Culture of Eloquence: Oratory and Reform in Antebellum America

By James Perrin Warren | Go to book overview

3
Henry Thoreau's Tawny Grammar

1

The acuteness of Thoreau's sensitivity to sounds is matched -- perhaps surpassed-only by his sense of silence and the power that silence wields. As early as December 1838, the twenty-one-year-old teacher and lecturer drafted "some scraps from an essay on 'Sound and Silence'" ( Journal 1:60), scraps that would eventually form the concluding movement of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849. During the eleven-year "silence" between the initial draft and the polished publication, Thoreau built the cabin at Walden Pond, kept his journal as a kind of "literary workbook" ( Journal 2:447), drafted the only two books he would publish during his short life, and wrote the lecture that would become known most popularly as "Civil Disobedience." 1 These familiar biographical facts often suggest a renowned retreat to Walden Pond and to the monumental book Walden, but the familiarity obscures Thoreau's less renowned commitment to the reform of nineteenth-century American culture.

Thoreau already sees layered complexities of sound and silence, society and solitude, in the "scraps" of 1838, and his vision remains essentially unchanged

____________________
1
The most succinct account of these years is in Richard J. Schneider, Henry David Thoreau ( Boston: Twayne, 1987), 1-18. See the two modern biographies: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau ( New York: Knopf, 1965); Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind ( Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986). An important recent discussion of Thoreau's career is by Steven Fink, Prophet in the Marketplace: Thoreau's Development as a Professional Writer ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Thoreau Journal is being edited by Princeton University Press. At this time, four volumes have appeared: vol. 1: 1837-1844, ed. John C. Broderick et al. ( 1971); vol. 2: 1842-1848, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer ( 1984); vol. 3: 1848-1851, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer et al. ( 1990); vol. 4: 1851-1852, ed. Leonard N. Neufeldt and Nancy Craig Simmons ( 1992). Unless otherwise noted, references to the Journal are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in my text.

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