A “new” text by Thoreau, like a new species of life which in fact has been here longer than we but has only recently entered our frame of reference, does for our consciousness something that Thoreau did constantly for his own: It calls into question what we thought we knew. It makes us re-examine what we had taken for granted and had considered to be complete--in this case the legacy of a man’s work which we had claimed, and had presumed to bring into the house and treat with familiarity. Those of us who have had the luck to discover Thoreau early in life, and to whom his writings continue to speak, have probably felt impelled to reconsider the nature of their importance to us from time to time. It is unlikely ever to have been a matter of mere literary history.
The abiding life of Thoreau’s words is inseparable from the vigor and authority of his moral imperative, his insistence that how we live and what we say tell on each other. His fidelity to his own inquiring nature and the uncompromising clarity with which he put it into language made him a prophet without honor--or with very little--in his own time. He could note wryly that he owned more copies of his published writings than anyone alive.
The same qualities of his nature and his writing have contributed to the place he has come to occupy in American and in Western civilization since his death. It is of course in part a literary eminence, for he left some of the most trenchant, original and powerful prose ever written by an American, work that takes its place in the company of the great prose of the language. But there is also his persistent importance as a “thinker,” a social critic and examiner of our assumptions and their consequences, a clear observer and outspoken witness. Through the past century and more, a growing number of readers have regarded him as a sage, with a gratitude approaching reverence. This in turn has earned for him the vexation, petulance and scorn of some critics for whom the proper function of literature is something neat and inactive, and a love of wilderness is simply silly.
Thoreau himself, that champion of consistency, was a complex of living contradictions, some of which he addresses in the course of his ponderings. His detractors have been delighted to remind everyone that the cabin at Walden Pond was an easy and fairly regular walk from his mother’s kitchen door in Concord, and they suggest that his “Life in the Woods” therefore was a kind of glorified camping out in the back yard. They have been happy to point out that in his busy uselessness he had set a large tract of a neighbor’s land ablaze--as though such facts somehow relieved us all of the authenticity of Thoreau’s probing perception and revelations.
Thoreau, as he invited his readers to remember, was not advocating a hermit’s life for himself or anyone else, and he was not prescribing his own life for anyone. He asked “of every writer, first and last, a simple and sincere account of his own life.” He was urging the consistent examination of what the “mass of men” take for granted, not a life without ever making any mistakes.
No wonder he was considered, and was, an eccentric in his own time and is still an eccentric counselor. His very eccentricity tells us something constant and uncomfortable about the society that we refer to as “the real world,” whatever it may tell us about the oddities and limitations of Thoreau’s temperament, which have been quite apparent to many of his most devoted admirers.
Some of the most eloquent of the later tributes to Thoreau have not concealed a mixture of feelings about the man. Emerson said of him that he would as soon have taken an elm by the arm, this man who tried (once, at least, according to his own account) to improve upon the attention he was used to according to human beings by considering them as though they were groundhogs.
This Thoreau, of course, is the author of “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience,” “Cape Cod” and “The Maine Woods” and the earlier journals in particular--what has come to be thought of as the canonical Thoreau. But Thoreau lived for most of a decade after the completion of “Walden,” and the meticulous observation of the natural world around him, which had always been a part of his journal, came to take up more and more of it, which led a number of critics to agree that his later work was altogether a falling off. He compiled, besides, a series of notebooks of observations of the natural world, and of extracts and comments on his readings in natural history. Most of this material, apart from the Journal itself, has never been published until now.
Emerson, after Thoreau’s death, edited several short essays from Thoreau’s late writings and published them in the collection called “Excursions.” But even after the great Journal itself was in print a large body of material remained unpublished. Among it there was an essay that may have been--as Robert D. Richardson, who edited “Faith in a Seed,” believes--the “very early draft” of a “book-length study, in minute detail, of “how, according to my observations, our forest trees and other vegetables are planted by Nature.”
“The Dispersions of Seeds,” as the essay is titled, forms the principal text of the present volume. It is followed by three other pieces, “Wild Fruits"--a beautiful if unfinished essay clearly related to the later pieces in “Excursions” --and two other short fragments. The foreword, by Gary Nabhan, and Richardson’s introduction both address the difference between the Thoreau we encounter in these later writings and the Thoreau of “Walden” and the earlier years. “The writer of ‘The Dispersion of Seeds,’ ” Richardson tells us, “has traveled a long road from ‘Walden.’ . . . ‘The Dispersion of Seeds’ . . . celebrates fertility, fecundity, and interconnectedness . . . the growth of communities and the rise of new generations. . . . ‘Walden’ is the acknowledged masterpiece of Thoreau the poet-naturalist; ‘The Dispersion of Seeds,’ even in its rough-draft form, is the culminating word of Thoreau the writer-scientist.”
But readers of Thoreau’s Journal and his late essays will not find “The Dispersions of Seeds” particularly startling. The quality of observation is familiar, and it is only surprising that it has taken so long for this material to be made available. Some of the writing has been buried in pages of field notes--which remain unpublished and, evidently, unstudied--but it should be said that the life of the language, the quality of vision, are there in a great deal of these writings just as they are in passage after passage of the late Journal. Although there is no palaver in their style, as Thoreau said, there is a luminous beauty, often, in their focus itself, something that speaks well both for the objects and the author. The plain virtues of the prose are there in the passage from which the book’s title was taken: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
It has been objected, with some justice, that two related weaknesses of Thoreau’s writing are a deficiency of movement and of development--an insufficiently clear sense of overall design. In the earlier writings and in such impassioned statements as “Slavery in Massachusetts” and “Civil Disobedience,” moral rage and a rhetoric richly appropriate to it often supply such things. In the later writings, however, the particular detail and moment often seem to stand still, and their effect is static, a series of cumulative contributions to a theme, so that the reader too tends to linger on individual passages. But even in the more or less unfinished state in which “The Dispersion of Seeds” and “Wild Fruits” have been left to us, the conceptions that they reveal, their attention to their subject as a whole, and the life of their language make them works of recurring and inimitable beauty, further testimony of Thoreau’s nature and his great gift.
Nabhan and Richardson are both intent on indicating that this beautifully achieved new volume represents Thoreau the man of science, and it is remarkable to think that even a decade after the appearance of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” (Nabhan notes that Thoreau was “the first Anglo-American field ecologist to be influenced by Darwin’s theory”) there were still serious publications in which it was taken for granted that some plants sprang up “spontaneously,” without seed or other propagative forbear, and so Thoreau’s painstaking observations in “The Succession of Forest Trees” and “The Dispersion of Seeds,” and in his unappreciated field notes, were in the most literal sense pioneer work. They were in fact prophetic, pursuing lines of thought that led into our own time and its studies. But even though his field work alone would have been superseded sooner or later, the publication of “Faith in a Seed” gives us something less ephemeral: a contribution to the figure of Thoreau the teacher, an extension of the moral vision of the author of “Walden,” the presentation of an attitude that does not contradict the earlier work but quietly complements it. The person of the observer is less evident in these later writings but the distinction between the inner and outer worlds is becoming translucent.
The Thoreau who wrote in “The Dispersion of Seeds” (and returned to the same idea more than once in the later Journal) of “the difference between looking for a thing and waiting for it to attract your attention” sees the life before him with clear immediacy as none other than his own. The scope of his enterprise has altered. Richardson is convinced that the goal of Thoreau’s late work was a book that “would reveal the world around us in so concentrated and passionate a way as to convince us that every single day is a new season.” It was a book, of course, that he was not to finish. But the writer’s approach to his subject is part of the prize and mystery of the subject itself. His attention is comprised of humility and respect--a kind of skeptical reverence. At its simplest, and perhaps its most valuable, it is a quality not of assessment but of regard.