Henry David Thoreau: The true American
This year America celebrates the bicentennial birthday of Henry David Thoreau with many excellent publications about his life, legacy and love of the natural world.
Only his fellow citizens are likely to lend an ear to them. Unlike his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau hardly makes it onto the list of notable American authors outside his home country.
His peculiar brand of American nativism has little international appeal, for as Emerson wrote in his funeral eulogy of May 9, 1862: “No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversation from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt.”
In her splendid new biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls, a professor of English literature at the University of Notre Dame, offers a multifaceted view of the many contradictions of his personality.
Thoreau has come “down to us in ice, chilled into a misanthrope, prickly with spines, isolated as a hermit and nag,” she writes, acknowledging that he did his fair share to earn that reputation.
He was prickly enough that their friend Elizabeth Hoar confided to Emerson, “I love Henry, but do not like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree.”
Laura does not deny that Thoreau was “occasionally hermitous, and even a nag,” yet in her full-bodied portrait he comes alive also as “a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who filled the room, laughed and danced, sang and teased and wept.” The citizens of Concord loved him dearly because, in addition to being nettlesome, he was genuine and kind.
Thoreau’s friendship with Margaret Fuller - editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial - reveals the extent to which he was free of resentment, vanity or sexism.
In 1840, when he submitted an ambitious essay and a poem to The Dial, Margaet sent him a rejection letter that would have unhinged most other 19th-century American men with a Harvard degree, saying of the essay that its thoughts were “so out of their natural order, that I cannot read it through without pain … but seem to hear the grating of tools on the mosaic.”
As for the poem, she objected to its “want of fluent music,” comparing it to a “bare hill which the warm gales of spring have not visited.” They later became good friends.
Was Thoreau egotistical? Surely, yet as Laura writes, “injustice to another made him storm with the passionate and sleepless rage that powered his great writings of political protest” - writings like Civil Disobedience and his fiery defence of the abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau believed that education was democracy’s highest call- ing. Upon graduating from Harvard in 1837, he was offered a dream job at Concord’s Center Grammar School, with a lofty salary of US$500 a year.
He made it clear when he accepted the teaching position that he did not believe in flogging students. He ended his career as a public school teacher ten days after it had begun.
In another bicentennial biography, Expect Great Things, Kevin Dann lays great stress on the fact that for Thoreau “anticipation precedes discovery.”
Dann’s biography concentrates more on Thoreau’s rich psychic life than on his multidimensional life as friend, family member, Concord citizen, political activist and writer. Through a sympathetic reading of his journal above all, Dann seeks to gain access to the inward paradise of perception that Thoreau inhabited during the last decade or two of his life.
Dann argues that Thoreau cultivated the “thrilled and expectant mood” (Thoreau’s words) because he believed that we only see what we are prepared to see.
Thoreau’s Animals, edited and introduced by Geoff Wisner, offers an engaging and often entertaining selection of Thoreau’s writings about the wild and domestic animal species he came upon in the forests, farms, and wetlands in and around Concord. It is a companion volume to Thoreau’s Wildflowers, and to- gether the two volumes throw into relief the degree to which Thoreau was almost superhumanly awake to the flora and fauna of his surrounding environment.
There is more here than testimony of Thoreau’s muchvaunted “powers of observation.” The volumes offer clear evidence that in his later adult life Thoreau had thoroughly cleansed the doors of perception.
The same holds true for Thoreau and the Language of Trees, by Richard Higgins. In lucid and elegant prose, Higgins traces Thoreau’s deep love affair with various arboreal species, like the white pine of Maine, which, in a formulation that unsettled an editor, he claimed was “as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.”
One gets to the end of this book fully persuaded by Higgins’s claim that Thoreau was captivated by trees, and that “they played a significant role in his creativity as a writer, his work as a naturalist, his philosophical thought, and even his inner life.” In a beautiful touch, Higgins adds: “It sometimes seems that he could see the sap flowing beneath their bark.” (Robert Pogue Harrison teaches literature at Stanford. His books include Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.)