To Walden: On Lawrence Buell’s “Henry David Thoreau” and Robert D. Richardson’s “Three Roads Back”
By Todd ShyNovember 7, 2023
Henry David Thoreau: Thinking Disobediently by Lawrence Buell
Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives by Robert D. Richardson
People feel strongly about Thoreau, maybe because he felt so strongly about most things. The challenge for all Thoreau readers, no matter their final take on him, is that his strong feelings don’t line up into a neat, easily harmonized perspective on the world. His ideals compete and fight like the red and black ants he watched warring at Walden. Anyone writing about Thoreau feels pressed either to figure out which side Thoreau is really on when matters get tricky or else to figure out how to grasp Thoreau’s seeming contradictions without reconciling them too easily.
Avoiding an easy balancing act is what makes Lawrence Buell’s new study, Henry David Thoreau: Thinking Disobediently, so compelling. An emeritus professor at Harvard who has spent a lifetime writing about the Transcendentalists, Buell counsels patience in the face of Thoreau’s many complexities. “To rush to judgment is of course a reader’s right,” he concedes, “but it is more instructive to understand how Thoreau’s thought and actions came to take the shape they did and have managed to speak to so many.”
The tensions in Thoreau’s life and writing really do produce what feel like contradictions. With complicated contemporaries like Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, one feels that their depth and darkness go on and on but that those complexities are a force driving a single mighty project. With Thoreau, it’s as if respective idealisms are out of sync—gears of different clocks somehow turning the same two hands. Or, to use Thoreau’s own image from Walden (1854), it’s as if he puts on different-sized coats and manages to make them all fit regardless. And yet, despite the straining variety of those ideals, there is nothing agitated in Thoreau: he holds them like a cooler Walt Whitman, immersed in a two-way traffic of notions.
Understanding these competing dimensions is the right entry point for engaging this elusive and still very influential figure. And Buell is our expert guide. He begins framing the tensions by naming the distance between the historical Thoreau, the Thoreau inside his one life, and “the figure of Thoreau that his writing presents.” He notes, for example, that this “boldly independent thinker” on the page, this man marching to the beat of a different drummer, whom we might imagine from the prose heading west to the frontier, was actually very much a “homebody,” a college graduate who boomeranged back to live with his parents and sisters, basically never to leave. Buell also notes that the image of “hardihood” portrayed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other contemporaries masks the “fragile health history” of this village handyman. Though he was a brisk daily walker, a man who could swing a borrowed ax with skill and skate acrobatically on frozen rivers, Thoreau would die at the age of 44 from complications of tuberculosis, a disease he battled his whole adult life. Then there is the contrast between Thoreau the poet and lyrical naturalist and Thoreau the meticulous, specimen-gathering scientist. In addition, there is the paradox, in his writing, of the chanticleer confidence of the voice heralding a nonetheless provisional worldview.
Maybe most tangled of all is the tension between the Thoreau of “Civil Disobedience” (1849) and the Thoreau of Walden, the two works for which the writer is best known. The Thoreau of the former is the herald of nonviolent protest, the activist who inspired 20th-century movements to change society. The Thoreau of the latter withdraws from that same society to get at essential things, which do not include organized politics and public protest (though they may include pies from his mother—reader beware).
That this tension between activism and withdrawal remains a central one for us, and that it’s not always seen as intractable by careful readers of Thoreau, is clear in Rebecca Solnit’s essay “The Thoreau Problem.” Solnit thinks the competing visions form a creative pressure for Thoreau, and she chides those who miss their convergence:
These scholars and critics permit no conversation, let alone any unity, between Thoreau the rebel, intransigent muse to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and that other Thoreau who wrote about autumnal tints, ice, light, color, grasses, woodchucks, and other natural histories, essays easily and often defanged and diced up into inspiring extracts. But for Thoreau, any subject was a good enough starting point to travel any distance, toward any destination.
I’m less sure that there is unity in these competing visions than there is sheer juxtaposition. His ideals certainly coexist in a mind forever looking ahead, and certainly any starting point will do, but Thoreau doesn’t seem interested, as we seem to be, in explaining how the various visions cohere. Part of Buell’s artfulness is his avoidance of insisting that the tributaries of Thoreau’s attention ultimately resolve into a single clear current. In his earlier study of Thoreau’s famous mentor, Buell described Emerson’s own approach to biography: “Neither hagiography nor debunking will do, nor cautious balancing acts either.” It’s a neat balancing act we want to try to avoid with Thoreau. Buell offers this measured approach:
Thoreau the cabin-dweller, guardian of nature, and student of natural history and the political Thoreau have often appealed to different constituencies. From our comparative analysis of Walden and “Civil Disobedience” it seems clear that the relationship between the political Thoreau and Thoreau the poet-naturalist was as much a symbiotic tension as a complete antithesis. Just how consistent and abiding was Thoreau’s engagement in political thought and action over the course of his life, however, is much less clear.
The champion of civil liberties hails Thoreau’s submission to a night in jail but is frustrated by his heading for the hills the next morning to go a-berrying. The follower of the Thoreau hoeing beans in bare feet and looking up at circling hawks, or even the lover of the nonviolent “Civil Disobedience,” winces, as Lewis Hyde does in his essay “Prophetic Excursions,” at Thoreau’s elevation of a violent John Brown, whose righteous indignation is fueled, Hyde writes, by a “God idea” and an “imperial egotism.” Thoreau’s early champion Emerson, whose complicated relationship with his protégé Buell unpacks carefully, couldn’t help seeing Thoreau’s contradictions as failure: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition,” Emerson declared in Thoreau’s eulogy. “[I]nstead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.”
One reason people may go all-in on their Thoreau is that Thoreau so often goes all-in on his pronouncements. It is hard to miss in his writing what Buell calls a “cascade of pontifications.” Thoreau’s own boldness, then, invites a bold response. Our confidence in our version of Thoreau reflects our experience of his confidence in what he is saying to us. Often this results in deep, grateful tributes by writers Thoreau has influenced. You see admiration and even love for Thoreau in recent books such as David Gessner’s pandemic meditation Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis (2021); Ben Shattuck’s wonderful, generous memoir Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau (2022); and the timely, Thoreau-inspired meditation on our relationship to work by John Kaag and Jonathan Van Belle, Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living (2023). On the flip side, opponents of Thoreau don’t hold back either. Kathryn Schulz’s battering-ram New Yorker essay is a recent instance of an uncompromising dismissal of the Walden sage.
Against the hasty passion Thoreau can sometimes provoke, Buell advises us to slow down: “Nor am I the only Thoreau scholar originally drawn to his work partly by that special sense of rapport who has found it necessary in later years to correct against overconfidence in my intuitive sense of who the real Thoreau was.” The real Thoreau was many things. In this brief book, Buell seems to contain them all. He shows how it’s possible to read Thoreau as essentially a mystic-hermit, or an environmentalist standard-bearer, or a political theorist, or a libertarian crank, or the loafer many in his time accused him of being, or a homebody, or an ethnographer fascinated by Indigenous groups and the tools and arrowheads they left behind, or a craftsman who built his own tiny house, or a diarist, or an erratic activist, or a lyrical scientist—but also how any one of these possibilities on its own is less faithful to the unresolved complexities of the man, and also less interesting.
Why, then, for all the marvelous fecundity of Thoreau’s mind and pen, does he remain so elusive and, for a man who kept a two-million-word journal, so hidden and unresolved? Some of it, no doubt, is temperamental. Emerson likened himself to a sphinx; Thoreau was even stonier. Some of it seems a kind of willful crypticness. Thoreau loved paradox to a fault. But at least some of his elusiveness can be traced to the way he reconciled himself to the deaths of his beloved brother John and, a few weeks later, of Emerson’s young son Waldo. In his posthumously published Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives (2023), Robert D. Richardson, one of Thoreau’s best biographers, argues that grief sent Thoreau with even more determination to nature. Thoreau was 24 at the time of his brother’s death, and it devastated him. He even suffered sympathetic symptoms of lockjaw in response, such that his family feared for his life too. This disciplined journal keeper stopped writing for over a month. The book Thoreau went to Walden Pond to write was not Walden but a record of the river trip he’d taken with his brother—a kind of memorial.
Richardson describes Thoreau’s recovery from his profound grief this way: “Physically, literally, the deaths of John and Waldo knocked him flat. But emotionally they connected him more solidly than ever with nature, with the rivers, the fields, and the forest.” His philosophical move was to see death as a law of nature rather than a human tragedy: “It is as common as life,” Thoreau wrote to Emerson, as his mentor grieved the death of his son. “Every blade in the field—every leaf in the forest—lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.” Somehow, Thoreau imagines, with a coolness his neighbors would chide, this apprehension is equal to the loss of a brother and a five-year-old boy. Even Richardson calls these lines “unconvincing flights,” which feels polite and generous. And yet, by his own report, this perspective gets Thoreau oriented again. He returns to himself, and he gets on. But he gets on as the Thoreau we will experience as elusive to the very end.
I’m even more intrigued, though, by a line in a letter Richardson quotes from those same months. Writing to Emerson’s sister-in-law following his brother’s death, Thoreau makes this clarifying claim: “For we are not what we are, nor do we treat or esteem each other for such, but for what we are capable of being.” I pair this with a journal entry from a dozen years later in which Thoreau writes: “A journal is a record of experiences and growth, not a preserve of things well done or said. […] Here I cannot afford to be remembering what I said or did, my scurf cast off, but what I am and aspire to become.” Thoreau, in other words, is elusive to the reader because he is not trying to make sure we see him as he is. He is not trying to reveal himself at all. He is working to articulate what he is trying to be and what the world to him seems. Even in the Journal, which the dedicated questers of the “real Thoreau” consider his masterpiece, Thoreau doesn’t seem to be playing with perspectives or identities. He’s neither hiding nor confessing: he’s aspiring, becoming.
The mindset captured in both this letter and this private reflection marks our real distance from Thoreau. Here is the screen that makes him hard to see and read. We think a first-person journey will be confessional. Thoreau’s is relentlessly aspirational. Buell explored this angle in some depth in his previous study of Emerson. It is a perspective we have to learn to put on. Our instinct is to read crowing first-person prose as a revelation of the writer—of what Emerson and Thoreau really think themselves to be. But what they’re confident about, instead, is what they glimpse, a glimpse that makes their own idiosyncrasies and particularities—things at least this modern reader craves—incidental to them. Reading Thoreau’s Journal, I was charmed to learn that he liked the smell of wet umbrellas. Thoreau would not be charmed by my charm at all. Like Emerson, he wants to tell us about the universe. What they called their genius (and we have genius too) gives them access, but it is an access to a “current so feeble,” Emerson writes, “as can be felt only by a needle delicately poised.”
Thoreau pitches himself as a chanticleer announcing prophecies, but he values himself and knows himself as a string being played. The famous line about marching to the beat of a different drummer is easily taken by us in our self-care context to be a battle cry of self-expression. But Thoreau marches differently because he hears a different drummer. He is marching to the music that he hears, not music that he creates and expresses. His vision is aspirational toward that music; it is not confined to the confession of his personality. And this also puts distance between Thoreau and us. Confident that his philosophical categories are buried in the cemetery beside Nietzsche’s God, we simply march to the tune we decide to hum, and we call that Thoreau’s own legacy. But neither Emerson nor Thoreau would be much impressed with that. We’re not hearing anything.
Still, even this aspirational Thoreau is a provisional Thoreau. “Ultimately a person must ‘see that he does only what belongs to himself and to the hour,’” Buell quotes Thoreau saying. We shouldn’t be Thoreau’s followers. That trail, he tells us, will go cold. In the next hour, he might have changed trails entirely. We can benefit, though, from being his student. Buell’s final notes on a subject he has spent his life studying would please and honor Emerson and Whitman as well. One should look to Thoreau, he writes, as a “stimulus,” not an “oracle.”
Buell’s powerful study, the best brief introduction to Thoreau we now have, belongs on a shelf beside Laura Dassow Walls’s definitive Thoreau biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (2017); Robert A. Gross’s magisterial overview of the historical context, The Transcendentalists and Their World (2021); and Stanley Cavell’s philosophical meditations on The Senses of Walden (1972). The seven chapters of Henry David Thoreau: Thinking Disobediently also bookend the seven longer chapters of Buell’s earlier work, Emerson (2003). Cut the pages of either book, to borrow a good hyperbolic image of Emerson’s, and they bleed—not with feeling but with unassuming authority. Buell’s portrait of Emerson’s protégé here is not poetical or lyrical (other writers seem more moved by Thoreau). His book is a schoolroom. Enroll in this class.
My own favorite paradox involving Henry David Thoreau is that, having declared life at Walden Pond a kind of idyll, having fronted the essentials, having been freed by simplicity to see and feel and live and write, he left. A little over two years into his now-famous experiment, he moved back into Concord proper, first to live with the Emerson family, then back to the attic of his own family home, where he remained until he died, organizing specimens of nature, keeping on with his Journal, walking all over the region, taking meals with his family, and writing the seventh and final draft of a book about what it meant to live deliberately in some local woods (omitting the laundry runs that would haunt so many later readers). Thoreau left the pond he celebrated and made famous. It was the boldest Thoreauvian move of all and, for me, his most interesting. Anyone can walk away from distraction and dissatisfaction. Who leaves bliss behind? Abandoning Walden was a striking gesture of the need to move on regardless, of the need to explore the next hour and not cling to the current one. Going to the woods when most of us would stay put might seem heroic. Leaving the woods when he was happily settled in routines seems—what, exactly? Wise? Whimsical? Homesick? Unpredictable? Emerson would simply call it “onward thinking.” Thoreau had other apprehensions to attend to and could not, as he put it in Walden, spare any more time for that one version of things. “There is more day to dawn,” Walden concludes. “The sun is but a morning star.”
And yet what the Journal makes clear is that Thoreau wasn’t actually done with Walden when he left it. This is the paradox I love. “To Walden,” journal entries recite, over and over and across the years. To Walden. To Walden. To Walden. Long after the tiny house there had been sold to local farmers and removed, Thoreau kept going back. Buell and Richardson do that too. So late in their careers, with authoritative books behind them, they go back to Walden, honoring this last good paradox of an impossible-to-pin-down writer: We’re not ever done with ourselves and our projects. We never complete or exhaust what we see and love. We inhabit; we explore; and if we’re lucky enough to be with Thoreau on a pond, we get to delight as well.
Todd Shy is head of upper division at Avenues The World School in New York City and the author of Teaching Life: Life Lessons for Aspiring (and Inspiring) Teachers (2021).
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