That Henry David Thoreau is one of our major 19th-century American writers is accepted axiomatically nowadays. Yet, if one examines his early work, his essays in the Dial, his early journal, or even his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, one finds few signs of genius. He was just another vague, vapid, misty, minor Transcendentalist, not a whit better than his now well-forgotten friends Ellery Channing or Charles King Newcomb. A few years later, however, he was writing some of our greatest American prose. How come?
Steven Fink, associate professor of English at Ohio State University in Columbus, has undertaken to explore that subject through a study of Thoreau’s interrelations with his editors, his publishers, his reading public, his lecture audiences, and his literary friends. Strangely this field has never been adequately explored before, despite the flood of books on Thoreau that have been streaming forth from our presses in recent years. And Fink makes a rewarding study of it.
There has long been a tradition that Thoreau was one of the most egotistically independent of writers, as erinaceous as a porcupine, refusing advice from anyone. He wrote what he liked, it was said, and if his audience did not like it, that was their tough luck; he would go his way alone. While there is certainly an element of truth in this viewpoint and Thoreau often made noises in these directions, Fink, with good and convincing evidence, comes up with quite a different picture.
It has long been known that Thoreau worked almost all his writings through numerous drafts and reworkings. Indeed he himself tells us so in one of the most frequently quoted passages from his journal:
From all points of the compass. . . have come these inspirations and have been entered duly in the order of their arrival in the journal. Thereafter, when the time arrived, they were winnowed into lectures, and again, in due time, from lectures into essays.
Lyndon Shanley and others have made some fascinating studies of how Thoreau developed and perfected individual essays and books, but Fink is the first to make a comprehensive study covering a period of years and, most importantly, relating it to Thoreau’s reactions to the suggestions of his editors, publishers, and audiences. He ends his study at 1849 with the publication of A Week; just why I do not understand. It is one of the few flaws in an otherwise superb study. It seems only logical that he should have carried it through Thoreau’s short life. He does such a fascinating job with Thoreau’s early minor works that I, for one, want to know what he would have had to say about the later, greater works.
Although we have long known that Horace Greeley, editor of the then highly influential New fork Tribune, took the young Thoreau under his wing and acted as a volunteer literary agent for him, we have not until now been aware just how great was Greeley’s impact on Thoreau’s literary career. He not only placed many of Thoreau’s essays in the leading literary magazines of the day, but he then in the pages of the Tribune touted these articles as they appeared, often printing large excerpts, and occasionally entire essays. He gave advance notices of Thoreau’s public lectures whether they were in Portland, Maine, or Gloucester, Massachusetts, and often later reviewed them. And he kept up a steady flow of letters to Thoreau suggesting how he could improve the marketability of his work by making it shorter, tighter, and more factual—advice that Thoreau heeded, albeit sometimes grudgingly. Greeley, in Fink’s convincing account, had a major impact on Thoreau’s literary development.
With Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fink shows a very di fie rent picture. Emerson has long been looked upon as the maker of Thoreau. Fink does not deny Emerson’s influence, but he sees it often as more negative than positive. While it is true that it was Emerson who first got Thoreau published—in the pages of the Transcendentalist Dial— for the most part he encouraged Thoreau into writing such Transcendentalist blather as “Persius” and “The Ancient Poets”—writings that even the most pedantic of Thoreau scholars rarely ever bother to look at nowadays. And it was Emerson who kept pushing Thoreau to publish his first book, A Week, at his (Thoreau’s) own expense before it was really ready: the result, its absolute failure. Fink even argues, though not quite so convincingly, that that failure was what brought about the break in the friendship of the two men. It may have been a factor, but I doubt if it was the major one. But at any rate it was not until Thoreau got out from under the dominating influence of Emerson that he began writing his greatest prose.
Fink also stresses the importance of Thoreau’s lecturing in the development of his prose style. It was there on the lecture platform that he learned that the public audience cared little for vague philosophizing and that it was the natural history elements in his accounts of his “excursions” that caught and held their attention. Thus Thoreau discovered he could best present his vision of life not directly but through his observation and presentation of Nature. This was his great success.
A particular bonus in this volume is Fink’s thoughtful and enlightening literary analyses of some of Thoreau’s smaller works such as his Katahdin essay and “Wild Apples.” A great deal of nonsense, it seems to me, has been written about his Katahdin essay, but Fink’s analysis is a real tour de force in showing how the essay was put together so effectively—even though it comes as somewhat of a shock when he demonstrates that Thoreau occasionally stooped to borrow both phrases and images from other writers on the mountain without bothering to acknowledge it. Even more rewarding is Fink’s analysis of “Wild Apples” as a parable on Thoreau’s own writing career, demonstrating how beautifully it can be read on both the literal and symbolic levels.
Mr. Fink has unquestionably done his homework. He has read astonishingly widely in the background of the period and has come up with much new material—forgotten reviews and contemporary commentary on his career—that sheds new light on Thoreau’s development as a professional writer. What is more, he presents his thoughts in clear, straight-forward prose. I must admit that I have somewhat despaired in recent years at the quality of some of the newer books on Thoreau. They have been so obscure, so pedantic, so dull, so lacking in the vigor, the enthusiasm, the sense of humor (particularly about themselves) that are the hallmarks of Thoreau’s own best style. What a pleasure then to find a well-written book.
A few days ago a well-known Thoreau scholar who like me has often complained of the dullness of much recent Thoreau scholarship dropped in for a visit. Picking up my advance copy of Prophet in the Marketplace, he casually dipped into it. With a smile on his face and almost a purr in his voice, he said, “At last, here is a book to enjoy.” I agree heartily.