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Henry David Thoreau as prophet, naturalist, and stealth comedian

Discussed in this essay:

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls. The University of Chicago Press. 640 pages. $35.

Given his role as the patron saint of environmentalism, it seems fitting that Henry David Thoreau’s life should be permeated with recycling. The cabin he built on Walden Pond was constructed in part from the boards of an Irish laborer’s shanty, whose owner had worked on the railroad that ran through the woods just a few hundred yards away. After Thoreau returned to civilization, the roof of his rotting cabin was used to cover a pigsty. As for the jail cell where he spent a single night — according to local lore, when the building was demolished in the 1880s, some of the rubble was used to buttress the cemetery where Thoreau’s body had been buried. There he lies beneath a chaste headstone reading henry. If you stand before his grave, which is often surmounted by a small copse of pens and pencils stuck in the ground by admirers, you can just make out the glinting surface of the pond that he surveyed for the cemetery’s founders.

Thoreau’s Cabin, by Richard Bosman. Courtesy the artist and Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York City

This endless recurrence is partly due to the modest size of Concord, Massachusetts, where Thoreau spent most of his days, and to the cheeseparing glory of Yankee thrift. But it also operates as a metaphysical principle in both his life and art, which Laura Dassow Walls chronicles so effectively in her new biography. In fact, she begins Henry David Thoreau: A Life with her subject’s discovery of what he described in his journal as a “most perfect arrowhead, as sharp as if just from the hands of the Indian fabricator.” He had been fooling around on the banks of the Concord River when this fortuitous relic came to hand. Yet it induced a kind of time-traveling euphoria in the young Thoreau, and gave him a hint of the stereoscopic vision that would eventually allow him to fuse, in Walls’s words, “present and past, white and Indian, civil and wild, man and nature.”

In the fall of 1837, however, Thoreau wasn’t there yet. At age twenty, he had just graduated from Harvard, where the students, enraged by the college’s fierce disciplinary system, had staged an Animal House–style insurrection during his freshman year. Despite his later enthusiasm for civil disobedience, Thoreau couldn’t afford to engage in such antics: he was a scholarship student, often mocked for his green homespun coat and floppy handshake. He kept his nose clean, worked hard, and graduated nineteenth in a class of forty-one. He also received a $25 prize and a speaking slot at commencement — thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lobbied the school’s nitpicking president, Josiah Quincy, on Thoreau’s behalf.

This intersection with Emerson was arguably the formative event of Thoreau’s life. The previous year, Emerson had published Nature, his transcendentalist call to arms, which Thoreau repeatedly borrowed from the library and viewed with almost scriptural reverence. Emerson, who was then thirty-four, was not the inventor of transcendentalism. Indeed, this kitchen-sink philosophy — which the scholar Perry Miller once described as a reaction to the “emotional starvation” of New England life, and especially to the chilly rationalism of the Unitarian Church — was too vague to have a single inventor. Nobody, however, had articulated its intuitive style and hostility toward received wisdom with even a fraction of Emerson’s aphoristic verve. Every human being, he insisted in Nature, should enjoy an “original relation to the universe.” This required a Zen-like attentiveness to the natural world — which was itself a crude approximation of the spiritual world that lay behind it, accessible only in glimpses, during those moments when the soul functioned as a sort of ecstatic antenna. The movement also spurred at least some of its foot soldiers to reconceive American society from the ground up, attending to such issues as slavery, temperance, public education, prison reform, and poverty.

For the young Thoreau, who had spent his childhood outdoors, a sunburned investigator of the hills, forests, and meadows around Concord, Emerson’s ideas must have been electrifying. What’s more, his hero actually lived in the same town, and had spent much of his youth roaming the identical landscape. When Thoreau returned to Concord after graduation, the two quickly grew close. “I delight much in my young friend,” Emerson wrote in his journal, “who seems to have as free & erect a mind as any I have ever met.”

It was, not surprisingly, a master-and-disciple relationship at the start. Indeed, Thoreau’s friends — and, eventually, his enemies — often teased him for imitating his guru’s tone, mannerisms, and lacquered prose. (“With my eyes shut I shouldn’t know them apart,” James Russell Lowell snidely noted in 1838.) The resemblance was certainly not physical. Emerson was tall and imposing, his height emphasized by his swanlike neck, while Thoreau was a stumpy and somewhat homely figure, with what his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne described as a “long-nosed, queer-mouthed” face. The two must have made quite a Mutt-and-Jeff pair during their lengthy rambles around Concord. Yet their rapport was intense from the start, and its gradual unraveling, as Thoreau found his voice and Emerson lost his, would cause both parties no end of pain and confusion. In a sense, and despite Thoreau’s warm relations with such members of the transcendentalist posse as Bronson Alcott, Emerson was his primary relationship — his Significant Other.

When he first got to know Emerson, Thoreau had recently washed out as a schoolteacher, since he was reluctant to cane the pupils. He and his brother, John, briefly ran a school of their own out of the family home, and he sought teaching gigs elsewhere in New England. But little came of these efforts, and by 1838 Thoreau had more or less commenced his career as a pantheistic slacker: the happy hermit of Walden Pond, reclining on a bed of pine needles and communing with the woodchucks when things got dull.

Except he was nothing of the kind. Thoreau was one of the most industrious creatures on earth, whose journals alone — some 2 million words in fourteen volumes — would have intimidated such bulk producers as Charles Dickens or, in our own day, Joyce Carol Oates. Nor were his labors limited to the printed page. He was a skilled surveyor, carpenter, and naturalist, and even one of those small-business owners we have been taught to regard as the quintessential Americans, having run the family’s pencil factory after his father died in 1859.

All of which is to say that the biographer of Thoreau must do double duty, telling the man’s story while simultaneously hacking away at the underbrush of apocrypha and plain old misunderstanding that had already begun to spring up during his short lifetime. His first modern biographer, Walter Harding, spent much of The Days of Henry Thoreau (1965) correcting the record, and Robert Sullivan took the revisionist mission to new heights in his lively The Thoreau You Don’t Know (2009). Walls, by dint of sheer expansiveness and archival diligence, tells us even more about the Thoreau we don’t know and the world that produced him.

I didn’t know, for example, the extent to which Concord, which both Thoreau and Emerson tend to depict as an Edenic wonderland, was more like a factory town — a miniature Akron-on-the-Musketaquid. Not only had most of the village been denuded of trees, but during Thoreau’s childhood, he was able, as Walls writes, to

peer behind the stacks of raw cowhides into the stinking tannery vats, and feel the scorching heat of the foundry fire, where men cast molten brass into bells for horse-drawn sleighs and fittings for the clockmakers across the street.

By the mid-1820s, the author notes, the town fathers had actually engaged in a bit of urban renewal, tearing down the ramshackle shops and factories and replacing them with handsome Federal-style structures. In other words, they turned Concord into the picturesque New England village we now imagine it to have been in the first place. Still, Thoreau’s subsequent retreat from civilization makes a little more sense when you factor in his youthful exposure to the sights, sounds, and fantastically pungent smells of the Industrial Revolution.

Walls is similarly informative when it comes to her subject’s interlude as a literary man-on-the-make in New York City. Emerson’s brother William was persuaded to hire Thoreau as a tutor for his young son in 1843. Reluctantly prying himself loose from Concord, Thoreau took up residence on Staten Island and made regular trips to Manhattan, whose crowds and commotion he soon grew to despise: “It is a thousand times meaner than I could have imagined.” Picturing the rustic Thoreau on Broadway is pure surrealism. What staggers the mind, however, is the idea of him begging for work from publishers and editors, many of whom suggested that he write for nothing, just like their modern-day counterparts. Others, unwilling to bet on an obscurity, simply sent him packing. (The latter group included the founders of this magazine: In a letter to his mother, Thoreau lamented that he had “conversed with the Harpers — to see if they might not find me useful to them — but they say that they are making fifty thousand dollars annually, and their motto is to let well enough alone.”)

By December, having obtained ten dollars from Emerson for some material he contributed to The Dial, Thoreau packed his bags and fled. En route, he made a brief stop at Brook Farm, the utopian retreat founded two years earlier by a group of transcendentalists. The place was already down on its luck, and one of its residents, Hawthorne, would ridicule its idealistic vapors just a decade later in The Blithedale Romance. At the time, though, it was sufficiently solvent that Thoreau gave some thought to staying there. In retrospect, this seems almost as insane as the idea of him settling down in New York. It’s not that he would have objected to the hard labor or the simple accommodations — those were right up his alley. No, the problem was that by temperament (and by adherence to the transcendentalist credo of self-reliance), he simply didn’t play well with others. He had become an ardent and somewhat cranky recluse, who, as he later wrote, “suspected any enterprise in which two were engaged together.”

Such suspicion may well have been related to Thoreau’s stunted erotic life. His first recorded passion, memorialized in a swoony love poem shortly after he graduated from college, was for an eleven-year-old boy. As if recognizing the societal peril of these feelings, he swiftly transferred his affections to the boy’s older sister, and later developed a giant (and no doubt platonic) crush on Emerson’s wife, Lidian. Walls argues that Thoreau was most likely gay: “In another place and time, he might have found his life’s partner with a man.” Yet he remained a perpetual bachelor, being afflicted with what Emerson once described as the “porcupine impossibility of contact” with others. Such people are solitaries to their very fingertips. If Thoreau were to establish a retreat, it would be a retreat of one — which is exactly what he did.

Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond, which lasted two years, two months, and two days, has produced almost as much confusion as Walden, in which those two years, two months, and two days were refashioned into a vest-pocket version of eternity. The idea, of course, was to withdraw into the wilderness, to see precisely what a human being could live without — an exercise in subtraction. In that sense, Thoreau was putting into practice the anchoritic ideals that his high-minded contemporaries had merely preached. But he was well aware that Walden was an artificial wilderness. His cabin, after all, stood just a mile from the village, with trains running through the woods up to twenty times a day, and was built on land owned by (who else?) Emerson. Indeed, Thoreau needed this nearby outpost of civilization, with its creature comforts and flabby conformity, for his own retreat to make any sense. He had to see precisely what he had given up — and so did everybody else. Thoreau’s very visible hermitage was, in Walls’s apt phrase, a “public stage on which he could dramatize his one-person revolution in consciousness, making his protest a form of performance art.”

Performance is very much at the heart of the book. Although it is justly celebrated for its ecstatic descriptions of the natural world, Walden is also a work of droll, dry, borderline-undetectable comedy. Take the opening pages, in which the author apologizes for the crime of writing a book about himself:

We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.

The book is studded with such deadpan amusement, not to mention comic comparisons. At one point, in a move that strikes me as proto–Borscht Belt, the author compares a noisy bird to Paganini. For that matter, many parts of Walden — and specifically, the anal-retentive budgetary calculations sprinkled throughout the first chapter — are meant to parody the self-help manuals that were so popular in Thoreau’s day. (He owned at least four of them, including Jane West’s Letters Addressed to a Young Man, on His First Entrance into Life and an early, aggressively inspirational biography of Benjamin Franklin.)*

I’m not suggesting that Walden is some kind of stand-up routine. The author’s tone is not only earnest but prophetic as he lights into the tepid behavior of the tribe, with its bad habit of contracting “into a nutshell of civility, or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity.” The reader must at any cost shed the straitjacket of received wisdom: “Why level downward to our dullest perceptions always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring.” The idea was to see the world anew at every moment. To share this sensation with his readers was Thoreau’s great mission, and the vehicle for accomplishing it was his brilliant, thorny, paradoxical, sometimes exasperated prose. Needless to say, the author’s impatience with his contemporaries can wear thin. You begin to feel a sneaking sympathy for the quietly desperate populace of Concord, whose comfy chairs and ready fellowship Thoreau both despises and, at least once in a while, envies. Inveighing against the simple virtues of community, he mentions only in passing that he entertained as many as thirty people at a time at his sylvan digs.

But Walden, with its unfolding cycle of the seasons and nonstop rumination on soul and society, remains a mighty masterpiece. Moving beyond his apothegmatic itch and constructing a large-scale narrative, Thoreau finally outstripped the looming figure of Emerson, even as their intimacy waned. He also found a kind of immortality in the woods, an immortality based not on Christian precepts but on the sheer recurrence of nature, its ferocity and self-replenishing power. Hence his story of the “strong and beautiful bug” emerging from the wood of an old table decades after the egg had been deposited in the original tree:

Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb, — heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board, — may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!

Thoreau returned to civilization — meaning Emerson’s house, where he stayed for ten months, and then the attic room in his family’s boardinghouse, where he lived for the rest of his life — in 1847. He spent the next seven years revising and expanding and polishing Walden, which was published in 1854, not long after almost the entire print run of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, boomeranged back to the author. (“I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes,” he noted, “over 700 of which I wrote myself.”) Thoreau was no less tireless when it came to his journal, whose purpose had changed dramatically. What was once a vast reservoir of raw material now became a fluent, freestanding work of art, and a way to notate the universe in something approaching real time.

Yet in the midst of this amazing fecundity, he found space for something else: political engagement. I mentioned earlier that transcendentalism overlapped in certain ways with the great reform movements of the era. Some of its participants, expecting a revolution in human consciousness, saw little reason to wade into the political trenches. Emerson in particular viewed the reformers through satirical lenses. “What a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world!” he wrote. But Thoreau, whom we might have expected to wash his hands of any such crusading, moved in the opposite direction.

I’m not talking about the night he spent in jail, in July 1846, after he refused to pay his poll tax. That sounds like a lark — or, more to the point, like Walden with room service. I’m talking about Thoreau’s unstinting support of John Brown, and his heated abolitionist addresses, and his work on behalf of the Underground Railroad — a risky business shared with his entire family, since their home sheltered a good many fugitive slaves en route to Canada. I’m talking too about “Civil Disobedience,” the foundational essay in which Thoreau worked out his tangled feelings about resisting state-sponsored evil. In doing so, Walls argues, he “pinpointed the error foisted onto every Harvard student and spread by all of Concord’s elites: that the ultimate social good was a smooth-running social machine.” Again, the greatest and most toxic error was to take the glad-handing reassurances of society at face value. A responsible citizen (Thoreau was finally using the word as an honorific) looked at them anew. And when those reassurances turned out to be camouflage for social crimes, resistance was not an option but an obligation.

Thoreau, however, had seen what happened to John Brown in the wake of the Harpers Ferry debacle. He considered Brown a sacrificial victim — quite literally a latter-day Christ — yet he recognized that some resistance would have to be quiet, incremental, like sprinkling gravel in the engine block. As he declared in “Civil Disobedience”:

If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.

At this moment of civic cataclysm, Thoreau’s advice, and his example, should give us heart. “Let your life be a counter friction” — those are fine words, and really, they apply to everything he wrote, including the deceptive idyll of Walden. He was never not pushing back against a society that he viewed as too cowed or complacent to do the right thing. He was never not urging his readers to open their eyes to what was before them — even when those things were invisible. In his final days, before he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1862, Thoreau stopped writing in his journal. In the very last sentence, committed to the page on November 3, 1861, he noted that the marks left in gravel by a storm allowed the observer to figure out which direction the gale had been blowing. “Thus each wind is self-registering,” he wrote. Things unseen, things vanished, were bound to leave their traces. Two hundred years after Thoreau’s birth, we are registering him still.

is the editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Thirteen Installments, will be published next year.

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