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“A Life of the Mind”

ISSUE:  Autumn 1987
Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, By Robert D. Richardson, Jr. California. $25.00.

The New England transcendentalists, Robert Richardson confesses, “did not, singly or in a group, make a perceptible contribution to the development of German idealism.” Such a fiat dismissal, from a sympathetic critic, of a movement which had defined itself as “Idealism as it appears in 1842,” might seem to close the case on this flowering of American culture. But instead his study opens the transcendentalist movement to important lines of inquiry. The transcendentalists’ philosophical failure is a case in point. While they “pioneered no advance in metaphysics or epistemology,” they had perhaps a stronger impact because of “their overriding interest . . . in the ethical implications of the new subjectivism.” Thus they prefigured William James and the pragmatists in their attempt to work through “the ethical implications of transcendentalism” in an effort to make them “liveable.” “It is therefore ironic,” Richardson concludes, “that as a group they were thought—then as now—to have their heads in the clouds, to be impractical and otherworldly, vague, dreamy, and concerned with things that were neither real nor tangible.” Richardson’s book is grounded in careful discrimination, and rich in historical and interpretive nuance. Thoreau emerges from it a “man thinking,” who confirms Emerson’s dictum that “the one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.” It is, of course, one thing to assert that an individual was vital, and quite another to dramatize that vitality through the demanding form of the modern scholarly biography. Richardson brings Thoreau to life through a careful ordering of the range of familiar and arcane sources that Thoreau himself mastered in his eclectic and omnivorous reading. The book is based in these analytical descriptions of Thoreau’s sources, but it uses them to reconstitute the processes of Thoreau’s thought. Richardson has mastered all that Thoreau himself had mastered, but done so with the understanding that the fundamental biography of Thoreau was not what he read, but why he read it, and what he thought of it. Thoreau was, most essentially, what he was thinking all day, and that thought had the constant stimulus of extensive reading, from the classics to Darwin. The success of Richardson’s reconstruction of Thoreau’s intellectual development will make it the book on him for a very long time. Richardson suggests that Thoreau’s intellectual vitality was subject to a troubling ebb and flow, the same problem that plagued his friend Emerson. He traces it both in the smaller patterns of the seasons—Thoreau was a New Englander condemned to frequent depression and listlessness in winter—and in larger phases of his life. I found three particular periods of development to emerge as especially significant in Richardson’s charting of Thoreau’s intellectual culture. One of them, and perhaps the most important, was his move to Walden Pond in 1845. Eventually, Thoreau made his stay there “a permanent feature of the inner landscape of every educated American,” as the Walden experience was transformed into one of our cultural symbols for experiment and renewal. But the stay at the pond was also a remarkably expansive time for Thoreau personally. At the pond he completed “more writing of a higher quality over a greater range of subjects . . . than at any other period in his life.” There he wrote two drafts of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the moving essay on his trek to the Maine wilderness, “Ktaadn,” and drafted much of the material he would later shape into Walden. This is a rich literary output by any standards, but as Richardson reminds us, it is especially significant for Thoreau. He “managed to bring to completion only two unified and sustained booklength pieces in his lifetime. Both were essentially shaped during his years at Walden Pond.”

It was certainly a period of “intensity” for him, but not exclusively of literary intensity. Richardson demonstrates that Thoreau’s move to the pond was also a complex act of political dissent, arising in part from the antislavery movement, which boiled up in 1845 when Texas was admitted to the Union as a slave state. It was also a tacit comment on behalf of small farmers and the agrarian sensibility in general. Richardson reminds us that Horace Greeley was not only a literary supporter of Thoreau (one of the few, and one of the most influential), but also himself a man of political commitment, a fact which certainly did not escape Thoreau. Greeley led the National Reform Association, a group which, in the 1840’s, pushed for wider land distribution on a Jeffersonian agrarian basis. Richardson argues that Thoreau’s move to the pond demonstrated some sympathy for “the small subsistence farmer.” Finally it was a complex and qualified affirmation of the many contemporary experiments in Utopian communalism. “Thirty-three new Utopian communities were founded in the years 1843 to 1845,” Richardson reports, many of which shared Thoreau’s alienation from the pursuit of business as usual in America. Thoreau’s life at the pond, a purified version of agrarian living, a dissenting community of one, was an answer to the demands of the age. Literary accomplishment and political context aside, he will not let us forget that Thoreau plowed two and a half acres, cleared stumps for firewood, and cut timber to frame his house. We may tend to overlook this labor in our enthusiasm for the idyll that Walden evokes, but Richardson has a knack for grounding Thoreau the intellectual in Thoreau the man, without reductively treating his intellectual work, or suppressing the many forms of physical labor that complemented it.

Crucial as the stay at Walden was, Thoreau did not there bring to completion the work upon which his reputation rests, Walden. The seven-year period between Thoreau’s leaving the pond and his bringing that book to completion was difficult but crucially important for Thoreau. Initially despondent after he left the pond, he found himself adrift, with no firmer hold on his purpose in life and his place in society than when he went there. At every occurrence of such personal and vocational doubt, a pervasive difficulty for most of the transcendentalists, Thoreau was pushed back upon his self-conception as a writer and thinker, sometimes in hope, sometimes in despair. The balance was delicate, as the detail of Richardson’s study shows. His rewards in the vocation of a writer had been few, and he had to fight to maintain his stubborn sense of what he was about. “Know your own bone,” he wrote H. G. O. Blake, “gnaw at it; bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.” It was sincere advice, derived from experience; it was Thoreau’s perpetual sermon to himself.

Richardson argues that in late 1851, Thoreau began a major creative phase, the momentum of which led to the completion of Walden. A revival of his earlier interest in Hinduism provided him with a self-liberating stoicism. His longstanding love of the classics resulted in a fruitful encounter with Cato’s De Re Rustica, which helped provide the vision of form that he needed for Walden. His fascination with the literature of natural science increased, and through this scientific reading he began to develop a deeper sense of the cosmos as process, of change or growth as the fundamental natural law. His reading of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle was especially important in establishing his sense of nature’s dynamism. Darwin, among others, began to confirm his own predilection toward careful scientific observation and description and led him into an extensive discipline in natural science, prominently including the Philosophia Botanica of Linnaeus. By this route, he moved toward Walden’s grand thesis, confirmed most memorably by his description of the thawing bank in “Spring,” that “there is nothing inorganic.” While Richardson details the complicated pattern of influences that helped shape Walden, he also views Thoreau as, in a sense, struggling through these sources in a kind of personal quest as well. He was working toward the completion of his manuscript, but more fundamentally he was searching for an intellectual vision of nature that would satisfy his experience of it. The completion of Walden was the process of bringing literary creation and intellectual understanding into line with lived experience. Walden was therefore an important assertion of integrity for Thoreau, a necessary affirmation of “the mind’s continuing proclivity for order and meaning, proof that it could be done.”

Walden’s completion also led Thoreau into a different phase of intellectual development, in which scientific study and the practice of exact observation came to dominate his intellectual activity. In his later years, Thoreau increasingly was a scientist, and Richardson leaves little doubt that this was no declension but a coherent and satisfying extension of his concerns. The account of Thoreau’s quiet but firm dissent from the theory of fixed species propounded by Harvard’s influential Louis Agassiz, with whom he worked on occasion, is a vivid moment in Richardson’s narrative, and will make it hard, I think, to sustain a persuasive theory of any diminishment of creativity in Thoreau’s later years. Only the narrowest sense of the creative could exclude Thoreau’s progress into the disciplined observation of nature that marks his last years. Richardson persuades us that he had only begun to discover his real subject. In his own iconoclastic way, Thoreau had moved himself to the vanguard of scientific speculation. Working himself on an empirical project, the study of seed dispersal that was reported as “The Succession of Forest Trees,” Thoreau was forced by his own observation to accept the Darwinian developmental theory over Agassiz’s fixed species. Richardson quotes the 1860 journal entry in which he concludes that “the development theory implies a greater vital force in nature, because it is more flexible and accommodating, and equivalent to a sort of new creation.” If Walden was a triumph of one sort, the clear-headed rigor of his later scientific observation was another.

This careful delineation of the phases of Thoreau’s creative momentum will stand as the book’s principal achievement. But I would be remiss if I did not mention some of the details that add so much to the reader’s satisfaction in the book. Richardson notes, for instance, that the sumac mentioned near the Walden cabin is “a sure sign that Thoreau’s shore was more open than now.” In describing Thoreau’s friendship with Bronson Alcott, he finds “a kind of old-fashioned high courtesy common among country-bred people.” He deftly labels Thoreau’s meditations in a manuscript on night and moonlight “prose nocturnes” in the mode of Chopin’s music. He reminds us of Thoreau’s passion for ice-skating. He quotes Thoreau’s succinct and brilliant theory of composition, which every teacher of English should adopt as pedagogical dogma: “Write with fury, and correct with flegm.” And he gives a list of the antique names of New England apples, including some coinages by Thoreau, which is itself worth the price of the book: Early Joe, Keswick Codlin, Cloth of Gold, Sassafras Sweet Cole, Mother, Seek No Further (to name a few). I must also say that it is a beautifully produced book, setting something of a new standard of design for products of the university press.

Richardson’s book, especially since it is bolstered by David Shi’s important The Simple Life (Oxford, 1985), will reaffirm for us that intellectual history, in its intersection with imaginative literature, continues to be the most rewarding approach to Thoreau’s work. He is a complex thinker, and a complex personality, but one who tends to render heavy the grip of modern psychological theories. Richardson makes it clear that Thoreau had his share of psychic burdens and crises, but he gives him to us as a thinker. And, as Thoreau himself knew, intellectual vitality recreates itself.


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