Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau; drawing by David Levine


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.

Emerson’s generous encouragement of his literary talent lent plausibility to this belief. But his futher’s passivity, or “psychological absence,” made the difficult choices of this critical period all the more difficult. Henry respected his father, but he could not avoid feeling pity and resentment when he also saw him, through the town’s eyes, as weak and submissive—a failure. The result, according to Lebeaux, was a conflict from which he never wholly escaped; he was determined to achieve the distinction he and his mother envisaged, yet he could not bear the thought of seeming to triumph over his father. What he was searching for, in Lebeaux’s words, was “a way to be a hero, a success, without provoking guilt feelings.”

During the eight-year search, however, the bad conscience connected with his ambitions seemed to taint his relations with everyone, including his beloved brother John. Henry looked up to John, who was the more confident and personable of the two, as a kind of second father, and yet again and again he found himself vying with John for approval or love. On this topic, incidentally, Lebeaux makes his most important contribution to our knowledge of Thoreau’s life. His sensitive reconstruction of the initially covert, finally traumatic, rivalry between the brothers is now and fascinating, and it yields insights comparable, for their revelatory power, to Leon Edel’s uncovering of the tangled relations between the James brothers. The rivalry came to the surface during the brothers’ partnership in keeping a village school (Concord Academy) from 1839 to 1841. The pupils naturally compared the Thoreau brothers, their only teachers, and taciturn Henry had to face the fact that he was not nearly as well liked as his easygoing, affable, older brother.

But it was only when they both fell in love with Eilen Sewall, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a conservative Unitarian minister, that the rivalry became open. For more than a year, while he and John were contending for Ellen’s favor. Henry oscillated between yielding and pursuit. John eventually took the initiative, proposed, and was accepted—but only briefly. When Elien, who evidently preferred Henry, changed her mind. Henry barely was able to muster the resolve to visit her and perhaps—the evidence is unclear—to propose. At the last minute. in any event, Ellen’s father intervened and stopped the whole affair. A year later, however, John cut himself, contracted lockjaw, and after a brief, agonizing illness, died in his brother’s arms. The shock was incapacitating, literally paralyzing: within three Weeks Henry developed the precise symptoms of a fatal case of lockjaw, and it was months before he had fully recovered. (So far as we know, he made no other serious gestures toward intimacy with a woman.)

Lebeaux’s analysis of Henry’s psychosomatic grief reaction shows the superiority of Young Man Thoreau, for all its excessive reliance upon Erikson, to most psychobiographies. The abundant detailed evidence that Lebeaux brings to bear in demonstrating the presence of guilt behind Henry’s case of sympathetic lockjaw is impressive. In the absence of that evidence, to be sure, Lebeaux’s explanation may seem extravagant and his prose florid, but in the context he creates it strikes me as substantively persuasive;

…somewhere deep in his being. Thoreau felt that it was he who was responsible for his brother’s death. In many earlier instances, he had wished his brother out of the way, his “elder deceased.” The most extreme instance had also been the most recent—during his pursuit of Ellen….

Now, to his horror, his most secret and terrible wishes had come true. John had died, and the mortal wound had been inflicted by a blade which Henry, on some level, feared he had wielded. Because he loved his brother so much, Thoreau experienced unbearable guilt. His psychosomatic illness could be interpreted as a way of punishing himself and trying to share the fate of John, thereby relieving his guilt.

The severity of Thoreau’s strange illness, a kind of hysteria, indicates what he was up against, by way of unconscious resistance. In his struggle to create on adult identity. Erikson had singled out a similar episode in Gandhi’s life, involving his imagined neglect of his dying father, as an instance of the sort of “curse” that often shows up in the lives of spiritual innovators with relentless consciences. But the curse, from the clinician’s viewpoint, is a “cover memory,” or concentration of a pervasive childhood conflict upon a particular dramatized scene. Thus Thoreau’s grief seems a more acute seizure of the self-punishing despondence brought on when he tried, for example, to live away from Concord. The alternation between initiative and guilt, between trials of self-reliance and interludes of regression, describes a rhythm which, were it not for his growing confidence in his literary powers, might well have resulted in a barren, neurotic standoff.

It is a pity that Lebeaux does not have more to say about the emotional implications of Thoreau’s developing ability to shape his experience in language; all this while he was working diligently at becoming a writer. Keeping his journal had become the really serious business of his day, and with Emerson’s help he had begun to publish reviews, essays, and poems. The written word enabled him to assert himself—in effect to create a self. A month before John’s fatal accident, early in 1842, he had enjoyed an access of self-confident vitality. “It is time that I begin to live,” he wrote. But the tragedy further prolonged his adolescent moratorium, and it was not until the spring of 1845, a few months after Emerson had bought some land on the shore of Walden Pond, that he finally hit upon a psychologically tolerable way to declare his independence.

To live alone on the outskirts of Concord was an ideal solution. It is hard to imagine any other way that Thoreau could have met the impossibly stringent conditions he had set for himself. At Walden Pond he could be on his own, yet remain within easy walking distance of home and mother. His mother and sisters made special trips to Walden every Saturday with various cullnary delicacies, and he took particular delight in raiding the family cookie jar on his frequent visits home. Under the circumstances, there is something comical about his reputation as one of the company of rugged American woodsmen and loners.

At Walden he had what he needed most, an opportunity to make a bid for greatness without being crippled by guilt. He could try to write, and yet, given the uncertain status of serious writers in America, he could do so with a negligible risk of achieving the woridly success he feared. At the same time he would comply with Emerson’s prescription of nonconformity and self-reliance; while remaining securely within the Concord orbit of transcendentalism, in fact, he might outshine the master himself in heroic renunciation. His first task, the “unfinished business” he refers to early in Walden, would be to compose a memoir of the boat trip he and John had taken together. By writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers he would pay his emotional debt to his dead brother and prepare himself for the main business of his pastoral retreat: the creation of a new, purified identity for himself. On Independence Day, July 4, 1845, he took up his residence at Walden.


Young Man Thoreau ends with the twenty-eight-year-old writer’s move to the pond. It therefore contains no extended discussion of Walden, which did not appear until nine years later. But Lebeaux’s modest study opens the way to a new understanding of the relationship between Thoreau’s life and his masterwork. Its hero, and the myth surrounding that imaginary figure.

Walden, when read with the new biographical knowledge in mind, is an exultant account of David Henry’s transformation into the “Henry Thoreau” he wanted to be. His governing motive, if we accept Lebeaux’s analysis of his struggle over his identity and his guilt, is self-purification. On this view Walden is the autobiography of Thoreau’s otherwise unappeasable desire for autonomy. In many respects, to be sure, this description accords with the received view of the book as a narrative of spiritual rebirth. It can be reconciled, for example, with many of the insights of Stanley Cavell, who in The Senses of Walden describes the book as a Quest “for the recovery of self, as from an illness,” arguing that Walden, by virtue not only of its manifest theme and structure, but of the “extremity and precariousness” of mood generated by its inwardly sprinling sentences, is a prophetic scripture in the mode of the Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah.

New England Puritans would have recognized in Walden an account of a conversion. But it is worth noting that Thoreau discloses remarkably little of his prior state of mind, of that despair, or sickness of soul, which characteristically procedes the climatic experience in accounts of spiritual regeneration. In an early, fragmentary inscription for the book, it is true, he had alluded to his previously dispirited condition. “I could tell a pitiful story about myself,” he wrote,”…with a sufficient list of failures, and flow as humbly as the very gutters.” In revising the manuscript, however, he substituted the self-assurances of the present epigraph, carelessly omitted in many reprints nowadays, and the one sentence in Walden, Cavell observes, that appears twice: “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, If only to wake my neighbors up,” And brag he does. One might say In fact that the “I” of Walden is the writer’s extravagant idealization of himself. It is as though he had created this “Henry Thoreau” by reversing certain painful facts about his situation.

The hero of Walden is a model of self sufficiency, untroubled by guilt or anxiety or worldly ambition. At the pond he lives out the fantasy of an indefinitely protracted adolescence: a way of living that entails no commitment to a particular calling, no job, no literary discipline, no obligations to family or children, no intimacy, no sexual relationship, nor, for that matter, any acknowledged need for other people. In view of Thoreau’s apparent Incapacity to leave home, the largest and most touching boast of Walden’s hero is that he depends on no one. Once, he admits. he did feel lonesome, out then only for an hour, and in the event that unpleasant mood—there was, he recalls, “a slight insanity” about it—proved to be the prelude to a Wordsworthian revelation:

In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was…distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me…

Here and throughout Walden the hero’s regeneration is closely bound up with the displacement of his strongest feelings from people, or “society,” to nature. Those tumescent pine needles are not easily ignored, for one thing, and besides, critics have long recognized the patently lihidinized character of Thoreau’s landscapes. (Thus Edmund Wilson in a vein of Princetonian naughtiness: “He dipped his wand / In Walden Pond—/ He thought a sheer of water was a beautiful blond.”) William James, in his discussion of “Saintliness” in The Variaties of Religious Experience, quotes this passage as an instance of the shining and transfigured look the world takes on for the recently converted.

Religious and sexual motives In fact appear to be inseparably interfused, both in the composition of Walden and in the writer’s life. While young Thoreau lived with his family (or the Emersons) in Concord, his feelings about others often led him to feel unworthy, tainted, and incapable of decisive action on his own behalf. In writing Walden, however, he managed to project this deadness of spirit upon other people: it is the other nameless inhabitants of Concord—the mass of men—who lend lives of quiet desperation, whereas the “I” who addresses us speaks confidently of the sensuous delights he enjoys in the sweet and beneficent company of “Nature.”

What Lebeaux’s study brings into sharper view, then, is the “pitiful story” Thoreau decided not to tell, with its melancholy “list of failures” and the testimony to the unconscious guilt he transmuted, in composing Walden, into an inspiring rite of purification. By describing his ideal life beside Walden Pond, noted in the region for its uncommon depth and purity, Thoreau had vicariously if incompletely rid himself, like a snake shedding its skin, of his outworn, dependent self.

In his first enraptured glimpse of the pond he all but names the sources of its regenerative power:

For the first week, whenever I looked out on the pond It Impressed me like a tarn high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom far above the surface of the other lakes, and, as the sun arose. I saw it throwing off its nightly clothing of mist, and here and there, by degrees, its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed, while the mists, like ghosts, were stealthily withdrawing in every direction into the woods, as at the breaking up of some nocturnal conventicle. The very dew seemed to hang upon the trees later into the day than usual, as on the sides of mountains.

This passage anticipates Thoreau’s many loving descriptions of the pond, with its heaving breast, Its soft ripples, and its smooth, tremulous undulating surface. But in the delicate image of the rising mist, it should be noted, the sense of an illicit passion is no less religious than crotic: the stealthily withdrawing, ghost-like mist is likened to the breakup of “some nocturnal conventicle” as well as to a woman throwing off her clothes. A conventicle is a secret or illegal religious gathering. One thinks of a clandestine meeting of English Puritans, another reminder of the singular efficacy of Walden, among the many American books we owe to the legacy of Puritanism, in reviving the original sense of that movement’s derisive name, the dangerous Protestant craving to be inwardly cleansed, or purified.

Sexual and religious (or metaphysical) motives are joined in Thoreau’s very conception of the pond. He places it at the center of Walden—the center, that is, of both its literary structure (the chapter devoted to it, “The Ponds,” is the ninth of eighteen) and of its symbolic topography. In addition to his minute observations of the pond’s changing physical state, like those of a naturalist, Thoreau calls it “God’s drop” and “earth’s eye.” Walden Pond is a kind of geological orifice or vessel filled with translucent liquid, un evocative trope for the penetrability—by vision, thought, measurement, feeling, language—of the hard material crust of reality.

But Lebcauz also casts new light upon the unpleasant, irrational extremes of asceticism to which Thoreau was led by his fervent quest for purity. Toward the end of the chapter on “Higher Laws” there is a grim passage, seldom mentioned by Walden’s admirers, in which Thoreau recommends the renunciation of bodily pleasure in accents befitting a 1920s H.L. Mencken or pre-Perry Miller notion of a repressive Puritan. Citing traditional Christian and Vedic teachings about the spirit’s need to curb the flesh, Thoreau reflects upon the shameful “wildness” human beings display by their inclination to kill animals (fishing and hunting), to drink stimulating or Intoxicating beverages, and to enjoy eating and copulating. He begins with the appetites he considers easiest to eradicate or purify, but by the time he gets to eating, an unmistakable note of revulsion has crept in. It is a wonder to him, he admits, how we, “how you and I, can live this slimy beastly life, eating and drinking.”

We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is Peptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled: like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies.

As for what he calls the “generative energy,” it “dissipates and makes us unclean” when we are “loose,” but invigorates and inspires us “when we are continent.”

All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms: all purity is one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is. The impure can neither stand nor sit with purity. When the reptile is attacked at one mouth of his burrow. he shows himself at another… Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome.

This distraught language is an aberration, even in a strictly literary sense. within the Walden text. The voice, for one thing, is not that of chanticleer or of the scrupulous writer who aims at an exact correspondence between ideas and observed facts. It is not merely the anxious tone that is anomalous, however; it is the whole demeanor of the speaker, this nature lover suddenly overwhelmed by mistrust of his instincts. What a picture he evokes—comic and sad—a solemn, Yankee countryman in a frenzy to keep those reptilian impulses down in their burrows, and with that final, exasperated, defeated injunction: nature must be overcome.

After having cast the abstract noun, Nature,* as the chief redemptive force in the life of man, and having repeatedly personified Nature as an essentially innocent, pure, motherly presence, kindred to ourselves—he implores us to overcome her. Whether we think of “nature” here in its external sense, as the biophysical environment, or in its psychological sense, as our instinctual endowment, the enjoinder remains a puzzle. It blunts the force of Thoreau’s cultural radicalism. For the power of the feelings aroused by his affectionate attachment to physical nature derives partly from its tacit subversion of the unexamined faith in technological progress conceived. In the popular phrase of his day, as the “conquest of nature.” Yet here Thoreau seems to join the conquerors.

No critic, to my knowledge, has satisfactorily elucidated this incongruous passage. But if we accept the idea that Thoreau’s governing motive was the creation of a new, undefiled identity, and that his passionate attachment to the natural world—the painstaking, loving care he lavished upon his literary effort to possess that world—was in some measure an expression of feelings displaced by guilt from their original human objects, an explanation comes into view. Thoreau had become, in a literal sense seldom Intended by users of this worn figure, a lover of nature. But it was a difficult role for him to sustain not surprisingly, in writing about sensuality. The panicky voice we hear, for just a moment, from behind the persons of Walden’s self-possessed narrator, sounds like no one so much as Cynthia Thoreau’s self-punishing son, David Henry.

The very conspicuousness of this lapse bears witness to the psychological, as well as literary. triumph presented by Walden. On this theme Lebeaux is particularly engaging. That Thoreau’s “were born partly out of struggle with weaknesses.” he writes, “should increase, rather than diminish. our admiration for his accomplishments.” What Lebeaux tends to ignore, however, is that Thoreau’s skill as a writer of autobiography also began the mythmaking process which has until now, so effectively obscured the historical record.

If Thoreau created his own myth, then Emerson’s famous eulogy at his friend’s funeral should be credited (somewhat like Plato’s Apology in the case or Socrates) with reinforcing it, Like the hero of Walden, Emerson’s Thoreau was a free and self-contained spirit, uncorrupted by worldly ambition, a man who “lived for the day.” Instead of “engineering for all ‘America,” Emerson said, “Thoreau was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

What is misleading is the implication left by Emerson that Thoreau had had no true vocation, that he only casually and incidentally had been a writer, and many other people, including biographers and scholars, have continued to endorse this view, But it is proved false by the clear, readily accessible record of Thoreau’s dedication and productivity as a writer. During a relatively brief literary career (he was after all only forty-four when he died), he wrote more than two million words. At times he evidently wrote between 10,000 and 15,000 words a day. The complete edition of his work now in preparation at Princeton will comprise twenty-five volumes.

More than the quantity, however, it is the painstaking intensity of his method as a writer that testifies to this consuming passion: We know that his Journal consists in large measure of rewritten material, and that he composed his finished essays by taking disparate bits and pieces of the journal and fitting them together. In some cases a single paragraph is an amalgam of three or four entries, each from a different year. In the case of Walden, this fussy “mosaic” method of composition (Margaret Fuller’s apt term) entailed the writing of seven distinct drafts during seven or eight years, and the ironic fact is that Walden, which so many readers take for an offhand, virtually unedited transcription of immediate experience, may well be the most artfully, deliberately, meticulously composed prose work in our classic American literature.

It also should be said, however, that Thoreau did his best to conceal the intensity of his commitment to literature. Apart from a statement in a letter to President Jared Sparks of Harvard, from whom he was trying to get a special library privilege (“I have chosen letters for my profession”), he rarely identified himself as a professional writer. It is reasonable to suppose that the activity to which he devoted a large part, perhaps most, of his working hours, was writing, yet if you ask readers of Walden what Thoreau’s “life in the woods” was like, one of the last answers you will get—a good reason being that he neglects to mention the fact—is that he spent much of the time sitting at a table putting words on paper.


Like several others among the revered American literary scriptures, Walden begins with its hero-narrator in a mood of extreme disaffection with his society, At the heart of the powerful opening chapter, “Economy,” is his shocked discovery—remarkably similar in its animus to that of young Karl Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (written in 1844, the year before Thoreau’s retreat to the pond)—of the alienating effects of the minority ownership of the means of production on every sphere of life. “I cannot believe.” Thoreau says, “that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get their clothing,” and if the lives of the workers are miserable, he adds, that is not surprising, “since…the principal object is not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably. that the corporations may be enriched.” Like Marx. Thoreau seems to base his criticism of bourgeois culture upon the radical distinction between production for profit and production for use, and it would be hard to find in Marx’s work any sharper criticism of the mindless operation of the market economy than, say. Thoreau’s offhand remark about men having become the tools of their tools, or his witty, still serviceable definition of our inventions as improved means to an unimproved end.

In spite of the radical anticapitalist implications of the beginning of Walden, however. Thoreau’s criticism of the Concord way is not finally political. It is not the material or social conditions of life, it is not capitalism, that in his view accounts for the quiet desperation felt by the mass of men: it is their own spiritual inertia, So far from causing him to identify his interests with theirs, this awareness leads him to set himself apart from them, to see most of the typical adults among them as blind to his experiment.

Girls and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time, Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other.

The urgent message of Walden, like any Puritan sermon, is that we too could—if we but would—be redeemed. Although withdrawal into Nature is not the prescribed means of preparation for grace. Thoreau’s account conveys, in secular language, the essential spirit of Augustinian piety. As he settles into his life at the pond, however, the problems of ordinary people recede from his consciousness. What politically minded admirers of Walden tend to ignore, I think, is the effect of the book’s action as a whole in dissipating the radical social awareness it generates at the outset. Considered as a single structure of feeling, Thoreau’s masterwork may be described as superbly effective in transmuting incipiently radical impulses into a celebration of what Emerson called “the infinitude of the private man.” And when the hero matter-of-factly remarks, at the end of his stay at the pond, that he is returning to Concord, the point is that in his new, reborn state he is better able, psychologically, to deal with the corrupt way of life he initially had repudiated.

Thoreau had little use for politics, and he was anything but an activist. His only activities apart from writing that might be called political were a few speeches and one fleeting gesture of civil disobedience. In the essay he wrote on that subject, moreover, he forthrightly admits that the purpose of the nonviolent resistance he is recommending is self-exculpation, not social justice.

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.

The reason for his famous tax refusal, it seems evident, was for Thoreau to free himself of moral complicity in the criminal enslavement of black people; only incidentally was it to help free the slaves from bondage. It is disturbingly self-involved approach to politics and the public life, and one cannot help wondering, in view of the new biographical evidence given us by Lebeaux, about the extent to which it was warped by unconscious motives.

Young Man Thoreau, far from denigrating the writer’s genius, encourages new respect for his determined conversion of emotional limitations into literary power. This means, however, that we are compelled to enforce a sharper distinction than has hitherto been made between Thoreau, the writer, and his quael-autobiographical self. On this view, the “Thoreau” most readers know has far less in common with David Henry than he does with all of those patently fictive embodiments of pastoral disengagement that play so conspicuous a role in our classic American literature. I am thinking of such characters and voices as Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, Melville’s Ishmael, and Hawthorne’s Hester; of the “I” of Emerson’s Nature and Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; of Huck Finn, Nick Adams, and like McCaslin; of the speaker of Robert Frost’s pastoral lyrics and of Wallace Steven’s cosmic poet and world-maker-the list could be extended into the present, but the main point is that all of these figures, whatever their differences, tend to represent their deepest longings in gratifying visions of the natural landscape. In one way or another, they all express the urge, in the face of the growing power and complexity of organized society, to withdraw to a simpler environment, closer (as we say) to nature, in search of innocence or happiness.

The difference is, however, that many renders perceive Thoreau less as an artist than as a prophet of redemption from the devastations and deprivations peculiar to urban industrialism. What distinguishes his work from the rest, what leads people to take it as a guide to life, is in no small part his extraordinary skill in suspending disbelief in the authenticity of his fictive self. Beginning with the original subtitle of Walden (or. Life in the Woods), and the incomparably forthright tone with which he addresses his readers (“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, inrespect to egotism, is the main difference”), and including the tacit standard by which at the outset he asks to be judged (“I…require or every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life…”)—beginning with all this on the first page, Walden successfully induces many readers to accept it as a literal record of direct experience. Perhaps this is only to say that Thoreau is read as a prophet because he felt himself to be one, because he identified with that literary tradition and mastered its conventions. What would his fame have been if he had attributed the pastoral retreat enacted in Walden to an avowedly fictive narrator? Richard Lebeaux has given us a new understanding of the relations between Thoreau’s life and his mythic self—a portrait of the young writer on his way to becoming a prophet.

This Issue

October 26, 1978