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.