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Half College Graduate and Half Algonquin


ISSUE:  Autumn 1978
Young Man Thoreau. By Richard Lebeaux. Massachusetts. $12.50.
Thoreau and the American Indians.By Robert F. Sayre. Princeton. $1450

BECAUSE Henry David Thoreau wrote more about himself than anybody else, it is perhaps natural for his readers to think that his life is an open book. He tells us on the first page of Walden, for example, that his narrative will be a “simple and sincere account of his own life” while at the pond. Although his account is singularly populated with first person pronouns—there is even a story that the printer ran out of them for the first edition—it is impossible to feel that Thoreau reveals himself to us in a personal way. As he says in his Journal, he liked to “keep some starch” in his clothes. He deliberately allows us to front only what he takes to be the essential facts of his life. Thoreau was usually very much aware of the image he presented to his readers; indeed, among the meager possessions he took with him to the pond was “a looking-glass three inches in diameter.”

The detailed facts of Thoreau’s life have been available since 1965 when Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau was published. Harding’s book was intended to be the kind of work upon which other biographical studies could build. His purpose was to present the details of Thoreau’s life rather than to interpret them; the book provides the day-to-day activities and contexts which have enormously helped to illuminate Thoreau’s life and writings. Surprisingly, however, until now no book-length biography has attempted to interpret those facts, Richard Lebeaux’s study of Young Man Thoreau is the first published psychobiography to examine the available facts of his early life and writings. Lebeaux takes some of the starch out of Thoreau by focusing upon his struggle to achieve an integrated identity; the results do not “expose” Thoreau—Lebeaux does not play doctor, and there is no patient to be cured—rather we are made more aware of Thoreau’s humanity and some of the possible sources of his creativity owing to Lebeaux’s sensitive and sympathetic treatment. He listens carefully for the private voice behind Thoreau’s public voice.

The title is both accurate and suggestive. The book traces Thoreau’s psychological development from 1837, when he took his degree from Harvard, to 1845, when he took himself to Walden Pond. These years are examined from an Eriksonian perspective which provides Lebeaux with the vocabulary to describe the identity crisis and confusion that he sees Thoreau attempting to resolve. The portrait that emerges is not the familiar and popular one of Thoreau as an embodiment of Emersonian self-reliance, the American Scholar as Man Thinking, who confidently follows the path of his genius. Like many recent scholars, Lebeaux sees the necessity to “demythicize” our view of Thoreau. His treatment parallels Erikson’s Young Man Luther as he traces the conflicts of Thoreau’s adolescence and early adulthood. The years between college and the pond were hardly characterized by simplicity. Thoreau’s life was quietly desperate and nearly frittered away by entanglements as he tried to create an identity for himself out of his unpromising relationships with his family and his community. Drawing upon Erikson’s life cycle stages, Lebeaux argues that Thoreau needed a “moratorium”—time to figure out who he was—in order to keep some distance between his developing identity and the intense psychological stress and conflicts generated by the ambivalent feelings he had for his parents and his more popular brother John; Thoreau also felt some of these same conflicts on a larger scale as he tried to avoid the conventional behavior that the community expected from him.

Lebeaux traces the roots of Thoreau’s identity problems to his family life. His father was weak and relatively unsuccessful in a house dominated by Thoreau’s strong and ambitious mother, who was a full head taller than her husband. This resulted in ambivalent oedipal feelings of love, hate, guilt, jealousy, and shame. Thoreau’s father did not provide an identity model for him so much as the prototype of a quietly desperate life trapped by circumstances. Speculating on the fact that Thoreau’s oldest sister, Helen, was born only five months after their parents were married, Lebeaux makes an interesting case for the idea that the father might have represented the kind of circumscribed life that Thoreau always avoided: marriage, debts, obligations, and domestic duties. Moreover, since sexual desire may have been responsible for the marriage, perhaps that is one reason why Thoreau was wary and uneasy about his own sexuality.

Thoreau’s older brother John served as a father-figure for him owing to the “psychological absence” of his real father. John was popular in Concord and with Henry, but his identification with John was disturbed by their mutual interest in the young and pretty Ellen Sewall. This situation duplicated some of the dynamics of Henry’s earlier oedipal feelings involving his father and mother. As it turned out, Ellen rejected both brothers so the rivalry ended, but its impact on Henry did not. Not too long after this episode John suffered a shocking death from lockjaw in 1842, and immediately thereafter Henry dramatically manifested the conflicting emotions he felt for this much loved father-substitute and threatening rival when he too developed symptoms of the disease. This suggests to Lebeaux that Henry felt enormous guilt over his desire to supplant John and that he felt the need to be punished; in addition, this guilt influenced his compensatory memorial to John in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

Lebeaux argues that Henry’s response to John’s death has not been adequately understood or emphasized by biographers. There is a connection between Henry’s relationship with John and his emerging identity as an artist and naturalist; further, Thoreau attempted to identify with his dead brother by pursuing an interest in the American Indian in order to preserve the “sense of Indian fellowship” the brothers had felt for each other. It was not until Thoreau went to Walden Pond that he achieved what was probably the most satisfying identity for him during his entire life. There he was able to feel manly and independent while staying close to home as a “traveller in Concord.”

Although Lebeaux’s major focus is upon Thoreau’s family relationships, he does not place him in a psychological vacuum by ignoring other influences upon him. Concord of the 1830’s was a town growing more commercial and secular, yet provincial. Unlike many of his youthful contemporaries, Thoreau did not leave Concord for the cities or the West; instead, he remained to try to find a place for himself in an environment that was vocationally and spiritually limiting. Unwilling to accept a conventional adulthood, he remained uncommitted to a vocation. He prolonged his adolescence by creating a moratorium for himself with the help of Emerson— his “great man” (and another father-figure)—and Transcendentalism, which was for Thoreau the ideal alternative to the community values and the shabby experience he encountered. Emerson’s Transcendentalism sustained his non-conformity and the sense of high purpose that would take him to Walden Pond and infuse his writings.

It is difficult to condense even partially the argument of Young Man Thoreau without making the book seem slightly mechanical and reductive, but the difficulty is in the condensation not the argument. Some readers may object to the heavy reliance upon Eriksonian terminology when less technical terms might have done just as well, and some may question the hypothetical nature of many of Lebeaux’s conclusions; but few readers will, I think, fail to acknowledge that the book provides a number of compelling insights into Thoreau’s conscious and unconscious motivations for becoming a literary artist. Critics and scholars will probably qualify and refine some of Lebeaux’s work, but more importantly the book will demand a sequel which describes Thoreau’s later years. That, too, should be a book worth reading if it brings into sharper focus some of the significance of the days of Henry Thoreau. Lebeaux has demonstrated that a closer view of Thoreau need not strip him of his humanity even if it does qualify the myth of Thoreau as the heroic Transcendental individualist who acted only from principle. In fact, the mythic identity becomes all the more interesting and extraordinary precisely because its creator is a complex human being.

Robert F. Sayre’s Thoreau and The American Indians also cuts through some myths in order to bring us closer to the man. This “half college-graduate and half Algonquin,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes called him, lived more like an Indian than an alumnus of Harvard. Thoreau had an intense interest in Indians because he perceived them as potential sources of inspiration for his own life. They appear often in his writings to serve as a reminder of a more natural and simple form of existence. He measured civilized life against the standards of Indian life and saw the former pale by comparison, but that is not to say, as some have, that Thoreau took an anthropological view of the Indian which freed him from the prejudices of his own time. Although it would be pleasant to think that Thoreau anticipated modern attitudes toward the Indian, that he somehow could be as relevant in that area as he seemed to be in the 1960’s with the civil rights, anti-war, and ecological movements, the plain truth is that his view was very much bound to the white racial myths contemporary to him. Sayre makes that clear.

Thoreau’s Indians were not the historical reality of the 19th century that consisted of complex social groups which varied from tribe to tribe. His view was limited to “the Indian”—the solitary, idealized figure that symbolized white America’s myth of the “savage.” Thoreau’s view of the Indian was derived from the popular myth of “savagism” which presented the Indian as little more than the means by which white civilization might be judged for its positive or negative values. In this context, Indian life was, according to Sayre, perceived as “rude and unrefined, natural, and uncivilized.” Indians were stereotyped as hunters not capable of becoming farmers, as innocents corrupted by civilization, and as tradition-bound primitives incapable of improvement; they were, therefore, doomed to extinction. In this way whites could be both sentimental and righteous about them. Although Thoreau did not read Cooper, he certainly read scores of historians and antiquarians who presented this stereotype. Sayre points out that Thoreau responded to this idea of the Indian—the symbol of self-reliance and natural wisdom—but that he never attempted to do anything for Indians as he did for slaves. For Thoreau they were abstractions more than they were people.

One of the many values of Sayre’s book is his careful survey and study of Thoreau’s “Indian Books,” twelve unpublished volumes which he filled with information and quotations from travelers, missionaries, and ethnographers. Unlike previous scholars, he argues that there is no convincing evidence that Thoreau ever seriously began to work on a book about Indians from these notebooks; instead, they provided him with an education about Indian life. Sayre shows that these “Indian Books” gradually provided Thoreau with a clearer understanding of the Indian, a view that was informed less by stereotyped myths and more by the reality of their condition. Working carefully, “Thoreau took from the literature of savagism a composite picture of Indian life in North America which disproves savagism.” Sayre uses extracts from Thoreau’s own reading to show how this was achieved. A central element in this changing perception was Thoreau’s three trips to Maine woods, where he had his lengthiest and most direct encounters with Indians and where he was able to learn from experience rather than from books about their lives. His three successive Indian guides taught him about themselves as well as the woods.

It was from his last trip in 1857 that Thoreau writes the account of Joe Polis in Maine Woods which suggests how far he had come from his earlier views of “savagism.” Polis, argues Sayre, is neither romanticized as a savage nor rejected for his ready acceptance of civilization. Although Thoreau refers to Polis throughout most of “The Allegash and East Branch” section as “the Indian,” he does not mean the solitary sentimentalized Indian of “savagism.” Polis is good in the woods, but he is also a well-off, taciturn Protestant who would enjoy life in a city like Boston or New York. The point is that Polis is presented as a complex human being rather than an abstract idea who fulfills a metaphorical function in Thoreau’s work. It is no metaphor or symbol that Thoreau describes in the following uncharacteristic and amusing passage describing Polis and himself in a canoe: “Having resumed our seats in the canoe, I felt the Indian wiping my back, which he had accidentally spat upon. He said it was a sign that I was going to be married.” Here the joke is on Thoreau rather than on an Indian who serves only a literary function to convey an idea.

Sayre’s discussions of A Week and Walden are not as fully satisfying as his treatment of Maine Woods, because he stretches his materials a bit more in order to find Thoreau’s use of Indian life as potential unifying principles for each; in A Week the principle is a “condensed history, in an inferential poetic form, of Indian-European relations in America,” while in Walden it is an “Indian quest” of withdrawal, meditation, visions, and renewal. A careful and plausible case is made for these readings, but I doubt that many readers of those books will find the Indian material as central to them as Sayre does, Given Sayre’s description of the “Indian Books” Thoreau kept from 1850 through 1861, it is clear that Thoreau, as Sayre puts it, “had Indians on the brain,” but it is less evident that his major work was as strongly influenced by his interest in Indians as he suggests.

Sayre, like Lebeaux, gives us a perspective on Thoreau which reveals him in less than heroic proportions. As a Romantic Individualist, Thoreau is one of America’s natural resources—the solid man of principle with an alert and discriminating mind firmly anchored to a strong backbone—but it is useful to be reminded that his identity was a created one. No less than any of us he struggled with doubts, anxieties, and misconceptions; the different drummer he marched to was occasionally the beating of his own anxious heart. It seems likely that as we learn more about the man behind the literary persona there will be a tendency to bring Thoreau down from the wall posters he has been flattened onto, but at the same time there will be an opportunity to understand him in more dimensions. Recent Thoreau scholarship seems to be moving in the direction of placing him in the context of his times rather than primarily studying the created identity who transcends time and circumstances. Inevitably, the ongoing publication of the definitive editions of Thoreau’s complete works by Princeton University Press will foster reappraisals of his life and works, and such reappraisals will not render Thoreau defunct for contemporary Americans (except for those who prefer wall posters and bumper stickers to human complexity) but will, perhaps, suggest that Thoreau speaks to our condition in unexpected ways. If we can avoid confusing the heroic myth created by Thoreau’s remarkable art with the historical identity who created it, we may find that both are richer experiences for us, Thoreau’s own words, as always, serve: “No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well.”

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