Sunday, December 31, 2023

Henry David Thoreau: A Life I

This book, by Laura Dassow Walls, seems to be considered the best biography of Thoreau, and I'm giving it a try. I've already read biographies of the people who interest me the most, and Thoreau is near the top of my second-tier list. I read Walden; or, Life in the Woods a long time ago and barely remember it. For someone who went to college in 1968 in the U.S., it was de rigeur, though I didn't get around to reading it until later. At that time, I identified with Thoreau's interest in nature and his support of individualism, but not particularly with his political ideas or his implicit Transcendentalism. Looking back, the sit-ins that students had during the 1960's still seem a little ridiculous to me, particularly those led by upper-middle-class white baby boomers at expensive liberal arts colleges. And then I've never had any interest in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was Thoreau's mentor. I liked Thoreau's scientific bent, but now find that he has been surpassed by others, such as E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould, in both writing style and scientific knowledge. This isn't necessarily Thoreau's fault, because he was eight years younger than Charles Darwin and died less than three years after On the Origin of Species was published.

I am starting to consider myself a New Englander now, because I like Vermont and have lived here for twelve years. I like the Puritan work ethic and practicality of Vermonters, but not necessarily the characteristics of all New Englanders. Thoreau lived in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from Boston, and there are a couple of things that I dislike about Boston. Unfortunately, the Tea Party message from there has gradually evolved from a statement against oppression by the British to a statement in support of unfettered greed, which may soon permit an unscrupulous liar to become the first dictator in American history. The other thing, which I think that Thoreau noticed, was that Boston was probably one of the first American cities to develop a smug, self-satisfied middle class. Bertrand Russell couldn't stand it when he visited there. As Ray Monk says, "From the very beginning Russell was contemptuous of America in general, and Boston in particular, and especially so of the pompous Bostonian dignitaries by whom he was fêted." Likewise, after Thoreau had spent time in Boston, he could never wait to return to Concord.

One of my interests in reading this book is to get a broader view of New England culture from the early to mid-1800's. The Industrial Revolution was occurring then, and society was in a state of flux. I looked at this a little for Middlebury, where the area never really industrialized, and many people simply moved west. The populations in the coastal regions grew much larger, and a smaller percentage of the people moved away.

Thoreau was born into a modest Concord family on July 12, 1817. His father, a descendant of French Huguenots, had artistic sensibilities, and his mother was an early advocate of social justice. The anti-slavery movement was taking off in New England while Thoreau was growing up. Eventually, Thoreau's father, John, started a pencil business. Most of the pencils had been made in England, and there were few American sources. In those days, a pencil was far more necessary than it is today. Thoreau was more studious than his older brother, John, and eventually went to Harvard. At that time, there were seventy or fewer students each year, and most of the curriculum was antiquated, consisting mainly of Latin and Greek. Fortunately for Thoreau, he was good at languages, and he started out well, but his standing fell by the time he graduated. He also learned other languages and mathematics. He graduated in 1837 and returned to Concord. Initially, he got a job as a teacher but quit almost immediately, it is suggested, because he disliked the corporal punishment that was required. For a time, he stayed with his family and helped with the pencil business. He also developed a friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was seventeen years older and lived in Concord. As far as I've read, he and his brother, John, have started their own progressive grammar school in Concord.

Walls, the author of this book, so far seems to be doing a competent job. Maybe because it actually reflects the cultural environment in Concord at the time, the book has a slightly folksy feel to it, almost verging on the treacly at times. This stands out to me, because none of the European biographies that I've read showed any sign of that. I also have my usual complaint about the lack of psychological nuance. Much of Thoreau's behavior seems to be driven by introversion, but Walls has had nothing to say about that. I will continue posting on the book until I finish it.

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