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.

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