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Lead book review

The two sides of Henry David Thoreau

Dominic Green examines two new books in the poet-naturalist’s bicentenary year

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

Henry David Thoreau: A Life Laura Dassow Walls

University of Chicago Press, pp.640, £26.50

Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau Kevin Dann

Tarcher Perigee, pp.400, £26.00

In The Ambassadors, Henry James sends Lewis Lambert Strether from Boston to Paris to retrieve Chad Newsome, the wayward heir to a factory at Woollett, Massachusetts. Strether never names the ‘small, trivial rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use’ that has enriched the Newsomes, though he does say that it is not clothes pins, baking soda or shoe polish. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster identifies this ambiguity with James’s ‘uninvolved’ style, then suggests a button hook. Possible resolutions of the ‘Woollett Question’ also include safety matches, alarm clocks, toothpicks and, in a David Lodge campus satire, a chamber pot. I suggest another item from the booming industrial towns of Massachusetts, and a possible inspiration for the ‘obstinate’ runaway, Chad Newsome.

Henry David Thoreau was heir to the Thoreau Pencil Company of Concord, Massachusetts. There was money in wood — the forests of New England supplied material for construction, fuel, and railway sleepers — and that was the problem. Born in 1817, Thoreau was so much the creature of factory-made ‘perfectedness’ that he could pick up by feel alone ‘a dozen pencils at every grasp’. Yet he hated the materialism and hypocrisy of the ‘compact system of civil society’.

Thoreau’s mentor Emerson, who thought that ‘the powers that make a capitalist are metaphysical’, had invested in two plots in the woods near Concord. In 1846, Thoreau settled on one of them, by Walden Pond. With Emersonian ‘self-reliance’ as his ‘Foundation and Ground-Plan’, and Emersonian white pines as his cabin walls, Thoreau built the ‘little world’ of Walden (1854): the bean patch, the mystical botanising, the yogic reverie. Life in the woods sharpened his mind like a pencil at a lathe. ‘Time is but a dream I go fishing in… Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.’

The legend also remains. Walden is on American high school syllabi. Walden Pond is a state park with a replica cabin in the car park. The pond has its own Twitter account: ‘7/3/17 at 9:17 a.m.: Walden Pond closed after reaching visitor capacity.’ So many independent minds follow the Thoreau trail that their feet have eroded the pond’s banks. Thoreau the fugitive mystic is an icon for Subaru-driving suburban liberals. Ye shall know them by their bumper stickers. At the Walden Pond gift shop, you can buy one that explains your politics, diet and open-toed footwear in one word: ‘Thoreau’.


There were two sides to Thoreau. He was a vegetarian, teetotal, non-smoking pacifist who cried when someone shot a duck that he had befriended. In 1862, when he was dying of tuberculosis, the children of Concord brought flowers to his bed. Yet Emerson’s funeral eulogy emphasised that Thoreau also had something ‘military in his nature, not to be subdued’. He was ‘rarely tender’ and ‘did not feel himself except in opposition’. In Walden, Thoreau inflicts on himself ‘austerities with a stern satisfaction’. He inflicted himself on his home town as a grumpy scold.

In 1873, Thoreau’s first biographer, his friend Ellery Channing, sanctified the beatific ‘poet-naturalist’ who followed a ‘different drummer’ and lived a ‘divine life’. In 1890, Thoreau’s second biographer, the English radical Henry Salt, emphasised the belligerent anarchist of ‘Resistance to Civil Government’ (1849), an essay better known under its posthumous title, ‘Civil Disobedience’. In this Thoreau wrote that under an unjust government, ‘the true place for a just man is also a prison’, and spent the night in Concord’s jail rather than pay the poll tax to a government that tolerated slavery.

The ‘poet-naturalist’ is a provincial curiosity. But Salt’s political Thoreau became a global hero, the passive-aggressive prophet of lifestyle experiment and ‘non-violent’ protest. Thoreau the American yogi had imagined ice from Walden Pond floating east to mingle with the waters of the Ganges. Intellectually, this vision of a fluid world came true.

In the 1890s, Henry Salt introduces the young Gandhi to vegetarianism, Tolstoy and Thoreau. In 1899, the protagonist of Tolstoy’s Resurrection praises ‘the American writer Thoreau’ and agrees that ‘the only place befitting an honest man in Russia at the present time is a prison’. In 1908, Gandhi reads, or probably rereads, ‘Civil Disobedience’ while imprisoned in Johannesburg for non-violent protest. Meanwhile, Mr Emerson in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (1910) paints a line from Walden, ‘Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes’, on his wardrobe, and Edward Carpenter reads between Thoreau’s lines to campaign for gay rights. Finally, Martin Luther King returns Thoreau’s spiritual message to the United States, and to the Christian morality in which it originated.

‘Chad was brown and thick and strong; and of old Chad had been rough,’ Lambert Strether observes after tracking down Chad Newsome. ‘Was all the difference therefore that he was actually smooth?’ Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days by Walden Pond. He spent seven years and seven drafts on the manuscript of Walden. In Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986), Robert Richardson unpicked the rough Thoreau from the smooth, and the inner life from what Forster, describing The Ambassadors, called the ‘pattern triumphant’ which reveals ‘the sacrifices an author must make if he wants his pattern and nothing else to triumph’.

The bicentenary of Thoreau’s birth has elicited two new biographies, both addressing Thoreau’s literary pattern. Kevin Dann’s Expect Great Things emphasises the roughness beneath the smooth Thoreau style: the ramshackle American syncretism of Thoreau’s mind. The irrational roots of Thoreau’s spiritual politics have never been exposed so clearly. William Blake made his own system to avoid being enslaved in someone else’s. Thoreau, to ‘speak true in America’s great age of humbug’, populated his woods with daemons, sprites and ghostly Indians and looked to the reflection of Walden Pond in the skies: ‘The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions.’

In Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls argues for Thoreau as a stylist of ‘world-class achievement’, without describing the competition. There is a case for this, but it rests not on Thoreau’s stylistic smoothness, but his intellectual roughness. In 1851, while Thoreau was analysing the ‘compact system’ in Concord, Marx was developing the theory of the commodity fetish in London. In the same year, Ruskin advanced a spiritual analysis of ‘perfectedness’ and machine production in The Stones of Venice: ‘You must either make a tool of the creature or a man of him.’

Thoreau was the genuine article. Marx and Ruskin could look back to Europe’s medieval unities and ‘The Nature of Gothic’. Thoreau had only the Neolithic past of Indian arrowheads and the speaking cosmos, and the ‘quiet desperation’ of a true revolutionary. ‘I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness.’

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