June 28, 2023

Expecting To Be Misunderstood — Thoughts on Will Howarth (1940-2023)

By Stuart Mitchner

You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s…

—Henry David Thoreau, from Walden

Thoreau scholar William Howarth quotes those words in his June 5, 2017 American Scholar essay “Reading Thoreau at 200.” When I learned of his death two weeks ago, I felt as if I’d lost a friend, although we’d met only once in person, at a party in Princeton some 30 years ago. While I can’t remember what we actually discussed, we most likely talked about family names, politics, Princeton, writers and writing, and of course Thoreau. One thing I surely mentioned was my long ago visit to Thoreau’s grave in Concord, where the only word on his gravestone is HENRY, no secrets, no obscurities, just the name, as if he’d died on familiar terms with the planet.

Naming Names

During a July 2017 email exchange, Howarth said that that his was “a locational name, meaning the field on a hilltop where we drive flocks in summer, dooming me to a life of teaching and preaching. My name was misspelled and torturously mispronounced throughout my youth. My family said How-worth, as in How much is it Worth? The Midwest corruption was often Hoe-worth. But I’ve always had a theory that expecting to be misunderstood is good training for a writer.”

That last thought, tossed off casually in an email, could have come from Thoreau himself, or from John McPhee, Howarth’s friend and colleague in the Princeton English Department and the subject of his introduction to The John McPhee Reader (1976). In the University’s June 20 memorial tribute to Howarth, McPhee recalls that “Will was a towpath running companion,” adding with characteristic geological panache, “We joked that he came from the mid-continent, the stable interior craton, where nothing much had happened in a billion years.”  Howarth told me he’d grown up in Minnesota and Illinois, but was “planted in the East by circumstance.” He’d once dreamed of “retiring to Wisconsin and living in a Prairie-style house, until the alt-right destroyed everything green or rad in the state.”

Sounding the Alarm

Although Trump had only been in office half a year when “Thoreau at 200” was published, Howarth was sounding the alarm: “Our times have never needed the shock of Thoreau more. We face a government eager to kill all measures of natural protection in the name of corporate profit. Elected officials openly bray that environmentalism ‘is the greatest threat to freedom.’ On federal, state, and local levels, civil liberties and free speech are under severe attack. Thoreau is too; the barriers to reading him as a voice of resistance — or reading him at all — are multiplying swiftly.”

An example of what Howarth’s getting at is “Pond Scum,” a 2015 New Yorker piece by Kathryn Schulz, in Howarth’s words, “the Kellyanne Conway of Thoreau commentary.” While I still find it hard to believe that the famously circumspect New Yorker editors permitted so Trumpish a title, Schulz’s hatchet job provoked a stirring response from Howarth: “I have spent a lifetime with Thoreau. I neither love nor hate him, but I know him well. I tracked down his papers, lived in Concord, walked his trails, repeated his journeys, and read, twice, the full journal.” Even one journey through 47 manuscript volumes, or 7,000 pages, would be an epic accomplishment, and this journal “runs longer than two million words (many still unpublished),” and is, says Howarth, “the great untold secret of American letters.”

Reading Spiderwebs

“Will was one of the 10 or so people in the world who could read Thoreau’s handwriting,” according to McPhee, who compared it to “damaged spiderwebs,” which fits with the content of a journal made up of field notes, wherein Thoreau, in Howarth’s words, was “turning ground-truth into literature. He finds a riverbank hollow of frost crystals, and replicates exactly how they look, at a distance and then closer, imagining how they formed….. He watches snowflakes land on his coat sleeve: ‘And they all sing, melting as they sing, of the mysteries of the number six.’ “

The singing snowflakes are reminders of Howarth’s interest in Thoreau’s “real theme, the life of secrets, of learning from writing.”

Pen Names and Secrets

In the context of secrets, I’m thinking of pen names and my decision not to complete the sentence Howarth thought important enough to quote in full at the top of a July 12, 2017 email headed “Secrets” and that I left incomplete at the top of this essay. After asking the reader to pardon “some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s,” Thoreau goes on to admit that the secrets are “yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature.” Which means that secrets are inseparable from the very nature of the writing trade?

After another look at the email in question, I see that I left out the gist of Howarth’s response to my column on Thoreau’s bicentenary: “Thanks again for a tribute that the man in Concord would have enjoyed.” That’s a compliment to be cherished, so why hide it? As for the whys and wherefores of pen names, if you look up “William Howarth” in the Princeton Public Library’s online catalogue, you will be directed to Dana Hand, the author of Deep Creek (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010), a book actually co-written by Will Howarth and his wife Anne Matthews.

“Deep Creek”

I began Deep Creek when I needed to come up for air during my reading of Cormac McCarthy’s unforgivingly intense novel Blood Meridian. Deep Creek is based on the 1887 massacre of Chinese miners in Hell’s Canyon, on the Snake River border between Oregon and Idaho territory. Blood Meridian improvises on atrocities that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s.

Reading Deep Creek, which was named one of the 10 best novels of 2010 by the Washington Post, it’s tempting to identify the authors with the couple at the center of the novel, Joe Vincent, the lawman hired to investigate the case, and Grace Sundown, described in the liner notes as “a métis mountain guide with too many secrets.” I found Grace the novel’s most appealing character: at home in rough terrain, intelligent, capable, well-spoken, attractive if not beautiful, and above all a sympathetic female of the sort rarely if ever found in McCarthy’s work, at least not until Alicia Western in The Passenger/Stella Maris.

Although Deep Creek offered a temporary reprieve from the weighty “greatness” of Blood Meridian, there are passages in it as graphic as anything to be found among McCarthy’s “legions of horribles.” If anything, the details of violation are more disturbing because there is actually room for the reader in the scene. Rather than a teeming delirium of violence, you’re observing, with a clarity worthy of Thoreau in the field, “faces that had fallen prey to carcass beetles and maggots” with “corpse wax forming on the cheek fat…. All three decaying throats had been slit.”

Thoreau also comes to mind in passages like the one about “souvenirs” found by two Chinese boys while exploring the “alpine meadows above camp…. A double handful of hazelnuts. An obsidian arrowhead. A horned toad, inedible but lucky. A magpie feather, luckier still.”

If your couple of choice is Joe and Grace, you’re most intensely with them when they’re at risk, as when Blue Evans, the handsome blonde monster who orchestrated the massacre, seems about to gouge Joe’s eyeball out of its socket, or when, having escaped justice, he physically accosts Grace in Portland, his face “inches away. She could smell ginseng on his breath…. A fine straight nose, a sculptured, curling mouth. No one had said he was this handsome.” As she jerks away, he flings up his free arm “like a man hailing a hansom cab” to beckon the police, who arrest her for soliciting, in case you forgot that in 1887 America this admirable woman is treated as a half breed prostitute.

Princeton’s Howarth

In one of his July 2017 emails, Howarth mentioned teaching a freshman course on film noir and invited me to visit sometime “and see what the class of 2021 thinks of Bogart and Bergman.” Of course the man who quoted Thoreau on “secrets” and “obscurities” would teach a course on film noir. This also explains the reference in Deep Creek to a series of London murders during the same period: “harlot after harlot fund dead in the slums, throats slit, bodies torn open, organs cut away…. Papers called the killer Jack the Ripper.”

You get a nice sense of Howorth’s campus presence from his colleague Susan Wolfson, quoted in the impressive memorial statement from Princeton’s Office of Communications: “His office was a commodious one on the first floor [of Firestone Library], with high leaded glass windows facing the Chapel, and comfy chairs. It seemed he was always there, late into the evening, working away, but Will’s office was also, in the absence of any faculty lounge, something of a de facto hospitality suite, where everyone felt welcome to come by for conversation, for counsel, or just a cheery greeting.”