Monday, February 26, 2024

Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature

This biography of Edward O. Wilson, by Richard Rhodes, was published in 2021, just before Wilson died at the age of ninety-two. I was reluctant to read it initially, because it is short and was probably timed to coincide with Wilson's death. The book itself does supply an adequate account of Wilson's life and sums up his work reasonably well. However, since I have already read six of Wilson's books, this one didn't add much to my knowledge. Because Wilson was one of the most significant biologists to follow Charles Darwin, I think that a more complete biography may appear within the next few decades.

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. Neither of his parents attended college, but his father had reasonably good jobs as an auditor of rural electrification programs and as an accountant. His assignments required periodic moves. One of the major shortcomings of this book is that Wilson grew up in what I think was a highly dysfunctional household, and this fact isn't specifically examined. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents divorced when he was seven. That year, he had an accident in which his fishing bait struck his right eye and damaged it. The wound wasn't treated properly at the time, and he later became blind in that eye. This was significant, because he was already spending time outdoors observing small objects such as ants.

From an early age, Wilson was exceptionally industrious. After his parents divorced, he stayed with his father, who remarried. His mother moved away and also remarried. He became an Eagle Scout. Because of his father's moves, he attended several different schools, and he skipped a year. His birth parents supplied financial support for college, though they were not wealthy. At the University of Alabama, he completed both bachelor's and master's degrees in four years and then went to graduate school. Eventually he transferred to Harvard, where he completed his Ph.D. At Harvard, the atmosphere was highly competitive, but he received a teaching position there and stayed for the remainder of his career. One of his colleagues was James Watson, author of The Double Helix and co-discoverer of DNA, who was dismissive of field biologists like Wilson. Wilson was initially somewhat dismissive of genetics, which he called "reductionist." However, he became more interested in genetics when William Hamilton published his theory of kin selection. 

Wilson's research interests changed over time, which you can see in the titles of his main books: The Theory of Island Biogeography; The Insect Societies; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; On Human Nature; The Ants; The Diversity of Life; Concilience: The Unity of Knowledge; The Social Conquest of Earth; and Half-Earth

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, became extremely controversial in 1975, when it was published. It was reviewed in the New York Review of Books, which prompted a group called the Sociobiology Study Group to submit a letter of protest titled "Against Sociobiology." That group included two of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould. They were ideologically Marxists and became a model for later politically-correct groups that automatically reject theories that present deterministic models for human behavior, which they immediately link to racism and eugenics. In 1978, at a symposium, when Wilson was about to speak, protesters interrupted, and one of them dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head. Wilson was not psychologically prepared to be the victim of protests such as this, and he disliked this period in his career. I think that Wilson did tend to favor deterministic models, which, after all, is what scientists generally do, and, coming from the South, may have internalized some racial stereotypes, but the protest against him was unfair, because he certainly had no racist agenda and was shocked by this treatment. This was probably a cautionary lesson to later biologists who chose to adopt deterministic models – Robert Sapolsky, for instance – and may explain some of the obliqueness of their writings. In my view, the New York Review of Books permanently tarnished its intellectual reputation by publishing a purely ideological criticism of Wilson that made life difficult for him for several years, even when his ideas were clearly more tenable than those presented by his critics.

Wilson later had run-ins with Richard Dawkins, after Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins, following the arguments of William Hamilton, advocated a position in which evolution is driven by the multiplication of genes rather than organisms or species. From his work on ants and his observations of humans, Wilson advocated eusociality as a driving force in evolution. It is not entirely clear who won this argument – they may both be wrong – but eusociality is not currently seen as a suitable explanation for evolution in general. First of all, there are very few eusocial species, and one would expect far more of them if that were a driving force. However, it is clear that the eusocial characteristics of ants permitted them to become dominant species. Similarly, it is clear that human cooperation permitted humans to survive when all of the other Homo species perished. Also, humans are the only primates that are flourishing now. I think that the "grand theory" model in science has become obsolete. To a certain extent, it is the result of pointless competition among scientists: everone wants to be the next Darwin or the next Einstein. I think that recent scientific findings indicate that, while the physical world may behave according to a set of rules, those rules, if they exist, are probably too complex for human understanding. Every language that we use, including mathematics, exists as a product of human evolution, and is ultimately not suited to answering fundamental questions about the nature of reality. Language is best suited to activities such as exchanging information, finding food, escaping enemies, building bridges and engaging in cooperation. In order to survive as a species, you don't have to understand the universe. Furthermore, even if we wanted to, recent findings indicate that humans are not fundamentally rational.

The main thing that I think is missing from this book is a meaningful discussion of Wilson's personal life. His father served in World War I, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was forty-eight. This sounded familiar to me, because my father served in World War II, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was fifty. This behavior is now routinely referred to as PTSD, yet Rhodes has nothing to say about it. Near the end of the book, he recounts interviews that Wilson had with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Wilson said that he enjoyed being alone very much, and, more tellingly I think, said:

I want to feel that I'm in control, that I cannot be driven out of it, that I cannot be stopped, that I will be well regarded for being in it, and that entails control, and control means ambition. It means constantly extending one's reach, renewing, extending, innovating.

I don't have enough information to say this with much certainty, but it seems possible that Wilson's unstable childhood caused him to compulsively seek control for the rest of his life.  Rhodes says almost nothing about Wilson's adult personal life. It sounds as if Wilson did not pursue women as all until he arrived at Harvard. Once there, he seems to have dated only one woman, Irene Kelley, who did not have a college degree and worked in the Harvard admissions office. They married in 1955. She did not have any children, and they adopted a daughter, Catherine, about whom Rhodes says almost nothing. Irene died shortly before Wilson in 2021. So, to a certain extent, this book is opaque regarding Wilson's inner life.

Monday, February 19, 2024


I've started reading a biography of E.O. Wilson, who died in 2021. It is short, and I'll probably comment on it on my next post. But it is far from my ideal biography, because it only touches on his personal life and devotes a lot of space to academic rivalries. Those are generally trivial, but in this case I occasionally had some awareness of them when they occurred, and I generally rooted for him, because his outlook was always similar to mine. Not long before he died, he said, in a video, "Oh, to be eighty again!"  As time passes, it becomes more and more difficult for me to find a book that I actually want to read. I long ago reached a point where I felt forced to continue on books that I didn't like much. But some of the biographies that I did read turned out to be better than I expected once I got into them. For example, even though I found certain aspects of Bertrand Russell's life repugnant, the two volumes provided an interesting account of life for educated English people spanning from the late Victorian period up to 1970. Russell overlapped with Bloomsbury, D.H. Lawrence, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Beatrice Webb, Katherine Mansfield and Albert Einstein, so you can build up a vivid picture of complex social environments. Similarly, Henry David Thoreau was linked to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the extent that he embodied romanticism, while he also had scientific interests similar to those of Alfred Russel Wallace, G.H. Lewes and Charles Darwin. Thoreau's acquaintance with Ralph Waldo Emerson connected him to George Eliot. 

The weather here became warm for a while, and what little snow there was melted. It has become colder again and there is snow on the ground. I read that the circulation of the Gulf Stream is changing, and it is possible that the Northeast and Northern Europe could become colder at some point. The sea level may also rise on the East Coast. I wouldn't mind if it got colder here. Unfortunately, there would still be global warming, which would probably affect the Southern Hemisphere more than the Northern Hemisphere. I have been going on hikes mainly for exercise and am not enjoying the scenery as much at this time of year. My computer screen is in a window facing the bird feeder, so I keep track of the birds. It took the longest time for the goldfinches to build up their numbers. Their strategy seems to be to come at the same time, which protects individuals from predators (safety in numbers). They also behave aggressively toward other species. The juncos originally fed at the feeder, but now they usually stay on the ground. I am still keeping my eye out for other wildlife. There are also rabbits here, which I didn't mention. The other night I saw a large bobcat walking past the house. Of course, I also have birds that don't feed at the feeder: bluebirds, blue jays, robins, crows, red-tailed hawks and barred owls. And other species are probably not visible because they are back in the woods.

At night I usually try to watch part of a movie. I haven't found much recently, but occasionally there is something good that I come across on The Criterion Channel. I seem to be becoming further and further removed from the contemporary U.S. For the most part, I don't care about what younger people like. When I had Facebook and Twitter accounts, I cancelled them almost immediately. I have no interest in Instagram or Tik Tok. Someone recently tried to get me to join Nextdoor: I didn't. I don't mind the fact that the average age in Vermont is one of the highest, because I have difficulty relating to Millennials and Gen Z. Online I read The Guardian and 3 Quarks Daily, which I think appeal to older people (Yes, even S. Abbas Raza is getting old!).

I haven't recently been doing any stargazing or genealogical research, and my main hobby is currently this blog. As blogs go, it still isn't very popular. That doesn't bother me, because its purpose isn't to change the world or acquire income. From looking at the data available to me, a typical "reader" clicks a link somewhere and then spends a few seconds here. When I have several posts on a book that I'm reading, they usually only look at one. And the majority of them have no interest in discussion. For example, "The Monologue/The Woman Destroyed" has now been viewed 4,330 times, and no one has made a comment. It seems that this is currently the default behavior of people who routinely browse on the internet. At the moment, for unknown reasons, that post is popular in the Philippines!

Sunday, February 11, 2024

What I Dislike About the United States

I take my car to Burlington once a year for service, and this year, while I was up there, I was reminded of one of the things that has always made me feel un-American. During the pandemic, the showroom had almost no cars, and the parking lot was practically empty. This year, the showroom was completely filled with SUVs, and the parking lot was also full, mainly with SUVs. After my family moved to the U.S. in 1957, my father usually bought large American cars. One of the first ones was an enormous Chevrolet, but then he bought the first Mini Cooper, which was called the Austin Cooper S. I drove it a couple of times before I got my driver's license. Later, he bought an enormous Ford Galaxie.  The Mini Cooper was sort of imprinted on me, and I've always bought small cars since. The main thing that I like about them is that they are fun to drive. My current car is a Volkswagen GTI Autobahn, and it is by far the best-handling and fastest car that I've ever driven. I love it, even though VW is not the most reliable brand. 

When I moved to the Midwest in 1973 after college, I had a cheap, used Fiat 124 station wagon, which fit everything that I needed to take, but was not sporty and eventually rusted out. None of my cars since then have been American, though one was a Ford that had been built in Germany. At that time, most of the American-made cars were still large. There were token small cars such as the Ford Pinto and the Chevrolet Vega, but they were poorly made and never popular. That was the period during which Japanese car manufacturers began to cut deeply into U.S. market share. On the roads, there were still mainly large American sedans and station wagons. Cadillacs and Lincolns were still popular, but some of the luxury European models also gained market share. In the 1980's, the minivan became very popular, but that has gradually lost market share to SUVs and is no longer in much demand. What I've noticed is that Americans have never liked small cars, and it was only during periods of gasoline shortages or very high gasoline prices that Americans as a group bought many of them. Today, with the availability of hybrid SUVs and various electric models, there is very little demand in the U.S. for small cars.

The reason why I have described this is that I think that it is a basic example of how the American psyche works. There is no meaningful civic education here, and people generally resent government interventions that limit their options. Corporations here are also less regulated than they are in many European countries, and they directly or indirectly keep things that way by spending money to influence election outcomes. Then, through advertising, they are expert at influencing consumer choices. Since Americans, on average, are not very discriminating, they are putty in the hands of corporate marketers. While this has been apparent for at least eighty years, it is actually getting worse now, because the internet is the most intrusive corporate tool that has ever been invented. Although it can be seen as a helpful consumer tool, besides the advantage that it provides to corporations, it is also a tool for enemy states and criminals. For example, a few people have become quite wealthy by taking advantage of the "stolen election" meme. 

Here is a fairly simplified way of expressing the above, which is easy to understand:
1. Corporations inhibit government intervention.
2. Corporations establish standards of normalcy that influence consumer purchase decisions.
The ubiquitous presence of certain products, such as SUVs and pickup trucks, also places pressures on consumers who prefer not to deviate from social norms. For example, if all of your neighbors have an SUV or a pickup truck, or both, why don't you? 
3. Over a long period of time, consumer preferences tend to comply with corporate marketing goals.

Besides the above points, Americans seem to have adopted a passive attitude vis-à-vis their responsibilities as members of American and world societies. Levels of apathy toward climate change and foreign wars remain relatively high, which is significant when you consider the long-term consequences for everyone. Of particular note, climate change denial has been led by the oil industry. 

Generally, I am used to American consumerism, though I still dislike it. But I am always interested in ideas, and, because of the conformity among Americans, I find little opportunity to express them here. Some of the people I've discussed on this blog also disliked the mindless conformity that characterizes the U.S. Czeslaw Milosz moved back to Poland as soon as he could; he was here for the benefit of his family and would have preferred to live in Paris. D.H. Lawrence specifically criticized the competitive economic mindset of Americans. Bertrand Russell needed the money that he earned from lecturing here but stopped coming as soon as he could afford not to. In more recent years, many European intellectuals have moved here for the money (academics don't get paid much). The one time that I spoke to Tony Judt, the historian, who had moved from England, he said that he had been wary regarding where to live in the country, and he had dismissed most of the U.S. To him, the U.S. was mainly anti-intellectual. He ended up at New York University.

In addition to the above, I must mention that even more sinister levels of perversity are emerging now in American society. Rather than rehashing previous statements that I've made, I'll just say that a well-known, established criminal with no moral compass and no competence in governing is currently the strongest candidate in the 2024 presidential race. Ironically, this man, an ostensible populist, is actually the tool of less-conspicuous corporate interests. It's all about money.

Sunday, February 4, 2024


I am more or less caught up on everything that needed to be done regarding the house. The upstairs toilet didn't flush properly, and I replaced it myself. The new toilet works very well and even dislodged a clog in the drainage pipe, making the floor shake. We haven't had much snow, but the new snow blower works very well. The well filtration system for the house hadn't been touched in twenty-three years, and I had it replaced. The water was too acidic, a bit hard and contained iron oxide, and it's better now. 

It took a while for the birds to find the feeder. The numbers have gradually risen since the first snow. I now have about the same distribution of species as in Middlebury: goldfinches, chickadees, tufted titmice, juncos, nuthatches, cardinals, hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers. There are mourning doves in the neighborhood, but they haven't found it yet. Since this a heavily-wooded area, there seem to be more woodpeckers. And there are lots of squirrels. Another difference is that ruffed grouse walk around the yard. I've also seen deer and a fox. The coyotes occasionally have a good group howl at night.

There are advantages to living in the woods. As I mentioned, it's cooler during the summer. The trees also reduce the wind: the wind chimes are quieter. The house isn't as buffeted as much by the wind and is less dusty inside. Also, the roof is much lower and less likely to be damaged by high winds. On the negative side, a forest fire could destroy the house. However, current climate models indicate that this area will be wetter in the future. There was a lot of flooding in Vermont last summer, but it didn't adversely affect this neighborhood. Even if there were a very bad storm, I could always walk to town.

Since it's sunny again and there isn't much snow on the ground, I went for a walk in Pittsford yesterday. I'm not getting as much exercise as earlier. This is the deceptive time of year for Vermont weather: it looks as if spring is about to arrive, and then it gets much colder and snows some more. It doesn't really warm up until May.

My social life hasn't improved much, and nothing is happening on the dating front at the moment. I think that there are plenty of suitable women out there, but most of them are nowhere near here, and I'm not desperate enough to move. Even if I wanted to move, I've spent over $500,000 in cash over the last two years and would prefer to stay put and increase my financial assets. And then new relationships are always problematic. I noticed in the poem in my last post that the young woman who wrote it is more interested in happiness than in loyalty. That is a fairly common sentiment among the women I've known. And experiencing that from the male side again is not something that I'm enthusiastic about. Starting with biological differences, men and women follow different models, of which they are not necessarily aware. When you add differences in socialization, such as ethnicity, places lived, age group and social class, the total differences can be enormous. In my experience, I was the only one interested in sorting out these kinds of things, and the relationships eventually failed: the women had no curiosity about these matters, even though they were quite relevant to their adult identities. I think that there have always been anti-male narratives among women and anti-female narratives among men, and they're both getting worse. It is becoming easier to imagine a future in which people have android companions calibrated for compatibility. Furthermore, technological advancements could render traditional human reproduction obsolete. It is possible that, if men become unnecessary for human reproduction, the two sexes will cease interaction. Also, as I've mentioned before, the members of advanced civilizations may simply choose not to reproduce. On a more positive note, I think that it is still fairly easy to pair up with someone of the opposite sex. It's just a little more complicated after people have had substantial life experiences.

This is about all that I have to say at the moment. I may start reading a short book soon. And, unfortunately, I'm still paying attention to the 2024 presidential election. To me, it looks as if Trump is on the way out. His unpleasant personality is conspicuous in his trials, more Republicans are criticizing him, and people are generally getting tired of him. Even if he continues to run and wins the nomination, Biden is more likely to win, unless he is incapacitated by a medical emergency such as a heart attack. It also helps Biden that the economy is recovering and could be strong by November.

Saturday, February 3, 2024


Of alluvial fields I dreamt.
The idea of marriage:
the great barrier reef with
coral bleached and dying.
Evidence of resilience,
they say, absent a catastrophic
event. Whatever it takes, I've
decided, I don't want
my maternal line to die in me.
I wear my mother's dress.
I watch my body shapeshift.
This face, which hasn't aged
in years, is sunspotted.
I am no movie star. I shrink
from my mother's beauty.
She was, above all else,
good. Her lupus her reward.
Or maybe I am her reward.
I know I'll never be grateful
enough. Between this man
and this man, my eggs are
losing count. Inside your domicile,
how am I to feel alive?
Once again, we face extinction.
The libraries not on fire, but
under dust. I don't believe
in loyalty above happiness.
I dive and dive under
the turbulence. One day, too,
my bones will empty. White blood
cells will mutiny. Do you run
headlong down the hill
into disaster? In the park,
a swarm of gnats insists
on clustering. Insects
claim the interior. The flies
touching my face, again,
again, again, and again.

—Cathy Linh Che

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life V

Thoreau's desire to meet and become well-acquainted with a Native American was fulfilled when he hired Joseph Polis as a guide for an 1857 trip in Maine. He was mainly impressed by Polis's ability to travel effortlessly in the wilds, and he subsequently wrote a portrait of him. That year also included the beginning of an economic depression, referred to as the Panic of 1857, which lasted for several years, and the Dred Scott ruling by the Supreme Court, which denied citizenship to all blacks. Thoreau also met John Brown and later became highly politicized at the time of Brown's execution following Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, which was then part of Virginia. In 1859, Thoreau's father died, and he became the head of the family. The same year, Thoreau was appointed to the Harvard Committee for Examination in Natural History, which was led by Asa Gray, a prominent botanist; this was perhaps Thoreau's only scientific position; they conducted examinations of Harvard botany students.

Because of Asa Gray's friendship with Charles Darwin, he received an early copy of On the Origin of Species in 1860. He shared it with his friends, and Thoreau became one of the first Americans to read it. They had animated discussions about it at Harvard, and, of course, Louis Agassiz completely rejected it, because he thought that "all natural species were separately created by God, unchanged through eternity." That year, Thoreau also delivered a lecture titled "The Succession of Forest Trees." This was published in newspapers by Horace Greeley and became the most popular publication by Thoreau in his lifetime. In May, 1861, Thoreau went on a trip to Minnesota and returned via Canada. In Minnesota he met Native Americans. After he arrived back in Concord in July, his tuberculosis worsened, and he died on May 6, 1862 at the age of forty-four.

My lack of enthusiasm for this book continued right up to the end. One aspect of this, as I mentioned, is Walls's writing style. Although she has the appropriate academic credentials, she projects a Thoreau-fan-club aura that tends to result in an absence of critical appraisal. That can work to a certain extent, because Thoreau doesn't really fit the model of a major thinker, and, describing him the way that she does, it becomes clear that he was informed by the environment in which he lived, which can alternatively be seen as the subject of the book. So, even if Thoreau wasn't that great, you get a highly detailed picture of the culture in Concord during the mid-1800's. Unfortunately, I'm not a cultural historian.

As for Thoreau himself, I don't currently find him particularly interesting. That is because I am not impressed by his ideas. I think that is partly his fault, because he spread himself too thin. He delved haphazardly into so many subjects that failure was almost guaranteed. His interest in Native Americans could theoretically have been developed into an early anthropological study, but it wasn't. His interest in the regional effects of farming on local ecosystems could have been developed into land management science, but it wasn't. I also think that his political writings tend to be naïve and uninformed. Then, although he delved into Buddhism and Hinduism, he did not seem to make a real departure from New England Puritanism, because Transcendentalism seems merely to be a variant of that. I think that Thoreau's scattershot way of choosing subjects was the result of his family background and the time and place in which he lived. He had no model in his household for choosing a career and pursuing it with a college education. Furthermore, Harvard at the time was nothing like a modern research university and was similar to Oxford and Cambridge, which were also still functioning like theological seminaries. Charles Darwin himself could easily have ended up as a clergyman, because he did not distinguish himself academically at Cambridge. So, although Thoreau seems to have been talented, he lacked a career plan and ended up spreading himself too thin. As a writer, he didn't have a practical strategy for developing a wide readership. In other respects, he held many of the prejudices of his time; for example, he thought that women were stupid: technically, he was a sexist. Then, as a writer, I don't particularly like his style, which seems archaic to me. Overall, I think that Thoreau fits best within the context of later developments such as the civil disobedience protest strategy and the interest in nature-friendly lifestyles, but I don't think that he provided any definitive writings on those or other subjects. It is possible that, had he remained in good health for another twenty years, he may have produced something more closely resembling a magnum opus than Walden.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life IV

I am not finding this book very rewarding but am plugging away and will finish up on my next post. The atmosphere in Concord changed when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850. This federal law required citizens in Massachusetts and elsewhere to assist in the capture and return of escaped slaves to their owners, and the Thoreaus became more active in helping with the transportation of escaped slaves to Canada. Walls believes that the law was a precipitating factor behind the Civil War, which began in 1861.

Thoreau continued to make various trips, on which he took notes and often later produced essays for publication. His book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers didn't sell well, and many copies were returned to him. This left him with a large debt, since he had paid for the printing himself. He was also prepared to write and publish about his trips to Cape Cod and Canada. He spent a lot of time fine-tuning Walden, and it was published in 1854. At that point, he went on a lecture tour. There was more interest in Walden than in his previous book, but it was not a great publishing success during his lifetime. In May, 1855, he was slowed down by tuberculosis symptoms, but recovered somewhat.

On a daily basis, Thoreau liked to walk around and observe plants and animals and note changes from one season to the next. Over the years, he had various male friends who walked with him occasionally. Walls is drawing from Thoreau's journals, which don't seem to contain much information on what, if anything, they discussed. So, to the reader, these seem like minor, anecdotal passages. At times it sounds almost like "Provisions were getting low in the house, and Henry's mother asked him to go to the butcher and purchase some bacon." However, Thoreau was on the fringes of major intellectual life and the publishing industry, and through Emerson and Harvard, he got to know Louis Agassiz, the biologist and geologist, Horace Greeley, the publisher, and Walt Whitman, the poet. As I mentioned earlier, Agassiz was one of the last major scientists to remain a creationist. Greeley encouraged Thoreau to write short pieces in order to establish his reputation, but he never did. And, though Thoreau found Whitman to be a little crazy, he liked some of his poems.

Through his eclectic interests, Thoreau read The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin's first book. This reminded me of Alfred Russel Wallace, who was five years younger than Thoreau and read some of the same books as him. Wallace is probably a better comparison than G.H. Lewes, because Lewes started out in the literary world and switched to science, whereas Wallace did not go through a literary period, and, reading the same books as Thoreau, he actually went on specimen-collecting trips in the Amazon and the Malay Peninsula. Wallace is also similar to Thoreau in that they both did surveying. What strikes me is that Thoreau did not have as much of a scientific curiosity as Wallace, who theoretically could have beaten Darwin to the press on natural selection.

Facts such as these help me compare Thoreau's intellectual environment to that of Lewes, Wallace and Darwin. Although, at that time, scientific standards were still generally low everywhere, London was an intellectual center that included many scientists, whereas, in the U.S., most of the science was associated with commerce and the Industrial Revolution. By 1850, English and German romanticism had generally peaked, perhaps with remnants in England such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement. Thomas Malthus, an early influence on Darwin, began publishing in 1798, and there was no American equivalent. To a modern reader like me, Thoreau and Emerson seem to be riding out the last days of romanticism, still singing paeans to Nature after Europe had moved on. The continued American interest in religion also contrasts with Europe, which was already becoming secular by then. Thoreau and his contemporaries were wrestling with the moral implications of slavery well after it had been abolished in the U.K. I think that this may help explain why Thoreau didn't become very popular in the U.S. until the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960's and 1970's revived some of the issues that he had written about earlier. It took a long time for the hippies to come along and take note of Thoreau's ideas, which weren't that popular while he was alive.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life III

The famous incident in which Thoreau was arrested for not paying his poll tax occurred in 1846. This was not a planned act of civil disobedience at the time, and he was briefly sent to jail. Later that year, he took a long trip to see Mt. Katahdin in Maine. By then, he was constantly writing notes on his daily experiences. In late 1847, he permanently moved out of the Walden cabin and stayed at Emerson's house, helping Emerson's wife, Lidian, while Emerson was away on an extended trip to Europe. Although he had a draft of Walden, he wanted to publish A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which documented a trip that he had taken with John before his death. Since no one was interested in publishing it, he had it printed at his own expense. At this point, Thoreau became a lecturer, and there were wildly varying reactions to his lectures. Some people found them laughable, while others liked them. When Emerson returned home from Europe in 1848, Thoreau moved out permanently and lived with his family again. The pencil business had ups and downs, and Thoreau also worked as a surveyor and a civil engineer. He continued to read widely, and was taken by Charles Lyell's work on geology. He also enthusiastically read Alexander von Humboldt, who influenced many of the naturalists at the time. It seems that a small rift developed between Emerson and Thoreau. Thoreau had a broad knowledge by then and was probably one of the first Americans who became familiar with Buddhism. Although Walls has not explored this angle so far, I think that Buddhism probably didn't sit well with Emerson, because his goal had been to make Thoreau an acolyte of Transcendentalism. As Thoreau developed his own ideas, they probably diverged from what Emerson had in mind. Also, it seems unlikely that Emerson took much interest in natural history.

Because of Thoreau's intense journal-keeping and Walls's dutiful reporting on it, the book continues to proceed very slowly. It doesn't help that Thoreau usually walked everywhere to save money and was constantly noting what he saw in his journal. As a thinker, Thoreau seems to have been very detail-oriented, like an engineer, but he was not a big thinker in the sense that he only concerned himself with his immediate environment. He showed no interest in astronomy. Although the name "Rousseau" does not come up in this book, Thoreau seems to have internalized the idea of the "noble savage." He seemed to want to encounter one in an idealized wilderness, but usually only came across a drunken Indian once in a while. In this vein, he also wanted to commune with nature. He was definitely a person of his time, and you can safely compare him to G.H. Lewes, who was also born in 1817. Lewes started out with drama and fiction but gradually worked his way to natural science. However, Lewes spent most of his adult life in London in intellectual circles, whereas Thoreau lived on the outskirts of Boston. Thus, Thoreau was subject to New England's obsessions with religious ideas, while Lewes was not. Interestingly, George Eliot, who was two years younger than Thoreau, was quite religious while growing up. She actually met Emerson while he was on the trip mentioned above, and was impressed by him while she was still living at home with her father. Later, in London, where Lewes encouraged her to adopt a more scientific outlook, she wrote a glowing review of Walden.

Walls dutifully speculates on Thoreau's sexuality but does not arrive at a clear answer. Although he sent poems to Ellen Sewell and proposed to her, he seemed to have been more interested in men generally. It seems possible that his physical characteristics, low social status and social awkwardness may have set him on a path that did not lead to romance. He was short, with small shoulders, and generally did not make a good impression when people met him. To many, including Emerson, he was a bit of a hick. He had none of the polish that one would expect from a Harvard graduate, then or now.

All this fuss about religion in New England reminds me of my first exposure to it when my family moved to the U.S. Coming from England in 1957, we had never heard of religious fanaticism before, and though, technically, we were Episcopalian, no one in the family was particularly religious. Thus, my take on religion while I was growing up wasn't very American. The house where we first lived was within walking distance of Split Rock, and I went there before I95 was built. Split Rock is a large boulder with a split in the middle and has been linked to the scalping of Anne Hutchinson and several of her children by the Siwanoy Indians in 1643. Hutchinson, who grew up in England, had been banished from Massachusetts by the Puritans because of her religious beliefs, and possibly, in modern terms, because of sexism. One of our neighbors, a girl in my class, was actually a descendant of Anne Hutchinson. So I started out with an image that was almost the opposite of the "noble savage," and the beliefs of people like Anne Hutchinson remained a mystery to me. To this day, the mythologized American past that was popular during Thoreau's lifetime has never influenced me much. Thoreau, I think, had an early sense of the losses caused by economic progress and the destruction of the environment, and he seems to have instinctively disliked the bourgeois life, though that concept didn't exist then. In some ways, he presaged Rachel Carson and modern environmentalists. However, he was also subject to American folklore, which, at the time, presented a naïve image of Native Americans. While Cormac McCarthy is excessive at the opposite extreme, the U.S. does in fact have a violent and unsavory past.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Henry David Thoreau: A Life II

This biography is quite dense in detail and is moving along very slowly. There was a certain brotherly rivalry between John and Henry, and John was generally better-liked, because of his outgoing nature. Walls does finally acknowledge that Henry was an introvert. The rivalry culminated in both of them proposing marriage to the same woman, Ellen Sewell, and both being rejected. Her father was a Unitarian minister who disapproved of Transcendentalists. Though Henry and John's school was initially a success, after John became ill, Henry couldn't manage it by himself, and the school closed in 1841. At that point, Emerson offered Thoreau the opportunity to move in with his family and do odd jobs while also participating in literary activities. Emerson had recently started the literary publication, the Dial, and Thoreau was one of its first contributors. It didn't exactly take off in popularity, but it provided a focus for the literary community in Concord growing around Emerson. It must be said that Emerson played a major role in Thoreau's life, because he made Concord a literary center and drew in people whom Thoreau otherwise may never have met. He also had literary connections in England and elsewhere in the U.S. Moreover, he took a personal interest in Thoreau's literary development and helped him on numerous occasions. Through Emerson, Thoreau came to know Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. Thoreau also spent time in New York City while working as a tutor for Emerson's brother's son on Staten Island. He made the literary rounds while there and even made the acquaintance of Henry James, Sr. Emerson had advised James, Sr. that "once he got past Thoreau's 'village pedantry & tediousness of facts,' he would find 'a profound mind and a person of true magnanimity.'" At the time, Henry James, Jr., the author, was a baby. However, Thoreau was unable to establish any suitable literary footholds in New York, and, disliking the crowds, he soon returned to Concord.

In 1842, John accidentally cut himself while sharpening a razor. He contracted tetanus and died within a few days. Somehow, Henry developed lockjaw symptoms, but they subsided. Soon after, the Emersons also had a disaster when their son, Waldo, Jr. died of scarlet fever. Thoreau's health never seems to have been good, and he later developed narcolepsy. Walls thinks that the narcolepsy may have been a symptom of latent tuberculosis. It is important to keep in mind the primitive state of medicine when reading about earlier generations. But then, future generations may be saying the same thing about us in 180 years. Walls also mentions an enormous blunder that Thoreau made in April, 1844. He was out camping with a friend under very dry conditions and accidentally started a wildfire, which consumed many acres and did about $2000 worth of damage, which was a fortune in those days. To be fair, wildfires were common at that time.

By the mid-1840's, the character of Concord had changed considerably. A train line came through, rendering Concord a suburb of Boston. There was also a large influx of Irish immigrants, some of whom lived in shacks in Concord. In 1845, Thoreau reached an agreement with Emerson that he would build a writer's cabin on Emerson's property near Walden Pond, and he began constructing it himself. Thoreau was quite handy and still worked as a day laborer in order to generate some income. The cabin, as described so far, sounds very basic and would not be considered a habitable dwelling today.

To indicate how slowly this book is moving, though I'm now 200 pages into it, Thoreau is just 27, hasn't married or held a steady job, and is just starting out at Walden Pond. I can understand why this was important to him, because it was the first time in his life that he could truly be alone, i.e., not inhabit a house that was continuously occupied by others. I don't think of writing as a job or a career, but think that in order to write well, you do need silence and minimal distraction. So I sympathize with Thoreau, and his goal was probably not much different from Virginia Woolf's in A Room of One's Own.

Even so, at this point, I am building up a certain cognitive dissonance regarding Thoreau's self-presentation and the way that he is seen by later generations. One aspect of this, of which many people are cognizant, is that Walden was hardly a remote cabin in the woods. In the neighborhood were the train line, farmers, Irish settlers and emancipated slaves, though some shacks were abandoned by then. Emerson's and Thoreau's families lived nearby, and Thoreau's social life was not affected. Another aspect is the portrayal of Thoreau as a major thinker. It seems to me that, although Thoreau does to some extent represent an original voice, it can also be argued that most of his ideas were derivative of the particular milieu in which he lived. I am reserving judgment on these and other matters, and for now I'll just mention one area of concern. I think that some of Thoreau's ideas can be considered precursors to modern right-wing politics. A "small government" may have worked adequately in 1845, but in 2024 the U.S. population is about 20 times larger. Moreover, the government services available to Americans have skyrocketed. Thoreau is also well known for his support of civil disobedience, which was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In an ideal world, that may not be a bad idea, but, with modern political developments, acts similar to civil disobedience are now being undertaken by far-right groups, which seem to prefer dictatorships to democracies. If you remove the violence from right-wing protest, it is not much different from civil disobedience.