NOT EXACTLY A HERMIT: Henry David Thoreau

By Heitman, Danny | Humanities, September/October 2012 | Go to article overview

NOT EXACTLY A HERMIT: Henry David Thoreau


Heitman, Danny, Humanities


A CENTURY AND A HALF AFTER HIS DEATH, Henry David Thoreau's literary output continues unabated, with new versions of his work still in progress. That work has shaped the career of Elizabeth Witherell, who joined the staff of the Thoreau Edition in 1974 and has served as its editor in chief since 1980. Founded in 1966, and now located at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Thoreau Edition publishes scholarly, definitive texts of Thoreau's writings. Sixteen volumes in the series have already been published, and Witherell envisions twenty-eight volumes in all. The Thoreau Edition's current project is a three-volume collection of Thoreau's correspondence, with the first collection of letters slated for publication next spring.

The letters offer a personal and intimate side of the man most famous as the author of Waiden, an account of two years spent in a tiny cabin he built on Waiden Pond outside Concord, Massachusetts.

"Thoreau was not a person who revealed himself easily," says Witherell, offering a view shared by scholars and general readers for generations.

Not that Thoreau's life lacked documentation. In addition to Waiden and a few celebrated travelogs, such as Cape Cod and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau (1817-1862) kept a copious journal that, in a previously published edition, stretched to fourteen volumes and some two million words. But the sheer volume of Thoreau's prose has, paradoxically, complicated the work of gaining a complete understanding of his personality. The scale of Thoreau's oeuvre, not easily digested in its entirety, invites selective quotation, tempting readers to pick and choose passages that support their pet theories about him.

David Quammen, a science and nature writer who's looked to Thoreau for inspiration, put it this way: "In fact, the case of Henry Thoreau stands as proof for the whole notion of human inscrutability. This man told us more of himself than perhaps any other American writer, and still he remains beyond fathoming."

For nature author Bill McKibben, the question of Thoreau's true self is obscured not only by the breadth of his writings, but their depth. Take Waiden. "Understanding the whole of this book is a hopeless task," McKibben said. "Its writing resembles nothing so much as Scripture; ideas are condensed to epigrams, four or five to a paragraph. Its magic density yields dozens of different readings -psychological, spiritual, literary, political, cultural."

Many readers, faced with Thoreau's enigmatic Yankee persona, have resorted to a kind of pop-culture shorthand for describing his life. As the capsule summary goes, Thoreau was an oddball loner who lived by a lake, writing in praise of nature and against modern progress. But the full story of Thoreau's life involves subtleties and contradictions that call his popular image into question.

"One misperception that has persisted is that he was a hermit who cared little for others," says Witherell. "He was active in circulating petitions for neighbors in need. He was attentive to what was going on in the community. He was involved in the Underground Railroad." In yet another way Thoreau was politically active, penning an essay, "Civil Disobedience," that would later inform the thinking of Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Despite his fame as a champion of solitude - a practice that he chronicled with wisdom and wit, Thoreau made no secret of the social life he indulged during his stay at Waiden Pond from 1845 to 1847. In fact, one of the chapters of Waiden, titled "Visitors," offers an extended account of Thoreau's dealings with others. "I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way," Thoreau tells readers. "I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the barroom, if my business called me thither. …

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