Magazine article The Spectator

'Henry David Thoreau: A Life', by Laura Dassow Walls - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Henry David Thoreau: A Life', by Laura Dassow Walls - Review

Article excerpt

Dominic Green considers two new books on Henry David Thoreau examining the dual nature of his character, aesthetic and politics

In The Ambassadors , Henry James sends Lewis Lambert Strether from Boston to Paris to retrieve Chad Newsome, the wayward heir to a factory at Woollett, Massachusetts. Strether never names the 'small, trivial rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use' that has enriched the Newsomes, though he does say that it is not clothes pins, baking soda or shoe polish. In Aspects of the Novel , E.M. Forster identifies this ambiguity with James's 'uninvolved' style, then suggests a button hook. Possible resolutions of the 'Woollett Question' also include safety matches, alarm clocks, toothpicks and, in a David Lodge campus satire, a chamber pot. I suggest another item from the booming industrial towns of Massachusetts, and a possible inspiration for the 'obstinate' runaway, Chad Newsome.

Henry David Thoreau was heir to the Thoreau Pencil Company of Concord, Massachusetts. There was money in wood -- the forests of New England supplied material for construction, fuel, and railway sleepers -- and that was the problem. Born in 1817, Thoreau was so much the creature of factory-made 'perfectedness' that he could pick up by feel alone 'a dozen pencils at every grasp'. Yet he hated the materialism and hypocrisy of the 'compact system of civil society'.

Thoreau's mentor Emerson, who thought that 'the powers that make a capitalist are metaphysical', had invested in two plots in the woods near Concord. In 1846, Thoreau settled on one of them, by Walden Pond. With Emersonian 'self-reliance' as his 'Foundation and Ground-Plan', and Emersonian white pines as his cabin walls, Thoreau built the 'little world' of Walden (1854): the bean patch, the mystical botanising, the yogic reverie. Life in the woods sharpened his mind like a pencil at a lathe. 'Time is but a dream I go fishing in... Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.'

The legend also remains. Walden is on American high school syllabi. Walden Pond is a state park with a replica cabin in the car park. The pond has its own Twitter account: '7/3/17 at 9:17 a.m.: Walden Pond closed after reaching visitor capacity.' So many independent minds follow the Thoreau trail that their feet have eroded the pond's banks. Thoreau the fugitive mystic is an icon for Subaru-driving suburban liberals. Ye shall know them by their bumper stickers. At the Walden Pond gift shop, you can buy one that explains your politics, diet and open-toed footwear in one word: 'Thoreau'.

There were two sides to Thoreau. He was a vegetarian, teetotal, non-smoking pacifist who cried when someone shot a duck that he had befriended. In 1862, when he was dying of tuberculosis, the children of Concord brought flowers to his bed. Yet Emerson's funeral eulogy emphasised that Thoreau also had something 'military in his nature, not to be subdued'. He was 'rarely tender' and 'did not feel himself except in opposition'. In Walden , Thoreau inflicts on himself 'austerities with a stern satisfaction'. He inflicted himself on his home town as a grumpy scold.

In 1873, Thoreau's first biographer, his friend Ellery Channing, sanctified the beatific 'poet-naturalist' who followed a 'different drummer' and lived a 'divine life'. In 1890, Thoreau's second biographer, the English radical Henry Salt, emphasised the belligerent anarchist of 'Resistance to Civil Government ' (1849), an essay better known under its posthumous title, 'Civil Disobedience '. In this Thoreau wrote that under an unjust government, 'the true place for a just man is also a prison', and spent the night in Concord's jail rather than pay the poll tax to a government that tolerated slavery. …

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