Spring 1987, Volume 4.1
KENNETH E. EBLE
Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind by Robert D. Richardson, Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, x + 455 pp., $25.00.
Writers who possess the great gift of style are hard to write about, harder for writers who themselves value style. A rough rule of a publisher's thumb might refuse all manuscripts in which the author's style was conspicuously below that of the Writer being written about. Such a rule would usefully reduce the number of books about Thoreau and such other American writers as Emily Dickinson or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mark Twain.
A writer about Thoreau faces a further problem of just where to approach him. The "dark" Thoreau and the homo-erotic Thoreau have emerged murkily out of current fashion, built on circumstantial evidence considerably short of Thoreau's trout in the milk. Robert Richardson has chosen to focus on the central fact of Thoreau as writer. The result is an admirable book that succeeds in both style and substance.
As to style, Richardson chooses to disengage himself, I think, from Thoreau's distinctive and seductive style. He lets Thoreau speak often enough to lend a true Thoreauvian tone to the book, and conducts himself as guide, commentator, and provider of useful information in a clear, unobtrusive, and effective style.
As guide, Richardson begins with Thoreau's return to Concord from Harvard in early fall of 1837 and ends with his last words, "moose" and "Indian" on the morning of May 6,1862. Twenty-five years seem hardly enough time for Thoreau to have written all he did and to still have left some doubt about his central dedication to writing. That may be traceable, in part, to Thoreau's own utterances, like "My life has been the poem I would have writ./ But I could not both live and utter it." Having wisely shifted from poetry to prose without abandoning himself as poet, Thoreau did not become the poet or novelist or dramatist by which writers are still identified. Thus he was more easily placed as one of those New England
0 : transcendentalists or a nature-thinker or the enunciator of civil disobedience or a "skulker," as Robert Louis Stevenson called him. Still, the sheer number of words he wrote stamp him as "writer," a tireless recorder of what he sensed and thought, not just as they came but as they were refined by his language-making organism and came out on the page. And not just an original page but onto many different pages to end up in one great finished work Walden, as much a poem as any other identifiable literary form.
Richardson provides an excellent guidebook to Thoreau's development and existence as a writer, neither making excessive claims as has become commonplace for the Journals or undervaluing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, The Maine Woods, and separate essays. with handling of Cape Cod do I have much disagreement. I don't think that "Cape Cod starts where 'Ktaadn' left off." Certainly Cape Cod begins with a shipwreck and ends with Thoreau's putting all America behind him. But The Maine Woods are umbrageous, under cover, internal, hard to get through or see through. Cape Cod is open to the universe, rank yes, unflattering, , but unconcerned. 'The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world." (And yes, I am aware the paragraph ends . . it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime.") The rhetoric of Richardson's chapter title, "Shipwreck and Salvation on Cape Cod," may have misled him here. For Cape Cod is not unpopulated, and it is no more concerned with salvation than Thoreau himself was. Confining himself pretty much to the first four chapters, Richardson would make one think there was no Wellfleet oysterman, no women looking "exceedingly pinched up," or Northmen IV ~ -- - "casting their doorposts overboard and settling wherever they went ashore." I As commentator, Richardson most often lets the facts or the persons speak for themselves, Thoreau, for example, on Christmas Day, 1841: "1 don't want to feel as if my life were a sojourn any longer .... It is time now that I begin to live." On other matters that raise questions about Thoreau's attitude or work, Richardson is brief but convincing. For example, how is one to explain Thoreaus unqualified support of John Brown? 'Violence was bad," Richardson writes, "but slavery was worse." As part of his discussion of the relationship between Emerson and Thoreau, he rightly, I think, identifies Emerson as writing "the best single short piece ever done on Thoreau." On Thoreau's side, he finds the "saddest sentence" in Walden to be the brief mention of Emerson: 'There was one other with whom I had 'solid seasons,' long to be remembered, at his house in the village and who looked in upon me from time to time."
As provider of useful information Richardson again scores high, though he does not always resist the scholar's temptation to work into the text all of the notes he's taken. One example will suffice: details about Thoreau's first position as Concord schoolmaster. Here it adds something to have Richardson point out how responsible a position this was. The Center Grammar School district had two male teachers, two female teachers, and over 300 students. Male teachers received $100 or so annually; women about $40. Thoreau's salary was $500, one of the two best-paid positions of twenty or so employed by Concord. The school budget for 1837-38 was $2,132.55, the town's major expense; "support of the poor came next at $800 a year, followed by roads and bridges." All this and other details about conditions in the schools lend support to Richardson's suggestion that the job may have been "more than he had bargained for." Still, to leave out mention of the way Thoreau reportedly leftordered to use the ferrule on pupils, according to Channing, he ferruled six of them after school and quitseems to needlessly substitute statistical fact for personal report and interest.
Nevertheless, it, is a great merit of this book that it so often surprised me, a professional reader who out of necessity as wen as choice has read most of what has been written about Thoreau. Equally impressive, for the non-professional reader such details are not impediments to the main course of the book. Here the author from A may have learned as Thoreau himself learned in his progress Week to Walden. A book, like a river, can lose its identity when it meanders in the shallows. It needs a strong current which this book has and which it so admirably identifies and charts in Thoreau's own life.