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.

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