Thoreau’s Book of Life

Henry David Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod

The Library of America, 1114 pp., $27.50

Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind

by Robert D. Richardson Jr.
University of California Press, 455 pp., $25.00

The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau

edited and with commentaries by Robert Bly
Sierra Club Books, 151 pp., $18.95

Henry Thoreau
Henry Thoreau; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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