two collections of essays—Society and Solitude (1870; Myerson A31) and Letters and Social Aims (1876; Myerson A34). He also edited an anthology of poetry under the title Parnassus (1875; Myerson F7). He required substantial assistance from his daughter Ellen and from his biographer and literary executor James Elliot Cabot in putting together Parnassus and Letters and Social Aims.
As Emerson lectured in the 1870s, his audiences were conscious of the failure of his memory. His son Edward wrote of his lecturing in Concord during his final years, “He read a lecture before his townspeople each winter as late as 1880, but needed to have one of his family near by to help him out with a word and assist in keeping the place in his manuscript.”
But even as his energy and his memory failed, the people of Concord continued to treat the man with respect and affection. Concord carefully protected the dignity of its resident philosopher as he became a shadow of the man he had been. Edward Emerson movingly described the town’s acceptance of his declining father’s limitations: “His last few years were quiet and happy. Nature gently drew the veil over his eyes; he went to his study and tried to work, accomplished less and less, but did not notice it … He enjoyed reading, but found so much difficulty in conversation in associating the right word with his idea, that he avoided going into company … As his critical sense became dulled, his standard of intellectual performance was less exacting, and this was most fortunate, for he gladly went to any public occasion where he could hear, and nothing would be expected of him. He attended the Lyceum and all occasions of speaking or reading in the Town Hall with unfailing pleasure.”
No other event in Emerson’s life in Concord demonstrates
so powerfully the depth of local feeling for the man as the town’s response
to the fire at Bush in July of 1872 and its outpouring of grief—both ceremonial
and personal—at his death in April of 1882.