Henry David Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod
Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind
The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau’s work disconcerts most by its lack of clear boundaries. It is like swamp or thick woods; it’s hard to say where it starts or stops. You begin by reading a book and find that you have crossed over into a life. As if seeking to become his own writing, Thoreau made his life into an immense and unfinishable text, a palimpsest of drafts which it would take another lifetime to read as deliberately as he meant it to be read. This text—consisting of both the journal and all the books fashioned from it or conceived within it—never quite becomes a discrete entity; the author is still attached to it, and not the author alone but the “infinite extent” of the relations that tie him to the world.
To become involved with this writing as a totality (and it hardly lets itself be engaged in any other way) is an incomplete and in many ways dissatisfying experience—dissatisfying in part because to read Thoreau implicates us in biography. This dissatisfaction is an aspect of Thoreau’s strategy. The sentences of other writers can be regarded as artifacts; Thoreau forces us to consider his as actions, so that any reading of him becomes a judgment of his life, and consequently of the reader’s. Even the extraordinary beauties of his prose seem to nag at us. They refuse merely to be contemplated; they insist on participation.
All the biographies of Thoreau are in some sense autobiographies, since they rely inevitably on Thoreau’s record of his days. With unparalleled thoroughness he gives us the materials to reconstruct his life, just as he might have pieced together the career of a fox or racoon from its tracks and leavings. We inherit an instruction kit on how to become Henry David Thoreau. It’s all there: the clothes, the tools, the books, the lodgings, the budget and work schedule, the itinerary for excursions into the wild. His is a reclusiveness that can be measured with startling precision.
The all-important journal is both a map of his life and the ultimate purpose of that life. From that daily accretion of thoughts and sightings and extracts from his readings, Walden (1854) and its forerunner A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) were slowly and laboriously constructed. But Thoreau was finally to conceive of the journal as a work in itself, a necessarily interminable epic of birth and growth. In its pages we can retrace not only his footsteps but his thought processes and dream journeys. We can even—as Robert D. Richardson, Jr. has done very meticulously in his intellectual biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind—follow the exact course of Thoreau’s reading, noting the ingress and egress of each bit of data, each found image, each structural idea.
The irony is that Thoreau remains a remote figure, even in an account as nuanced and sympathetic as Richardson’s, not in spite but because of how much we know about him. He is remote in close-up. His writing repeatedly enacts the gesture of admitting us to a solitude, only to demonstrate that the gesture is impossible, that the true knowledge of another person is barred to us. If, as Thoreau announces at the outset of Walden, “it is…always the first person that is speaking,” it is always the first person that is reading as well. Every sentence of Thoreau’s shuttles uncomfortably between self and other, and his life work can be seen as a set of variations on the impossible sentence which would resolve the division between the two. In his books the reader is a central although mysterious character: if Thoreau could settle the question of whom he is speaking to, he might not feel so forcefully the need to continue speaking.
Solitude is the indispensable laboratory for trying out these variations, a solitude in which he shuts out other voices in order to explore the multiplicities of a single voice. To separate self from other conceptually, he must begin by doing so physically. For him no idea is abstract, because each absorbs color and texture from the place where it is hatched. “We are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us.”
A certain literalism marks every phase of his work of separation. As the first decisive step he starts a journal: a book of solitude, a nest for the self—and a harbinger of the cabin he will build for himself at Walden Pond. (“There is some of the same fitness in man’s building his own house,” he writes later in Walden, “that there is in a bird’s building its own nest,” and he hypothesizes that following that course might result in poetry of birdlike spontaneity.) Yet—as one of the infinite series of contradictions that spin off from each of Thoreau’s apparently “decisive” gestures—this step is initiated not by himself but from without, evidently by Thoreau’s archetypal Other, Ralph Waldo Emerson. A journal is theoretically the most private of forms, a place where one can chatter away to oneself, but of course Thoreau does nothing of the kind. His relationship to himself is characterized by a wary dignity. Here he is both writer and reader, but these opposing aspects of himself can contact each other only through the public medium of language.
At the very beginning of the journal, in 1837, he writes: “To be alone I find it necessary to escape the present—I avoid myself.” This awkward sentence reads like a description of someone dodging his shadow, as if half of him were trying to skulk around the corner while the other half waited to pounce. Yet somehow this impoverished declaration contains all of his subsequent sentences, coiled up embryonically and expanding against the limits of their enclosure. It is pregnant with phrases whose possible meanings he will spend the rest of his life sifting: “to be alone,” or “the present,” or “myself.” In a sense he does not advance beyond this sentence; he digs deeper into it, refusing to move on to the next question until his first question has been answered. His genius lies in getting stuck on the simplest point, poking at one query until it gives birth to a thousand others, and he finds himself asking things like: When is the present? Where is here?
In a lifetime devoted largely to making entries in a journal whose first paragraph is entitled “Solitude,” he will never stop finding new ways to pose unanswerable questions: “Who hears the fishes when they cry?” “Is the babe young?” “What are the earth and all its interests beside the deep surmise which pierces and scatters them?” “May we not see God?” The most ordinary problems—where to live, what to wear, what to eat, when to get up in the morning—take a whole life to ponder properly, and when he has finished he will still not have anything recognizable as an answer. To formulate interrogative sentences in solitude is already a contradiction, since they presuppose the presence of another. One asks a question of someone, even if the question has no answer. To ask such a question might even be a way of declaring your apartness from the person being questioned. Similarly Thoreau’s withdrawal into solitude can be seen as a statement to those left behind, a signal admitting no reply.
Not that he quite left anyone behind. His attempt to achieve literal solitude was as beset by problems as the effort to find a literary form that could embody it. He withdrew not away from his closest associates but in their midst. As Richard Lebeaux has written of the Walden Pond residency (1845–1847) in his invaluably detailed Thoreau’s Seasons (1984):
He remained within walking distance of Concord; visited the town frequently; ate often at his mother’s, the Emersons’, and the houses of other friends; relished his mother’s cooking and was visited almost every Saturday at the pond by his mother and sisters, who brought with them some culinary delight.
In contrast to the unsought and painful isolation of Poe or Melville, Thoreau’s solitude was wrested with considerable difficulty from a life overflowing with human relationships. For nearly a decade before the move to Walden Pond he had been at the center of the most intense intellectual environment in America, and it seems to have been from the very intensity of that endless give-and-take that he needed to distance himself, if only symbolically. More specifically, he had taken so much from Emerson that he had finally to find out what if anything he had not taken from him.
Richardson demonstrates the remarkable degree to which Thoreau in the preWalden period thinks with borrowed thoughts, how the shape and vocabulary of his discourse are prompted by Emerson’s example. (Emerson meanwhile was probably absorbing as much from Thoreau, but it may have been difficult for Thoreau to perceive that.) The only way he could get out from under that influence was to move not beyond Emerson but beneath him, striking down toward a more fundamental stratum of thought. If Emerson mimed an ideal progress toward the empyrean, Thoreau would go backward, discarding, simplifying, uncovering what was there before Emerson.
It was a justifiable declaration of independence: after all, Thoreau was the native of Concord, Emerson the brilliant outsider who had moved in and established a magical dominance over the town’s spiritual life. Doubtless they did love each other—Emerson perhaps more than Thoreau—but, as Richardson notes, “Emerson and Thoreau both had complex ideas about what friendship should be. Both made such demands as to make it all but unattainable.” In the years before his Walden Pond sojourn, and for a brief time thereafter, Thoreau lived as a member of Emerson’s household. His journal hints at the self-conscious delicacy with which the two of them managed their emotions: “There is nothing so stable and unfluctuating as love…. And yet love will not be leaned on.” “We have to go into retirement religiously, and enhance our meeting by rarity and a degree of unfamiliarity. Would you know why I see thee so seldom my friend—In solitude I have been making up a packet for thee.”
Ultimately the admiring effusions leave a morose aftertaste. When Thoreau catalogs his friends in Walden he cannot leave Emerson out, but he would plainly have liked to do so. The Emerson he had internalized from the start was, and remained, a threat to his sense of self, and in consequence he could not acknowledge his profound debt to him without choking on it. By 1853—when he was engaged in the final stages of Walden, the masterpiece it had taken him ten years and seven drafts to write—his attitude toward Emerson had become one of open hostility:
Talked, or tried to talk, with R.W.E. Lost my time—nay almost my identity. He…talked to the wind—told me what I knew—and I lost my time trying to imagine myself somebody else to oppose him.