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.

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