Today is the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. It is good to see Thoreau celebrations and stories of Thoreau in the news, including an exhibit at the Morgan This Ever New Self: Thoreau and his Journals. Happy birthday Henry!
Last week I picked up a copy of Laura Dassow Walls’ just released biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life. I am now reading the chapter “Transcendental Apprentice,” that covers the years 1937-1841. Working for the past two years on a Emerson project has prepared me well for this delicious summer reading.
As it happens, about two weeks ago, I spent some time with Laura and friends in Detroit at the twenty-fifth anniversary conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. One evening we dropped in on the storefront of Shinola, where Laura and I shared a moment of pleasure when we ferreted out from an employee the origins of the phrase “shit from Shinola.” We then enjoyed pizza and beer on a deck at the Motor City Brewery, and took in music by the Mongrel Dogs, before huddling under two small bumbershoots with Jim and Julianne as we were thoroughly soaked on the way back to our hotels by a heaving Michigan downpour.
In the “Preface” to her biography, Laura writes that “Thoreau struggled all his life to find a voice that could be heard despite the din of cynicism and the babble of convention.” She then points to the strange but explainable story of Thoreau’s life that has set up shop in our cultural imaginary:
That he was a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who fill the room, laughed and danced, sand and teased and wept, should not have to be said. But astonishingly, it does, for some deformation of sensibility has brought Thoreau down to us in ice, chilled into a misanthrope, prickly with spines, isolated a hermit and a nag.
Reading Laura’s story about Thoreau’s life I am recognizing the Thoreau I have come to know as a devoted reader of his work–whether in reading and teaching the more widely circulated publications, or in my own saunters through the journals and manuscripts over the years. “Today, two hundred years after his birth,” Laura writes,
we have invented two Thoreau’s, both of them hermits, yet radically at odds with each other; one speaks for nature; the other for social justice. Yet the historical Thoreau was no hermit, and as Thoreau’s own record shows, his social activism and his defense of nature sprang from the same roots: he found society in nature, and nature he found everywhere, including the town center and the human heart.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “Thoreau,” “The country knows not yet, or at least in part, how great a son it has lost.”
What is remarkable, to me at least, is how the in inventions of Thoreau persist, both in the scholarly and the cultural spaces in which these versions of Thoreau appear. Perhaps Laura’s story–sharply detailed, sensitive, alive–will do its little part in reanimating a more holistic vision of our place in the world. Thoreau saw, Laura notes,
the end of one geological epoch and the beginning of the next, and the unease he felt is rampant today, infecting the headlines and blocking our own imagination of the future he believed he was helping to realize. Thoreau could see the ground was shifting, and, in the sheer audacity of his genius, he decided it was up to him to witness the change and alert the world.
As Thoreau is reported by his sister Sophia to have said on his deathbed, at forty-four years of age, “Now comes good sailing.”