The Indispensable Thoreau

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His book on Cape Cod is somewhat gloomier and more jittery. The sea is not a light subject; and he begins with the sight of dead people washed ashore from the wreck of an immigrants’ ship and mourners arriving from Boston to collect the bodies. But generally, except for those few hours atop Katahdin or at the Cape, Thoreau never knew a nature that he couldn’t trust. Nevertheless, he celebrated the idea that we “hardly know where the rivers come from which float our navy”—as did Melville, just as rapt, often as jubilant. For both, nature was the central contingency, the core question or moral event of human existence. “From the Passamaquoddy to the Sabine” (Maine to Texas), the continent is still “No-Man’s Land,” Thoreau exclaimed. At the Redwood Agency in Minnesota, at the end of his life, he even met the Sioux war chief Little Crow, who a year later was to lead an uprising in which eight hundred white pioneers were killed. But for Melville, nature encompassed the constant possibility of drowning, or of a Little Crow turning murderous, or a dose of solitude that was so strong and deep that it inflicted upon the sufferer a madness like poor Pip’s in Moby Dick .

Thoreau had no interest in the pathology of solitude and didn’t engage in marathons of living alone; malignancy of any kind did not intrigue him. And gaily competent though he was when savoring a trip to the wilderness, he never thought of staying in Maine. Quite a sociable man, he was mostly concerned with far more domesticated expressions of nature, and he was offering himself as an exemplar of how anybody could live in leisurely allegiance to it even on the outskirts of a settled community. There was some gallantry to the experiment because so many people ridiculed it. Of course, the conventional thing for a man with a taste for the woods to do was to go West; and when Walden failed to be appropriately understood beyond the circle of his friends ( Knickerbocker magazine reviewed it together with P. T. Barnum’s autobiography as “humbug”), he seems to have lost heart, or at any rate, the impetus of confidence. His most radical views had always concerned how people should live, not the idea of preserving wild places at the expense of profit and development. His ire was more aroused as he watched people hiring away their lives piecemeal than by clearcut logging, and more by what went on inside New England’s textile mills than by the smoke they spouted. Except for slaves and the newest immigrants, people then still seemed a precious commodity to everybody—neighbors noticed daily and personally. How decently they lived their lives was a matter of lifelong observation.

Thoreau’s was stripped down to few entanglements apart from those he had been born with, and he devoted it mainly to keeping his sixthousand-page journal based on his long afternoon walks, when he went out in search of new premonitions as well as in order to spot the phenomena of natural history in which he rooted his essays. His biography is bare bones: He visited New York City twice, Staten Island, Fire Island, walked in the Catskills and Berkshires. He never married, didn’t go to church, never voted, or drank alcohol, and smoked nothing “more noxious than dried lily stems,” said Emerson. “He had no temptations to fight against—no appetites, no passions, no taste for elegant trifles. A fine house, dress, the manners and talk of highly cultivated people were all thrown away on him.…When asked at table what dish he preferred, he answered, ‘The nearest.’ … There was somewhat military in his nature not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory. … It cost him nothing to say No; indeed, he found it much easier than to say Yes. ... ‘I love Henry,’ said one of his friends, ‘but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm tree.’ ” He was a born protestant, Emerson added in the funeral oration that remains the best summary of his qualities ever written, yet “no truer American existed.” And though the circumstances of his life appear remarkably uncomplicated, he made so bold as to comment upon everybody else’s.

Emerson, speaking affectionately of Thoreau’s “endless walks and miscellaneous studies,” mentions that the pond lily was his favorite flower and his favorite tree a certain basswood that bloomed in July, whose scent was “oracular” and yet earthy. The grate of gravel under his feet disturbed his delicacy so much that he avoided the highroad when he could for a path through the woods. Thank God they could not cut down the clouds, Henry had said of the axmen then infesting New England. But Emerson believed that “great men are more distinguished by range and extent than by originality” (in an essay on Shakespeare). “The hero is in the press of knights and the thick of events.” So it was inevitable that he didn’t entirely apprehend Thoreau’s achievement. With his energy and practical ability, Thoreau had seemed “born for great enterprise and for command, and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party,” Emerson wrote in hyperbole. “Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!”