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Book Review: Thoreau in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Edited by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis

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Best I can recollect, it was Mark Twain who argued that the surest way to earn fame as a liar is to always tell the truth. I have no idea who first observed that when the big fish dies all little fish flock to eat him, but it is perhaps the simplest lesson a reader learns from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Of those two grim ironies, there may be no better illustration than the life and career of Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862).

Having spent the bulk of the few years Fate allotted him in pursuit of Truth and Beauty at the feet of Nature and Nature’s God, Thoreau was almost unknown outside his hometown of Concord, Mass. He made a living as a house painter, gardener, and surveyor while he wrote poetry.

His walks in the woods inspired contemplative essays on natural history, conservation, spirituality, citizenship, Transcendentalism, nonviolence, the abolition of slavery, and other, potentially controversial subjects. He was formidable in debate and highly regarded as a scholar. He produced what some modern readers deem one of the two-or-three best books ever created by an American hand. Yet critics and publishers largely ignored him while he lived. The gist of it is that Thoreau, in life, never sold more than a few copies of anything he wrote.

The curtain of obscurity that hid Thoreau from the book-buying public began to part when the author died in 1862. The eulogy spoken by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Thoreau’s funeral includes a few paragraphs that might have been nothing more than a club-footed attempt to add “balance” to what Emerson may have feared his intellectual friends would otherwise disparage as hagiography.

Those few errant paragraphs might also have been the product of vicious, academic spite. Stranger things have happened. Be that as it may, Emerson’s swerve led him to run completely off the track. He accused “that terrible Thoreau” of “a dangerous frankness” that sparked dislike in many who knew Thoreau personally. “His virtues ran to extremes,” quoth Emerson, while he tarried to itemize the extremes. In short, Ralph Waldo Emerson left many listeners with the impression that Henry David Thoreau was a prig, a crank, a social cripple and a misanthropic hermit.

So the great Transcendentalist tore a rent in Thoreau’s reputation through which other assailants quickly leaped. The fact that most of Thoreau’s postmortem detractors (Robert Louis Stevenson among them) never met the author or even bothered to read his books troubled them not at all. They piled on, ripping, kicking, gouging at Thoreau’s works, his ideas and ideals, his morals, his lifestyle, his rhetorical skill and whatnot until — by and by — a strange thing happened: The number, the nature, the intensity of the attacks on Thoreau called public attention to his name, his ideas, and his works. People who had never heard of Thoreau while he lived began to buy and read his books and discover an interest in his ideas. As the number of Thoreau’s fans came to rival the number of his critics, the color of the cloud around the dead author’s reputation changed from forbidding, Stygian black to a benign, roseate gray.

Things changed again for Thoreau in the closing decades of the 20th century. Multitudinous failures of American education combined with other factors and produced a society in which more and more people read fewer and fewer books while a transformation that History may one day dub “The Politicization of Everything” proceeds apace. At the Left end of the spectrum, a lot of illiterate “liberals” love Thoreau because somebody told them he was the father of environmentalism and at the same time a lot of today’s illiterate “liberals” hate Thoreau because somebody told them he favored small government. Over on the Right, illiterate “conservatives” love Thoreau because somebody told them he was a tax protester and at the same time a lot of illiterate “conservatives” hate Thoreau because they heard somebody say he was a treehugger.

Observing turmoil around the dead author and his works in 2004, novelist John Updike described it nicely: “A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”

Considering all the above, I begin to believe the story that William Faulkner was once found raving, slobbering drunk and naked, perched in a tree, clutching a loaded shotgun. Readers ask why would I believe a thing like that? My answer is that it just makes sense.

Away, way off in the hazy distance, I see the ghosts of Twain and Hemingway and Faulkner and Updike and other noted scribblers at their ease on clouds of glory. They swill quarts of Dago Red and wing dead soldiers at the horde of morons on Earth, far below, who stalk and rape and rob and kill each other in the name of this-or-that.

I know: Thoreau was a lifelong teetotaler. But I figure he might have become a drunk if he’d lived a few more years, booze seeming the last refuge of all sentient writers. After Thoreau died, 140-odd years in the company of noted guzzlers like Bill Shakespeare probably rectified his teetotal defect.

For the few Americans who still read, there is good news lately. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, editor and author of numerous books about Thoreau, has given us yet another. This latest, titled Thoreau in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates, aims to clear away some of the murk that still dulls Thoreau’s name and reputation.

Between the covers, Petrulionis offers a compilation of material written about Thoreau by friends, relatives, neighbors, peers and associates who actually knew the author while he lived. I particularly enjoyed accounts from those who, like Joseph Hosmer, Jr., accompanied Thoreau on wilderness hikes. College classmates such as John Weiss also wrote thoughtfully, and well. Editor Petrulionis arranged the stuff in chronological order, which (in this sort of an effort) seems to me the best way possible. Petrulionis also wrote a useful Introduction to the material, wherein I (having read Master of Ballantrae years ago) much admired her spiffy disassembly of Robert Louis Stevenson. The work includes a formidable Bibliography, an accurate Index, and enough footnotes to satisfy any reader who likes to check the veracity of what (s)he reads.

Whether editor Petrulionis’s new book will correct any misperceptions of Thoreau’s life, his ideas and his works is anybody’s guess. It didn’t change my good opinion of Thoreau but it filled several gaps in my small store of knowledge about him and his circumstances. The only flaw I could find in the book (if it is a flaw) is that I feel it should have included Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy to Thoreau — maybe in an appendix — as a point of reference for readers. But that’s a lack that’s easily satisfied because Emerson’s eulogy of Thoreau is available in several places on the Internet.

Solomon sez: Thoreau in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn From Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates (Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press; 239 pp., $27.50) is a warm, easy, informative read that I’ll gladly recommend to anybody. Get it from the University of Iowa Press, from your local bookstore, or from the usual suspects online. Four of five stars for a good job and a good read, and thank you, Ms. Petrulionis.

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About Deacon "Deke" Solomon

  • http://www.lunch.com/JSMaresca-Reviews-1-1.html Dr. Joseph S. Maresca

    Here are some popular musings on life by Henry David Thoreau on Brainyquote:

    A broad margin of leisure is as beautiful in a man’s life as in a book. Haste makes waste, no less in life than in housekeeping. Keep the time, observe the hours of the universe, not of the cars.

    A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.

    A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.

    A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.

    After the first blush of sin comes its indifference.

    Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.

    Alas! how little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape!

    All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one… characteristic we must possess if we are to face the future as finishers.

    All men are children, and of one family. The same tale sends them all to bed, and wakes them in the morning.

    All this worldly wisdom was once the unamiable heresy of some wise man.

    An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.

    An unclean person is universally a slothful one.

    Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

    As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.

    As for doing good; that is one of the professions which is full. Moreover I have tried it fairly and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.

    As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.

    As in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past changes in the present invariable order of society.

    As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.

    Be not simply good – be good for something.

    Be true to your work, your word, and your friend.

    [edited]

  • Deke Solomon

    Dr. Maresca: Thanks for your contribution to the essay. I hope you also read “Thoreau in His Own Time!”

  • http://www.lunch.com/JSMaresca-Reviews-1-1.html Dr. Joseph S. Maresca

    You are very welcome. I may.