Young Man Thoreau
by Richard Lebeaux
Harper Colophon Books, 262 pp., $3.95 (paper)
Until 1965, when Walter Harding’s careful biography. The Days of Henry Thoreau, was published, we had nothing like a reliable, comprehensive record of Henry Thoreau’s life. Richard Lebeaux is the first scholar to use that book as a basis for a fresh examination of the writer’s inner life. The findings he sets forth in Young Man Thoreau point to a strikingly new, demythicired conception of the man. By carefully, matching outward circumstances and events with the way Thoreau and others perceived them—down to minute details of their day-by-day responses as recorded in diaries, letters, poems, essays—Lebeaux is able to reconstruct the psychie struggle that culminated in the experiment at Walden Pond. For the first time, accordingly, we come away from a biography with a plausible way of thinking about the relationship between the two Thoreaus: the guilt-ridden young writer who resolves the crisis of vocation by taking up his solitary residence at the pond, and that self-assured character; the narrating “I” whose voice we first hear in the epigraph of Walden exuberantly announcing his intention not “to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chantleleer in the morning.”
The key to this fascinating book is Lebeaux’s recognition of the peculiar relevance of Erik Erikson’s psychohistorical method to his subject. Most of the factual evidence he deploys in Young Man Thoreau was previously available, and the book’s originality derives almost entirely from Lebeaux’s painstaking rereading and rearranging of the known facts in the light of Eriksonian psychology. In his pioneering study of Luther, as in Gandhi’s Truth, Erikson demonstrated the illuminating power of his concept of a prolonged post-adolescent “identity crisis” in charting the hazardous passage of a certain kind of great man, a worldly saint, from childhood to creative maturity. The pertinence of Erikson’s model to Thoreau’s life and personality is obvious enough, and Lebeaux seized upon it in its entirety and without any significant reservations.
I think that this is the place to explain that I wrote a largely favorable reader’s report on the manuscript of Young Man Thoreau for the publisher, in which, however. I complained about Lebeaux’s excessive deference to scholarly authority. The book originally had been a doctoral dissertation, and one vestige of that stultifying genre it still exhibited was the familiar graduate student habit of supporting every assertion, no matter how speculative, with another assertion from a presumably more reliable source.
Since then, fortunately, most traces of such pedantry have been removed, but Lebeaux’s reliance upon the Eriksonian model is an entirely different matter. One wishes that he had kept Erikson further in the background, allowing the copious, evocative, and persuasive firsthand evidence he has ordered to speak for itself; one wishes, too, that he had achieved a greater critical detachment from the muster’s psychological categories—at times he refers to them as if they were self-evident properties of nature—but then the whole point …