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.
The notion that one might oppose someone by becoming someone else epitomizes Thoreau’s anxiety about face-to-face encounters. “The first pattern and prototype of all daggers must have been a glance of the eye,” he muses in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and adds: “It is wonderful how we get about the streets without being wounded by these delicate and glancing weapons.” The controlled paranoia of the passage is all the more striking for its emerging in the midst of a lazily good-natured boat ride. To pluck us from the Concord River and drop us down into a street swarming with murderous eyes is a remarkable feat of dislocation. Nor has he finished with the theme. When, later in his journey, he meets a “serene and liberal-minded” lock keeper, they exchange “a just and equal encounter of the eyes, as between two honest men,” an exchange which prompts the Emersonian remark that “the movements of the eyes express the perpetual and unconscious courtesy of the parties.” We inhabit for a moment that utopia of benevolent intelligence that Emerson’s essays create out of sheer syntactic balance.
But where such an aphorism would have functioned for Emerson as a self-sufficient entity, Thoreau can’t help pulling it apart to find deeper and darker seams. He speaks ominously of “some who did not know when to turn aside their eyes in meeting yours,” and concludes: “Serpents alone conquer by the steadiness of their gaze. My friend looks me in the face and sees me, that is all.” He appeals beyond language to an inviolable privacy, which only those who already know can understand. By the time he writes Walden Thoreau seems to question whether anyone can understand, admitting that “I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?” The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of two equally enlightened beings figures as a blaze too destructively bright for the human world to encompass. Thoreau requires a shadowing, a distance; writing provides it. Writer and reader cannot see each other’s eyes.
The glances of others restrict his freedom, understandably so. To live at home past a certain age is a psychically precarious business, and to move, as Thoreau had done, into the household of one’s intellectual and spiritual mentor is hardly an improvement. A situation like that does not allow the venting of much negative emotion, and—since the eyes are such sensitive registers of deep feeling—even the act of seeing is placed under restraint. The energy released at Walden Pond—which in a two-year period would enable Thoreau to write A Week, complete the first version of Walden, and draft the first and most powerful section of The Maine Woods—coincided with a freeing of the organs of perception.
Permitted to gaze, to inhale, to soak up sounds, Thoreau can relax. No longer obliged to perform for the benefit of others—and for Thoreau almost any form of social intercourse is evidently a performance—he becomes the audience of a private primordial show, “a drama of many scenes and without an end.” Walden Pond functions as “an amphitheatre for some kind of sylvan spectacle,” and “the motions of a squirrel, even in the most solitary recesses of the forest, imply spectators as much as those of a dancing girl.”
These are curious and secret pleasures, all the more secret because the spectacle that Thoreau watches is in fact himself: “I watched a pair of hen-hawks…as if they were the embodiment of my own thoughts.” He might be the forest god who has created them. To see as he sees is to make, “to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look.” His apparent inaction admits him to a realm of absolute power, where by thought alone—in the manner of the Sanskrit scriptures he had been reading—he can transform the universe.
The infinitesimal point where eye meets object is thus not casual but crucial, the pivot on which Thoreau’s antipodes seesaw: speech and silence, self and other, mind and nature. The swirling, spiraling movements of his prose are a brushing aside of all that obscures that pinpoint, the one essential link. If indeed it is a link and not a barrier: Thoreau, in A Week, using a phrase that will recur in Walden, speaks of the ultimate frontier as “wherever a man fronts a fact,” suggesting not connection but a blunt confrontation. “Let him build himself a log-house with the bark on where he is, fronting IT, and wage there an Old French war for seven or seventy years, with Indians and Rangers, or whatever else may come between him and the reality, and save his scalp if he can.”
When Thoreau combines italic and upper-case letters in a single phrase, you know that a critical juncture has been reached. Throughout his writing he makes sparing but decisive use of such emphases, to indicate—as on a surveyor’s map—the point where language, or more precisely human language, reaches its boundary. Transgressing that boundary—by asserting, for example, an otherwise incommunicable distinction between “it” and “IT”—is what really interests Thoreau. Words, after all, are the “Indians and Rangers” that “come between him and the reality,” words with their freight of history. They are a detritus of the perceptions of the dead. “We should be blessed if we lived in the present always,” and what save language keeps us from doing so? The luminosity of the immediate moment is framed, if not altogether blotted out, by the shadows of past and future.
Ordinary human language—that allegedly hardheaded domain of “common sense”—is in fact a shadow land populated by the ghosts of what was or might be, ghosts epitomized by the “unsubstantial things and relations” of religious doctrine, hypothetical mental constructs which “have not left so distinct a trace as the delicate flower of a remote geological period on the coal in my grate,” yet which have the curious power to paralyze the senses. A culture which enshrines a particular linguistic formulation of truth is a zombie kingdom where “men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead…. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.”
Thoreau’s engagement with poetic language, although passionate, is only marginally aesthetic in its concerns. What excites him is not so much the poem as the reality which adheres to it. Robert Richardson singles out the moment early in his literary career when “reading Virgil…Thoreau was struck by passages about the buds swelling on the vines and fruit scattered about under the trees. The point, he told himself, was that ‘it was the same world.’ ” A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, with its frequent interpolation of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Chinese texts into the descriptions of Thoreau’s own journey, reiterates that point constantly: “In an ancient and dead language, any recognition of living nature attracts us. These are such sentences as were written while grass grew and water ran.” The text exists within nature and is judged by nature: “It is no small recommendation when a book will stand the test of mere unobstructed sunshine and daylight.” With that sentence he lays out the aesthetic criterion of Walden.
Literary art generally aims to draw us into the words, but in Walden the words that have lured us point away from themselves, away from the page, breaking the spell of language by recalling the reader to his own existence. Walden takes place not only in Concord but wherever the reader happens to be sitting; the world “out there” is part of the text. Closed systems are dead. A book remains alive to the extent that it connects with everything that must stay forever outside the book: the swelling buds and scattered fruit. No mere description, no matter how precise, will suffice to bring about that connection. Thoreau dreaded the sterility of purely denotative language, and in later years sometimes feared that he was succumbing to it.
The “perfectly healthy sentence” that he wants to write is not a dissection of reality but a spontaneous manifestation of it, a human utterance equivalent to “the crowing of cocks, the baying of dogs, and the hum of insects at noon,…evidence of nature’s health or sound state.” His pun cuts across logic to reveal an underlying hum of continuity, a root sound of which human meanings are only an outgrowth: “Give me a sentence which no intelligence can understand.” “In every man’s brain is the Sanscrit.” The visible world is a transcription of this primal speech: “We saw…the meaning and idea of the tree stamped in a thousand hieroglyphics on the heavens.” A meaning transcribed in hieroglyphics must surely be decipherable, but into what tongue? “The Silence…cannot be done into English.”
So Thoreau’s writing becomes an oblique encirclement of the unsayable. “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds”: but language, like any map, articulates itself through boundary lines. The wild, the heart of the country, can figure only as blank space. Boundaries were a matter of intimate concern to Thoreau; they provided, for one thing, his chief source of income. According to Emerson, Thoreau became a land surveyor as a natural result of “his habit of ascertaining the measures and distances of objects which interested him, the size of trees, the depth and extent of ponds and rivers, the height of mountains, and the air-line distance of his favorite summits.”
This habit plays a prominent role in the “Chesuncook” section of The Maine Woods, where armed with a homemade ruler he measures everything in sight: trees, doorways, moose skulls. In an unmapped region, a wild compared to which the woods of Concord seem parks, he wards off psychic disorientation with his hand-hewn length of black ash. Yet the reassuring act of measurement also desecrates to some extent that Wildness which is “the preservation of the World.” If “the most alive is the wildest,” are not the surveyor’s tools the heralds of its death? Already in 1851 Thoreau could write:
I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more detailed and scientific; that, in exchange for views wide as heaven’s cope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole.
By the following year he had begun what Richardson describes as
the vast project of keeping track of every stage of every plant in town, the project that would culminate in 1860 and 1861 in the great charts he would then assemble…so he could track the phenomena of each day of each month through seven or eight annual recurrences.
For Richardson, this project exemplifies Thoreau’s natural development, curtailed by his early death, into a complete scientist, rather than representing a loss of his earlier inspiration. Robert Bly, in the volume of Thoreau extracts he has put together in The Winged Voice, characteristically views Thoreau’s increasingly methodical bent as a symptom of spiritual drying-up.
Whether one sees Thoreau’s later life as decline or as transition toward full maturity—and the miserable state of his health in those years makes a clear judgment nearly impossible—there was plainly a war in him between seer and statistician. At moments, of course, a truce was struck between inward and outward: “The perception of surfaces will always have the effect of miracle to a sane sense.” But there remained the question of what it might mean to measure those surfaces, from what standpoint a true measurement could be effected, and whether in the process one might not lose touch with the thing measured.
These questions preoccupied him from the start. In an early journal entry he writes:
Space is quite subdued to us. The meanest peasant finds in a hair of his head, or the white crescent upon his nail, the unit of measure for the distance of the fixed stars. His middle finger measures how many digits into space—he extends a few times his thumb and finger, and the ocean is spanned—he stretches out his arms, and the sea is fathomed.
Thus the body’s proportions impart structure to the world. But as a surveyor Thoreau is aware of the arbitrariness of such measurements; shift your angle of elevation a fraction of an inch and every distance changes. For practical purposes we are limited to the human organism as a basis for judging the scale and shape of anything outside it, but from this limitation stem most of the rigidities of our thinking. “In order to avoid delusions,” he wrote in 1852, “I would fain let man go by and behold a universe in which man is but as a grain of sand…. Man is but the place where I stand, and the prospect hence is infinite.” Yet “very few indeed have stayed out all night once in their lives, fewer still have gone behind the world of humanity, seen its institutions like toadstools by the wayside.”
If you are going to use yourself as a unit of measurement, that self must be refined and calibrated by an effort of will, and with due allowance made for its tendencies toward distortion. Thoreau seeks always to circumvent the mind’s tendency to fall into a rut, a rut endlessly reinforced by language. In his essay “Walking” he describes the deadening effect of town life as a condition in which “I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses.” The mind can be kept alive only by constant exposure to unexpected sensory input, and Thoreau works ceaselessly to provide such input. It becomes his lifelong game: How many new worlds can he discover (that is, “carve and paint”) within the circumscribed vicinity of Concord? The journal could be subtitled: “Thirteen Thousand Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”
In the Walden Pond experiment he forces the issue. By limiting himself, by taking a vow of “voluntary poverty,” by sticking close to a single spot, in a house consisting of a single room, he tests his capacity to discern the actual diversity of the cosmos. The false diversity—the “luxury”—of human culture masks a sealing up of the senses: “Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are as old as Adam. But man’s capacities have never been measured.” Thoreau’s work attempts to perform that measurement, counting out how many times the world can be seen for the first time. His despair always has to do with an awareness of not really seeing, of mouthing phrases. Conscious of “the necessity of being forever on the alert,” he prods himself into vigilance and repents his lapses—“drank tea and coffee and made myself cheap and vulgar”—as if these were cardinal sins.
Metaphor serves as his principal surveyor’s tool, the “gauge” or “Realometer” by which he gains some leverage amid the “mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion.” He is never more to the point than when speaking in figures: here is where he pries the real apart from the language that encrusts it, and in doing so gives things their real names: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” “The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed.” “My head is hands and feet…. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore-paws.” By changing a word’s usual context he changes reality, just as he alters his inner reality by physically displacing himself. The ocean, in Cape Cod, interests him chiefly as a means for disrupting ordinary notions of scale and thus of meaning: “All the dogs looked out of place there, naked and as if shuddering at the vastness.” “Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, New Orleans, and the rest, are the names of wharves projecting into the sea…. The museums and scientific societies and libraries are accidental. They gather around the sands to save carting.” He loves to note the way human artifacts change their character when placed in a wilderness, as when, in The Maine Woods, he finds an advertising handbill wrapped around a pine trunk.
Emerson accused Thoreau of a weakness for glib paradoxes, but such devices are for him not ornamental flourishes but instruments as practical as a spade or a ruler or the lead pencils that Thoreau helped his father manufacture. By uprooting words from their usual habitat, he can force a fresh confrontation with reality. Thoreau approaches this task with the same workmanlike precision he brings to measuring the depth of Walden Pond. To chart the real with shifting and unreliable markers is admittedly a tricky problem, and his solution is even trickier: he does all he can to draw attention to the unreliability of those markers, to stress that “the words which express our faith and piety are not definite.” With sufficient cunning and a sense of obliquity, the words can be tricked into performing a mimetic dance—a dance taking the form of metaphor, of paradoxical leaps, of sudden changes of viewpoint—which does not so much explain the real as embody it. Syntax and cadence register a specific organic condition; “the poet sings how the blood flows in his veins,” and an exemplary writer like Sir Walter Raleigh communicates by means of “a natural emphasis…like a man’s tread” and “a breathing space between the sentences.”
Thoreau proposes a new method of reading, based on alertness to silences and undercurrents. The content of any sentence is not merely what it says but what it refrains from saying. We learn least, he implies, from everyday discourse that purposely shuts out silence—the numbing drone of newspapers, novels, and street-corner chat—and most from what fills the ear with untranslatably evocative sonic patterns. He lies down in the Maine woods among Indians speaking their native tongue, and hears “a purely wild and primitive American sound, as much as the barking of a chickaree, and I could not understand a syllable of it.” Meanings dull his senses; incomprehensible speech restores him to the world.
Such speech is not limited to humans; in fact it is by exploring the roots of our language that we discover its kinship with the common tongue of nature. The hooting of owls at Walden Pond imparts “a certain gurgling melodiousness,—I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it.” The hooting, which reminds Thoreau of “ghouls and idiots and insane howlings,” also suggests “a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized.” To bring that undeveloped nature into language necessitates a birth agony. “The letters gl” caught uncomfortably in the throat, struggling toward the vowel sound which will complete them, do more than symbolize that labor: they reenact it within the throat of the reader.
The process of bringing forth is realized most triumphantly in the last pages of Walden, in the description of
the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad…When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before…. It is a truly grotesque vegetation…a sort of architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chiccory, ivy, vine, or any vegetable leaves.
Here, in the rebirth toward which both Thoreau and nature have been moving, the visible world, the inner world, and the world of language are experienced as one indivisible reality. Thoreau had been schooling himself to write this passage right from the start, and one of the strongest threads in Richardson’s study emphasizes the way Thoreau’s early reading of Goethe on organic form led to his attempt, in A Week, to explore “the extent to which the laws of his own nature were akin to the laws governing streams, crystals, and leaves.” His long absorption in that theme finally permitted the amazingly compressed expression of it in Walden.
His most remarkable feat is to fuse one movement—from the outward appearance of the sand foliage to its inner structure—with an analogous movement into the inner structure of language. Discerning in the thawing sand the shape of a leaf or lobe or globe, Thoreau proceeds to enter those words, or rather the root word from which they all derive, on the principle that etymology recapitulates cosmology: “The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed), with a liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat.” He feels out the innards of language as if he were himself an embryo contained in it. Having thus collapsed the universe into a mantra-like syllabic core, he lets it out again, in a dizzyingly rapid expansion:
The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit.
After this sequence of metamorphoses, Thoreau can only remark: “There is nothing inorganic.” In that case his book is organic too, and indeed Walden’s distinguishing characteristic is its refusal to settle into a fixed and separate product. The words of the text are only a running commentary on the process—happening now, in the eternal present—which is the real Walden. It might be called the prolonged description of a birth, were it not that the description in some sense is the birth. That birth takes place outside time; in fact it is never really completed, since it is always in the midst of occurring. Thoreau suspends the irrevocable separation of offspring from parent in the very instant of severing. Rather than choose between being part of and being apart from his life source, he has it both ways. His solitude becomes a multiplicity, and in the amniotic depths of language he communes with the unborn and the long dead. His root work, his mucking in pond depths, his interminable burrowing in rock strata and soil layers and etymologies, all tend downward toward a point where identities interpenetrate.
The crisis of the interpenetration occurs in the relation between writer and reader. Thoreau intends to demonstrate that he is us, that in reading him we read our own thoughts. Just as he, immersed in “the oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher,” realizes a more-than-metaphoric union with the author (“it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision”), the future reader will experience the same process: Thoreau’s unborn reader is within him, a seed. Seeds preoccupied Thoreau, and his major unfinished work was a scientific treatise on the laws governing their dispersal. No image could more succinctly embody his vision: a seed or embryo is an organism which is both “all there”—never so compactly—and not there at all, because unrealized. Pure latent form can never be seen, yet the totality of the visible emerges from it. Thoreau cherishes the infinitesimal moment of parturition when the newborn organism participates in both states at once. “By a conscious effort of the mind” he manages to reexperience something like that moment, and in the process to “stand aloof from actions and their consequences.” These phrases are found in yet another of his attempts to define his notion of solitude, a solitude which as always represents a splitting-off-from himself:
We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it…. I only know myself as a human entity…and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another.
For the mind to rest even briefly in such doubleness requires a perfect equipoise. Thoreau’s life can be seen as an elaborate balancing act, in which his sometimes enigmatic maneuverings sustain a delicate stability. He had known early the kind of life he needed, and to preserve it was willing to risk the appearance of failure. None of his Transcendentalist friends, for instance, ever really figured out what he was up to. He saw himself as occupying a point between various extremes, and it was important for him to maintain a distance from them. Although he wrote that “on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness,” the reality was more complex.
He never did complete that withdrawal; while leaning toward one alternative, it was impossible for him to entirely abandon the other. The reason becomes more apparent in his accounts of Maine and Cape Cod. He journeyed repeatedly to those wildernesses of forest and ocean, to steep himself in “this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature,” but in the end the howling drove him back to the tamer woodlands of Concord. After all, as Richardson remarks of the years at Walden Pond, “he might be leading a primitive life, but it was being led in a backyard laboratory.” His Concord existence involved a schedule of daily rounds. The swampy back country of Maine and the barren coast of Cape Cod, however, involved a more terrifying perception of space, a space making no allowance for the human scale of things.
Coming after the unrepeatable triumph of Walden, the travel books are something of a shock. Unlike Walden they are neither unified works of art nor coherent expressions of Thoreau’s philosophy; in fact, it is their very disjointedness that makes them interesting. Walden grew out of a self-created environment over which Thoreau exercised as total a control as possible. He had programmed his experience in advance, carefully choosing his settings and his props, and then had spent nearly a decade rewriting his account of it. Not only had he set out “to live deliberately,” he had written the most deliberate book conceivable. In these later works, however, he is flung against the randomness of the great world beyond Concord, and the experience can be chastening. He maps not only the places he moves through but the changes of personality which they inflict on him. Only by seeing him interact with strangers do we get a down-to-earth sense of what Thoreau was actually like.
The revelation is not always flattering, particularly in Cape Cod, without a doubt the most unpleasant of his books. It brings us face to face with elements of his character elsewhere latent. The sarcasm which runs through the book is only one aspect of a deeper and more disturbing indifference to other people which emerges most clearly in the shipwreck with which he violently begins. His philosophical detachment in the face of the drowned immigrants—“On the whole, it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected…. I sympathized rather with the winds and waves”—seems more like a failure of response, a withdrawal that manifests itself in what Richardson calls “strained, paradoxical, and nervous assertiveness.”
Thoreau, who derived many of his richest effects from the consideration of microscopic realities (“the process that goes on in the sod and the dark, about the minute fibres of the grass”), was put somewhat at a loss by the immensity of both the disaster and the ocean. For him they did not magnify but trivialized human existence. In the context of the “vast morgue” of the Atlantic, the lives of the Cape Cod folk become a sequence of derisory, meaningless gestures: “The principal employment of the inhabitants at this time seemed to be to trundle out their fish and spread them in the morning, and bring them in at night.”
The three narratives collected in The Maine Woods are something else again, a conscious testing of what he had learned through the experiences described by Walden. The first journey, recorded in “Ktaadn,” was undertaken during the second year Thoreau spent at Walden Pond, and his account of it has the tone of someone who has acquired a new consciousness on his own and now wants to take it into the world to see if it works; at the same time, Thoreau being Thoreau, he takes note of whatever useful information comes his way. He is particularly concerned with the loggers, hunters, and Indians he encounters, studying their speech and manner for a hint of what life in the wilderness does to people. He oscillates uneasily between a realistic sense of the grubbiness of their lives and a romantic tendency to see in them the realization of his own deepest fantasy: to live “in a new world, far in the dark of a continent, and have a flute to play at evening here, while his strains echo to the stars….[He] shall live, as it were, in the primitive age of the world, a primitive man.”
But in this same journey Thoreau undergoes a repulse as significant in its way as Walden’s rebirth. Climbing Mount Ktaadn alone, and descending through a stretch of burned-out wasteland, he feels an unexpected alienation from nature, the same nature with which he had made himself intimate at Walden Pond, and of which he wrote: “All nature is my bride.” Now, as he intrudes on a sacred domain, the pure nonhuman wilderness, the face of his bride becomes that of an angry goddess:
Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty…. She seems to say sternly, why came ye here before your time?… Here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear.
His descent of the mountain culminates in perhaps the most powerful outburst to be found in his writings, as the terror of nature becomes the terror of his own existence:
I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me…. Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
The possibility of that terror had been acknowledged from the outset. He had promised in Walden to reduce life “to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.” In the ocean at Cape Cod he found a horrifying triviality, in the wastes of Mount Ktaadn a glimpse of the insignificance of feeling, of being. His response, to judge by his later writings and activities, was to become a good deal more practical—and distinctly less self-involved as well. The later sections of The Maine Woods, “Chesuncook” (written in 1853, just as Walden, after a nearly ten-year process of compression, interpolation, and revision, was nearing its end) and “The Allegash and East Branch” (1857), represent a tryout of everything that might sustain Thoreau in the absence of undifferentiated ecstasy. By turns he is political, technical, ethnographic, even commercial. His prose aspires not toward the splendors of an American Veda, but imitates the simple, careful, impersonal tone of an explorer’s log or botanist’s notebook.
He seems particularly anxious to anchor his impressions in a certifiable reality outside himself. In this process the Indians he meets serve as intermediaries, rescuing him from his occasional escapes into reverie. In an exchange that typifies this relationship, Thoreau hears “a dull, dry, rushing sound, with a solid core to it, yet as if half smothered under the grasp of the luxuriant and fungus-like forest like the shutting of a door in some distant entry of the damp and shaggy wilderness.” He asks his Indian guide what it is and the latter replies simply: “Tree fall.” It is a language of the real simplifying Thoreau’s rhetoric but at the same time confirming its validity.
Even if he cannot always sustain the victorious mood of Walden, it never occurs to Thoreau to deny any part of his earlier ecstasies. The changes evident in The Maine Woods are not a turning away from his past but an effort to extend his original impulse by other means. Vision and intuition settle into the more finite dimensions of a political program, so that “Chesuncook” yields what Richardson calls “not only our earliest but also our sanest, most balanced call for preservation of the wilderness.” As if one phase of his work has been completed, he turns increasingly outward, substituting doggedness for buoyancy. The Maine Woods is very much a book of the body and its limitations, a book that stays close to the ground with an ample stock of mud and rock and rainwater. In this context Thoreau is more aware of his dependence than his liberty, and perhaps for this reason his portrait of the Indian guide Joe Polis, in “The Allegash and East Branch,” represents his most sustained attempt to describe another human being. The self-reliant “I” which Thoreau had created to escape from his own dependency, and which he had so exhaustively mined, here at last meets an other: a close-mouthed, infinitely resourceful man of the forest, who at moments makes him feel like a child.
Thoreau documents the encounter with remarkable control and discretion. Restricting himself to the surfaces of behavior, he catalogs the Indian’s gesures, facial expressions, and vocal tones, without trying to tell the reader how these disparate signals should be put together. Joe Polis becomes a real presence precisely because Thoreau makes no attempt to identify with him. This self-effacing piece of reportage opens up possibilities which Thoreau did not live long enough to fully develop. Toward the end of his life he noted that “a man never discovers anything, never overtakes anything or leaves anything behind, but himself. Whatever he does or says he merely reports himself.” Curiously—and it is the kind of paradox that Thoreau loved best—only through such a realization does it become possible to grasp the alien presence of the world outside oneself.
January 15, 1987