[Ed Abbey contemplating the bust of Thoreau -- by Jim Stiles]

Thoreau

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    July 12, 1817�May 6, 1862

    Henry David Thoreau was born and died.

    Ah, but he's still alive.

    Bill McKibben calls Thoreau: "Buddha with a receipt from the hardware store."

    Emerson said, "His eye was open to beauty, and his ear to music. He found these, not in rare conditions, but wheresoever he went. He thought the best of music was in single strains; and he found poetic suggestion in the humming of the telegraph-wire..." (That is to say the humming itself, not what inanity was humming through it.)

    Edward Abbey said that Thoreau�s prose-poetry had "the disturbing, haunting, heart-opening quality that some call mysticism." (source: Down the River)

    Jim Stiles, creator of the illustration at right, says that somewhere he has a sequel called "Thoreau contemplating the Bust of Abbey" in which Henry David watches Ed get busted by a couple of cops for "shooting a cow or chopping down a billboard or something... Ed's in cuffs being led away and he's grumbling, 'I hate billboards. It's my RIGHT!'"

    Joseph Wood Krutch: "Thoreau's most persistent contention [was] that human existence should be, not a duty or a burden, not a mere means to an end, but a self-justifying esthethic joy. Puritan in certain respects he was, but in this... attitude he was among the most defiant of antipuritans, as when he proclaimed that God had not sent him into this world without spending some money."

    Thoreau's friend and biographer Ellery Channing described Thoreau as "one of those characters who may be called �household treasures;' always on the spot, with skillful eye and hand, to raise the best melons in the garden, plant the orchard with choicest trees, or act as extempore mechanic; fond of the pets, his sister's flowers, or sacred Tabby; kittens were his favorites,-�he would play with them by the half-hour."

    Channing continues: "No whim or coldness, no absorption of his time by public or private business, deprived those to whom he belonged of his kindness and affection. He did the duties that lay nearest, and satisfied those in his immediate circle ; and whatever the impressions from the theoretical part of his writings, when the matter is probed to the bottom, good sense and good feeling will be detected in it."

    "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of [one�s] dreams, and endeavors to live the life which [one] has imagined, [one] will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." --Thoreau (Walden)

    John Brown�s raid on Harper�s Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, impressed Thoreau favorably: here was someone for whom word and deed were congruent.

    "The one great rule of composition... is to speak the truth. This first, this second, this third; pebbles in your mouth or not." --Thoreau address delivered by proxy on July 4, 1860, at John Brown�s grave in North Elba, New York (near Lake Placid).

    Thoreau looks at things from different angles. In "The Ponds" (in Walden) he considers fish as birds -- which surprised me since earlier in the day that I read that chapter I�d looked at the sky and felt as though I was a fish looking up at insects.

    A great person is one who learns everywhere, from all circumstances.

    I am now older than Thoreau was at his death (about nine weeks shy of his 45th birthday).

    "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." (Walden)

    "One world at a time."

    Thoreau was not morose. Nathaniel Hawthorne�s wife Sophia, in a letter to a friend, described her husband skating with Emerson and Thoreau. Hawthorne moved "like a... Greek statue, stately and grave," she wrote. Emerson was "evidently too weary to hold himself erect, pitching headforemost," while Thoreau "performed dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps."

    In summer he best liked to go berrying.

    I have barely begun to scratch the surface of this man�s writings. Just wait. I�ll be thorough about Thoreau.

    Paul Theroux writes, in the introduction to Thoreau�s posthumously published Cape Cod: "An odd fish, full of peculiar conceits."

    And transcribes a poem Thoreau wrote after visiting Cape Cod:

    "My life is like a stroll upon the beach/As near the ocean�s edge as I can go..."

    Emma Goldman called him "the greatest American anarchist" in her essay "Anarchism: What It Really Stands For", calling him by his original name, "David Thoreau."

    Thanks to Thoreau, I now know "factitious" means human-made (unnatural) and that fictile (pronounced ficktle) means pliable, able to be formed into a sculpture.

    And "pellicle" = a semi-permeable membrane.

    Thoreau�s longest journey -- was to Minnesota in May 1861. The trip was supposed to help his health.

    It didn�t. He died the next spring of TB.

    While in Minnesota Thoreau walked around Lakes Calhoun and Harriet, and traipsed near Minnehaha Falls, predating me and several million others. I read about this in a book titled Minnesota�s Literary Visitors which also describes Knut Hamson�s, Mark Twain�s, and Oscar Wilde�s visits to the state. (On page 215 of this book, a certain Chris Dodge is mentioned as coproducer of alternative press review MSRRT Newsletter. A second paragraph begins: "While the MSRRT Newsletter... both lists and reviews publications, Utne Reader... excerpts articles..."

    But so what.

    "I do not need the police of meaningless labor to regulate me."

    "The flowing of the sap under the dull rinds of the trees is a tide which few suspect."

    "I saw the cat studying ornithology between the corn-rows."

    Ellery Channing wrote, "In a walk, his companion.. said, �I do not see where you find your Indian arrowheads.� Stooping to the ground, Henry picked one up and presented it to him..."

    The index to Channing's biography, Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist is telling. Here's a selection from it.

    Thoreau was "alive from top to toe with curiosity," wrote Channing.

    Emerson said, "The brutes ought to choose him their king."

    He made birch wine. And experimented with cranberry growing from which grew the idea of flooding bogs to protect the berries from frost. That idea, according to Walter Harding, "did not occur to professional cranberry growers until many years later but is now standard procedure."

    From a review of Walden in the Unitarian Christian Register:
    [The book's] opening pages may seem a little caustic and cynical; but it mellows apace, and playful humor and sparkling thought appear on almost every page. We suppose its author does not reverence many things which we reverence; but this fact had not prevented our seeing that he has a reverential, tender, and devout spirit at bottom. Rarely have we enjoyed a book more, or been more grateful for its many and rich suggestions."

    "The winter, cold and bound out as it is, is thrown to us like a bone to a famishing dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it. While the [farmers] in the outskirts are milking so many scores of cows before sunrise these winter mornings, it is our task to milk the winter itself. It is true it is like a cow that is dry, and our fingers are numb, and there is none to wake us up. Some desert the field and go into winter quarters in the city. They attend the oratorios, while the only music we... hear is the squeaking of snow under our boots. But the winter was not given to us for no purpose. we must thaw its cold with our genialness. We are tasked to find out and appropriate all the nutriment it yields. If it is a cold and hard season, its fruit, no doubt, is the more concentrated and nutty..." (from journal entry, Jan. 30, 1854)

    Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: "During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau's essay 'On Civil Disobedience' for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement..."

    I read these words from Thoreau's journals of January 1850:

    "... seeds beginning to expand in me, which propitious circumstance may bring to the light & to perfection. If I look within all is as indistinct as the night--unless there is a faint glimmer & phosphorescence, a sort of boreal light--there--and perchance there is heard the breathing of crickets under the sod--and as the darkness depends I may see some twinkling stars. I know not whether it is the dumps or a budding extacy--Were there too many slap jacks or is it the incoming God?" and immediately was struck by their kinship to these lines by Ana Akhmatova (translated by Jane Kenyon):

    "And the sun goes down in waves of ether
    in such a way that I can't tell
    if the day is ending, or the world,
    or if the secret of secrets is in me again."

    Connections, forward in time-- and backward.

    "Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life as a dog does his master's chaise. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good-- be good for something.--All fables indeed have their moral, but the innocent enjoy the story." --from a letter to G. O. Blake, March 1848

    "The homeliest facts are always the most acceptable to the inquiring mind." --from Cape Cod

    Thoreau's words reached and influenced Mohandas Gandhi.

    And Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote: "During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau's essay 'On Civil Disobedience' for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement..."

    Di Flikht Fun Ungehorkhzamkayt Tsum Shtaat. Come again? Civil Disobedience published in Yiddish, 1907.

    In the Different Drummer department, the Washington Post reported in 1998 that "[Don] Henley, the Eagles drummer who crafted such hits as 'Life in the Fast Lane' and who has been a Thoreau devotee since college, raised millions of dollars for the Walden Woods Project."

    Cognitive dissidence...

    Thoreau Society Bulletin #241 (Fall 2002) reports that the birth name of singer Bobby Darin was Walden Waldo Robert Cassotto, that retailer Marshall Field's is selling a "Thoreau Etched Mirror" (etched with "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams..."), that a Spanish-language biography of Thoreau is almost complete, that Walden has now been published in Portuguese, and that an hour-long program on Thoreau aired recently on Swedish public radio.

    In "Thoreau the Buddhist", from Rick Fields' book How the Swans Came to the Lake (Shambhala, 1981), a history of Buddhism in the west: "[Thoreau] forecast an American Buddhism by the nature of his contemplation, in the same way that a certain quality of transparent predawn forecasts a clear morning."

    In a house where I was spending a week lately, I picked up the February 2002 issue of Outside magazine which has an article by William Vollman about the Salton Sea ("Where the Ghost Bird Sings by the Poison Springs") that quotes Walden. In checking the source using the internet, I found a not-atypical error that seems to have come from the shortcomings of scanning software: "No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well. For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infinity [sic] of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out."

    The word "infinity" should read "infirmity", of course.

    Misinformation and error abound everywhere, but on the web they are spread contagiously.

    Shortsighted views of Thoreau abound. Occasionally there is insight. "From my way of thinking, Thoreau frequently seems an overly social person," Mary Oliver writes in Blue Pastures (Harcourt, 1995).

    Some links

    Thoreau Today

    The Thoreau Society

    The Thoreau Reader (Eserver.org, including Civil Disobedience, Walden, and much more, including critical works such as "The Theory, Practice, & Influence of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience," Lawrence Rosenwald's essay pointing out how Thoreau stopped paying his poll tax in 1842, four years before the Mexican War began, correcting the error that Thoreau "was arrested for not paying taxes to support the Mexican-American War to expand slavery" [the words are Betty Staley's, but they represent a popular misconception])

    Excursions (online text of the 1906 Torrey- and Allen-edited work featuring "A Yankee in Canada," "Natural History of Massachusetts," "A Walk to Wachusett," "The Landlord," "A Winter Walk," "The Succession of Forest Trees," "Walking," "Autumnal Tints," "Wild Apples," and "Night and Moonlight")

    Thoreau quotations (with sources) (Poemhunter.com)

    The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (University of California Santa Barbara site featuring selected journal transcripts, Sept. 3, 1854-April 7, 1959)

    "Thoreau as a Diarist," by Bradford Torrey (Atlantic Monthly, Jan. 1905)

    Images from The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (1906) ("photogravures of scenes and objects described by Thoreau," by Herbert Wendell Gleason, 1855�1937)

    Botanical Index to the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, by Ray Angelo .. Use and Construction of the Index

    Thoreau's Lecturing Activities

    Thoreau links (transcendentalists.com) (includes biographical page with links to encyclopedia entries)

    Thoreau links (Open Directory Project)

    Henry David Thoreau Papers (Concord Free Public Library Special Collections finding aid with scanned images of Thoreau surveys)

    Thoreau Family Collection, 1828-1858 (Concord Free Public Library Special Collections finding aid)

    Thoreau Family correspondence (Concord Free Public Library Special Collections finding aid)

    Inventory of the Henry David Thoreau Collection, 1837-1913 (Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library)

    Henry David Thoreau Herbarium (plant specimens collected by HDT) .. Henry David Thoreau Herbarium (container list, Harvard's Library of the Gray Herbarium)

    Thoreau manuscripts at Harvard's Houghton Library

    Stephen Ells' Thoreau Research page

    Thoreau's poems

    Ken Kifer's annotated Walden

    "Where Thoreau was Born" (By Joseph C. Wheeler)

    "The Reception of Thoreau as a Lecturer" (By Brad Dean)

    The Walden Woods Project

    "The Blog of Henry David Thoreau" (journal selections)



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