Huckleberries on hot summer days - Henry David Thoreau

Despite Thoreau’s achievements as a writer, environmentalist and social activist (he was, among other things, a passionate abolitionist and supporter of John Brown), many of his contemporaries considered him little more than a crank, a self-involved Pied Piper for the children of Concord, MA, whom he led in search of huckle­berries on hot summer days. As Lauren Dassow Walls makes clear in her excellent Henry David Thoreau: A Life, he was a man of obsessively high principles, self-contained, a stickler for details who insisted on his own way of seeing the world, however quirky. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who would become a good friend, referred to him as “a singular character . . . ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners”. Walls quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson to good effect in a letter introducing him to Henry James, Sr, assuring James that once he got past the younger man’s “village pedantry and tediousness of facts”, he would discover a “profound mind and a person of true magnanimity”.

Walls is following in the footsteps of Thoreau biographies from Henry Seidel Canby (1939), Walter Harding (1965), Robert D. Richardson (1988) and Michael Sims (2014). And these books represent only the cream of a rich crop about this beloved author, whose many sides will never be contained in a single volume. But Walls earns her keep, digging into Thoreau’s aphoristic letters and journals, finding acute reflections by his contemporaries, and drawing a wonderfully brisk and satisfying portrait while paying special attention to his passion for science and engineering, a vein of inquiry that Robert M. Thorson goes on to deepen in The Boatman.

Thoreau’s contact with nature was always more observational than Emerson’s, even though the latter’s Nature (1836) remained for him a fundamental text, a primer of Transcendentalist thought. As Walls puts it: “Thoreau knew a truth few others fully understand: human beings are not separate from nature but fully involved in natural cycles, agents who trigger change and are vulnerable to the changes they trigger”. This awareness of human activity within nature (which would influence the “deep ecology” movement in our time) followed from Thoreau’s work as a surveyor; indeed, he made a significant part of his income from this profession, which he regarded as self-defining. As Walls notes, he paraded around the village with “a surveyor’s chain and a set of ten chaining pines, a measuring tape, drafting paper, tools . . . and, most glorious of all, a top-of-the-line fifteen-inch compass made of lacquered brass with a silvered five-inch dial”.

Walls does not miss the irony that Thoreau’s profession made him “complicit in destroying the forest he loved”. In 1850, for instance, he “walked over land he had surveyed the year before, which the owner had clear-cut and subdivided into fifty-two house lots”. Not surprisingly, he expresses guilt over this work in his journal: “Today I was aware that I walked in a pitch pine wood which erelong, perchance, I may survey and lot off for a wood auction and see the choppers at their work”. In 1851, he completed a substantial commissioned survey of Concord’s boundaries and recalled that the task had left him feeling as if he had “committed suicide”. He says darkly: “Trade curses everything it handles”.

Thorson’s The Boatman can be read profitably beside Walls’s biography as a detailed (even excessively detailed) extension of his interest in river geology. Thorson suggests that Thoreau held complicated and occasionally selfish views of the natural watershed he knew so well, that “river triumvirate in his backyard: the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord”. Contrary to what one might expect, Thoreau allied with the industrialists of Massachusetts, not the local farmers, preferring the high water levels produced by dam releases to the low levels that were good for haymaking. “In short”, writes Thorson, “upstream water releases from reservoirs great and small during the summer improved both his life as a naturalist and the cash flow of factory workers.”

The Boatman presents the “wetter side” of Thoreau as he surveyed and boated on the “three blue highways of navigable water flanked by open bays, lush meadows, and rocky cliffs” that were part of his native habitat. Because of the overwhelming success of Walden, one commonly thinks of him sitting by a pond in the woods, even though he was as much a lover of rivers as woodlands. Quite rightly, Thorson dismisses A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), the first of Thoreau’s two book-length publications, as a “scattered anthology of transcendental musings” mixed with bits of poetry and natural description that never really add up to anything. He concludes: “Henry’s unheralded river book is his journal”.

It would be difficult to underestimate Thoreau’s achievement in the journal he kept from 1837 to 1862 (when he died, aged only forty-four, from tuberculosis). The earliest entries functioned as a kind of quarry for ideas, where he would forage to find poems and prose passages. But on November 8, 1850, he suddenly “treated the day and the date as essential to his artistry”, Walls suggests. What he could find to write about on any given day became the goal of each new entry, a work of art in itself. “Thoreau simply stopped using his Journal as the means to the ‘real’ work of art somewhere else”, says Walls, “and started treating the Journal itself as the work of art, with all the integrity that art demands.” This new approach demanded focus and discipline. And it meant, in many ways, that his writing life went underground. Instead of, like most writers, producing book after book, Thoreau drove himself inward, disdaining public recognition.

Few readers will have pushed systematically through the immense thicket of Thoreau’s Journal, the first edition of which, from 1906, amounts to fourteen volumes. And perhaps it is best enjoyed in excerpts. In this pursuit, one could do worse than read slowly through the entries culled by Richard Higgins in Thoreau and the Language of Trees, which are focused on the author’s meticulous observations of trees, as in this entry from January 7, 1852: “Last evening, walked to Lincoln to lecture in a driving snow storm, but the invisible moon gave light through the thickest of it. I observed how richly the snow lay on the cedars”. Thoreau regards nature as a symbol of spirit, and his natural observations endlessly seek to connect inner and outer worlds. In doing so, the author seeks to discover himself in relation to nature. The contours of a wooded landscape (or riverbank) describe his own psyche, its dynamic shifts of consciousness as the seasons tumble around him in faithful succession. Thoreau moves towards a form of resurrection thinking: the emerging light and life of dawn, the awakenings of spring. As he wrote on February 24, 1852, spring is “a natural resurrection, an experience of immortality”.

Walls tells the well-known story of Thoreau’s life with brisk simplicity befitting the man who chanted, in Walden: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity”. We see him here in his childhood home, and follow his careful apprenticeship in his father’s pencil factory, where his own technical innovations would eventually make Thoreau pencils a popular brand and help to finance the family enterprise for many years. Walls is equally good on Thoreau’s years at Harvard, his brief period as a schoolmaster, and his complete absorption in the family (and ideas) of Emerson, his mentor and lifelong friend. When Emerson took off for Europe in 1847, Thoreau packed up his belongings at Walden Pond and moved into the Emerson home, serving as a kind of surrogate husband to Lidian, Emerson’s wife, and a substitute father to his children.

Thoreau’s life has little in the way of outward adventure, so it’s essential that any biographer should seek the contours of his inward journey. Walls is unafraid to discuss difficult things, such as the author’s repressed sexuality. Emerson glanced at this side of his younger friend obliquely, calling him “a bachelor of thought and nature”. In his eulogy at Thoreau’s funeral, in a deleted passage, Emerson imagined his acolyte as “one of the old monks in their ascetic religion”. Walls writes, in a nicely restrained way, that “in another life, he might have found his life’s partner with a man”. In nineteenth-century New England, that possibility barely existed, and Thoreau in any case preferred his own company to that of anyone else. “In his acute, unspeakable awareness of difference from those around him”, says Walls, “he crafted a self of fluid but carefully guarded sensuality and intense, thwarted romantic energies, and he poured those energies, with ever-increasing passions, into his devotional life as an artist and prophet”.

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