Magazine | August 14, 2017, Issue

The Radical

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls (Chicago, 640 pp., $35)

‘Jefferson’s public career focused on securing for Americans,” the eminent historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote, “a right of expatriation from the past.” Morgan argued that this was a large part of “the meaning of independence” for Jefferson. The more populist and charismatic democrat Andrew Jackson was a proponent, wrote Richard Hofstadter, of “self-assertive subjectivism.” Jefferson and Jackson both defeated and replaced Adamses of a more conservative, traditional cast of mind, men who were their moral superiors. However hypocritically and self-interestedly, Jefferson and Jackson offered more radical, flattering definitions of the independence of both self and nation, a development whose literary-philosophical sequel was to be found in the life and work of Emerson and his “Transcendentalist” brethren and their various Romantic, “visionary capitalist,” and existentialist disciples, from Walt Whitman to the robber barons, from Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer to our current Jacksonian president.

“Emersonian self-reliance identifies dissent as the quintessentially American gesture,” the scholar Sacvan Bercovitch has written, “and then universalizes it as the radical imperative to subjectivity.” This is a working out of Jefferson’s right of expatriation from the past, giving us what the scholar Quentin Anderson has called, in a powerful 1971 book of this title, “the imperial self.” Long after Henry David Thoreau’s death in 1862, that protean, shape-shifting barbarian Walt Whitman praised him for his “lawlessness — his dissent — his going his own absolute road let hell blaze all it chooses.”

In Samuel Johnson’s essay on biography in The Rambler, that great and pious writer said: “I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.” Professor Laura Dassow Walls has provided a fine, exhaustive life of Henry David Thoreau, animated equally by scholarship and sympathy. But mention of the great Johnson, both the author and the subject of biographies, including Boswell’s, points up a contrast and presents a problem: Thoreau was a profoundly antisocial and logically contradictory thinker and writer. Despite trying to make a case for Thoreau, the scholar Andrew Delbanco noted in 1997 that while Thoreau “wrote reverently about nature,” he often wrote “about people with shriveling disdain” and “was corrosively skeptical of all established structures and quick to categorize other men even as he condemned them for having categorical minds.” Examining Thoreau’s thinking and writing on civil disobedience, the Spanish scholar María José Falcón y Tella, in her authoritative Civil Disobedience (2000), ultimately deplored Thoreau’s self-contradictions and accused him of “violence, arrogance, elitism, and anarchy, . . . in the pejorative sense of disorder and chaos,” affirming the Italian scholar Giovanni Cosi’s view that Thoreau was an “aesthetic anarchist.”

Professor Walls thus has her work cut out for her, and she makes a heroic effort to present Thoreau, in this year of the bicentennial of his birth, as sociable, consistent, and ethically noble. The evasive philosophical-rhetorical legacy of Thoreau’s guru, Ralph Waldo Emerson, which stimulated the disciple to mystagogic paradox, often noted and criticized in their age, does not make her task easy. She does show how devoted to and dependent on his Concord, Mass., family of domineering women the bachelor Thoreau was, and how much of the life of this hometown he participated in as a land surveyor, neighbor, skilled pencil-maker, odd-jobs man, and Lyceum speaker. She also movingly describes the Thoreau family’s role in the Underground Railroad, facilitating the escape of fugitive slaves to Canada in the late 1840s and the 1850s. She praises Thoreau’s courage in speaking up influentially for the radical abolitionist John Brown.

Like Joseph Wood Krutch 50 years ago and the contemporary Harvard scholar Lawrence Buell, Walls makes much of Thoreau as a great early ecologist: She has previously written books on this subject, and her discussions of his growing interest and competence as a naturalist provide some of the best pages in her book. She also credits Thoreau with an early and sensitive sympathy for the Native Americans, whom white immigration and growing ideas of “manifest destiny” were rapidly displacing throughout the United States.

But a telltale note at the end of her preface points up a nagging problem with Emerson and Thoreau that will not easily go away: In her book, she tells us, “I capitalize Nature when it names a divine or holy essence, but stay with lowercase nature when the word is used in our modern, secular way.” As Perry Miller wrote in 1940, “Fortunately, no one is compelled to take . . . seriously” the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, and the “Transcendentalists.” The romantic pantheism of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman did not outlive the advent of Darwinism, though it left a permanent blemish on our K–12 educational system, as E. D. Hirsch has repeatedly argued over the last 40 years. In this regard Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were children of Rousseau, and John Dewey and his disciples were their descendants, with damaging long-term consequences.

Emerson was the fount of American Romantic pantheism, and his use of the word “Nature” as a God-term led him into recurrent contradictions and evasions. Even his friend and admirer Henry James Sr. worried (in 1884): Emerson was “fundamentally treacherous to civilization, without being at all himself aware of the fact. . . . He had no conscience, in fact, and lived by perception, which is an altogether lower or less spiritual faculty.”

Though Emerson was Thoreau’s master, and Margaret Fuller his sometime editor and friend, early on both found something deeply unnerving about Thoreau’s literary tactics and ideas. In an 1843 journal entry, Emerson wrote of a draft essay by Thoreau: He “sends me a paper with the old fault of unlimited contradiction. The trick of his rhetoric is soon learned. It consists in substituting for the obvious word and thought its diametrical antagonist. . . . It makes me nervous and wretched to read it.”

Andrew Delbanco notes that Margaret Fuller rejected an essay of Thoreau’s for the Transcendentalist journal The Dial and told him: “The thoughts seem to me so out of their natural order, that I cannot read it through without pain.” Delbanco calls Walden “a very intolerant book” and comments that “the point is to attack all received ideas and images until they disintegrate under the assault.” He continues: Thoreau’s “prose style . . . moves almost mechanically back and forth between contradictory assertions. . . . Beneath this vibration of contraries was a dreadful emptiness. . . . Thoreau was ultimately a despiser of culture . . . [who] faced an abyss of his own creating — the specter of absolute self-reliance more radical than even Emerson contemplated.” Thoreau’s friend Bronson Alcott wrote insouciantly of him in 1851 that he was “the independent of independents, . . . indeed, the sole signer of the Declaration, and a Revolution in himself.”

Yet, as many of Emerson’s numerous critics noted, the disciple had learned at the master’s knee. As Santayana wrote in 1900, “was not the startling effect of much of [Emerson’s] writing due to its contradiction to tradition and to common sense?” Saint Augustine “had made a church,” Quentin Anderson wrote in 1971, but “Emerson undertook to bring one down — and saw that he would have to take its place.” And worse was to come, in the “barbaric yawp” of Walt Whitman and the anarchic immoralism of Emerson’s admirer Nietzsche and his admirers, now legion.

Despite the heroically sympathetic effort of Professor Walls, Thoreau was ultimately both an antinomian (“There is no court of appeal whatever,” he wrote, “no higher law beyond conscience itself,” thereby denying and defying the very foundation of any coherent ethics) and a pharisaical moralist (with what Delbanco calls a “shriveling disdain” for most people). After an 1843 day in New York City, Thoreau recorded the following impression: “I walked through New York yesterday — and met no real and living person.” Similar passages of ostentatious contempt can be found in the writings of Emerson, a skeptic who saw life as ultimately illusory: “All is riddle and the key to a riddle is another riddle. There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snowstorm” (“Illusions”).

Literary critic Jeffrey Hart, a former senior editor of SMALLCAPSNational Review, wrote well on this ambiguous legacy in these pages (“The Eye and I,” December 8, 1997). Earlier, Quentin Anderson argued that figures such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were ultimately provincial, repetitive, narcissistic nihilists who could tell us nothing about how to live together and who had “emancipated” themselves from the religious, rational, and ethical traditions of the past that animated the best human behavior: Their solipsistic “secular incarnation involves a denial of history and an extreme antinomianism.”

Inheriting the austere and homely ethics of early-19th-century New England, Emerson and even Thoreau retained sensible communitarian manners, against the grain of their own thought. But the shape-shifting New York drifter Whitman did not; he understood, as Anderson put it, “that a rejection of Christianity in behalf of an emotional egalitarianism would have to begin with a rejection of the idea that the self was internally structured by conscience.” The “image of God” in the human person is the disposition of the human conscience to the good and the true beyond and above itself, in whose pattern and light the human person fulfills himself or herself as a rational-moral being. The Hebrews, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Christians celebrated and followed this pattern and this light; Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman denied it, with profound and malignant long-term consequences. With this, Nietzsche has arrived; and Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer are on the horizon.

– Mr. Aeschliman is a professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, a professor emeritus of education at Boston University, and the author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism.

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The Radical

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