Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Road to the Golden Age: Thoreau's Old Carlisle Road

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Road to the Golden Age: Thoreau's Old Carlisle Road

Article excerpt

Randall Conrad draws upon ideas from science, mythology, theology, psychology, folklore, and women's fashion notes from the mid-nineteenth century to elucidate "The Old Carlisle Road," a 330-word passage that is usually considered the most obscure piece of writing in Henry David Thoreau's entire journal.

Henry David Thoreau loved to saunter along the old Carlisle road, a long, uneven and rocky pathway in his native Concord, that led (and still leads) through the town's Estabrook region to the neighboring town of Carlisle. He felt a powerful connection to this primeval-looking landscape, which he knew as "Easterbrooks" and which, with its crops of apples and barberries, was a favorite spot for outings, especially at berry-picking time.

In the autumn of his forty-third year, Thoreau composed an homage to the old Carlisle road, a 330-word sequence that is considered perhaps the most obscure passage in his lifelong, seven-million-word journal. In the present essay I propose to examine this baffling piece of prose in detail. First, though, we will need a bit of background about Estabrook Country and its multiple associations with the man of Concord, for Thoreau had important personal ties to this land and its road.

As early as his boyhood, his father had built a mill in Estabrook to cut cedar wood for pencil-making in the first years of the family business. Thoreau remembered the site, and referenced "the old mill" in some of his field notes. (1) When he visited Estabrook throughout the 1850s, Thoreau pursued the same botanizing and natural-history investigations that had occupied him during his famous earlier residence in Walden Woods.2 It was in Estabrook, as much as in any other locale, that Thoreau found "remarkable proof" of the continual dispersion of seeds by animals, wind, and water) Estabrook thus furnished a good deal of the evidence Thoreau used to support his final burst of creativity as a naturalist.

Also significantly, a spot near the southern end of the old Carlisle road had become the resting-place of Thoreau's own hand-built house, the very one immortalized in Walden. It had been hauled over to Estabrook in 1849, and since then a farm family had been using it as a place to store seeds.4 In the late journal, Thoreau remains tight-lipped about his feelings whenever passing his old house in its latter-day location. Among the handful of entries mentioning the house, he only once uses an expression that could conceivably be read as poignant--"my house that was" (JVII:235, 7 March 1855). Yet common sense suggests that Henry must have felt deep emotion whenever he passed by that former residence that was so rich in spiritual discovery. After all, at the outset of his intensified natural-history pursuits around 1851, he had worried that, in becoming a data-collector, he was moving too far from the poetic inspiration of his younger, creative years (cf. below, 106).

The People of Estabrook

What sort of people lived along Estabrook's roads, and what did Thoreau think of them? The area was not thickly settled, yet there were still at least a score of residences along the old Carlisle road, the Lowell road, and other ways through Estabrook Country. (5) Thoreau seems to have progressed from an aloof characterization of the local rustics as a race of "groveling coarse & low-lived men" (J4:101, 26 September 1851, qtd. Ells 85) to a more sympathetic understanding that many of these families were bound by "haggard poverty and harassing debt" (JXII:367, 3 October 1859).

In summer and especially fall, the Estabrook fields were quite popular with saunterers, berry-gathering parties, poets, and picnickers who included Emerson's daughter Ellen and her friends. At various times, Estabrook harbored small commercial enterprises, including an "indifferent" tavern that was "much the haunt of drinking men from Concord and Acton." (6)

The residents of Estabrook whom Thoreau especially favored included his friend the poet Ellery Channing, who lived on Punkatasset Hill; Minott Pratt and his family, who lived unpretentiously on their farm and always made Thoreau welcome when he visited; the hunter George Melvin, encountered often enough in the pages of the Journal; (7) and the astronomer-farmer Perez Blood, possessor of an amateur telescope. …

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