[July 12th marks Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday! So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five texts and contexts for Thoreau, leading up to a weekend post on three ways we can remember and celebrate this unique and influential American on his 200th.]
On what three of Thoreau’s social relationships can tell us about the man and his influences.
1) Edward Hoar: Hoar, who was six years younger than Thoreau and grew up across the street from him in Concord, is best remembered as the friend with whom Thoreau accidentally started a forest fire in April 1844, leading to the destruction of more than 100 acres of Concord woods (and, some have argued, leading Thoreau to his Walden project as a kind of penance to those woods). While that was the pair’s most famous experience with nature, it was far from their only excursion; Thoreau and Hoar spent a good deal of time in and around the Concord woods, and upon Thoreau’s untimely death in 1862 he left Hoar a large number of pressed plants from the area (to add to Hoar’s own growing collection). Hoar’s daughter would donate that collection to the New England Botanical Club’s Herbarium in 1912, providing a clear and shared legacy of Thoreau and Hoar’s friendship and shared love of nature.
2) (William) Ellery Channing: If the forest fire offers one possible origin point for the Walden project, another is a statement attributed (in Thoreau’s journals) to Thoreau’s friend Channing, who in March 1845 is said to have told Thoreau, “Go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.” Channing, Thoreau’s age and the nephew of the famous Unitarian minister of the same name (which led the younger Channing to be known as Ellery), was a budding poet and member of the Transcendentalists, and many of his poems were published in the group’s journal The Dial. But he is perhaps best known as Thoreau’s first biographer, as he published Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist, with Memorial Verses in 1873, just eleven years after Thoreau’s death. Thoreau and Channing were among the younger Transcendentalists, but Channing’s biography reflects the influence that Thoreau had on everyone in the group during his brief but important life and career.
3) Ralph Waldo Emerson: Few American friendships have been studied and analyzed more fully than that between Thoreau and his Concord friend and Transcendentalist mentor Emerson. Whether or not Thoreau actually had the legendary jail cell exchange with Emerson, it certainly embodies a key distinction between the two men, emphasizing Thoreau’s activism against Emerson’s philosophical orientation. Emerson also dedicated one of his more unique pieces of writing to his late friend: the 1862 eulogy essay “Thoreau.” Yet I think Thoreau can also be put in direct conversation with Emerson’s first published essay, “Nature,” and particularly with that essay’s opening, title section (source of the famous “transparent eyeball” metaphor among other oft-quoted moments). On the one hand, Thoreau’s Walden project can be seen as a direct enactment of that section’s ideas, such as: “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society”; and “In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.” But at the same time, I would argue that Emerson’s vision of Nature remains entirely subjugated to human interests and perspectives (“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit”), while Thoreau was more able to depart from himself and see and experience nature on its own terms.
Last Thoreau post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Thoreau responses you’d share?
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