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Thoreau: The Private Man

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This article was originally published in the May 7, 1951 issue of The New Republic. 

The Walden edition of Thoreau’s journal was published in 1906. It has now been reiussed in the same form, but with a prefatory note by Henry Seidel Canby where a solid modern estimate of Thoreau might have aided an admirable publishing venture. Yet this is still the only complete edition of a remarkable nineteenth-century work—an epic of the New England spirit—and the most important thing, after all, is that the Journal is available.

Thoreau left behind him 39 manuscript volumes of which the largest were found to contain about 100,000 words, and which in print have been reduced to about 6,000 pages of text. He had a short life, confined mainly to Harvard, Concord and Walden Pond; and he made it a point in the Journal not to describe what he felt to be temporal of merely circumstantial events. This is the biography of a soul. It opens in the year 1837, when Thoreau was twenty, and in search of a garret. “To be alone I find it necessary to escape the present—I avoid myself.”

The Journal closed in the year 1861, when Thoreau was forty-four, shortly before he returned to the shelter of his family and his mother’s presence for the last time, ill with tuberculosis, shut off from the animals, the plants, the rivers that he loved, and when, being called upon to recant, as it were, in the face of death, he whispered his final comment upon religion: “One world at a time.” Emerson, whose manner was reproving in this as in other matters, thought the Journal was harmful since it interfered with Thoreau’s public career as a writer. But Thoreau was the perfect type of private man, and this was the ideal form for his reflections: a secret history of the mind which tried to approach the truths that the conventions of any period try to suppress.

It is questionable whether literature itself, taken as a whole, is not merely another aspect of the illusions that nature has created in order to protect the processes of life, and Thoreau had taken on the formidable task of appraising the mysteries behind the veil of appearances. He was aware of suffering as a necessary law of existence. "I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp—tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood!"

But he contended—and it was perhaps the greatest heresy in his period as well as in ours—that pleasure was the main purpose of life, and he declared that the impression made on a wise man was that of universal innocence. "Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal." That is the highest ecstasy of the mystic, though this pure soul, seeking a single answer at the brink of Darwinism and during the collapse of a religious framework in American society, was also a student of manners in the middle of the nineteenth century, a historian of farmers and merchants in our small towns, a relentless critic of social institutions, a gossip, a wit. Sometimes the best passages in the Journal combine all these elements at once, in an absolutely fresh and personal style that has influenced such diverse modern writers as Hemingway and, curious as it may seem, Dreiser.

Thoreau lived his life in a way that he thought worthy of recording in the Journal, and it is all there, stored away, treasured, distilled into essences, kept sweet except during the moments, particularly in the later volumes, when his bitterness overwhelmed him and was, as he thought, unworthy of animal creation. For he was also, and perhaps primarily, a writer, as Miss Ethel Seybold's study of the dassic influences in his thought and style brings out very clearly; although here Thoreau himself thought it wise to conceal his own purpose and the main occupation of his life.

And that is not to say that the Journal, even so, is a complete record of a temperament. Modern scholarship, while it has raised Thoreau's position to its present high point, has stressed his ambiguous attitude about the sexual drives which, one might think, could hardly have failed to impress this meticulous student of nature's ways. Mr. Canby's biography, in 1939, pointed to Thoreau's curious relationship with Emerson's second wife, Lidian, as a factor in his flight to Walden Pond. Joseph Wood Krutch's recent study alternatively has suggested that Thoreau's sexuality was almost completely repressed from the start. Miss Seybold's present study stresses, though only as a kind of footnote to Cato or Anacreon, Thoreau's nervous breakdown in his middle thirties and his own feeling that what came after this was an Indian summer or second growth. "My spring has been even more backward than nature's," he wrote. "For a month past life has been a thing incredible. None but the kind gods can make me sane."

The later volumes of the Journal support this thesis whenever Thoreau stopped looking through nature and merely looked at it. (The intense idealization of John Brown at the end of Thoreau's life may recall the tone of his letters to Mrs. Emerson, and was possibly Thoreau's last desperate attempt to achieve a sincere human relationship.) Perhaps he was primarily a poet of youth and revolt, and the Walden adventure—so innocuous on the surface, so deep and dazzling in its inner consequences—was in this sense a climax to the most fertile period of Thoreau's thought.

For it was a break not only from his family and town life, but from the complete pattern of American society. He had resigned from the nineteenth century, and in this light his gesture of renunciation also marked the break between the life of the rural republic and the ruthless imperialism of the titans of finance. The whole Transcendental movement, indeed, was a kind of flowering of the past in a brief, giddy moment of history before the cataclysm of a new age that opened in the blood of the Civil War. Here, incidentally, Thoreau suggested that the town butcher should become the captain of the Concord militia. For he believed a neighbor's opinion: "There isn't one in the company can cut up a crittur like him."