Review by Ray Greenblatt
Henry Thoreau made a week’s boating trip with his brother John in 1839. Henry was a mere 22! This voyage in a sailboat with oars would be a forerunner to the classic Walden; in it we see so many elements that reappear in the latter work. However, the former book was not published until 1849 and did not sell many copies. Henry’s brother would die at age 27 in 1842; Henry would succumb to tuberculosis at age 45. If in some obscure New England attic stacks of A Week are discovered, what would they now be worth!
During his voyage Thoreau refers to many eras: Chinese, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Hindu, Moslem, etc. He concentrates on all aspects of Greek civilization: Orpheus, Jason, Pythagoras, Plato, Aurora. He philosophizes about astronomy, early American history, friendship, politics. He even discourses in detail on certain famous individuals from Persius to Chaucer to Goethe.
Let us first consider the bare bones of Thoreau’s writing; later we will add the flesh. He often relies on a series of adjectives: “The few dull, thumping, stertorous sounds which we heard impressed us.” (200) Also, nouns, verbs, and even sentences are written in triplicate for emphasis. He often inverts his verb before the subject: “So have all things their higher and their lower uses.” (185) This puts stress on a key word. We notice metaphors and similes, but his analogies are subtle: “The fisherman, meanwhile, stands in three feet of water, under the same summer’s sun, arbitrating in other cases between muck-worm and shiner.” (21) Comparing a fisherman to a lawyer is unique. He also coins many original adages. Using the concept of money figuratively he writes: “The truth is, there is money buried everywhere, and you have only to go to work to find it.” (208)
Critics often write about Thoreau’s dryness and fact-oriented analyses. Yet, close reading discloses whimsy: “Some will remember, no doubt, not only that they went to the college, but that they went to the mountain. Every visit to its summit would, as it were, generalize the particular information gained below, and subject it to more catholic tests.” (197) Sometimes the humor holds a bite: “Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere meanwhile, nature will have leveled the Billerica dam, and the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River run clear again.” (32) This ecological statement still applies today!
Our author is excellent in description. Here the wind drives their boat under sail: “The mountains like school-boys turned their cheeks to it . . .The north wind stepped readily into the harness which we had provided, and pulled us along with good will . . .with our wings spread, but never lifting our head from the watery trench.” (384) He employs all his senses: “All these sounds, the crowing of cocks, the baying of dogs, and the hum of insects at noon, are the evidence of nature’s health or sound state.” (40) And “I see, smell, taste, hear, feel, that everlasting Something to which we are allied, at once our maker, our abode, our destiny, our very Selves.” (182) This will lead us to Thoreau’s views of nature.
Thoreau fully believed that man was part of nature and could see transcendental things and the universe through it. Something as simple as a flower: “I have passed down the river before sunrise on a summer morning, between fields of lilies still shut in sleep; and when, at length, the flakes of sunlight from over the bank fell on the surface of the water, whole fields of white blossoms seemed to flash open before me, as I floated along, like the unfolding of a banner, so sensible is this flower to the influence of the sun’s rays.” (19)
Trees like the linden have been working partners with man: “It was once used for carving, and is still in demand for sounding-boards of piano-fortes and panes of carriages, and for various uses for which toughness and flexibility are required. Baskets and cradles are made of the twigs. Its sap affords sugar, and the honey made from its flowers is said to be preferred to any other. Its leaves are in some countries given to cattle, a kind of chocolate has been made of its fruit, a medicine has been prepared from an infusion of its flowers, and finally, the charcoal made of its wood is greatly valued for gunpowder.” (166)
The bream holds a special delight for him: “Seen in its native element, it is a very beautiful and compact fish, perfect in all its parts, and looks like a brilliant coin fresh from the mint. It is a perfect jewel of the river, the green, red, coppery, and golden reflections of its mottled sides being the concentration of such rays as struggle through the floating pads and flowers to the sandy bottom, and in harmony with the sunlit brown and yellow pebbles.” (26)
He admits to having killed and roasted a pigeon somewhat reluctantly: “We obtained one of these handsome birds, which lingered too long upon its perch, and plucked and broiled it here with some other game, to be carried along for our supper; for, beside the provisions which we carried with us, we depended mainly on the river and forest for our supply.” His philosophical reasoning: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.” (236)
Nature is so much older than man: “Here is the gray dawn for antiquity, and our tomorrow’s future should be at least paulo-post to theirs which we have put behind us. There are the red maple and birchen leaves, old runes which are not yet deciphered; catkins, pine cones, vines, oak leaves, and acorns; the very things themselves, and not their forms in stone,–so much the more ancient and venerable.” (266) Its beauty has a correspondence: “Undulation is the gentlest and most ideal of motions, produced by one fluid falling on another. Rippling is a more graceful flight. From a hill-top you may detect in it the wings of birds endlessly repeated. The two waving lines which represent the flight of birds appear to have been copied from the ripple.” (338)
Thoreau sees in nature a combination of exigency and the fanciful: “There seemed to be a great haste and preparation throughout Nature, as for a distinguished visitor; all her aisles had to be swept in the night by a thousand handmaidens, and a thousand pots to be boiled for the next day’s feasting,–such a whispering bustle, as if ten thousand fairies made their fingers fly, silently sewing at the new carpet with which the earth was to be clothed, and the new drapery which was to adorn the trees. And then the wind would fall and die away, and we like it fell asleep again.” (355)
. LITERATURE & THE POET
The essayist and poet states that he likes quality books: “Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions,–such call I good books.” (99) He wants nature woven into the literature: “The sentences are verdurous and blooming as evergreen and flowers, because they are rooted in fact and experience.” (107) Conversely, he condones bad books in which a man “finds himself reading a horse-rake, or spinning-jenny, or wooden nutmeg, or oak-leaf cigar, or steam-power press, or kitchen range, perchance, when he was seeking serene and biblical truths.” (99)
He highlights the value of the classics: “I know of no studies so composing as those of the classical scholar. When we have sat down to them, life seems as still and serene as if it were very far off, and I believe it is not habitually seen from any common platform so truly and unexaggerated as in the light of literature. In serene hours we contemplate the tour of the Greek and Latin authors with more pleasure than the traveler does the fairest scenery of Greece and Italy. Where shall we find a more refined society?” (239)
First, he reasons “to some extent, mythology is only the most ancient history and biography.” (60) However, he centers in on the worth of the poet: “Everything that is printed and bound in a book contains some echo at least of the best that is in literature . . . What would we not give for some great poem to read now, which would be in harmony with the scenery,–for if men read aright, methinks they would never read anything but poems. No history nor philosophy can supply their place.” (93)
The poet’s “words are the relation of his oldest and finest memory, a wisdom drawn from the remotest experience.” (101) To illustrate an idea, Thoreau would quote a poem or part of one, often his own. “The poet is no tender slip of fairy stock, who requires peculiar institutions and edicts for his defense, but the toughest son of earth and of Heaven, and by his greater strength and endurance his fainting companions will recognize the God in him. It is the worshipers of beauty, after all, who have done the real pioneer work of the world.” (362)
Thoreau’s philosophic views are grounded in the real. Take travel: “The cheapest way to travel, and the way to travel the farthest in the shortest distance, is to go afoot, carrying a dipper, a spoon, and a fish line, some Indian meal, some salt, and some sugar. When you come to a brook or a pond, you can catch fish and cook them; or you can boil a hasty-pudding; or you can buy a loaf of bread at a farmer’s house for fourpence, moisten it in the next brook that crosses the road, and dip into your sugar,–this alone will last you a whole day.” (325)
His views on government are more profound: “When I have not paid the tax which the State demanded for that protection which I did not want, itself has robbed me; when I have asserted the liberty it presumed to declare, itself has imprisoned me . . . Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.” (135) “Herein is the tragedy: that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery.” (136)
About religion he is even more accusatory: “The church is a sort of hospital for men’s souls, and as full of quackery as the hospital for their bodies. Those who are taken into it live like pensioners in their Retreat or Sailor’s Snug Harbor, where you may see a row of religious cripples sitting outside in sunny weather.” (77) He even rebuffs evangelicals: “Tell me of the height of the mountains of the moon, or of the diameter of space, and I may believe you, but of the secret history of the Almighty, and I shall pronounce thee mad.” (71)
His religion rests in the mystical: “This earth was made for more mysterious and nobler inhabitants than men and women. In the hues of October sunsets, we see the portals to other mansion.” (403) What is our life: “We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half forgotten ere we have learned the language. We have need to be earth-born as well as heaven-born.” (406) This leads us to Thoreau’s emphasis on the man of the earth, the countryman.
“The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man. Even the oldest villages are indebted to the border of wild wood which surrounds them, more than to the gardens of men. There is something indescribably inspiriting and beautiful in the aspect of the forest skirting and occasionally jutting into the midst of new towns, which like the sand-heaps of fresh fox-burrows, have sprung up in their midst. The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.” (179)
“How few circumstances are necessary to the well-being and serenity of man, how indifferent all employments are, and that any may seem noble and poetic to the eyes of men, if pursued with sufficient buoyancy and freedom. With liberty and pleasant weather, the simplest occupation, any unquestioned country mode of life which detains us in the open air, is alluring.” (220)
A man in nature is in touch with his soul: “Yet these men had no need to travel to be as wise as Solomon in all his glory, so similar are the lives of men in all countries, and fraught with the same homely experiences. One half the world knows how the other half lives.” (227) “These are stirring autumn days, when men sweep by in crowds, amid the rustle of leaves like migrating finches; this is the true harvest of the year, when the air is but the breath of men, and the rustling of leaves is as the trampling of the crowd.” (359)
Our author also puts up with a certain type of rudeness among these men: “I therefore did not repel his rudeness, but quite innocently welcomed it all, and knew how to appreciate it, as if I were reading in an old drama a part well sustained. He was indeed a coarse and sensual man, and, as I have said, uncivil, but he had his just quarrel with nature and mankind, I have no doubt, only he had no artificial covering to his ill-humors.”
About these hearty men he says: “Men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat, who were out not only in ’75 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives . . . Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what they have not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.” (6) And this figurative “writing” brings us full circle in Thoreau’s philosophy.
In his fine book The Geography of Imagination, the renowned American critic Guy Davenport wrote about Thoreau: “He was clearly an ecologist; he was also a student of time, of cyclic movements in nature and of the miraculously synchronous organization of plants and animals. Hence his daily inspection of one woodscape, knowing every detail of its life . . . Thoreau’s love affair with the scrub-oak, homeliest of trees, began to have the qualities of myth, the Greek feeling for the olive which we find in Oedipus at Colonus.” (242) Even at such a young age as 22, we can see that Henry Thoreau had developed the skllls to write Walden years later.
You can find the book here: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7720.html
Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets. His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.