Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) is one of those writers attractive to ideologues and eccentrics whose enthusiasms distort understanding of the writer, obscuring his real significance as a writer. He created the first authentically American style, that clear, uncluttered, supple prose that seems so straightforward and transparent but which is capable of the subtlest nuances, especially ironic humor. Before we get to that, however, the ground must be cleared.
Thoreau was the most faithful disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), an embodiment of the Master's Transcendentalist philosophy. Back in my salad days when I was a Professor teaching American literature, I took Transcendentalism seriously, boring my students with long lectures on its intricacies, but now wordy transports about Nature and the Over-Soul do not move me. It contains some useful ideas, but as a philosophy, as a theory of the universe and man's place in it, it's a bag of wind. What Emerson did was to take German Idealism, strained through the mind of Thomas Carlyle, add a dash of Oriental mysticism, and produce an optimistic rationale for individual and national self-fulfillment, combining enthusiasm, uplift, and cultural nationalism at an opportune time, just as the westward surge was gathering steam. The American fuel tank was filled with Transcendentalism until the end of the century.
Walden, or Life in the Woods, the book we shall consider in a moment, is built on three Transcendentalist tenets, the first being self-reliance, exemplified by Thoreau's life at Walden Pond. The whole book is testimony to it and needs no more elaboration. The second idea, announced in Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard in 1837, "The American Scholar," is the identity of the scholar with "Man Thinking," thus denying special status for the scholar (or intellectual) set apart from ordinary men. The farmer, the mechanic, the storekeeper are all potentially capable of filling the role, just as Thoreau did, as Walden abundantly shows. How far we have degenerated from that ideal, when we have a caste of academics calling themselves "public intellectuals"! Finally, Nature and man's relation to it, the "correspondence" between the two, was a major Transcendentalist theme that turns up on nearly every page of the book. This is a persistent theme in American thought, antedating Emerson, turning up again and again in our literature and elsewhere. "Getting right with Nature" is an American preoccupation from the Declaration of Independence to the maniacal Greens; we seem unable to accept Nature's implacable indifference.
Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 1845 to September 1847 in a cabin he built himself (on Emerson's land). He was not a hermit, nor was he playing at the Simple Life. He had visitors, and he often went to Concord (A friend from there tells me that many of the old families still have plates from which he ate his dinner). This is the reason he gave for his sojourn:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Like many an ancient philosopher, he believed that it was only by living simply, shedding all superfluities and encumbrances, that one can gain wisdom. And by living at the Pond he was in constant touch with the natural world, vital to him for personal as well as philosophical reasons. Wherever he happened to be, Thoreau was a close observer of Nature, and at the Pond he was in his element. There was also a mundane reason. He had lived with Emerson and his family and then, at the urging of the Master, had gone to New York City for a year to further his nascent writing career. But nothing had come of that so he returned to Concord to work in the family business, manufacturing pencils. The move to the Pond and its subsequent economy would enable him to live without a regular job (occasionally he undertook surveying commissions), would remove him from what he felt was an ignominious situation, and would give him time to write. His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was composed there.
Walden, published in 1854, was written seven years after the event. His writing career had not advanced much in the interim: magazines like Atlantic Monthly printed some of his essays, but A Week, published at his expense, sold less than 300 copies and left him in debt. He lectured at the Concord Lyceum and farther afield, but he wasn't going to make a living at that either. He was back at the pencil factory. What may have weighed most heavily on his mind was his declining vigor; the TB that was to kill him may have begun then. The writing of the book, then, was a deliberate attempt to recapture the spirit of those two years when he was bursting with life and enthusiasm, when he felt he was master of his fate in the morning of the world, and the book's structure was carefully crafted to that end.
He composed his books and essays and lectures in the same way, by mining his daily journals. In the case of Walden, he reworked the lectures he had already given on the subject at the Lyceum, revising them in the light of his over-arching purpose. So he compressed the events of two years into one, linked events to the seasonal cycle, and emphasized the morning and springtime aspects of his life there. Compared to A Week, Walden is dynamic. The former reads like mystical meditations occasionally interrupted by material facts, but Walden moves right along, the meditations are more vigorous and usually grow directly out of material observations. To put it another way, Walden is the most synthesized of Thoreau's works (speaking of writings published during his lifetime; later essays were cobbled together from his journals by other hands). Nevertheless, it is not as synthesized as it should be, and the fault lies in his method. Generally, the daily entries in his journals are laconic: some natural observations and a few sentences embodying a thought. When he turned to the journals to compose a manuscript, he selected related thoughts, elaborated them, and then strung them together. Too often it is as if the sentences in a paragraph were separate pieces of shot collected in a bag to be fired off at the reader, Thoreau in his pulpit assailing the audience with sentence after sentence of condemnation. This can be tiresome.
Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases, he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand, instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.
In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom, and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary, eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
It is an old story that moralists who tell us how to live often show an appalling ignorance of and lack of sympathy with their fellows, and Thoreau is no exception. He meets John Field, an Irish laborer, to whom he sings the praises of his simple life, contrasting it with the Field's hardworking one. Condescending, even snide, to the man and his wife, he thinks they cannot choose his way of life because they're Irish clods. It does not occur to his sophisticated mind that he was able to make that choice because he was, relative to the Fields, privileged. His father owned a good business, and Thoreau was highly educated. In order for a man to choose a materially spare life, he has to have the resources behind him which will allow him to make a choice; he has to be so free of want that he can contemplate surrendering some of his privileges with equanimity, and he has to be educated enough to appreciate the appeal of simplicity. Simplicity is always preceded by complexity. Thoreau comes off very badly here, but it is characteristic of the philosophy; most Transcendentalists were childishly egotistical, wrapped up in themselves and their theories.
Finally we come to Thoreau's great gift, his prose. Look at the first paragraph of Walden:
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
Read it aloud and note how the short phrases of the first sentence build energy for its emphatic release in the long last phrase, while the two following matter-of-fact sentences act as a denouement, a scaling-down of the tension built up and released in the first sentence. What this arrangement does is to endow the prosaic statement with power out of proportion to its factual content, thus making the facts significant in the reader's mind: this shall be no humdrum account. And note the immediacy of the prose; there is no veil of language between you and the writer. We feel his liveliness. Those three sentences announce an authoritative voice in American writing.
Here's a passage from the "Bean Field" chapter.
When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to this my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now to-night my flute has waked the echoes over that very water. The pines still stand here older than l; or if some have fallen, I have cooked my supper with their stumps, and a new growth is rising all around, preparing another aspect for new infant eyes.
What this does is to assert an organic continuity between Thoreau and the pond, among past, present, and future, and between man and Nature. The way it works is to stress the specificity of places and presence of time. In four simple sentences he moves from the past to the future through the medium of a very definite place seen through the eyes of a man in the present, looking backward and forward, but always in terms of the material facts of the scene. The repeated pronouns and adverbs heighten the reader's attention, just as the emphatic second sentence does, and the light touches of elegance, "waked the echoes," "another aspect for new infant eyes,"also italicize the scene. Once again we are reading what seems to be a casual statement, but by the end we have been caught up in the exultation.
Here's a beautiful example of his ability to move from a specific material observation outward, in this case to a discovery of the fabulous in the mundane, ice fishing in the Pond. The paragraph is anchored at beginning and end with material facts about fish, but it contains within it an assertion of transcendent beauty, which his cumulative prose makes you believe.
. . . They, [pickerel] of course, are Walden all over and all through; are themselves small Waldens in the animal kingdom, Waldenses. It is surprising that they are caught here, -- that in this deep and capacious spring, far beneath the rattling teams and chaises and tinkling sleighs that travel the Walden road, this great gold and emerald fish swims. I never chanced to see its kind in any market; it would be the cynosure of all eyes there. Easily, with a few convulsive quirks, they give up their watery ghosts, like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of heaven.
Conservatives should read Walden, not for its ideas (the first chapter will suffice for that) but for its spirit. Here is a live man, and it is the matchless prose that gives him life. *
"Contentment is as rare among men as it is natural among animals, and no form of government has ever satisfied its subjects." --Will Durant