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The View from Midstream

The whole brook seems as busy as a loom: it is a woof and a warp of ripples; fairy fingers are throwing the shuttle at every step, and the long, waving brook is the fine product.  The water is wonderfully clear.  Sept. 4, 1851

I’ve waded into The Journal of Henry David Thoreau and I don’t really want to leave soon.  Thoreau’s polymath curiosity is infectious and best taken in small doses.  I’ve been using a newly published abridgment of The Journal to float on Thoreau’s stream for two months now and, at 667 pages, I made be reading Thoreau for a very long time.

But there is something unsettling about The Journal.  The product that ultimately emerges as The Journal dramatically shapes our sense of Thoreau.  As Damion Searls, who abridged this volume down from the original 7,000 pages, writes in his fascinating Introduction, “The Journal is not literally what Thoreau wrote each day: he often wrote up entries days later, from notes,  and … he would also go back years later and make further additions and connections.”  So when we read in consecutive paragraphs  (as we do on February 3, 1852) about Thoreau’s visit to libraries in Cambridge and Boston, musings on the nature of sunsets, an evening walk, a quick investigation into the origins of the word “selenite” (a stone), questions about the color of the night sky, and a final paragraph about the nature of a “forcible writer,” it’s easy to see this not as the flow of a single personality but the facets of a many-dimensional puzzle.  Moreover, Thoreau’s aphoristic tendencies can be maddening.  He crafts  fabulous, pithy sentences (is any writer more quotable than Thoreau?) that are blunt, self-assured, disconcertingly without context or nuance, and ultimately ambiguous.  Truth with a capital T.

Thoreau had a mind ideally suited to an era (the tail end of an era, really) when it was still possible to pursue real science through observation, questioning, and a broad knowledge that could be largely self-taught.  If he had been more sociable – and British – he would have fit well in with the people who populate two recent and highly engrossing books: Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder (2008) and Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (2002).  (Brief aside: the original British subtitle was The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810.  Must US publishers always tweak book titles?)

But the truth is, it’s hard to conceive of Thoreau blending in with a circle of like-minded colleagues.  The dislike of nearly all mankind is one of the constant themes of The Journal and Thoreau would make us believe that he prefers his own company to that of any other person. When it suits his purposes, he can idealize the hard-working common man: “I like better the surliness with which the woodchopper speaks of his woods, handling them as indifferently as his axe, than the mealy-mouthed enthusiasm of the lover of nature.”  But most of the time Thoreau simply dismisses “the rabble” just as he dismisses cities (“so strange and repulsive”).

One final thought.  If Thoreau appears to like anything less than the rabble, it is government.  While The Journal (so far) only gives hints of the philosophy contained within his Civil Disobedience, it’s not hard to see him being adopted as a mascot by the current Tea Party movement in America.  “It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know,” he writes.  In an earlier post I briefly touched on some relationships I saw between Thoreau and W.G. Sebald.  But the differences are equally compelling.  Unlike Thoreau, Sebald is not interested in pithy aphorisms or general truisms of any sort.  His long, often convoluted sentences are filled with context, history, nuance, complication.   For Sebald, there are few Truths and an infinite number of truths.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. It is interesting to think about the differences between Thoreau and Sebald. The flip side of nuance and complication vs. capital-T Truths is political action, right? Thoreau did help escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, etc., and I’m not aware of anything Sebald did in such concrete terms. Though of course Thoreau, like Sebald, probably did more capital-G Good through his writing than through anything else.

    John Ruskin is another writer it’s interesting to bring into the comparison — very like Thoreau in many ways, and (but?) a writer of sentences as lush and long as anyone’s. (His prose style shaped Proust’s — who, for that matter, greatly admired Thoreau and at one point planned to translate WALDEN into French!) Is it fair to say that Thoreau’s history, context, and nuance is on the front-end? He certainly processes as much detail and complexity as Sebald, before boiling it down into the kind of pithy sentences he called poetry.

    May 9, 2010
  2. Damion, I’m really a newbie when it comes to Thoreau. The more I read The Journal the more I see so many sides to him that he begins to seem unreal and, for me “the centre cannot hold.” That’s not a criticism of him, just a puzzlement. Thoreau’s clear, simple, authoritative statements strike me as quintessentially American. I contemplated using the phrase “manifest destiny” in conjunction with him. In some funny way, his assuredness is simultaneously appealing and repelling.

    I need to read Ruskin again, but I’m sure you’re right.

    May 9, 2010

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