July 12, 2017

The “Scribe of All Nature,” Henry David Thoreau, Is 200 Years Old Today

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Today is Thoreau’s 200th birthday. It’s unlikely that the author of Walden would find all the hoopla “worth the while” — a three-day bicentennial gala in Concord, Mass.; inns and motels booked three years in advance; as many as 750,000 people estimated to be making the pilgrimage to Walden Pond in this celebratory year; the publication of new biographies and numerous books; a full-scale exhibit, “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal,” at the Morgan Museum and Library in New York. 

This is the man, after all, whose gravestone contains but one word, HENRY; who says “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” and tells us “instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail;” who begins his signature work with a section titled “Economy,” in which he offers extravagant thoughts about honoring the dead: “As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have no time for it. As for the religion and love of art of the builders, it is much the same all the world over, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the United States Bank. It costs more than it comes to.”

“Accidentally On Purpose”

Thoreau also makes a point of showing only a passing interest in America’s most hallowed anniversary when he informs us that he began to spend his nights at Walden “by accident” on “Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, 1845.” In early editions of Walden, he draws attention to such underwhelmingly stated information by highlighting the sentence preceding it on the title page: “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”

Should you seek out the page number provided with the titular epigraph, you find Thoreau’s lusty cockcrow of intent coinciding with the accidentally on purpose reference to Independence Day, which just happened to be when he began his life at Walden. And should you read as far as the “Conclusion,” you’ll find him suggesting that “Patriotism is a maggot in their heads” for those who “love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay.”

This sort of rhetorical rock and roll brings to mind Richard Poirier’s observation in A World Elsewhere that “Thoreau’s genius with language, like Joyce’s, is to an awesome degree self-satisfying.”

Waking to His Message

According to Princeton University Professor Emeritus William Howarth, former editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Princeton Univ. Press), most students in the half century he taught Thoreau would “memorize, regurgitate, and move serenely on, untouched.” In his bicentennial essay in the summer 2017 issue of The American Scholar, Howarth reports that students “bound for Wall Street often yawn or snicker” at Thoreau’s “call to simplify, to refuse, to resist. Perhaps a third of them react with irritation, shading into hatred. How dare he question the point of property, the meaning of wealth? The smallest contingent, and the most gratifying, are those who wake to his message.”

Although I was alerted to the message by two great teachers, James M. Cox at Indiana and Richard Poirier at Rutgers, I didn’t really connect with Thoreau until I read the letters and, especially, the journals. The first small volume of correspondence published in 1865 was, according to F.B. Sanborn, “designedly done to exhibit one phase of his character,” rather than “the most native or attractive.” Thoreau’s younger sister Sophia (1819-1876) was “dissatisfied” with the “rule of selection” and let Sanborn know her wish that “a fuller and more familiar view” of her brother would one day be given to the world. Sanborn responded decades later with the edition titled Familiar Letters (1893). To give an impression of what had been left out, Sanborn quotes a close friend of Thoreau’s to the effect that he was “one of those characters who may be called ‘household treasures,’” who could “raise the best melons in the garden, plant the orchard with choicest trees, or act as extempore mechanic,” and who had a fondness for his sister’s flowers or pets (“kittens were his favorite — he would play with them by the half-hour”). Among the characteristics Sanborn says were considered suspect and expendable in the letters were Thoreau’s use of “popular speech,” his “levity,” and a fondness for puns “in which he abounded almost as much as Shakespeare.”

Thoreau’s Thumb

One letter thought too familiar for the original edition begins with a sprained thumb. Writing to Sophia, on July 8, 1860, Thoreau says that “it is questionable whether I can write legibly, if at all. I can’t ‘bear on’ much,” and adds, “What is worse, I believe that I have sprained my brain too — that is, it sympathizes with my thumb.” After ranging through issues that include a ceremony at John Brown’s grave, a related “murder case,” an annual picnic (“I do not go to picnics, you know”), and a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s return from Europe (“He is as simple and childlike as ever”),
Thoreau finishes on this not quite coherent note: “I believe that I have fairly scared the kittens away, at last, by my pretended fierceness, which was. I will consider my thumb — and your eyes.”

It’s the appealing essence of the “familiar,” that Thoreau closes with his sore thumb and his sister’s eyes. But what about “the pretended fierceness” that scared the cats? What happened to the rest of the sentence? Which was — what? All this random play of everyday detail may be nothing more than further evidence that “by accident” is simply in Thoreau’s nature (and humankind’s), whether he’s writing a playful letter to his sister or shrugging off one of the most significant dates in his life. But the letter’s last two words — “your eyes” — haunt me, maybe because they echo the sentence in Walden where Thoreau wonders “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Some research online suggests that Sophia’s eyes became her brother’s eyes, in effect, at least according to an article contending that she alone edited Thoreau’s four posthumous essay collections while making sure that her brother’s voluminous and invaluable journals found a sympathetic and knowledgeable editor.

Rescued by Thoreau

In 1973-74 my wife and I were living adjacent to the Downs in Bristol. The proximity of miles and miles of countryside in the middle of the city meant a lot of walking and exploring, noticing things, making connections, like an extension of the close-reading regimen I’d been following as a graduate student in English at Rutgers. Sometimes I’d bring some Bristol flora home with me. On this particular September evening, without really thinking about it (“accidentally on purpose”), I fill a pipe with some crumbled copper beech and holly leaves and the white pulp from a horse chestnut, light a match to it, and inhale. A few seconds later my mind shuts down. Spasms in the hands and legs, dry mouth, hot and cold chills. I’d been writing in my journal. When I try to read it, nothing makes sense. I hurry downstairs and out the front door, my legs giving way under me, my heart racing, my hands turning to ice. Hoping to walk it off, I stagger toward the area of Downs I’d been grubbing around in, as if going to the source might help.

Nothing helps until I turn around, head home, and pick up my well-worn copy of the Signet Classics paperback of Thoreau’s Selected Journals, my first sound thought since I lit the pipe. I open it looking for a September entry and find Sept. 2 1851, and sanity:

The body, the senses must conspire with the mind. Expression is the act of the whole man, that our speech may be vascular. The intellect is powerless to express thought without the aid of the heart and liver and of every member. Often I feel that my head stands out too dry, when it should be immersed. A writer, a man writing, is the scribe of all nature; he is the corn and the grass and the atmosphere writing. It is always essential that we love to do what we are doing, do it with a heart.”

I’ve used italics to suggest, however inadequately, the way the words cleared my head, creating the sense of a voice alive in the language perfectly tuned to the moment. Reading on, I find another passage, from Sept. 3, also stunningly appropriate: “… no man is quite well or healthy, yet everyone believes practically that health is the rule and disease the exception … disease is in fact the rule in our terrestrial life and the prophecy of our celestial life …. Man begins quarreling with the animal in him, and the result is immediate disease …. It is as a seer that man asserts his disease to be exceptional.” These brief passages out of all the two million-plus words in the journals gave me everything I needed.

So here he is today, July 12, 2017, whether in a Signet paperback or in the university press edition of the Writings, or in the massive Dover edition (14 volumes bound as two) that includes a facsimile of the first page of the manuscript, reproduced “same size” courtesy of the Pierpont Morgan Library, now the Morgan Museum and Library, where you can see the real thing in person in “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal,” from now through September 10.