Friday, July 20, 2012

The Thoreau You Don’t Know

To some, Thoreau is an icon of environmental insight and political conscience, a keen social critic, and a paragon of self-sufficiency. To others, he’s a fraud, a misanthrope, and a dour, holier-than-thou stick-in-the-mud who took his washing to be done at his mother’s house, week after week, that is, when he wasn’t actually living there.

To me, Thoreau has been a hero of sorts since high school, though at a certain point it occurred to me that I had never actually read Walden, but only thumbed through a few pages here and there. I believe I was more profoundly influenced by the Sierra Club book of photos by Eliot Porter with quotes from Thoreau called In Wildness is the Preservation of the Earth. Even today, when I come upon an exceedingly beautiful, densely textured forest scene, not classically picturesque but bristling with subtle patterns and shafts of light, I say to myself, "Now there’s an Eliot Porter scene.”

The only book by Thoreau that I ever read cover-to-cover was Cape Cod. I liked it better than Walden; it held my interest. But it was obvious to me from the first that Thoreau was far better with words than the common run of mid-nineteenth century prose stylists. Clear, evocative, riddled with irony and humor in the best “modern” style.

Yet in recent years, bringing a yellowing, mass-market-size Harper paperback with me into the woods, Great Short Works of Henry David Thoreau, I found myself quickly growing tired of Thoreau’s gripes against his fellow man. His contrary turns of phrase struck me as too often merely facile or clever, rather than genuinely insightful.

In his recent biography, The Thoreau You Don’t Know, Robert Sullivan has done a good job of reminding us of the Thoreau we once admired. He paints a portrait of a joking, musical, character, who not only criticized those of his neighbors who were living “lives of quiet desperation,” but also expressed admiration for the ones who knew their land well and managed it wisely.

Far from being a misanthrope, Thoreau hosted an annual, and very popular, watermelon festival, surveyed most of the area around Concord at one time or another, gave lectures, managed the family pencil-factory, and in general, led a very town-centered life, even when he was conducting his experiment at Walden Pond—a twenty-minute walk from Concord.

Against the famous remark that “in wildness is the preservation of the earth,” Sullivan counterpoises another that he finds more characteristic of Thoreau’s own life. “The wilderness is simple, almost to barrenness. The partially cultivated country it is which chiefly has inspired, and will continue to inspire, the strains of poets, such as compose the mass of any literature.”

But as he stresses in the introduction, Sullivan’s book is less a biography of Thoreau than a “look at the times and the conditions under which he wrote, and a look at him as a free-lance writer…” This turns out to be a fruitful perspective. The Panic of 1837, the vast influx of Irish immigrants, the resultant increase in domestic servants, and the rising popularity of Martha-Stewart-like home decoration and management books, are all phenomena that Thoreau was well aware of and often refers to obliquely in his work.

At a distance of almost two centuries, it’s sometimes difficult for the modern reader to discern when Thoreau is being serious and when he’s gently lampooning a fashion or attitude of his own day. (Scholars often say the same thing about Socrates.)

Along the way, Sullivan offers shrewd portraits of Thoreau’s parents, his brother John, and lifelong friends including Emerson, Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, and Ellery Channing. He describes Thoreau’s growth as a free lance writer as perhaps only a fellow free-lancer could. Nor does he neglect to explore at length Thoreau’s approach to observing “nature,” which seems to be as much about ice-cutters and woodchoppers and farmers as it is about hazelnuts and northern lights.

As we approach the end of the book, we feel we’ve been thoroughly exposed to Thoreau’s cranky side, though his superlative awareness of everything going on in his neighborhood shines through. In the last chapter Sullivan decides to walk the short distance from downtown Concord to Walden Pond, where the plaque reads, in part: “…I did not wish to live what was not life, Living is so dear.”

Sullivan has succeeded in bringing the man’s liveliest moments to the surface. It’s a Thoreau I once knew, but had somehow forgot.

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