Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reading Thoreau at 200

One of the smaller ironies in my life has been teaching Henry David Thoreau at an Ivy League school for half a century. Asking young people to read Thoreau can make me feel like Victor Frankenstein, waiting for a bolt of lightning: look, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive! Most students are indifferent—they memorize, regurgitate, and move serenely on, untouched. Those bound for Wall Street often yawn or snicker at his call to simplify, to refuse, to resist. Perhaps a third of them react with irritation, shading into hatred. How dare he question the point of property, the meaning of wealth? The smallest contingent, and the most gratifying, are those who wake to his message.

Late adolescence is a fine time to meet a work that jolts. These days, Ayn Rand’s stock is stratospheric, J. D. Salinger’s, once untouchable, in decline. WASPs of any gender continue to weep at A River Runs Through It, and first-generation collegians still thrill to Gatsby, even when I remind them that Jay is shot dead in his gaudy swimming pool. In truth, films move them far more; they talk about The Matrix the way my friends once discussed Hemingway or Kerouac. But Walden can still start a fight. The only other book that possesses this galvanizing quality is Moby-Dick.

Down the decades, more than a few students have told me that in bad times they return to Thoreau, hoping for comfort, or at least advice. After the electoral map bled red last fall, I went to him for counsel too, but found mostly controversy. In this bicentennial year of Thoreau’s birth, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) is still our most famous antebellum book, and in American history he is the figure who most speaks for nature. The cultural meme of the lone seeker in the woods has become Thoreau’s chief public legacy: regrettable for him, dangerous for us. (...)

Our times have never needed the shock of Thoreau more. We face a government eager to kill all measures of natural protection in the name of corporate profit. Elected officials openly bray that environmentalism “is the greatest threat to freedom.” On federal, state, and local levels, civil liberties and free speech are under severe attack. Thoreau is too; the barriers to reading him as a voice of resistance—or reading him at all—are multiplying swiftly.

First, he is becoming an unperson. From the 1920s to the early 2000s, Walden was required reading in hundreds of thousands of U.S. high school and college survey courses. Today, Thoreau is taught far less widely. The intricate prose of Walden is a tough read in the age of tweets, so much so that several “plain English” translations are now marketed. “Civil Disobedience” was a major target of McCarthyite suppression in the 1950s, and may be again.

Second, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, in the end authors write for professors, and the scholarly fate of Thoreau is clouded. Until the postwar era, Thoreau studies were largely left to enthusiasts. Academic criticism now argues for many versions of Thoreau (manic-depressive, gay, straight, misogynist, Marxist, Catholic, Buddhist, faerie-fixated). But other aspects still await full study: the family man, the man of spirituality, the man of science—and the man who wrote the Journal.

Those who study his peers, such as Emerson, Melville, or Dickinson, routinely examine each author’s entire output. Thoreau scholars have yet to deal fully or consistently with the Journal, which runs longer than two million words (many still unpublished), and fills 47 manuscript volumes, or 7,000 pages. It is the great untold secret of American letters, and also the distorting lens of Thoreau studies.

I spent years reading manuscript pages of the Journal, watching Thoreau’s insights take form, day upon day, as unmediated prose experiments. Unlike Emerson’s volumes, arrayed in topical order, Thoreau’s Journal follows time. Some notations arise from his surveying jobs, hiking through fields and pausing to note discoveries: a blooming plant, a foraging bird, the look of tree-shadows on water. His eye and mind are relentless. Although the entries are in present tense and seem written currente calamo, offhandedly, with the pen running on, in fact he worked from field notes, usually the next day, turning ground-truth into literature. He finds a riverbank hollow of frost crystals, and replicates exactly how they look, at a distance and then closer, imagining how they formed. His interest is in the objects, but also in how a subject perceives them—the phenomenology of observation and learning. He finds a mushroom, phallus impudicus, in the form of a penis: “Pray, what was Nature thinking of when she made this? She almost puts herself on a level of those who draw in privies.” His father’s pig escapes and leads its pursuers all over town, helpless before the animal’s cunning. He watches snowflakes land on his coat sleeve: “And they all sing, melting as they sing, of the mysteries of the number six; six, six, six.” None of these entries reached print; they celebrate instead the gift of writing.

Third, Thoreau’s literary genes have split and recombined in our culture, with disturbing results. Organic hipster? Off-the-grid prepper? His popular image has become both blurred and politicized. If Thoreau as American eco-hero peaked around the first Earth Day (1970), today he is derided by conservatives who detest his anti-business sentiments and by postmodern thinkers for whom nature is a suspect green blur. (I still recall one faculty meeting at which a tenured English professor dismissed DNA as all right, “if you believe in that sort of thing.”)

Thoreau has always had detractors, even among his friends. Emerson’s delicate, vicious smear job at his funeral, a masterly takedown in eulogy form that enraged family and friends, set the pattern for enemies like James Russell Lowell (though happily not Lowell’s goddaughter, Virginia Woolf). Our own period sensibilities can flinch when confronted with Thoreaus we did not expect—the efficient capitalist, improving graphite mixes for the family pencil works; the schoolmaster who caned nine pupils at random, then quit in a fury; the early Victorian who may have chosen chastity because his brother John never lived a full life. (Henry’s most explicit statement on the subject of sex, even in the Journal: “I fell in love with a shrub oak.”)

Yet lately I have noted a new wave of loathing. When witnesses to his life still abounded, the prime criticism of Thoreau was Not Genteel. Now, the tag is Massive Hypocrite. Reader comments on Goodreads and Amazon alone are a deluge of angry, misspelled assertions that Thoreau was a rich-boy slacker, a humorless, arrogant, lying elitist. In the trolling of Thoreau by the digital hive mind, the most durable myth is Cookies-and-Laundry: that Thoreau, claiming independence at Walden, brought his washing home to his mother, and enjoyed her cooking besides. Claims by Concord neighbors that he was a pie-stealing layabout appear as early as the 1880s; Emerson’s youngest son felt compelled to rebut them, calling his childhood friend wise, gentle, and lovable.

The most recent eruption is “Pond Scum,” a 2015 New Yorker piece of fractal wrongness by Kathryn Schulz, who paints Thoreau as cold, parochial, egotistical, incurious, misanthropic, illogical, na├»ve, and cruel—and misses the real story of Walden, his journey from alienation to insight. I have spent a lifetime with Thoreau. I neither love nor hate him, but I know him well. I tracked down his papers, lived in Concord, walked his trails, repeated his journeys, and read, twice, the full Journal. I knew we were in the realm of alternative facts when Schulz dismissed Thoreau as “a well-off Harvard-educated man without dependents.” For that misreading alone, Schulz stands as the Kellyanne Conway of Thoreau commentary. He was the first in his family to attend college, a minority admit (owing to regional bias against French names), working-class to the bone, and after John’s death, the one son, obliged to support his family’s two businesses, boarding house and pencil factory—inhaling graphite dust from the latter fatally weakened his lungs. He was graduated from Harvard, yes, but into a wrenching depression, the Panic of 1837, and during Walden stays, he washed his dishes, floors, and laundry with cold pond water.

Did he go home often? Of course, because his father needed help at the shop. Did he do laundry in town? We do not know, but as the only surviving son of aging boardinghouse-keepers, Thoreau was no stranger to the backbreaking, soul-killing round of 19th-century commercial domestic labor. He knew no other life until he made another one, at Walden.

Pushback on “Pond Scum” was swift and gratifying, and gifted critics such as Donovan Hohn, Jedediah Purdy, and Rebecca Solnit, who have written so well on Thoreau, reassure me that as his third century opens, intelligent readers will continue to find him. But the path to Walden is, increasingly, neglected and overgrown. I constantly meet undergraduates who have never hiked alone, held an after-school job, or lived off schedule. They don’t know the source of milk or the direction of north. They really don’t like to unplug. In seminars, they look up from Walden in cautious wonder: “Can you even say this?” Thoreau worries them; he smells of resistance and of virtue. He is powerfully, compulsively original. He will not settle.

by William Howarth, American Scholar |  Read more:
Image: Pablo Sanchez/ Flickr; Photo-illustration by David Herbick