Henry David Thoreau: The true Amer­i­can

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES - Robert Pogue Har­ri­son

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.)

Henry Thoreau

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