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Thoreau at 200

By: Patrick J. Walsh
November 20, 2017

his year, the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau’s birth, has occasioned publication of the first Thoreau biography in 50 years—Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Despite being frequently quoted, little read, and often misunderstood, Thoreau is one of America’s greatest writers. His works resist being shoehorned into contemporary academic environmentalist, naturalist, or liberal ideologies, despite his agenda-driven interpreters’ best efforts. His most famous work, Walden, is a flawless artistic composition of gracious prose, a masterpiece on its literary merits, but it is also spiritual work that illuminates reality’s divine dimension.

A Concord, Massachusetts native, Thoreau was steeped in his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalist movement. The movement resists definition, but “transcendental” has roots in Kant and describes a movement of mind rather than soul. In Emerson’s case, this was especially true. Flannery O'Connor claimed that he never transcended the “borders of his own skull,” and added that “when Emerson said he could no longer celebrate the Lord's supper unless the bread and wine were removed, an important step in the vaporization of religion in America had taken place.”

Emerson held sacred only his mind’s abstractions and his shifting feelings. He secularized the pulpit, exalting a new, radically individualistic spirit to take the place of religious doctrine. Emerson’s proto-hippie followers flocked to Concord to learn at their preacher’s feet, just as their descendants would flock to nearby Woodstock 100 years later. But recently married Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was renting an old manse on Emerson's property, was disgusted. In the leading essay to his short story collection, Mosses from an old Manse, Hawthorne noted, “Never was a poor country village infested with such a variety of queer, strangely dressed, oddly behaved mortals.”

Emerson’s transcendentalism led him to reject objective truth, but Thoreau discerned truth in the world’s material reality and in mystery-infused nature. Emerson dismissed experiential theories, and hermetically sealed himself off from the complications and mysteries of human experience that Thoreau confronted.

Thoreau willingly faced experience’s complications while living on Emerson’s land in a small house he built on July 4, 1845. His two years there were not an escape from reality but a more complete encounter with it. He challenged the emerging modern philosophies that fed man's desires while starving his spiritual and eternal needs. For Walls, Thoreau was “a pioneer, not a western one but an inward one.”

Rather than pursuing happiness, physical comfort, and money, Thoreau turned to nature’s wildness to find a deeper joy, since “superficial wealth can buy superfluities only.” He was suspicious of liberal reformers—“the greatest bores of all”—and advocated that a man should reform himself first. In the woods he could avoid the newly-formed and rapidly proliferating humane societies and philanthropists. For Thoreau, their secular philanthropy was not Christian charity, but shallow and self-interested. His ridicule—“a man is not a good man to me because he will feed me or pulls me out of a ditch...I can find you a Newfoundland dog that will do as much”—uncovered the reformers’ selfishness: “their sympathy lies not with their fellow man but in some private ailment in themselves.”

Neither would he make common cause with today’s environmentalists, despite Walls’s reviewers’ claims in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. “Read not the Times,” Thoreau cautioned, “Read the Eternities.” Thoreau was against the “ists” and “isms” of ideology and scorned those who, “no longer camp for a night, but have camped down on earth and forgotten heaven.”

In Walden, Thoreau refers to himself as a poet. Deep immersion in Greco-Roman classics and 17th-century English poetry prepared him to think in terms more broadly and open-mindedly than do the ideological straitjackets imposed on thinking today. Thoreau possessed poetic knowledge disregarded in the age of Enlightenment and science.

He was also a contemplative philosopher. In his 1948 Thoreau biography, Joseph Wood Krutch rightly discerned that “official science continued to represent in his mind the antithesis both of any genuine familiarity with even the living facts of nature and of any emotional participation in her mysteries.” In an entry about snowflakes in his journal, Thoreau records that “A divinity must have stirred within them before the crystals did thus shoot and set.” Aquinas argued that the philosopher was like the poet because both are concerned with the marvelous. Our age of “scientism”— an ideology of science which is unconcerned with discerning truth—has replaced wonder with technical expertise.

Laura Dassow Wells’s book is less biography and more an interesting, well written narrative history of Thoreau and his times, filled with many fine anecdotes. We learn, for example, that Hawthorne's fictional faun character in the Marble Faun, may have been based on Thoreau. Her narrative follows Thoreau from childhood to Harvard, through his travels, friends, and writings, and ends at his early death from tuberculosis at age 45.

Thoreau's message is as refreshing today as when it first appeared. He foresaw a modernity where labor banished leisure and changed human existence’s meaning. Before Max Weber, Thoreau knew that, “one does not work to live; one lives to work.” It’s only through leisure and contemplation that man escapes the consumer world’s tyranny. Thoreau recognized that the human soul needs to break the everyday life’s barriers to be lifted beyond. Heraclitus called it, “listening to the essence of things.”

Thoreau asked the ever-present but never answered question: “What is the purpose of human existence?” Knowing absolute justice was impossible, he was no social justice warrior but a reluctant crusader, and late abolitionist. Any politically possible justice results from the soul’s inner state commanded by will, which then rebounds to society at large.

Thoreau was also one of the earliest writers to question material progress and technology. The sounds of a locomotive near Walden woods prompted Thoreau’s reflection on technology’s power over us. It is not always clear if we’re riding technical progress’s rails or if it’s riding on us. Thoreau refused to glorify technical efficiency. He sought ends, not means: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which detract our attention from serious things.” When newly constructed telegraph cables connected Maine instantaneously to Texas for the first time, Thoreau wondered if “Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” For him, the things of the spirit may be the world’s salvation if our civilization is suffocated by material forces.

Had Thoreau lived another twenty years, he may have joined with several other Transcendentalists, including his close friend Orestes Brownson, in converting to Catholicism. Thoreau intuits a mysticism and harmony that envelopes life but which cannot be possessed. His life was one of constant expectation. I visited his grave once, made a cross on it with acorns, and said a prayer. I later realized that such a gesture was perfect for a man like Thoreau who was always searching for an intersection between nature and the timeless.