Due to a change in plans to visit my grandchildren, I will not be able to join you this afternoon. Having read the two articles Mary circulated as well as Walking, I was looking forward to the discussion. Like I suspect most of you, i have mixed feelings about Thoreau. It is hard to separate Thoreau the person from Thoreau the writer. As a person he was both admirable and dislikable/antisocial, and his writing I find uneven with some beautiful nature (and walking -related) writing and philosophical insights surrounded by other passages that are either banal or opaque (and I suspect were viewed as opaque when first published posthumously). I also went back and looked at a couple of books I read in the last two years that touched on Thoreau as a (relatively minor in his day) historical figure. Both generally view him favorably. One is about 19th century radicalism (American Radicals by Holly Jackson). It shows Thoreau to have been a committed, consistent abolitionist loosely affiliated with a strain of abolitionist and utopian thinkers who were anti-capitalist, anti-materialist, and anti-government/anarchist. An opponent of the Mexican War as well as of the extension of slavery into the Western territories, I don't think he was ever a proponent of Manifest Destiny in the imperialist sense; he was, however, a proponent of the Jeffersonian pseudo- scientific, American exceptionalist view that the New World was by and in nature superior to Europe (i.e. its flora and fauna were naturally bigger, better, and purer), and with his mentor Emerson and fellow New Englander Hawthorne was orienting American culture away from its European antecedents (and their own classical educations) and toward its own American spirit and vernacular. The other book is The Invention of Nature by Alexandra Wulf. It's a biography of Alexander Humboldt, the great German naturalist. I re-read the chapter on Humboldt's writings' great influence on Thoreau while at Walden Pond and during the seven years he took afterwards to write Walden. Because of Humboldt (and a falling out with Emerson), he became less of a poet and more of a scientist and keen observer and recorder of nature by the time he finished. She also points out that Thoreau went to Walden not just to remove himself from society in nearby Concord or to commune romantically with nature as a sort of vanity project, but because his beloved brother had just died of tetanus in his arms and this was a way to deal with his profound grief (and to think of death as part of nature). Wulf also has a couple of great insights from Hawthorne about Thoreau. One describes him as having been great with children, while, in the other, describing Thoreau as "an intolerable bore" who (as paraphrased by Wulf "made him feel ashamed of having money, or a house, or writing a book that people will read." She sums up: "All agreed that Thoreau was a man more at ease with nature and words than he was with people" ( except for "his joy in the company of children").
Posted by Nate Spiller at 2021-03-06 20:27:50 UTC