Monday, June 22, 2009

Thoreau, Recycled

Revisiting Walden through Robert Sullivan’s The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant

The following review was first published at the History News Network.

I’m one of the people for whom Robert Sullivan wrote this book. Every year, the entire tenth grade of the school where I teach makes a somewhat misnamed “Boston trip” (we spend about as much time in Salem and Concord as we do Boston), part of which involves a pilgrimage to Walden Pond. As my students are sent by their English teachers to walk the perimeter and take notes about what they find there, I merrily instruct them to make sure they have their Transcendental moment before the bus is supposed to leave fifty minutes later. In conversation with them, I never fail to observe that Mr. Simplicity with his cabin in the woods would go home regularly to have his mother wash his laundry. Thoreau has always struck me as the quintessential environmentalist, the proverbial crusader who loves trees more than people (unless those people are frightening vigilantes like John Brown or utterly impractical tax resisters like Thoreau himself), and that I serve a bona fide pedagogical purpose with my insistent irreverence. Dear old Henry wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m not going to do that anymore – or, at any rate, I’m not going to do it with quite as clear a conscience. As Sullivan points out, people like me (and I suspect he’s right in his suspicion that there are many) are smug about Thoreau’s smugness. “He worships nature, monk-like, while we carry on at home, ministering to the demands of the non-natural world,” Sullivan writes of our view of Thoreau. “He tends the pure garden of Mother Earth, while we trudge through fields of the mundane. There’s even an element of jealousy: while he gets to live in the cabin in the woods, we stay at home and go to work. We have to make a living.” We can’t afford to be like Thoreau, we tell ourselves; his thrift is actually a form of excess.

Sullivan’s critique of this critique is two-fold. The first is in effect to accept many of the charges leveled at Thoreau and turn them on their head. To point out, for example, that Walden Pond, a short walk from a bustling village, was hardly an exotic wilderness, is not a fact that discredits Thoreau’s experiment but something that was very much the point of his desire for a truly integrated life. To call him out on his foolish inconsistencies is a little like calling a congregation of churchgoers a bunch of hypocrites. As for Thoreau living a life of extravagance, he literally welcomed the idea: ever the etymological maven, he cherished a notion of himself as an extra vagrant.

But the other half of Sullivan’s argument is to directly rebut the charge of Thoreau as a cranky loner. He was not. That we think so, Sullivan says, is as often as not a perception of his cranky contemporaries, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, much more likely to talk the talk than walk the walk of his own philosophy, conflated Thoreau’s iconoclasm with unsociability. We forget that the lifelong bachelor had a hand in raising Emerson’s own children (the sage of Concord loved the idea of family life when he was on tour more than when he was actually at home), and that Thoreau was as comfortable with farmers and mechanics as he was Boston Brahmins. And he was as comfortable refining the process by which he manufactured pencils for the family business as he was cataloging the fate of seeds.

Perhaps the most effective aspect of this defense of Thoreau is Sullivan’s careful attempt to situate Thoreau in the economic and political climate of the antebellum decades. We tend to forget, for example, that the long downturn that followed the Panic of 1837 made social experiments like Brook Farm and Thoreau’s own cabin less a matter of bohemian sentiment than a search for a fiscally viable way of life. Far from isolated from the shifting social tides of his time, this quintessential Yankee had protracted contact and often careful observations about the Irish immigrants who surged onto New England’s shores. And that when Thoreau took on big political issues like abolition in the 1850s, he did not as an abstract dreamer but as a sharp critic willing to point fingers close to home (one more reason why he may be remembered as an irascible rascal). Like many of his contemporaries, Thoreau protested the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which legalized the spread of slavery into new territory. But he was at least as angry about the indifference to the fate of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston as he was the future prospects of Kansas. As he noted of an anti-slavery meeting he describes in his famous address “Slavery in Massachusetts, “I had thought that the house was on fire, and not the prairie ...There is not one slave in Nebraska; there are perhaps a million slaves in Massachusetts.”

It’s important to note that Sullivan is hardly the first person to make these or other points in defense of Thoreau. But he does so with pithy – yet tangy – prose worthy of his subject. “To imagine Thoreau and his writing without considering the economy is a little like thinking about The Grapes of Wrath without considering the Great Depression,” he asserts. Sullivan distills the political vision of works like “Civil Disobedience” into a series of declarations: “Stick together! Join the club and pay the dues [well, maybe not all the dues], and don’t abandon the ship, even if you have to get arrested and thrown in the brig to save it, even if you feel undervalued . . . Send the telegraph message but have something to say. Use text messaging, but for more than delivering the news that, as the narrator of Walden jokes, ‘Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.’”

Actually, such willful anachronisms go to the heart of what’s original and compelling here. Sullivan, himself a freelance writer (as well as the author of Thoreauvian books like Rats and The Meadowlands) is acutely aware that Thoreau was, too, and that this consciousness really can explain a lot. “A literary stunt is a thing that happens all the time today in publishing circles: a writer living in a particular way – or partaking in a particular community or ritual or what have you – in order to ultimately report on the event or place or people,” he writes of the circumstances that led to Walden. “It is an essentially artificial experiment undertaken with an interest in making money on publication or putting forward a not-so-artificial argument (optional) or, in some case, both.” A garden wasn’t the only place Thoreau made his living.

After finishing The Thoreau You Know I went looking for my annotated Modern Library of Thoreau’s writings from my college days, and was distressed that I couldn’t find it. So I had to browse him again fresh, online. And when I did, I remembered why it was that I’ve used Thoreau’s sentences as epigrams for two of my books. Like many of the Transcendentalists, his work is easy to mock as vague, even meaningless, from a distance, and yet it takes on a tensile vitality when you come up against it. He’ll never be on of my favorites (I’m one who finds Whitman’s embrace irresistible, as apparently did Thoreau.) But next time I’m at the pond, I’ll give Thoreau his due (which is as likely as not to mean that I’ll keep my mouth shut). I might even pick up some trash I find in the parking lot as I walk back to the bus.