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The Indispensable Thoreau
He lived alone for two years in a small cabin on Walden Pond, but he was neither misanthropic nor solitary. Perhaps more than any other American writer, he can teach us how to live with ourselves.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
America was pounding its way to prominence as a world power and mightily engrossed in inventorying its resources. We can see from reading The Maine Woods that Thoreau was indeed a brisk organizer. Emerson perhaps conceived that he had the wherewithal to be a sort of John Wesley Powell. This Civil War hero, though left with one arm, explored the thousand-mile sequence of canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers seven years after Thoreau’s death as head of a small daredevil expedition and wrote a superb book about it; then went on to become not only director of the U.S. Geological Survey but also the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology. The vigor, pleasure, and breadth of curiosity Thoreau exhibited in Maine give at least a hint of how successfully he might have pursued such a dashingly nineteenth-century type of career if he had wanted to. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park and many other parks from the late 1850s on, and who probably contributed more pleasure to the public than any other American artist has, is another example of uncloistered intellectuality. So are John James Audubon, who died in 1851 after writing a vivid journal of his travels as well as painting an encyclopedia of Creation, and George Catlin (1796-1872), who wrote about the vanishing Indian tribes almost as brilliantly as he painted them. John Muir (1838-1914) walked about as far as any American except the original mountain men and virtually founded the conservation movement here. Francis Parkman graduated seven years behind Thoreau at Harvard, went west to live among the Sioux, published a sprightly account of his adventures ( The California and Oregon Trail ) in 1849, and immediately plunged into his life’s work, the seven-volume history France and England in North America , which for scholarship and stylistic and dramatic panache remains a benchmark in American historical writing.
Most freewheeling essay writing in America derives from him, because he was exact, tactile, and practical.
But Emerson, in complaining of Thoreau’s lack of vocation, was partly addressing his own dilemma. America since Jefferson hasn’t really had a national intellectual, and, like the skeptic Henry Adams, Emerson often wondered what he himself was—what he should do. He was as rapturous a writer as Thoreau, although possessed of a more comprehensive versatility and more temperance in his passions. He wrote an insightful, delightful book on English Traits and others on Representative Men and The Conduct of Life , and the titles of his many essays bespeak his aspirations: “Love,” “Friendship,” “Heroism,” “Prudence,” “Intellect,” “Art,” “Experience,” “Character,” “Politics,” “The American Scholar.” However, Thoreau tended to address a number of themes simultaneously. His method was to write in such a way that topics blended with each other indirectly, which, because life itself makes no neat demarcations, is one key to his mastery. But after Walden his emphasis gradually changed from individual reform to social reform and from Transcendentalism to a more modest fascination with nature as natural history, probably influenced by the coming tragedy of the Civil War as much as by his failure to win much recognition.
I brag for humanity,” he had written in Walden , and his bold irreverence, his self-assurance and certainty that nature was the central theater of life, carried it off. Without Emerson, fourteen years older, to encourage and champion him, his life would have been far more problematical and threadbare. Reading the chronology of his life, with its edgy penury and fits and starts, what seems remarkable is not how little but how much he wrote. His famous, cocksure pronouncement that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” is a dubious proposition—yet wasn’t his? Well, no, it wasn’t. He had set as his principle that what he thought—not just how he lived, but what he thought —mattered surpassingly, and that one man operating alone with no resources except his eyes and ears, his powers of logic, intuition, association, and language, could be pivotal in the meritocracy of the mind. He’d been a wall plasterer, chimney builder, apple tree grafter, had paid his dues as a walker and canoeist, had slept sometimes in huts or on the ground, and made no fuss about his college credentials. (“Let each sheep wear his own skin,” he said, when asked whether he wanted a sheepskin diploma.) And what still makes him uncannily appealing is not just his eerie contemporaneity of spirit as he writes about Cape Cod, Maine, or Walden Pond, but his assumption that all speculation is open to him, that no prevailing opinion can stand against plain common sense.