Henry David Thoreau – a consideration

by NJ McGarrigle

Walden Pond

My article in The Irish Times.

For someone who worshipped trees, the writer Henry David Thoreau certainly made good use of them: his journal, increasingly thought to be his most important work, ran to two million words, collated across 24 years in 14 volumes. There’s also a sweet irony in that Thoreau came from a family that accrued its wealth through pencil manufacturing, for Henry was often accused of “swinging the lead” in the worst possible sense when it came to his own life.

Last year was the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, resulting in a number of new titles on one of the giants of the American literary canon. There is a new biography Henry David Thoreau – A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (University of Chicago Press), while more targeted takes on the author of Walden come in the forms of The Boatman – Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M Thorson (Harvard University Press) and Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins (University of California Press).

Up to now, any consideration of Thoreau’s life has usually been poured through a mystical sieve. Anyone with a passing familiarity of Thoreau will think of a hermetic, ascetic environmental philosopher who penned Walden, that great work on nature and the self and its related ideas of regrounding, renewal and rebirth. This is a decent transcription of the most important loop of the writer’s life. But there’s much more to Thoreau, and what we already know is not always read in the proper light either – something that Dassow Walls strives to put right in her excellent biography.

Living at Walden Pond gave rise to the notion of Thoreau leading a hermetic life. But this supposition can be debunked by the fact that the only time he lived alone was the two years he spent at this now world-famous landmark (Thoreau’s was a short life, dying aged 44 of TB). The charge of seclusion from society can be thrown out, too, as Dassow Walls describes Thoreau’s large social circle of fellow pioneers, some closer to him than others: (erstwhile mentor) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller and John Brown, the sheep herder-surveyor who tried to form an army to counter pro-slavery insurgents who were forcibly taking control of the government of Kansas. The book also outlines Thoreau’s many trips to Boston, New York City, Canada and other places; how he would give regular lectures; speak publicly against slavery; spend time with Native American families; protest against unjust taxes (Thoreau thought a man’s duty is to break any law that’s immoral). He also, earlier in life, set up a school with his brother John based on progressive ideals, while being a skilled handyman meant Thoreau was constantly helping friends and family around his hometown of Concord. If “reclusiveness” shares such richness to society, then perhaps we should all utilise our great genius for staying at home.

 

Thoreau encountered plenty of Irish people during his lifetime. There were the famous encounters in Walden (which we shall not spoil for new readers by mentioning here) and due to the railroad expansion through Concord he met many families who arrived in town seeking work. His friends and family fretted over the Irish invasion of workers, but Thoreau soon rebuked them, saying: “The sturdy Irish arms that do the work are of more worth than oak or maple. Methinks I could look with equanimity upon a long street of Irish cabins and pigs and children revelling in the genial Concord dirt, and I should find my Walden wood and Fair Haven in their tanned and happy faces.”

Thoreau also happened to be at Cape Cod when, in nearby Cohasset, the famine ship St John, sailing from Galway, had foundered in heavy seas and high winds, breaking on the rocks just south of Boston in 1849. Only 23 of the 120 onboard were rescued and later Thoreau would use these unforgettable scenes to open his book Cape Cod after his visit to the disaster site. As he came to know the three generations of the Riordan family who settled in his home town, Thoreau wondered if they were living his ideals better than he was – dirt poor, yes, but living independent lives on the land, with little regard for “Yankee markers of success”.

Ever railing against injustice, Henry also intervened after hearing that Kerryman Mick Flannery won a spading contest at a county fair, only to see his boss claim the prize money. Thoreau drafted a petition collecting money to make up for the theft, while he also went door-to-door to raise the 50 dollars needed to bring Flannery’s family from Ireland, lending much of the money himself.

Thoreau – A Life is a brilliant, big-hearted, definitive and sympathetic biography that carries the original nature boy through a time of considerable flux in American life. It helpfully carries the reader to a different shore, too, for a refreshed view of this otherworldly, and yet truly American, writer and visionary. The writing always keeps a lightness of touch, yet is constantly weighted with scholarly research. Mirroring Thoreau’s eternal symbol of Walden Pond, Dassow Walls presents the reader with the strange, beautiful ripples of Thoreau’s personality that makes his life so fascinating, while at the same time she plumbs the documents of his journals, books, and letters to dredge up new ideas on his thinking and motivations. She is a confessed Thoreauvian, and this rewarding book is a testament to her, and its sometimes-maligned subject.

An idea Richard Higgins is keen to emphasise in his book is Thoreau’s – and our – relationship with trees. Readers of Walden are already aware that Thoreau held an unwavering faith in nature, and found solace in trying to comprehend his place within it. Thoreau realised that we sit within nature’s embrace, not the other way around; as though nature were mere window dressing to our everyday lives. He studied the fragility of nature, but was also aware of its force, and how it could consign humanity to the dustbin of extinction if need be. Thoreau watched the natural world as a realm of time, and as Higgins points out in this engaging book, he trusted his instincts: “we will sooner overtake the dawn by remaining here, where we are, than by chasing the sun across the western hills,” Thoreau observed.

 

From reading this book it is easy to imagine that Thoreau loved trees more than humans – to begin with, he believed trees did their duty more than his fellow citizens. “Thank God they (humans) cannot cut down the clouds,” he once wrote despairingly. This symbiotic love of his sylvan surroundings goes some way in explaining why some commentators now write him off as a crank; they view his abiding affection for nature as unhealthy, misanthropic. But his love of trees allows us to see his environmental prescience: he was writing of trees as purifiers of air and fountains of water long before terms like carbon sinks, or the word ecology even, were understood or defined. (Incidentally, Thoreau used the term “nature’s economy” in his writing.)

Writing on trees requires a special talent to make the subject come alive: Thoreau achieved this with aplomb, but Higgins’ prose sometimes fails to deliver. In compensation the book contains a number of impressive photographs of Henry’s “local world”, taken either by Higgins or from the historic plates of Herbert Wendell Gleason. It is a book to savour lightly and slowly, just as the subject himself might have prescribed.

Thoreau’s river years are covered in The Boatman, which is an admirable book, if less enjoyable compared with the others due to the narrowness of the subject and its academic anchor of style. Nevertheless, Robert M Thorson keeps his approach breezy enough to carry the reader downstream, and if the central current is a thin one, the author still manages to give a clear direction of Thoreau’s life and his links to the local waterways of Concord River Valley.

Inspiration for the title came from Thoreau’s file map of the Concord River – it runs seven feet in length – which he drafted a few years before his death in 1862. Emerson described Thoreau’s passion for the waterways in a letter: “Henry T Occupies himself with the history of the river, measures it, weighs it, and strains it through a colander of all eternity.” The Boatman leaves Thoreau’s woody persona on the shore without regret, and instead gets the reader’s feet wet with forensically detailed adventures in “Henry T” country.

Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live life on his own terms, and he wrote Walden in order to show the rest of us that it could be done. These books add worthy voices to the intention. Finding the opportunity to read the many titles on Thoreau is something to ponder all the same. In Dassow Walls’ selected bibliography there are 16 pages of writing linked to the writer-philosopher. How to find the time? We may need our own Walden after all.

 

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