Saturday, September 16, 2017

Sages of Concord #62: The True American


Henry David Thoreau: A Life

by Laura Dassow Walls
University of Chicago Press, 615 pp., $35.00


by Henry David Thoreau, with an introduction and annotations by Bill McKibben
Beacon, 312 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Thoreau’s Animals

by Henry David Thoreau, edited by Geoff Wisner and illustrated by Debby Cotter Kaspari
Yale University Press, 256 pp., $30.00

Thoreau and the Language of Trees

by Richard Higgins, with a foreword by Robert D. Richardson and photographs by Richard Higgins
University of California Press, 230 pp., $24.95From the New York Review of Books

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal

an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, June 2–September 10, 2017; and the Concord Museum, Concord, Massachusetts, September 29, 2017–January 21, 2018

Thoreau’s Wildflowers

by Henry David Thoreau, edited by Geoff Wisner and illustrated by Barry Moser
Yale University Press, 300 pp., $30.00
Henry Thoreau
Henry Thoreau; drawing by David Levine
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.
Concord Museum
Henry David Thoreau, 1861; ambrotype by Edward Sidney Dunshee
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 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.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.
Kevin 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 keen-sighted American of all, to teach us how to discover America again and see it for what it is.
  1. 1
    The view of Thoreau as a hypocritical jerk is alive and well. In an article about Walden in The New Yorker (October 19, 2015), Kathryn Schulz works herself into a froth of indignation as she denounces him for his “hypocrisy, his sanctimony, his dour asceticism, and his scorn,” claiming, as many others before her have, that “he was as parochial as he was egotistical.” Thoreau does Schulz one better in Walden, where he writes: “I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself.” 
  2. 2
    On the symbolic meaning of Thoreau’s departure from Concord to the shores of Walden Pond on Independence Day, see Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden (Viking, 1972), still one of the most thoughtful books about Walden ever published. 
  3. 3
    See The Journal, 1837–1861, edited by Damion Searls with a preface by John R. Stilgoe (New York Review Books, 2009). ↩

Monday, September 11, 2017


The Art of Constructive Criticism: Trailblazing Feminist Margaret Fuller Rejects Young Thoreau and Helps Him Improve His Writing

“I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but, if I give my impression of him, I will say, ‘He says too constantly of Nature, she is mine.’ She is not yours till you have been more hers.”

Few things reveal your intellect and your generosity of spirit — the parallel powers of your heart and mind — better than how you give feedback, especially if it is to a friend and especially if the work in question leaves something to be desired. Evidence like Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of tough love and poet Thom Gunn’s role in Oliver Sacks’s evolution as a writerfurther impresses how rare the masters of this delicate, monumental art of constructive criticism are.
But there is no greater genius at it than trailblazing journalist, essayist, and editor Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850), whose 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century endures as a foundational text of feminism. It originated as an essay titled “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women,” published two years earlier in the influential Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, of which Fuller had become founding editor — elected over Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was also being considered for the position — in 1839.
In the fall of 1841 — shortly after moving into Emerson’s house and around the time he was contemplating the true measure of meaningful labor in his famous diary — 24-year-old Henry David Thoreau, urged by Emerson, submitted one of his poems to The Dial. What he received from Fuller was a rejection on the surface but an enormous and generous gift at its heart — in a lengthy and immeasurably beautiful letter, she delineated the reasons for the poem’s rejection and offered caring constructive feedback on how to improve not only his writing but the very soul from which it springs.
Fuller’s masterpiece of constructive criticism is preserved in the original by Project REVEAL at Harry Ransom Center and was included in the 1907 volume Heralds of American Literature: A Group of Patriot Writers of the Revolutionary and National Periods (public library) by essayist and literary culture champion Annie Russell Marble.

Fuller’s original handwritten letter to Thoreau (Harry Ransom Center)

On October 18, 1841, Fuller — herself only thirty-one — writes:
I do not find the poem on the mountains improved by mere compression, though it might be by fusion and glow. Its merits to me are, a noble recognition of Nature, two or three manly thoughts, and, in one place, a plaintive music.
With great sensitivity to every artist’s vulnerable tendency to take criticism of his or her work as criticism of his or her character, Fuller envelops her critique of Thoreau the poet in great warmth for Thoreau the person, assuring him that behind his mediocre poem lies great potential — but making clear that he must work diligently at it in order to attain it:
Yet, now that I have some knowledge of the man, it seems there is no objection I could make to his lines (with the exception of such offenses against taste as the lines about the humors of the eye…), which I would not make to himself. He is healthful, rare, of open eye, ready hand, and noble scope. He sets no limits to his life, nor to the invasions of nature; he is not willfully pragmatical, cautious, ascetic, or fantastical. But he is as yet a somewhat bare hill, which the warm gales of Spring have not visited… He will find the generous office that shall educate him…
Although she is only seven years Thoreau’s senior, barely in her thirties herself, Fuller brims with precocious wisdom. More than a century before Grace Paley asserted in her advice to aspiring writers that “in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world,” Fuller gently points Thoreau to the greatest education for a writer — life itself, the richness of experience amassed by living it, and the enlarging effects of human relationships:
The unfolding of affections, a wider and deeper human experience, the harmonizing influences of other natures, will mould the man and melt his verse. He will seek thought less and find knowledge the more. I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but, if I give my impression of him, I will say, “He says too constantly of Nature, she is mine.” She is not yours till you have been more hers. Seek the lotus, and take a draught of rapture. Say not so confidently, all places, all occasions are alike. This will never come true till you have found it false.
After encouraging him to keep submitting his work and to write to her, Fuller — a century before George Orwell’s famous admonition against “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” — adds:
Will you finish the poem in your own way, and send it for the ‘Dial’? Leave out
“And seem to milk the sky.”
The image is too low; Mr. Emerson thought so too.
She ends with the kind of signature that embodies what Virginia Woolf meant in calling letter-writing “the humane art” and makes one wistful for its death:
Farewell! May truth be irradiated by Beauty! Let me know whether you go to the lonely hut, and write to me about Shakespeare, if you read him there. I have many thoughts about him, which I have never yet been led to express.
Margaret F.

Illustration from ‘Henry Builds a Cabin,’ a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy. Click image for more.

Thoreau did go to the lonely hut to be owned by Nature, sequestering himself in the humble cabin he built with his own hands to write the very work for which he is remembered today. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” he reflected in Walden — the most enduring masterwork of his meditations on those essential facts of life learned during his time in that lonely hut. There, he clearly took Fuller’s invaluable advice to heart — the shift she encouraged in his writing and his way of being is palpable both in Walden and in the beautiful journals he kept while living in the woods.
As for Shakespeare, he did read and admire him: “A genius — a Shakespeare, for instance — would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world,” Thoreau wrote in the very journals that made the history of his interior parish more interesting than any history of the world.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sages of Concord #60: Thoreau's Wilderness Legacy

"(Robert) Frost was on record praising “Walden” as one of his favorite books because it was miraculously “a tale of adventure,” a “declaration of independence” and a “gospel of wisdom” all rolled into one. When Walden Pond came up, however, Frost confessed to Udall that he never visited the Concord sanctuary for fear of heartbreak. “I couldn’t bear to go,” he said. Instead, Frost found the spirit of Thoreau alive in his beloved Green Mountains of Vermont."
The Two Guides by Winslow Homer

On April 23, 1851, Henry David Thoreau spoke at the Concord Lyceum about the interrelationship of God, man and nature. It was the opening salvo of the modern American conservation movement. Equating sauntering with absolute freedom, Thoreau, whose “Walden” would be published three years later, ended his oration with eight words that in coming decades helped save the Maine woods, Cape Cod, Yosemite and other treasured American landscapes: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The sentiment became popularized when The Atlantic published Thoreau’s essay “Walking” in May 1862, with the line as the centerpiece, a month after his death.
This July 12 will be Thoreau’s 200th birthday. Lovers of his back-to-nature musings will flock to the shores of Walden Pond to celebrate his literary greatness. I’ll be one of them. But our pilgrimages to honor Thoreau shouldn’t be confined to wood-fringed Concord. Thoreau, toward the end of his life, famously called for townships to have “a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” A full 14 years before Congress established Yellowstone National Park (America’s first) in 1872, Thoreau, courtesy of this visionary preservationist offering, helped inspire our magnificent National Parks system. The true largess of Thoreau, then, can perhaps best be discovered by experiencing one of the outdoor temples that his “in wildness” declaration helped protect.
Most Americans know Thoreau from reading “Walden,” with its simple assertion, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” But it’s the “in wildness” epigram that’s near scripture for environmentalists rallying against hyper-industrialization and climate change. Just as Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” nourished the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., his kinetic “in wildness” precept has electrified the literary imaginations of Barry Lopez, T. C. Boyle, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, David Quammen, Edward Hoagland, Carl Hiaasen, Rick Bass, Gary Snyder, Louise Erdrich and other wilderness warriors safeguarding our cherished public lands.
The environmental activist John Muir, who worshiped Thoreau — particularly the passage in “The Maine Woods” (1864) that called for “national preserves” — acknowledged that the Concord sage spurred his Yosemite protection advocacy. Often borrowing from his literary hero’s dictum, Muir harnessed Thoreau’s statement to promote his drive to save California wilderness from ruin. “Civilization,” Muir wrote, “needs pure wildness.”
Theodore Roosevelt, who saved over 234 million acres of wild America as president from 1901 to 1909, was so taken with “The Maine Woods” and “Walking” that as a Harvard undergraduate he climbed Mount Katahdin to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps. Around 2000, a modern-day Thoreauvian, Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, started buying up the Maine acreage her literary hero often tramped. Once Quimby acquired Thoreau’s North Woods stamping grounds she donated 87,563 acres to the Interior Department. In August 2016, President Obama, on the eve of the National Park Service centennial, established Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument from her holdings. (Sadly, the Trump administration is now reviewing opening it to timber harvesting and hunting. )
Rose Kennedy, the mother of the 35th president, spent much of her childhood in Concord, and she treasured both the book “Walden” and the pond. When her husband, Joseph Kennedy, bought a home in Hyannis Port in 1928, she read Thoreau’s less well-known “Cape Cod” (1865) and was awe-struck. Thoreau had first hiked the Outer Cape’s shoreline in 1849 and began composing reflections for public lectures. Young Jack Kennedy, influenced by his mother, adopted Thoreau’s elevated notion of Cape Cod as being where “a man can stand” and “put all of America behind him” as his own.
Coinciding with the Kennedys’ move to Cape Cod was the publication of Henry Beston’s book “The Outermost House” (1928). Beston spent a solitary year on the Outer Cape, journaling about the migrations of shore and seabirds, the headlong waves, the glories of sand dunes, the pageantry of the stars. Born in 1888 to an upper-middle-class Catholic clan in Quincy, Mass., Beston was encouraged at an early age by his parents to explore the Cape. As an Atlantic Monthly correspondent, a farmer of herbs, a rustic wanderer and a writer of children’s books, Beston fell in love with the primitive grandeur of the New England seaside. When he turned 38, he purchased 50 acres of dunes near the town of Eastham on the outermost beach of Cape Cod. His small Fo’castle residence — a locally built home with 10 windows offering unobstructed views of the Atlantic — offered Beston the kind of Walden-like solitude he craved. The National Park Service of the 1950s adopted “The Outermost House” and “Cape Cod” as justifications for establishing a 44,000-acre national seashore of secluded beaches and mysterious bogs in coastal Massachusetts. Likewise, Senator John Kennedy, inspired by Thoreau and Beston, introduced legislation in 1959 to establish Cape Cod National Seashore.
Just as Muir’s book “Our National Parks” had helped save the High Sierras of California, “Cape Cod” served as an important catalyst for protecting what Thoreau called “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.” In a 1959 New York Times article titled “Walking in Thoreau’s Footsteps on Cape Cod,” Caroline Bates enthusiastically embraced the national seashore effort. “The adventurer in search of wild America,” she wrote, “visits this coast for the same reason that Thoreau did.” As president, in 1961, Kennedy pushed a Cape Cod N.S. bill through Congress. (The Trump administration, in an unprecedented act, has suspended the local commission that regulates Cape Cod N.S. in possible preparation for gutting environmental protections there.)
Thoreau became the all-seasons environmental guru of the Long Sixties (1960–74). After Rachel Carson learned she had breast cancer, she adopted a sentence from “Walden,” which she always kept at her bedside, to spur on her writing of “Silent Spring”: “If thou art a writer, write as if thy time were short, for it is indeed short at the longest.” Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society used the “in wildness” quote on his nonprofit’s stationery. David Brower of the Sierra Club published a book titled “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World” with excerpts from Thoreau’s nature writings accompanied by the landscape photography of Eliot Porter. “To me, it seems that much of what Henry David Thoreau wrote more than a century ago was less timely in his day than it is on ours,” Brower offered in the introduction.
Thoreau’s first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” (1849), was an inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957). The following year, in his novel “The Dharma Bums,” Kerouac called for a “rucksack revolution” of young people searching for Thoreauvian enlightenment in wildness. Thoreau’s Concord, Kerouac insisted after visiting Walden, was best experienced in “blue aquamarine in October red sereness.”
The last time our country rolled out the red carpet for Thoreau was in 1962, the year “Silent Spring” was published and the 100th anniversary of his death. Kennedy’s secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, sponsored a remembrance held at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. The Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas and Robert Frost spoke about Thoreau’s enduring greatness. When Udall squired Frost around the arboretum-like grounds that afternoon, they discussed how Thoreau animated the Yosemite campaign (through Muir) and Cape Cod (through Beston). Frost was on record praising “Walden” as one of his favorite books because it was miraculously “a tale of adventure,” a “declaration of independence” and a “gospel of wisdom” all rolled into one. When Walden Pond came up, however, Frost confessed to Udall that he never visited the Concord sanctuary for fear of heartbreak. “I couldn’t bear to go,” he said. Instead, Frost found the spirit of Thoreau alive in his beloved Green Mountains of Vermont.
So this summer, if, like Frost, you’re looking for Thoreauvian inspiration but feel hemmed in by Concord or intimidated by tourists at Walden, I recommend sojourning to Yosemite or Cape Cod or Katahdin or along one of America’s stupendous rivers. Or, for that matter, your local “township” park. Because Thoreau insisted on the preservation of wildness, we have millions of acres of public lands to explore — and the sanctity of Cape Cod and Katahdin to defend from profiteers and bandits.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sages of Concord #59: A SLACKER AND A HYPOCRITE?

" . . .for all his nature loving, he also loved tools and machines and gadgets. Carpenter, house painter, boatwright, arborist—he truly was as close to self-sufficient as anyone could be in 19th century America. He was Concord’s handyman—the ideal handyman in what might be considered America’s ideal town, since Thoreau’s clients for home repair and gardening included Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sages of Concord #58 Opening Address at Thoreau Bicentennial

Wen Stephenson’s opening address at Thoreau Bicentennial

Adapted from Wen Stephenson’s opening address at the Thoreau Bicentennial  gathering in Concord, MA, on July 12, 2017—Thoreau’s 200th birthday—and from his Beacon Press book, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice.
There’s a popular image of Henry David Thoreau as an apolitical hermit, a recluse, aloof and detached, even misanthropic, a crank indulging his private fantasy in his cabin in the woods. This has always been a caricature; his active involvement in the Underground Railroad and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act put the lie to it. We know that he helped multiple fugitives on their way to Canada, guarding over them in his family’s house—the Thoreau family were committed abolitionists, especially his mother and sisters—even escorting them onto the trains, which entailed no small personal risk. And of course, we know that he wrote and spoke forcefully and without compromise against slavery and for human freedom.
But in the fall of 1859, Thoreau’s principles would be put even further to the test. When the news arrived in Concord, in October 1859, of John Brown’s deadly raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, reactions were sharply divided. The whole country was in an uproar. Even Brown’s erstwhile supporters quickly distanced themselves. Most of his co-conspirators—many with close ties to Concord—went into hiding, several fleeing to Canada. The atmosphere was not just tense but dangerous for anyone voicing solidarity with Brown.
Into this picture steps forty-two-year-old Henry Thoreau. He was incensed by what he saw as the timid and hypocritical reactions of his neighbors, and of the press, and let it be known that he would speak in support of Brown at Concord’s First Church on October 30. Thoreau rang the town bell himself to announce the speech because Concord’s selectmen had refused. The address he gave was “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”
It was Thoreau’s most radical moment. He was the first in Concord, and among the first and most prominent in the country, to come to Brown’s defense. Within days he would repeat the speech to large audiences in Worcester and Boston—where he stood in at the last moment for Frederick Douglass, who had been chased into Canada by federal marshals despite having played no part in the Harpers Ferry raid.
The speech itself is stunning. What Thoreau was saying in his “Plea” for Brown was the same thing he’d said a decade earlier in “Civil Disobedience”—“action from principle…is essentially revolutionary”—only now in far stronger terms, and this time with real skin in the game. What was once a kind of philosophical exercise was now in deadly earnest: Brown’s raid and certain execution—and the risk of publicly aligning oneself with him—made Thoreau’s night in jail look like child’s play.
On December 2, Brown was hanged in Virginia. The next day, Thoreau himself would become an accomplice to the escape of a desperate Harpers Ferry conspirator, Francis Jackson Merriam, personally taking him out of Concord by wagon to the train in Acton. Thoreau didn’t know Merriam’s identity (he was told only to call him “Lockwood”), but he surely knew what he was doing and the risk he was taking—that this was a wanted man, with a price on his head.
.   .   .
On July 4, 1854, with Walden in final page proofs, Thoreau mounted a platform at Harmony Grove in Framingham—alongside William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, and other prominent abolitionists—and addressed a fiery antislavery rally (literally fiery: Garrison lit copies of the Fugitive Slave Act and US Constitution on fire). His speech, called “Slavery in Massachusetts,” is merciless, indicting the commonwealth for the moral complacency and hypocrisy of its participation in human bondage, sending escaped slaves, free human beings, back into slavery. It was enough to shake even Thoreau’s sense of nature’s harmony:
I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?…Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.
And yet, there in the final moments of the speech, he finds some reassurance:
But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived.…What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed the longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily.
Sorry, but the person who wrote and spoke those words was not “pond scum,” he was not a misanthrope, regardless of what anyone at The New Yorker  magazine may say. Like all of us, he had his flaws—and yes, he could be annoying as hell. But no misanthrope speaks and acts—indeed, risks his own neck—on behalf of his fellow human beings in the way Henry Thoreau did.
“The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.”
You see, I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that the remembrance of his country merely spoiled Thoreau’s walk. I think the remembrance of his country revealed the walk’s true purpose. I believe his solitary and profoundly moral, even spiritual awakening in nature led him back to society and to a radical political engagement on behalf of other people—his neighbors, whether follow citizens of Concord or the fugitives who took refuge in Walden’s woods. Because for Henry Thoreau, to live in harmony with nature is to act in solidarity with our fellow human beings.
About the author 

Wen StephensonWen Stephenson
, an independent journalist and activist, writes for The Nationand is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice. Follow him on Twitter at @wenstephenson.