Category Archives: Literature

A Humane Being Living a Whole Human Life

Henry David Thoreau: A Life
Book Review By Lucille Stott

“I came here to meet him at last.”

A visitor to Thoreau Farm once left that note on the message board in the birthplace foyer. Those words came to mind as I read Laura Dassow Walls’s terrific new biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press). You will know what I mean when you take this book in hand, as I hope you will, for Walls has at last unveiled the Thoreau we celebrate at his birthplace. Hoping to put to rest the simplistic, one-dimensional caricatures of Thoreau that proliferate to this day (you will recall Kathryn Schulz’s outrageous hatchet job in the Oct. 19, 2015 New Yorker, entitled “Pond Scum.”), Walls offers readers a meticulously researched, elegantly written story of the complex, multi-layered man he was in life.

"Henry David Thoreau: A Life" by Laura Dassow Walls

“Henry David Thoreau: A Life” by Laura Dassow Walls

 

While acknowledging the fine scholars who came before her, notably Walter Harding, Robert D. Richardson, and David Robinson, Walls says in her Preface, “The Thoreau I sought was not in any book, and so I wrote this one.”

Richardson, whose 1986 biography, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind remains a classic in its own right, offered a blurb for the book jacket that calls Wall’s work “a magnificent—landmark—achievement” and “the best all-around biography of Thoreau ever written.”

The Thoreau that emerges from Walls’s pages is indeed well rounded. As those who have read him in depth know, he was a busily engaged man who was known and loved by a great many of his contemporaries, including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son Edward, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, and the young Louisa May Alcott. Though Concordians felt free to tease and judge him—he was after all, one of their own—they relied on him to build their sheds and fences, cut the village Christmas tree, offer up keen insights from the dais of the Concord Lyceum, entertain their children on nature walks, and expertly survey and record much of Concord’s landscape. For his part, Thoreau—who traveled more widely than is generally known—never wavered from his devotion to his hometown and took precious time and energy from his own writing to help earn money for his family, tend to the needs of his friends, and work behind the scenes with neighbors to help transport escaped slaves to freedom.

The creative genius and gifted naturalist we find in these pages is certainly familiar. But Walls succeeds in redressing the mischaracterizations that have long kept Thoreau out of reach for those who have seen him as too far removed from their own experience.

“Thoreau struggled all his life to find a voice that could be heard despite the din of cynicism and the babble of convention,” writes Wall. “That he was a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who filled the room, laughed and danced, sang and teased and wept, should not have to be said. But astonishingly, it does, for some deformation of sensibility has brought Thoreau down to us in ice, chilled into a misanthrope, prickly with spines, isolated as hermit and nag.”

Walls tells the story of a much less chilly Thoreau and so brings him closer to us. In struggling to overcome harsh criticism, bitter loss, and debilitating illness, Thoreau drew strength from love and joy and from the many human relationships that sustained him. The rough edges are still there, but Walls helps us understand why, providing a welcome corrective to common wisdom.

It took enormous courage and resilience for Thoreau to persist in his original thinking and pursue his own path in the face of relentless pressure to conform to others’—most significantly Emerson’s—ideas of who he should be and what he should do. All his life, Thoreau was made to stand in Emerson’s giant shadow. In the end, it is Emerson‘s intellectual brilliance that can come across as a bit cold, while Thoreau’s passion for life continues to ignite us to action. It was only after Thoreau died that Emerson, awed by the originality of his friend’s journals, realized that the thinker he may have undervalued “has surpassed me.”

Walls writes in her Preface, “Thoreau earned the devotion of friends who saw in him no saint, but something perhaps more rare: a humane being living a whole human life.” That is the Thoreau Walls sought and found, and readers everywhere will likely welcome him warmly.

Lucille Stott is a charter board member emerita and former president of Thoreau Farm Trust.

 

 

 

 

 

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To Begin at the End

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” Thoreau, Walden

February is a stirring month. Or, more accurately, a month of stirrings. Eyes closed, face to the sun, tucked into a sheltered tree trunk or backed by a building’s corner-nook, I find a blissed-out few minutes, where the blush of warmth spreads over me, along the folds of my scarf, even, finally, to my feet. Heat is the seed of dreams. And mine are of summer and its elastic days.

Yes, I/we bow to the intervals of onslaught, the storm also stirring to our southwest. But already, it’s clear the warm will win, already it’s clear that the future is light. So much to do- for that I am thankful.

Gratitude is much on my mind today, and part of that thankfulness goes to you, a reader, on occasion, or in sequence, of this blog’s skein of posts. Over these 4+ years and 100,000+ words, I have written for you. And in doing so, again and again I’ve encountered the serendipity of learning more as I write – more about what I see and find daily, more about what lies in the folds of the world, more about Henry Thoreau, whose spirit and wide, wild intelligence stays with me like a third parent’s presence.

A familiar moment.

A familiar moment.

I send on these thanks now, because my current writing work suggests that I stop writing here on the Roost and focus on the book I’m completing. It’s about search and rescue in NH’s White Mountains (working title – On the Edge Of Elsewhere – Searchers and Rescuers in the White Mountains, University Press of New England, spring ‘18), specifically about the people who do this saving work. And so it’s about mountain altruism, a spirit and practice that runs directly counter to our always-problems of greed and selfishness. It is hopeful work; they are hopeful people. Even in the face of difficulty and tragedy. And yes, Henry Thoreau’s a presence there too: his 1858 wanderings on Mt. Washington appear as a primer on how not to get lost, or stay found.

During my time as a teacher, when my students and I reached the end of reading Walden, with its sunlit image of a morning star, I always asked them what they made of it. By then they were well attuned to the sun’s central presence and morning’s promise, and so, quick to note both. But we often lingered as you do when reaching the door of a life-room, and often I got a version of this: “You know,” said any number of them, “Thoreau’s hope is that this book, our reading, is a beginning, not an end. If the book’s had effect, we’re about to begin.”

Part of the pleasure of writing to and for you has been this feeling of starting afresh, of beginning again and again. Part of the pleasure of saying thank you lies in a sense of its being another beginning.

I hope, if an occasional post here has had effect, it too has offered a start. Thanks for reading toward each beginning; surely, there is “more day to dawn.”

Sandy

Scene from a November visit - choosing.

Scene from a November visit – choosing.

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Hearing Drums – NMP 1/20/17

The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. Thoreau, Reading, Walden.

For weeks, I’ve heard the pounding. Sometimes it’s the sudden pick-up of my heart, when a new vulgarity arrives from our president-(sort of)elect; other times, it’s the full-throated narcissism of another me-ist intent on unmooring us from any collective will to do good. Such drums have kept me awake at night, distracted me from the day’s work. Even when I walk to the woods, as I do daily, their thrumming sometimes insists.

When in search of larger wisdom, Henry Thoreau, it seems to me, turned often to the ancient Greeks, famously keeping, for example, a copy of The Iliad by his bed while at the pond. When it comes to apprehending the pulse of human behavior, they’ve not yet been surpassed. And in this loud run-up to Friday’s inauguration (I note the word “augur” embedded), I’ve found myself returned to the strangeness of a play I’ve read many times, Euripides’, The Bakkhai.

The_bakkhai-210

“No more drums,” cries Pentheus, the newly-crowned, 17-year-old king of Thebes, in this ancient play about madness. Here, the king (inexperienced and untested) gets a visit from Dionysos, himself a new god and intent on gaining followers, but one who already knows the power of impulse in human affairs. Dionysos assumes the disguise of a 17-year-old priest, and so joins Pentheus in a late-adolescent contest for control. It is an unequal match-up, young authoritarian versus god of impulse, and everyone but Pentheus can see that the priest is something else, something otherworldly. This, the people of Thebes can see, will not end well. For their king, and so, for them.

And it doesn’t, as Dionysos chooses the particularly cruel avenue of Pentheus’ desires – scarcely understood by the king – as a way to lure him into a trap, where he is torn limb from limb by a pack of women, led by his mother. Pentheus is such a hothead, so intent on being (becoming) “the man” that one has to work at finding sympathy for him. Still, to be shredded by mother…well, at least a tear or two there, if not a primary fear. And Dionysos is implacable force, intent on being worshipped; little else matters, including his own followers, who have left their homes for the promise of joy and a better life, and now find themselves stranded in a foreign land.

It has taken me some time to sort all these drums and drummings, but now I see that Euripides has fashioned a play – his last, some think – that cautions against ungoverned impulse (within and without), and it has returned to my mind because we seem to be entering an era where such impulse is the loudest of tweets, a form that is all impulse. The president-elect (sort of) seems a joining of both 17-year-olds in The Bakkhai, a colossal neediness for control and regard.

The play does not end well for Thebes either. Shorn of its governing force by Pentheus’s death, it is open to the rest of the world’s ill will and predation. And Dionysos, intent on himself, is ready to move on – where can I go next to spread the joy of me, and get worship in return?

Henry Thoreau used to listen to celebrations of independence and self in Concord village at a distance; from Walden, the volleys of expressive cannons sounded like “pop” guns, or toys. Thoreau also revered the Greeks, though I’ve not found indication that he read The Bakkhai, even as I suspect he must have. But I wonder if any metaphorical pond lies at enough distance from today’s distant tweets and the roar of self-worship? Or, if, unlike the Thebans, it’s time to plunge in and roar back at this odd amalgam, this president of impulse?

Reader’s Note: This play repays reading many times over, and Robert Bagg’s translation is very fine. When I checked a while ago, it was out of print, but I have found it in used bookstores. Also, new translations continue to appear; it is truly a timeless, or well timed play.

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