Henry David Thoreau: A Life

By Laura Dassow Walls

The University of Chicago Press | 2017

An essay by Michael Moreau

Laura Dassow Walls

Thoreau and the Subversive Art of Living in Nature and in Society

In his essay “Among the Disrupted” the great critic Leon Wieseltier writes that, “Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers that to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life.” Wieseltier cares little about being called a Luddite, which he isn’t, and he is aware of the platitude that the young embrace new technology in ways incomprehensible to the old.

But what he is talking about is the way technology has steamrolled through our cities, bulldozing the bookstores and record stores and transforming the content that writers used to be compensated for, to “content” that writers are expected to produce virtually for free, at the same time serious reading declines precipitously. And more than that, discourse is reduced to that which can be quickly digitized and sped through the ether.

Here’s a recent missive from an alumni magazine from a journalism school I once attended:

“In the world of social media, innovations in 2016 were all about speed, efficiency and frenzied launching—it seemed like every five seconds a major social media app was coming out with a new feature to better serve their communities…. We went from only allowing the world to see your most precious, beautifully curated moments to being able to capture everything that happens in between.”

Infantile grammar aside, but really? “Frenzied launching”? Manufactured urgency may be the true genius of Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs’ brilliance lie at creating a need that we never knew we had; that would eventually have to be added to Maslow’s hierarchy—the need to be digitally connected instantly all times. As for the “most precious, beautifully curated moments.” Can the peak moments of our lives really be curated? And, to what extent are those moments actually unrecognized in the frenzied rush to report everything to invisible and ephemeral “friends”?

This is not new. Henry David Thoreau said, a century and half ago: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.”

Indeed. Here is what Wieseltier wrote: “Everyone talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there is one.”

Thoreau had no patience with the trivial. Life was too short—and his tragically so—to clutter with non-essentials. About the new transcontinental telegraph, he said that it was in large part a means to send messages for people who had nothing in particular to say, “as if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly” (144 characters, anyone?).

Thoreau’s two main concerns during his short life (he died of tuberculosis at 44) were the abolition of slavery, in conjunction with which he wrote the seminal text Civil Disobedience, and his passion for the natural world.

Near the end of Laura Dassow Walls’ magnificent new Henry David Thoreau: A Life the great naturalist—though that is not all he was—travels to Minnesota with the young Horace Mann Jr., hoping in vain that the climate would help his tuberculosis, but also to fulfill his dream of visiting the West for an envisioned wildlife study.

Soon off the train he begins to collect plant specimens, slipping them into his plant press and jotting down their origins even while he knows his life is slipping away from him. It is touches like this that breathe with humanity from every page of this formidable biography of the man whose writing wasn’t duly appreciated in his time but whose Walden—which initially sold only 1,600 copies—is now one of our sacred secular texts.

One of his goals on this trip was to test his findings against Darwin’s work in the Origin of Species, which had come out a year earlier, in 1859, and Thoreau found to be a revelation and validation of his own research into plant regeneration.

One of the last of Thoreau’s examinations was a scourge of “black frost” that plagued the white oaks outside Concord. Acorns remained on the trees, but they failed to ripen and fall to the ground. When he cut them open he found them black and rotten inside. He extrapolated that in the normal course of tree life most seeds died. Although they didn’t grow into new trees they were eaten, so they did support life.

The black plague suggested that there were random factors in play that could upset the chain. “Thoreau knew he was on the cutting edge of science,” Walls writes, “one of the first to apply Darwin’s theories in the field. Now he knew something even more powerful: there was more to learn, more he didn’t understand. He was finding answers to questions that puzzled even Darwin himself.”

But time was running out for this endless seeker who would provide the inspiration to a young John Muir, who, when he discovered Thoreau while studying life sciences at the University of Wisconsin, left school to complete his studies in “the University of the Wilderness.” The lineage of environmental writers for whom Thoreau was progenitor flow down to Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Al Gore, Bill McKibben and so many others. Thoreau was of course more than an environmental writer—though that alone would enshrine him in the hierarchy of our most important writers. He was digging deeper into the soil to find out what it is to be human. And his deep reading into ancient texts, and especially the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, led him to believe that to be fully human was to appreciate our connection to Mother Earth.

He was not anyone one thing, and he was not—as superficial readers of Walden surmise—entirely divorced from society, nor did he mean to be. “I am not a hermit,” he writes. And even at Walden Pond he saw visitors and even walked into Concord to enjoy the occasional Sunday dinner at his parents’ house.

But what he sought to do in the two years he lived in his cabin on property owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was to live as simply as he could—growing much of his own food and observing the life surrounding him, from ants—about whom he wrote a miniature War and Peace—to the owls, caribou, and the pines, which he revered because they were there before him and would stand long after he was gone. In describing his purpose, he wrote:

“I went into 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, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what is not life; living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…“

As much as we see a life in Walden our introduction to it may have been marred by reading it too soon, perhaps as a high school assignment, before we were able to grasp its deeper meanings. It is so full of recognizable aphorisms that we find it hard to see the trees for the forest.

However, Walls, a professor of English at Notre Dame, tells us that her early enchantment with Thoreau was as an idealistic teenager who was captured by reading, “I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”

She says this was “catnip” to a young reader who saw the senseless Vietnam war raging, riots tearing apart cities, and heroes being assassinated. She says bought Walden and Civil Disobedience and took the book to the next mandatory football rally at her school, exiting from a side door to grassy rise where she opened it conspicuously for her teachers to see. They left her alone, she says, and she’s “been stepping to the music of a different drummer ever since.”

Thoreau has been her passion over the course of a life of scholarship, and what she offers here is one telling of the Thoreau tale. An earlier biographer, Henry Seidel Canby said that half a dozen biographies of Thoreau could be written—the transcendentalist, the environmentalist, the fervent anti-slavery advocate, the pencil manufacturer, the mystic of Concord, the writer—and while Walls touches on his full life, it is the life of the writer that most concerns her in this sweeping 500-plus page work.

Thoreau was a complex and sometimes, even in relation to his closest associates, a difficult man. And, in a life of accomplishments he wasn’t any one thing. He was sometimes a natural recluse who built his cabin in the woods to contemplate in solitude. He was also a loving son and brother to his sisters Helen and Sophia and older brother John, whose early death (at 26) devastated him and to whom he dedicated A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

He was a compulsive journal writer, working out many of the ideas for his books in his daily entries. He was also an accomplished public speaker and sometimes curator of the Concord Lyceum, apparently, the TED talks of the day, which brought forward the best minds of New England to articulate on weighty subjects. Women suffragists spoke, as did abolitionists, and it was at the Lyceum that Civil Disobedience germinated.

“Each generation has attempted to bring Thoreau alive in their own way,” Walls says. Hers rises to the occasion.

Thoreau’s life concerns were two forms of exploration: the inner and outer worlds. There was no way to seamlessly meld the two. When a copy of the Hindu sacred book became available to him in Concord in 1845, when he was 28, the “Gita became the closest thing Thoreau had to a personal Bible,” Walls writes.

An entry in his journal quotes from the text: “He cannot be a Yogee, who, in his actions, hath not abandoned all intentions.” Walden can be seen as just that: an abandoning of worldly intentions.

But, after two years and two months Thoreau left Walden, never to return to live there again—in autumn of 1847, Emerson asked him to stay with his wife and children while he lectured in Europe. He left Walden, but Walden, he later says, never left him.

While Thoreau lived at Walden, Sam Staples, the local tax collector, had a score to settle with him. As Walls writes, Staples was getting ready to retire and he wanted to clear his books. Thoreau had long refused to pay a poll tax (although he paid other taxes) because, he said, he couldn’t support a government that allowed for slavery and had invaded Mexico. Staples had even offered to pay the back taxes himself, a gesture that Thoreau turned down. Staples nabbed him when he went into Concord to shop for groceries.

The legend is that Emerson asked him through the window of the Middlesex County Jail what he was doing in there and Thoreau responded with, “What are you doing out there?”

This is apocryphal, and probably didn’t happen. The jail was a formidable structure from Revolutionary times with perimeter walls that wouldn’t allow for anyone to speak through its windows. But, the story points out a conflict in styles between Thoreau and his mentor that would remain throughout their lifelong friendship. Thoreau believed in matching words to deeds, while Emerson was careful never to step outside the law.

It turns out that someone paid Thoreau’s way out of jail in the middle of the night (possibly his Aunt Maria, Walls suggests) so that he wasn’t there for even a full day. Years after Thoreau’s death Staples told the story laughingly, and probably with embellishment, about how Thoreau was “mad as the devil” for having his act of civil disobedience curtailed.

It makes for an amusing story, but Thoreau did write Civil Disobedience, the essay that would inform the later non-violent struggles of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. And, he engaged in the political arena, particularly to fight against slavery.

When Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster authored the Fugitive Slave Act, Thoreau and his family actively campaigned for their friend Charles Sumner, an outspoken abolitionist, who took office in 1851. The Thoreau’s had already befriended Frederick Douglass and other former slaves living in Concord. The Fugitive Slave Act legitimized slavery in the entire country since escaped slaves could no longer find refuge in the north.

Thoreau so hated slavery, Walls writes, that it presented a difficult paradox in his thinking. But, of course, to impose our current perspective on the past is ahistorical at best. Though Thoreau wrote the textbook for nonviolent resistance, in the case of slavery he allowed that violent resistance might be acceptable. Both he and his sister Sophia were ardent supporters of John Brown, the militant anti-slavery preacher. The atmosphere was heating up. In May of 1856 Senator Charles Sumner was severely beaten in the Senate chambers by a cane-wielding colleague from South Carolina. A pro-slavery militia attacked the free-state town of Lawrence, Kansas, killing more than 200 men and boys. In March of 1857 the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision declared that neither slaves nor freed slaves were persons, therefore they weren’t protected by the Constitution.

Also in March of that year, John Brown spoke publicly in Concord and stayed with friends of the Thoreau’s. The Thoreau’s invited him to dinner, and, according to Walls, “they had found their hero.” Thoreau was backing the man who advocated violent resistance to slavery and who himself would soon become a martyr to the cause.

Thoreau also had to accede to the onset of war and, although he would die in the first year of the conflict in which the North saw costly defeats, he saw no other solution for the injustice of slavery.

Walls points out that Thoreau had a troubled history with publishing that in some ways is not unlike the current plight of writers. When he couldn’t find a publisher for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers he self-published. He found a kindly printer that produced a thousand copies from him without charging him up front. He would accept payment after it sold. But Thoreau never sold enough copies to pay him off.

Walden was picked by Boston publisher Ticknor and Fields, and while it received favorable reviews, it never sold the run of the press. Thoreau always did better with magazines, first with the Dial and later with Putnam’s The Atlantic. As he approached death he was preparing a revision of powerful essay to be delivered at the Lyceum titled “Life Without Principle,” in which he further developed some ideas found in Walden. “We do not live for idle amusement,” he writes. “I would not run around the corner to see the world blow up.”

Walls tells this meticulously researched story with a grace befitting her subject. In writing about his Week on the Concord she says:

“What holds it all together is the dynamic bond of brother and brother, river and boat, the long flowing lapse of liner time and free-floating self who lives both in time and out of it, flowing with the lapse of the river or stepping aside onto the solid ground of shore.”

Moments before his death, Thoreau’s close friend Edmund Channing leans down to hear him whisper: “This is a beautiful world…. I have so loved nature.”

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