Robert Pogue Har­ri­son

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - 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.

Th­ese days the ques­tion of what it means to be a “true” Amer­i­can re­sists ra­tio­nal anal­y­sis. What­ever one can say about Amer­i­cans that is true, the op­po­site is equally true. We are the most god­less and most re­li­gious, the most pu­ri­tan­i­cal and most lib­er­tine, the most char­i­ta­ble and most heart­less of so­ci­eties. We es­pouse the maxim “that govern­ment is best which gov­erns least,” yet look to govern­ment to ad­dress our ev­ery prob­lem. Our en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sci­en­tious­ness is out­matched only by our en­vi­ron­men­tal reck­less­ness. We are out­laws ob­sessed by the rule of law, in­di­vid­u­al­ists de­voted to com­mu­ni­tar­ian val­ues, a na­tion of fat peo­ple with anorexic stan­dards of beauty. The only things we love more than na­ture’s wilder­ness are our cars, malls, and dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy. The para­doxes of the Amer­i­can psy­che go back at least as far as our Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, in which slave own­ers pro­claimed that all men are en­dowed by their cre­ator with an un­alien­able right to lib­erty.

In this sense Thoreau was truly Amer­i­can. 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.” From early on peo­ple ac­cused him of hypocrisy, cen­sur­ing him for cham­pi­oning self-suf­fi­ciency while he oc­ca­sion­ally re­turned home for din­ner dur­ing the years he lived at Walden Pond. (“No other male Amer­i­can writer has been so dis­cred­ited for en­joy­ing a meal with loved ones or for not do­ing his own laun­dry,” writes Walls.)1

Walls 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.

In a finely tuned dis­cus­sion of his am­biva­lent sex­u­al­ity—one that avoids ex­ces­sive spec­u­la­tion with­out avoid­ing the topic al­to­gether, as many schol­ars tend to do—Walls con­cludes that Thoreau, who prob­a­bly died a vir­gin, was drawn to men and women equally. With Aristo­phanic flair, he noted in his jour­nal: “I love men with the same dis­tinc­tion that I love woman—as if my friend were of some third sex.” 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, Fuller sent him a re­jec­tion let­ter that would have un­hinged most other nine­teenth-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.” Thoreau took her crit­i­cisms to heart and learned from them. They sub­se­quently be­came good friends.

Was Thoreau ego­tis­ti­cal? Surely, yet as Walls 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 de­fense of the abo­li­tion­ist John Brown.

His protests were not only po­lit­i­cal. Like Emer­son, Thoreau be­lieved that ed­u­ca­tion was democ­racy’s high­est calling. Upon grad­u­at­ing from Har­vard in 1837, he was of­fered a dream job at Con­cord’s Cen­ter Gram­mar School, with a lofty salary of $500 a year. He made it clear when he ac­cepted the teach­ing po­si­tion that he did not be­lieve in flog­ging stu­dents, yet af­ter the dea­con in­sisted that he ad­min­is­ter “cor­po­real chas­tise­ment, the corner-stone of a sound ed­u­ca­tion,” Thoreau dis­ci­plined some of his stu­dents with a fer­ule (he did not own a cowhide for flog­ging). He felt so stained by his act of “un­civil obe­di­ence” that he went to the dea­con that same evening and re­signed, end­ing his ca­reer as a pub­lic school teacher ten days af­ter it had be­gun.

If Thoreau was a her­mit, he had a strange way of ex­press­ing it. In 1842, three years be­fore build­ing his cabin at Walden Pond, he wrote in his jour­nal: “I have no pri­vate good—un­less it be my pe­cu­liar abil­ity to serve the pub­lic—this is the only in­di­vid­ual prop­erty.” By “pub­lic” Thoreau meant many things: the hu­man com­mu­nity of Con­cord where he spent most of his life, rooted like a tree; the sur­round­ing woods, waters, and wildlife that com­mu­nity shared in com­mon; and the coun­try at large. In ev­ery­thing he did and wrote, Thoreau iden­ti­fied him­self first and fore­most as a ci­ti­zen, not only of his home­town and the Amer­i­can re­pub­lic, but of the nat­u­ral world that pro­vided them with their ma­te­rial foun­da­tions.

Walls sug­gests that Fred­er­ick Dou­glass and the rad­i­cal abo­li­tion­ist Wendell Phillips played a de­ci­sive part in Thoreau’s de­ci­sion to build a cabin at Walden and so­journ there for two years and two months. Th­ese abo­li­tion­ists, each in his own way, con­vinced Thoreau that “a mil­lion men are of no im­por­tance com­pared with one man . . . [who is pre­pared] to do right.” Like them, Thoreau wanted to stand as a ma­jor­ity of one. “Any man more right than his neigh­bors con­sti­tutes a ma­jor­ity of one al­ready,” he wrote in “Civil Dis­obe­di­ence.”

It was as a ci­ti­zen of Con­cord, hence of Amer­ica, that Thoreau took up res­i­dence at Walden on In­de­pen­dence Day 1845.2 He went there not to iso­late him­self but to sit­u­ate him­self “a mile from any neigh­bor”—dis­tant enough for in­de­pen­dence, yet close enough to re­main within earshot. Walden ad­dresses it­self to “you... who are said to live in New Eng­land,” and its epi­graph de­clares its in­ten­tion “to wake my neigh­bors up.”

Wake them up to what? To the fact that Amer­ica was still wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered, that his neigh­bors had given up pre­ma­turely on its prom­ise of freedom, in­de­pen­dence, and God’s heaven on earth. The Pu­ri­tan pil­grims had brought with them to the New World an in­fi­nite ex­pec­ta­tion, only to suc­cumb to dis­ap­point­ment af­ter set­ting foot on a con­ti­nent they saw as wild and harsh, not at all the Eden they had hoped for. Thoreau went to Walden to dis­cover for him­self whether Amer­ica—“this new yet un­ap­proach­able Amer­ica,” as Emer­son called it—amounted to a false prom­ise, or whether it did in­deed con­tain a par­adise that was not only ap­proach­able but touch­able.

What he found is that “we oc­cupy the heaven of the gods with­out know­ing it.” Par­adise ex­ists all around us, in Amer­ica’s “wildness,” the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment of the con­ti­nent. In the con­tact be­tween his own body and Amer­ica’s forests, mead­ows, lakes, rivers, moun­tains, and an­i­mals, Thoreau dis­cov­ered what he called “hard mat­ter in its home.” That home was the

“hard bot­tom” or “re­al­ity” that we crave. “I stand in awe of my body, this mat­ter to which I am bound,” he wrote in his jour­nal. “Daily to be shown mat­ter, to come in con­tact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!... Con­tact! Con­tact!”

The tac­tile tran­scen­dence of Amer­ica’s wildness opens its prospects to those who would wake up to it. One need not travel to sub­lime moun­tain ranges or re­mote wilder­ness ar­eas to ac­cess it. It lies be­fore us, in what Thoreau called the day’s dawn­ing. “We must learn to reawaken and keep our­selves awake, not by me­chan­i­cal aids, but by an in­fi­nite ex­pec­ta­tion of the dawn.” Only such ex­pec­ta­tion brings forth that height­en­ing of the senses that al­lows Amer­ica to ap­pear in its dawn­ing ec­stasies; and lest we take the no­tion of dawn too lit­er­ally, Thoreau de­clares: “Morn­ing is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.” It is im­pos­si­ble to over­state the im­por­tance of an­tic­i­pa­tion in Thoreau’s phi­los­o­phy of sense per­cep­tion and spir­i­tual el­e­va­tion. 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. Ac­cord­ing to Thoreau:

Ob­jects are con­cealed from our view not so much be­cause they are out of the course of our vis­ual ray as be­cause there is no in­ten­tion of the mind and eye to­ward them.... There is just as much beauty vis­i­ble to us in the land­scape as we are pre­pared to ap­pre­ci­ate, not a grain more.

Thoreau be­lieved in the shaman­is­tic power of ex­pec­ta­tion. Dann’s bi­og­ra­phy in fact gets its ti­tle from what it takes to be a doc­tri­nal state­ment that Thoreau recorded in his jour­nal: “In the long run, we find what we ex­pect. We shall be for­tu­nate then if we ex­pect great things.”

Yet it is not enough merely to ex­pect. To deepen and ex­pand the hori­zon of per­cep­tion, one must ac­quire an ex­act­ing em­pir­i­cal knowl­edge of the nat­u­ral world in its end­less par­tic­u­lar­i­ties, for the in­ten­tion of the eye fol­lows the in­ten­tion of the mind. That is why, af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Har­vard, Thoreau spent a great deal of time study­ing the ge­ol­ogy and ecol­ogy of New Eng­land, read­ing as many ac­counts as he could of its na­tive species, whether by con­tem­po­raries or ear­lier gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can nat­u­ral­ists, botanists, farm­ers, and ex­plor­ers. In time he be­came a first-rate nat­u­ral­ist him­self, adding his own dis­cov­er­ies to the archival record.


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 to­gether 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 much-vaunted “pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion.” The vol­umes of­fer clear ev­i­dence that in his later adult life Thoreau had thor­oughly cleansed the doors of per­cep­tion, and that the world ap­peared to him as in­fi­nite in its lo­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions.

The same holds true for the en­chant­ing book 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.” Each of Hig­gins’s ten chap­ters con­tains an es­say, fol­lowed by per­ti­nent pas­sages from Thoreau. 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.”

Walden—re­pub­lished by Bea­con Press this year with an in­spired in­tro­duc­tion by Bill McKibben about Thoreau’s rel­e­vance to our own spir­i­tu­ally im­pov­er­ished re­al­ity—is ar­guably the most im­por­tant work of lit­er­ary non­fic­tion in the Amer­i­can canon. Thanks to that book, sub­ti­tled “A Life in the Woods,” the im­age of Thoreau as a lover of woods and trees is en­trenched in the Amer­i­can imag­i­na­tion. Yet in The Boat­man, Robert M. Thor­son re­minds us that in the last decade of his life Thoreau de­voted a great deal more at­ten­tion to rivers, es­pe­cially the three main rivers around Con­cord (the Sud­bury, Ass­a­bet, and Con­cord, known to the seven­teenth-cen­tury Pu­ri­tans who set­tled the val­ley as the South, North, and Great Rivers). Thor­son’s book of­fers the reader an in-depth ac­count of Thoreau’s life­long love of boats, his skill as a nav­i­ga­tor, his in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the wa­ter­ways around Con­cord, and his ex­ten­sive sur­vey of the Con­cord River.

“Henry’s un­her­alded river book is his jour­nal,” writes Thor­son. Thoreau’s Jour­nal con­tains some two mil­lion words writ­ten over twenty years.3 The Jour­nal is the main fo­cus of an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mor­gan Li­brary and Mu­seum, “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Jour­nal,” which brings to­gether nearly one hun­dred relics of this Amer­i­can saint, in­clud­ing the small green desk on which he wrote most of his life work, the flute with which he en­chanted Mar­garet Fuller and other hu­mans and non­hu­mans alike, as well as more than twenty of his Jour­nal note­books, many of his let­ters, books from his per­sonal li­brary, the only two pho­to­graphs for which he ever sat, and even some pressed plants from his herbar­ium. Those many read­ers and schol­ars who have in­creas­ingly come to con­sider Thoreau’s Jour­nal his main lit­er­ary achieve­ment will want to make a pil­grim­age this sum­mer to the Mor­gan.

Both Thor­son and Walls make a point of stress­ing that Thoreau was fully cog­nizant of what to­day we call the “an­thro­pocene,” or the era when most of the planet has been touched or al­tered by hu­man be­ings. When Thoreau em­barked on an ex­cur­sion to Mount Katahdin in Maine, for ex­am­ple, he imag­ined he would be ven­tur­ing into pris­tine ter­ri­tory, only to find that hu­mans had left their mark in even the state’s most re­mote regions. In his in­tro­duc­tion to Walden, McKibben writes that Thoreau’s ex­pe­di­tion “took him through the heart of that then-mighty wilder­ness,” yet as Walls re­marks in a mov­ing pas­sage:

Even where the road ended, the houses did not, and even af­ter the last house, there were log­ging camps and black­smith forges,

dams and log booms, trails rut­ted with use, even a bill­board. The un­touched for­est had been logged, each tree cut and branded, its des­tiny not to reach for the heav­ens but to drop down­stream through the falls to the sawmills.

Or as Thoreau noted in his jour­nal: “It is vain to dream of a wildness dis­tant from our­selves. There is none such.” Thoreau was ei­ther re­signed to or re­mark­ably san­guine about hu­man­ity’s trans­for­ma­tive as well as de­struc­tive im­pact on na­ture. He did not ap­prove of the way “hu­man ac­tiv­ity was now the dom­i­nant agency driv­ing land­scape change,” as Thor­son puts it, yet he qui­etly ac­cepted it as part of the on­go­ing, ever-chang­ing his­tory of the earth. What saved Thoreau from a gnash­ing of teeth was his aware­ness of how much wildness still sur­rounded him. One can’t help but mar­vel at the rap­ture that the sight of things like huck­le­ber­ries, tur­tles, or wild­flow­ers would in­spire in him. There was clearly a sub­li­mated li­bid­i­nal sur­plus within him— nour­ished by his life­long chastity—that ren­dered his re­la­tion to na­ture thor­oughly erotic and ec­static, even in the midst of the an­thro­pocene spec­ta­cle in its most de­mor­al­iz­ing forms.


Dann claims that “through­out his life, Thoreau was cer­tain that his ‘prop­erty’—his soul—was im­mor­tal, destined to go to God again when he died.” That may or may not be true, yet it is cer­tain that Thoreau be­lieved there was more than enough heaven in this world to go around. For all his per­sonal con­tra­dic­tions, he saw none be­tween his im­mor­tal soul and the “hard mat­ter” of his body, or be­tween a tran­scen­dent heaven and a mor­tal earth. Thoreau de­clared that he went to the Walden woods “to front only the es­sen­tial facts of life,” for he did not want, when it came time for him to die, to “dis­cover that I had not lived.” In her poignant and elo­quent book, When I Came to Die, Au­drey Raden shows how, for Thoreau, death and dy­ing were among the most es­sen­tial facts of life, and that to live life to the fullest meant to live it in full aware­ness of its mor­tal­ity.

In Bird Relics, Branka Ar­sić delves into Thoreau’s writ­ings, with par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the In­dian Note­books and un­pub­lished bird note­books, to trace the way his think­ing about na­ture de­vel­oped over the years into a kind of pan-vi­tal­ism, which sees the gen­er­a­tive forces of life at work in death, dis­ease, and nat­u­ral de­cay. For Thoreau the lat­ter are not op­posed to, but are part of, life. Ar­sić gives due em­pha­sis to the cru­cial part that the death of his brother John played in Thoreau’s un­der­stand­ing of the all-en­com­pass­ing force of life. Thoreau was so deeply bonded with his brother that, in a psy­chic if not phys­i­cal sense, he died with John in 1842. His grief was as in­tense as it was pro­longed and, as Ar­sić sug­gests, it helped in­cu­bate his phi­los­o­phy of life. He emerged from it believ­ing that what­ever was alive in John lived on in the re­gen­er­a­tive na­ture of the sur­round­ing land­scape. Thoreau’s grief lies be­hind his calm ac­cep­tance of death, which life ab­sorbs back into it­self and from which it en­gen­ders new life. It is no doubt be­cause he lived a life of daily con­tact with the real—with na­ture in its ev­ery­day mir­a­cles—that Thoreau died a “beau­ti­ful death,” as it was called in those days. It was beau­ti­ful not be­cause it was pain­less (he died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in his fam­ily home at forty-four) but be­cause he faced his ap­proach­ing death with re­mark­able seren­ity and even cheer­ful­ness, con­vinced that death was not so much the ter­mi­na­tion as the con­sum­ma­tion of life.

When Thoreau’s abo­li­tion­ist friend Parker Pills­bury vis­ited him shortly be­fore he died and found him “deathly weak and pale,” he took his hand and re­marked to Thoreau, “I sup­pose this is the best you can do now.” Thoreau smiled and “gasped a faint assent.” When Pills­bury then said, “The out­works seem al­most ready to give way,” Thoreau whis­pered, “Yes,—but as long as she cracks she holds.” This was a say­ing com­mon among boys skat­ing on the thin­ning ice of lakes and ponds, mean­ing that as long as the ice cracks, winter still holds.

By his own ac­count Pills­bury then re­marked to Thoreau, “You seem so near the dark river, that I al­most won­der how the op­po­site shore may ap­pear to you.” Thoreau’s an­swer re­mains, for all in­tents and pur­poses, his last word: “One world at a time.”

Thoreau had an al­most mys­ti­cal rev­er­ence for facts, above all the fact of death. In Walden he wrote:

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glim­mer on both its sur­faces, as if it were a cime­ter, and feel its sweet edge di­vid­ing you through the heart and mar­row, and so you will hap­pily con­clude your mor­tal ca­reer. Be it life or death, we crave only re­al­ity.

Among Amer­i­cans noth­ing has more author­ity than facts. Of course the con­trary is also true (a quar­ter of Amer­i­cans be­lieve the sun re­volves around the earth; more than three quar­ters be­lieve there is in­dis­putable ev­i­dence that aliens have vis­ited our planet). Is it true that we crave re­al­ity? Yes, but we crave ir­re­al­ity just as much if not more. Our ad­dic­tion to our tele­vi­sion, com­puter, and cell phone screens con­firms as much. As for death, it does not seem that to­day we have a knack for con­clud­ing our mor­tal ca­reers “hap­pily.”

I be­lieve there are two im­mensely im­por­tant Thore­au­vian lega­cies that call out for re­trieval among his fel­low cit­i­zens to­day. One is learn­ing to live de­lib­er­ately, fronting “only the es­sen­tial facts of life,” so that death may be lived for what it is—the nat­u­ral, and not tragic, out­come of life.

The other equally im­por­tant les­son is how to touch the hard mat­ter of the world, how to see the world again in its full range of de­tail, di­ver­sity, and in­fi­nite reach. Noth­ing has suf­fered greater im­pov­er­ish­ment in our era than our abil­ity to see the vis­i­ble world. It has be­come in­creas­ingly in­vis­i­ble to us as we suc­cumb to the sor­cery of our dig­i­tal screens. It will take the likes of Henry David Thoreau, the most keen­sighted Amer­i­can of all, to teach us how to dis­cover Amer­ica again and see it for what it is.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau, 1861; am­brotype by Ed­ward Sid­ney Dun­shee

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