The Indispensable Thoreau

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Transcendentalism was the liveliest intellectual movement of nineteenth-century America. It presupposed the immanent presence of God within both man and nature, more recognizable by intuition than by one’s powers of reasoning, and it epitomized the overall emphasis upon nature with which American authors forced themselves onto the world stage—a raw new continent insisting that nature here was not a closed issue and might even be where God lived. Transcendentalism paralleled the work of such English Romantic writers as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. It drew from German metaphysical philosophers like Immanuel Kant, as well as from Eastern religious teachings, but imbibed a special confidence from the vast, dramatic fact of the wilderness behind it and was sanguine in a way the two great nature-oriented novels of that century in America, Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn , are not. It was much more specifically an American expression than Wordsworth and Kant were “English” or “German.” Indeed, Transcendentalism originated among its New England inventors partly in reaction to the severe orthodoxies of Calvinism and the overrationalism of Unitarianism. Nevertheless, because Emerson, for example, had never sailed the ocean on a whaling ship or trapped beavers for a season in the Rockies, his declamations and revelations could seem a bit bookish or otherworldly to people who had done so, as if they were imagined, not experienced. Transcendentalism needed a Thoreau who actually undertook to live by its ideals, trying them out in winter and summer in the woods, getting wet, getting cold, closely examining nature on the ground, from flowers to ice, woodchucks to moose, as Emerson—a man of the world, man of affairs, editor and cynosure—did not.

During this extraordinary half-decade — Whitman’s initial version of Leaves of Grass came out in 1855, a year after Walden , and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter in 1850, one year before Moby Dick —nature was much celebrated with a New World imprint, and Thoreau was the most exuberant participant. “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn,” is his exhortation in closing Walden . That the ideas he was espousing had not started with him made his task easier, because in literature, unlike science, what matters is not who’s first but who has said it best, and he could tinker with, elucidate, illustrate, reformulate, and perfect them. Here, for example, is Emerson’s earlier statement of Thoreau’s pithy dictum, “I have traveled a good deal in Concord”: “I am not much an advocate for traveling,” said Emerson, “and I observe that men run away to other countries because they are not good in their own, and run back to their own because they pass for nothing in new places. For the most part, only the light characters travel. Who are you that have no task to keep you at home?”

Emerson did not lack boldness. On slavery, he was “an abolitionist of the most absolute abolition,” he said, and he also addressed the 1855 Women’s Rights Convention in Boston. For being a religious nonconformist, he was exiled from Harvard University’s speakers’ platforms for twenty-nine years after uttering what was described by one shocked adversary as the “latest form of infidelity.” Though he had abandoned the Unitarian ministry by the time he was thirty-five, he gave as many as eighty freelance speeches a year and soon became an internationalist who met everybody from Ivan Turgenev, Max Muller, John Ruskin, and Hippolyte Taine in Europe to the Californians Bret Harte and John Muir. His friendship was crucial to Thoreau’s development, but Emerson was a mover and shaker who befriended many young writers, a kind of intellectual father to his country who could inspire disciples locally and yet discourse between continents as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had done with a countenance befitting currency or postage stamps like theirs.

Thoreau, though far from being the first “nature writer,” has come to stand for the whole genre. He does seem typical in that he was a social conservative but a political radical. Such authors don’t welcome industrial or technological change, which only serves to remove mankind still further from nature, and they are often furious at human-scale inequity and wars of imperial conquest, which tend to strike them as outgrowths of that change. Slavery and the Mexican War of the 184Os outraged Thoreau and Emerson much in the way that the civil rights struggles and the Vietnam War engaged the passions of nature lovers in the 1960s. It is no accident that Thoreau, and not some other classic writer, pioneered the notion of civil disobedience—affecting Tolstoy and inspiring Gandhi—and that he delivered orations on behalf of the fiery revolutionist John Brown. “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” he wrote in Walden . To Emerson’s mild dismay, Thoreau was a revolutionary.