Henry Thoreau: A LIFE OF THE MIND, edited by Robert D. Richardson Jr. (University of California: $25; 440 pp., woodcuts by Barry Moser) : The Winged Life: THE POETIC VOICE OF HENRY DAVID THOREAU, edited by Robert Bly (Yolla Bolly: $18.95; 151 pp.)
In his lifetime of nearly 45 years (1817-1862), Henry David Thoreau was little known outside of Concord, Mass., either as a writer or as a thinker; he was, in fact, best known even to his townsmen as a skillful surveyor, as an inventive pencil-maker (his father’s trade), and as a minor disciple of his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the leading lecturers and authors of his time. Thoreau had little of his older friend’s platform grace, nor was he possessed of either his social charm or charisma (though children adored him). He was, as Robert D. Richardson’s biography reminds us, an active and valued member of his community, but he was more an outpost than a pillar of his community.
Thoreau’s first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” (1849), was published at his own expense, and when the publisher returned the 706 unsold copies (of an edition of 1,000) to the author a few years later, Thoreau noted wryly in his journal: “I now have a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself.” His now classic “Walden” (1854) earned royalties of slightly more than $50 during the first year of its life, and even less than that during its author’s; the book was out of print when Thoreau died eight years later.
Though his posthumous fame spread steadily and Thoreau’s influence on such celebrated figures as Gandhi, Frank Lloyd Wright and Martin Luther King has been acknowledged, it is really only since World War II that Thoreau has emerged as a major figure in our literary history. While it is true that scholars and critics like Leon Edel, Joyce Warren and Richard Bridgman have emphasized darker, less admirable qualities in Thoreau, on balance, Thoreau has emerged in the last quarter of a century as a complex and essentially heroic figure, a truly Representative Man. Nor can there be much doubt that the continuing publication by Princeton University Press of the painstakingly re-edited version of Thoreau’s journals--his 2-million-word “Book of Concord"--will stimulate additional biographical and critical studies. Thoreau is here to stay for as long as we can see or imagine.
Richardson’s “Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind” is a major contribution to Thoreau studies, and not the least remarkable thing about this volume is its capacity to reach specialists and general readers alike. That this biography may be recommended enthusiastically to any serious reader is a tribute to the power of Richardson’s prose, which is vivid, supple and clear.
Richardson has, in fact, done all that we have come to expect of ambitious modern biographers and more. He has read carefully and sympathetically everything that Thoreau wrote--published or unpublished. He has also read everything that Thoreau read, and one of the remarkable features of the book is Richardson’s graceful summaries and commentaries on these sources. Since Thoreau was a voracious reader of classical texts, of travel literature, of natural history, of scientific treatises, of philosophy, of orientalia, and of literature in many other categories in several languages, this is no small accomplishment. But since Richardson’s object was to write an intellectual biography of Thoreau from 1837, when he graduated from Harvard, to this death in 1862, it is a necessary one.
In addition, Richardson has absorbed the by now vast scholarship devoted to Thoreau; just as he has read Thoreau sympathetically so has he used the scholarship fairly. As a biographer, he is neither hagiographer nor iconoclast; as a scholar, he is neither advocate nor adversary of other scholars. Indeed, this book is marked by rare qualities in or out of academic circles: Its author is modest, fair-minded and generous. Where he finds something useful or interesting in the work of others, he uses and acknowledges it; where he disagrees with others, he simply calls attention to the difference and makes his contribution. He seeks to understand Thoreau and his interpreters, not to judge them. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden was framed with timbers cut with a borrowed ax and shingled with boards from a shanty purified in the sun; Richardson’s biography is similarly composed.
Richardson’s book consists of nine major chronological divisions, each of which in turn is sub-divided into 10 to 12 sub-sections devoted to the investigation of significant themes; time is thus the structural principle that carries the argument forward, while the smaller units give latitude for explorations of recurrent patterns.
To borrow a metaphor from Robert Frost’s poem “The Silken Tent,” Thoreau’s intellectual development is the center pole of the narrative; but this “heavenward” thrust is grounded by countless “ropes” to Thoreau’s family and friends, to political events, to technological changes, to the welter of social and cultural events of the time. The result--and it is a rare accomplishment in biography--is a portrait more like a living diorama than a two-dimensional snapshot.
The cameos of Emerson, Alcott, Channing, Agassiz, Hawthorne and Whitman are all carved with a miniaturist’s eye for distinguishing detail.
Richardson is, moreover, a splendid interpreter of Thoreau’s works, both major and minor, longer and shorter, published and unpublished. His readings of Thoreau’s best-known publications--"A Week . . . ,” “Walden,” “Walking,” “Civil Disobedience,” “Life Without Principle"--all make contributions to our understanding, while his commentary on Thoreau’s writings about Indians, Canada, Cape Cod, as well as Thoreau’s letters, journals and notebooks is unfailingly shrewd and fresh, and at times even brilliant (as in his discussion of what Thoreau learned from William Gilpin and John Ruskin about critical looking and nature writing).
The Thoreau who emerges from this resonant biography is fully human. This usually means that we get to see the subject, warts and all. What I mean it to mean is that Thoreau emerges neither as a God nor as a man carbuncular, but as a struggling human being: a person who lived with such intensity of consciousness and wrote with such precision and force that he transformed things into spirit and spirit into things. Thoreau’s writing, in short, performed miracles. But Thoreau was that rare kind of magician who worked with nothing up his sleeve except a hairy arm--and that was enough, since the arm had a pen at one end and a soul at the other.
Alas, I am less enthusiastic about Robert Bly’s volume of selections from Thoreau’s poetry and prose. In fact, after the title, which is good, the book consists of a steady and precipitous decline. There is something perfervid about Bly’s brief introductions to the book’s five sections, something disturbing about the hyperventilating intensity of his testimony. It reminds me of certain television commercials played at high volume and increased speed. And though the wood engravings by Michael McCurdy are good (though not as appropriately simplified and contemplatively magnified as Barry Moser’s illustrations in the Richardson book), they are not enough to redeem what is otherwise a kind of pumped-up version of Hallmark greeting cards. One would be better advised to go out and buy two or three volumes of Thoreau for the same price--and supply the pictures with the mind’s eye.