Young Man Thoreau
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 of Young Man Thoreau is to show how brilliantly Erikson’s ago psychology illuminates the emergence of this “great man” from his long, precarious struggle for independence from his timorous childhood self. And that it does. One simply has to accept the fact that this biography is a work of apprentice scholarship, written with a sort of homely academic earnestness, and though Lebeaux’s uncritical embrace of Erikson can be annoying, it is finally justified by the remarkable insights it allows.
The focus of Young Man Thoreau is upon the critical years of indecision between 1837, when the twenty-year-old Harvard graduate moved back into his parents’ house in Concord, and 1845 when he moved a mile or so down the road to the cabin at Walden Pond. As Lebeaux retells the story, it turns on his tangled relations with his family, especially his mother, Cynthis. She was un exceptionally vigorous and assertive woman, an activist and reformer; to supplement the family income she took in boarders and ran something of a ladies’ village salon. Her friends referred to her as vivucious, proud, outspoken: to less admiring witnesses she was garrulous, harsh, sarcastic, status-seeking, intimidating. But most witnesses agree that her formidable presence overshadowed that of her quiet husband, John. He was a small, subdued man—some say “mousy”—chronically enervated by his efforts to bolster various shaky business enterprises. Times were particularly hard during the years following the panic of 1837 when young Thoreau was wrestling with the problem of vocation.
Cynthis Thoreau evidently was the one who had decided that Henry, rather than his older brother, John, should go to Harvard. (The four children were Helen, the oldest, then John. David Henry, and Sophia.) She was ambitious for her college-educated son, and assumed that he would enter a profession or at least find a lucrative job. Not long before his graduation, he asked for her advice about his future. She suggested that he might buckle on a knapsack and go abroad to seek his fortune, where-upon David Henry burst into tears. His sister Helen put her arm around him, saying, “No, Henry, you shall not go; you shall stay at home and live with us.” And that is what he did. The interlude of solitary householding described in Walden is the paramount exception to that sad truth.
Lebeaux interprets young Thoreau’s behavior between 1837 and 1845 as being governed by a grim tug of war between almost evenly matched psychic antagonists. On one side, anxiously pulling him back toward home and mother, was a clinging, childlike self; on the other, trying to break away, were the slowly forming elements of a new, presumably more adult, independent, or—to use one of his own favorite terms of praise—a “manly” identity. The first explicit symptom of the conflict is agonizing self-doubt. One of his early poems begins.
I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that, their links
Were made so loose and wide,
For milder weather.
This theme, or, in Eriksonlan language, “identity confusion,” permeates the early writing. Sometimes it seems explicit—Thoreau himself often expresses a fear of “losing” his “identity”; and sometimes it is indirectly figured in the vocabulary fashioned from his painstaking observations of external nature. A passage on the coming of spring (“It never grows up, but…creeps on molelike under the snow, showing its face nevertheless occasionally by fuming springs and water-courses”) could almost describe his slow, subterranean advance toward manhood. Read in this way, the first volume of the Journal is an absorbing, almost self-contained account of a classic identity crisis. So far as the underlying conflict is named, it turns upon the problem of vocation (“What may a man do and not be ashamed of it?”), but it also is apparent, in Lebeaux’s close reading, that for men like Thoreau “Vocation” includes just about everything that matters.
Not long after he returned to Concord, he began to sign his name “Henry David Thoreau.” He stopped using his given name at this time, although years later his mother was still referring to “my David Henry.” Resistance took many other forms. In letters to John, who shared Henry’s fascination with the spartan life of Indian braves, the sort of lean, ascelic male-bonding featured in adolescent fantasies, he railed against the domination of the “pale faces” who also tended to be “squaws”—gabby, bossy women. Why then didn’t he leave home, as his mother had recommended? He did make many gestures in that direction. At one point, he and John announced their plan to go West together, but nothing came of it. He made a seemingly earnest effort to find jobs up and down the eastern seaboard, but Lebeaux demonstrates that the effort was somewhat less than wholehearted. He applied for a teaching post in Virginia, but since he lacked the stated qualifications he could have expected to be turned down—and he was.
His reluctance to leave home becomes even more apparent a few years later, after Emerson had persuaded him to serve as tutor to the child of his brother, William, who lived on Staten Island… The idea, among other things, was to give Henry’s literary career a boost by putting him in touch with New York literary people. But he was miserably lonely and homesick, and after six months he resigned and returned to Concord.
Lebeaux assumes that the strongest ties holding Thoreau close to home and mother were psychological and, in large measure, unconscious. But they are by no means the only ones he recognizes. The fact that Emerson also lived in Concord is of immense importance for this Eriksoniun and pointedly post-Freudian analysis, in which greater force than Freud would have allowed is imputed to conscious motives, hence to social and cultural circumstances and, above all, to the influence of ideology. For young Thoreau,’ Emerson, fourteen years his senior, was the exemplary “great man,” a national spokesman for a dissident ideology to which he surely would have been attracted even if they never had met. But here was Emerson, living in Concord, and the self-appointed sponsor of the literary vocation to which Thoreau hardly dared aspire. Moreover, the nonconformist doctrine expounded by Emerson in this, his most radically individualistic phase, intensified Thoreau’s disclain for must of the “particular callings” available to college graduates.
As a Harvard senior, even before he and Emerson had become friends. Thoreau had written a denunciation of the acquisitive ethos of capitalism called “The Commercial Spirit.” He told his classmates that a “blind and unmanly love of wealth” was threatening to become “the ruling spirit” of the Republic, and he went on to recommend a reversal of the nation’s work habits: six days of the week should be a sabbath of the affections and the soul, he said, and the seventh a day of toil. At the time, as it happens, release from toil had been made all too real for many thousands of New England workers by the financial panic of 1837 and the depression that followed. With so many out of work, however, the oddity of a Harvard graduate living at home with his mother and father in what looked like idleness cannot have seemed as great as in normal times. The economic crisis helped, along with the dissident Emersonian ideology, to provide a sanction—one might almost say a “cover”—for Thoreau’s remaining at home and not working in a conventional job or profession.
Yet in Lebeaux’s judgment the chief reason for young Thoreau’s protracted indecision was the neurotic conflict surrounding his relations with his immediate family. Though he outwardly resisted his mother’s powerful influence, he nevertheless embraced her conviction that he had been singled out for greatness. His journals for the years between 1837 and 1845 are filled with evidence of his yearning to be a great man.
My fate is in some sense linked with that of the stars, and if they are to persevere to a great end, shall I die who could conjecture it? It surely is some encouragement to know that the stars are my fellow, creatures, for I do not suspect but they are reserved for a high destiny.