Echoing Anthony Burns Today

By Sandy Stott

All spring and into summer, I’ve been reading day by day through Thoreau’s 1854, and, as we do when we read the Journals, matching his days to mine. I chose ’54 because it was the year he was at work on the final proofs of Walden and then awaiting its publication. I wanted, as I “sheltered” in place, a live mind for a reading companion.

I got just that, and, small confession: I knew I would, as this was not my first time through the ’54 Journal. Still, as I’d also expected, I got surprised. Not in the form of a writer’s notes about completing his life’s masterwork; there’s almost nothing about Walden in those pages. They are instead rife with that spring’s outburst of plant-life, and Thoreau is often out on the rivers to see it all. Even as he had been spending long unremarked hours making manuscript corrections and emendations, he was also trying to keep up with what was blooming and would bloom, trying to track and guess those openings to the very day.

Perhaps this happens to you when you read Thoreau’s Journals, or perhaps I simply lack the visuals in mind to illustrate them, but I sometimes lose traction amid his notations of what’s just come out and what’s on the verge. Yes, yes, I say, but give me a little gossip, or even a weather report. Tell me about the train, or some hapless burgher. We differ in our fascinations.

But I persist, sometimes reading his listings aloud, in part to remind myself of life’s central lesson — pay attention; see and sense what’s here; be here. Thoreau helps me attend the only life there is, the one here. Adhere, inhere, cohere; be here.

Credit: Library of Congress

So it was further surprise when, in late spring of ‘54, his journal made clear that he could not be “here” habitually, comfortably. Something was bothering him to beyond distraction; he was being transported out of his daily world by anger. That something was the capture and return to slavery of Anthony Burns, an occasion that sent Boston into protest and then martial law and near-insurrection, which roiled the streets. And roiled Henry Thoreau.

Burns was eventually sent back to the south under the Fugitive Slave law, but during that time and in its aftermath, Thoreau and other abolitionists, felt themselves overturned and further radicalized. Thoreau’s everyday life, the one he put his whole self into, seemed suddenly trivialized, undone. His Journal makes this clear.

Here are a few moments from those days. I call these eruptive entries because Thoreau will be writing along as usual — noting this, recording that — when, without transition, Anthony Burns and our system of government appear. They are suddenly there, seen, perhaps more clearly for their suddenness.

May 28th finds Thoreau offering what seems prescient worry: “The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake to ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.” That brings question to Thoreau’s daily inquiry.

On May 29th, he notes, “Stellaria longifolia, apparently apetalous!, ten or twelve inches high, will soon open on the bank near the Ranunculus abortivus.

“These days it is left to one Mr. Loring to say whether a citizen of Massachusetts is a slave or not. Does anyone think that Justice or God awaits Mr. Loring’s decision?”

Three tightly wound pages follow, tracing and condemning our government’s, our military’s, our media’s and our roles in supporting Judge Loring’s judgement, which said that Anthony Burns, as property, must be returned. The entry ends this way:

“Rather than thus consent to establish hell upon earth, — to be party to this establishment, — I would touch a match to blow up earth and hell together. As I love my life, I would side with the Light and let the Dark Earth roll from under me, calling my mother and my brother to follow me.”

For the next three weeks, at irregular intervals, similar moments burst from the surface of the Journal, building to Thoreau’s public response, Slavery in Massachusetts, his attempt to to nudge, to shape how his fellow citizens will think and act. That essay/lecture gets delivered on July 4th in Framingham where he appears and speaks amid a number of abolitionist luminaries, including Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison. The essay gets noticed, talked about, reprinted; it vibrates in the public sphere.

Being transported by anger is no easy moment. Whatever the routines and circumstances of your life, they dwindle in import; you are lifted instead to new sight, vision. The everyday goes away, and you are left with, confronted with, a question: what do I do now?

Our current national moment surely offers resonance with these Journal entries and their record of a mind and soul ill at ease, outraged, confused as to what to do. I wake at night, as perhaps you do too, and lie there wondering at the scale of national disease articulated by the protests following George Floyd’s murder. Daylight wondering at the news tugs me from current work, which is a local parsing of a watershed as part of a conservation effort. I can’t concentrate; at the same time, I feel powerless to contribute to solution. I know enough to fight stasis, inertia, but I can’t list actions, (as Thoreau could list what bloomed on one day or the next, or as I might list what is amiss and potentially fixable in our brook).

Some solace: Even as Thoreau wrote and delivered Slavery in Massachusetts as part of his answer to that moment, he kept also at his daily life and work as well; he did not sink. Instead, he endeavored to live both a local and national life; he tried to be a full citizen.

I find myself searching for ways to do likewise.

Note: Thoreau’s actions and state of mind at this time in his life are described powerfully, ably, by Laura Walls in her recent biography, Henry David Thoreau, A Life. It’s worth paging to 345 and reading what follows.

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, lives in Brunswick, Maine. The Founding editor of The Roost, hewrites for a variety of publications. His recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, was published by University Press of New England in 2018. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com.

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