‘Jefferson’s public career focused on securing for Americans’, the eminent historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote, ‘a right of expatriation from the past’. Morgan argues that this was a large part of ‘the meaning of independence’ for Jefferson. The more populist and charismatic democrat Andrew Jackson, coming two generations later, has been characterised by Richard Hofstadter by the phrase ‘self-assertive subjectivism’. Jefferson (1801) and Jackson (1829) both defeated and replaced as presidents Adamses of a more conservative, traditional character and cast of mind, men who were their moral superiors. However hypocritically and self-interestedly, Jefferson and Jackson offered more radical, flattering definitions of the independence of self and American national identity, a development whose literary-philosophical correlative and sequel were to be found in the life and work of Emerson and his ‘Transcendentalist’ brethren, and their various Romantic, ‘visionary capitalist’, and existentialist disciples, from Walt Whitman to the robber barons, from Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer to the current, Jacksonian, president. ‘Emersonian self-reliance identifies dissent as the quintessentially American gesture’, Sacvan Bercovitch has written, ‘and then universalizes it as the radical imperative to subjectivity’. This is a working out of Jefferson’s ‘right of expatriation from the past’, giving us what Quentin Anderson has called, in a powerful book, The Imperial Self (1971). Long after Henry David Thoreau’s death in 1862, that protean, shape-shifting barbarian Walt Whitman praised him for his ‘lawlessness – his dissent – his going his own absolute road, let hell blaze all it chooses’. Whitman ‘writ wiselier than he knew’, ominously describing and praising himself here too. In Samuel Johnson’s essay on biography in The Rambler (13 October 1750), that great and pious writer said: ‘I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful’. Professor Laura Dassow Walls has provided a fine, exhaustive life of Henry David Thoreau, animated equally by scholarship and sympathy. But mention of the great Johnson, both the author and the subject of biographies, including Boswell’s, points up a contrast and presents a problem. For Thoreau was a profoundly anti-social and logically contradictory thinker and writer. Despite trying to make a case for Thoreau, Andrew Delbanco, in Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (1997), notes that ‘he wrote reverently about nature’, but he often wrote about people ‘with shriveling disdain’, and that he ‘was corrosively skeptical of all established structures and quick to categorize other men even as he condemned them for having categorical minds’. Examining Thoreau’s thinking and writing on civil disobedience, the Spanish scholar Maria Jose Falcon y Tella, in her authoritative A History of Civil Disobedience (2000), ultimately deplores Thoreau’s self-contradictions and accuses him of ‘violence, arrogance, elitism, and anarchy … in the pejorative sense of disorder and chaos’, affirming the Italian scholar G. Cosi’s view that Thoreau was an ‘aesthetic anarchist’. Professor Walls thus has her work cut out for her, and she makes a heroic effort to present Thoreau as sociable, consistent, and ethically noble in the year of the bicentennial of his birth. The evasive philosophical-rhetorical legacy of Thoreau’s guru, Ralph Waldo Emerson, stimulating the disciple to mystagogic paradox, often noted and criticised in their age and since, does not make her task easy. She does show how devoted to and dependent on his rural, small-town Concord, Massachusetts, family of domineering women the bachelor Thoreau was, and how much of the life of this hometown he participated in as a neighbour, land surveyor, skilled pencil-maker, odd-jobs man, and Lyceum speaker. She also movingly shows how this man – though a Harvard graduate, in many ways a naive, simple artisan – and his hard-working father and brother were strangled by the tightening ‘threads of the modern global economy’ that ‘were spinning him and everyone around [them] into a dehumanizing web of destruction’. Blake and Cobbett were caught in the same destructive commercial-industrial dynamic, and it is no fault of the provincial, regionalist Thoreau that he and his family could neither escape nor really understand these cruel commercial-industrial dynamics. Walls also movingly describes the Thoreau family’s role in the noble, risky ‘Underground Railroad’, facilitating the escape of fugitive Southern slaves to Canada in the late 1840s and the 1850s. She praises his courage in speaking up influentially for the radical abolitionist John Brown, put to death in 1859 for inciting a slave rebellion in Virginia. Like Joseph Wood Krutch of Columbia sixty years ago and the contemporary Harvard scholar Lawrence Buell, she makes much of Thoreau as a great early ecologist: since she has written previously on this subject, her discussions of his growing interest and competence as a true naturalist provide some of the best pages in her book. There are intermittently in Thoreau passages of eloquent, prophetic, intuitive insight about environmental desecration. ‘As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down’, he wrote in Life without Principle. He witheringly critiqued ‘the state of Virginia’s [economic] staples’ – ‘the exportation of tobacco and the breeding of slaves’. Like Emerson himself, Paul Elmer More (1904, 1908) and the Cambridge scholar Basil Willey (in an introduction to a 1955 Everyman’s Library edition of Thoreau’s Walden (1854)) both saw something of the solitary monk manqué and Stoic in the celibate Thoreau. ‘I might pursue some path’, Thoreau wrote in 1854, ‘however solitary and narrow and crooked, in which I could walk with love and reverence’; and ‘It is important to preserve the mind’s chastity’; ‘I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things’. Plain living and high thinking. Emerson and Thoreau rejected New England Puritanism and even Christian Unitarianism, and inconsistently, intermittently asserted a belief in ‘higher law’, purloining the concept from the anti-slavery New York Republican statesman William H. Seward (1801-72; Lincoln’s great Secretary of State), without seeming to realise that such natural-law thinking was at the heart of the central anglophone Christian intellectual-moral tradition of Thomas More, Richard Hooker, Shakespeare, Locke, Milton, Swift, Blackstone, Johnson, Burke, and American anti-slavery Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton and his disciple, Chief US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, an anti-slavery Virginian: the reader might consult Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Marshall, and Edwin S. Corwin’s classic The ‘Higher Law’ Background of American Constitutional Law (1929). Thoreau’s initially ‘Transcendentalist’ contemporaries and friends Orestes Brownson (initially a prodigious influence on him) and Isaac Hecker (founder of the Catholic Paulist religious order) were converted to Catholicism when they realised that this anglophone tradition was itself the continuation of the Latin tradition of St Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, and Suarez, and that what Burke called ‘the dissidence of dissent’ of the new United States led logically to political-ethical anarchy. As Dryden put it in 1691, ‘What weight of ancient witness can prevail / If private judgment holds the public scale?’ Yet Laura Walls rightly credits Thoreau with some normative, ethical insights, including abolitionism and an early, sensitive, exemplary sympathy for the Native Americans, whom white immigration and growing imperialist-racialist ideas of American ‘Manifest Destiny’ were rapidly displacing throughout the United States, with tragic long-term effects. His sensitivity to animals and rejection of cruelty to them – and even of hunting – puts him in the visionary company of St Francis, Blake, and William Wilberforce. But a telltale note at the end of Professor Walls’s preface points up a nagging problem with Emerson and Thoreau that will not easily go away: in her book, she tells us, ‘I capitalize Nature when it names a divine or holy essence, but stay with lowercase nature when the word is used in our modern, secular way’. As the intellectual historian of New England Perry Miller wrote in 1940, ‘Fortunately, no one is compelled to take seriously’ the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, and the ‘Transcendentalists’. Of Thoreau’s journal, ‘a voluminous record of fact’, Miller observes that in its final years there are ‘pages upon pages [that] are nothing but a tedious chronicle of natural phenomena’. He also calls Thoreau ‘the supreme exemplification of Transcendental egotism’. The Romantic pantheism of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, and English disciples such as Edward Carpenter and Henry S. Salt, could not credibly outlive the advent of Darwinism, with Tennyson’s nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, as Matthew Arnold pointed out brilliantly in his Juvenalian 1849 poem ‘In Harmony with Nature’. However, Romantic pantheism left a permanent blemish on the Anglo-American primary and secondary educational systems, as the literary historian and theorist and educational philosopher E. D. Hirsch has repeatedly and eloquently argued over the last forty years. (I have discussed his work in ‘The Heroism of E. D. Hirsch’, National Review Online, 18 February 2017.) In this regard Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were children of Rousseau, and Salt, Carpenter, and John Dewey, and his disciples, were their descendants, with damaging long-term consequences. Basil Willey’s brief but lucid discussion of the ‘self-destructive dialectic’ at work here, in his critical ‘Postscript on Modern Humanism’ in The English Moralists (1964), remains vitally illuminating. Emerson himself was the fount of American Romantic pantheism, and his use of the word ‘Nature’ as a God-term led him into recurrent contradictions and evasions. He did not realise or envision, as did Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) in the century before him, the moral dead end to which invocations of ‘Nature’ as a sanction had led the French Enlightenment, Rousseau, and the Jacobins. (This matter is discussed in Lester G. Crocker, ‘The Nihilist Dissolution’, in Nature and Culture: Ethical Thought in the French Enlightenment (1963), and my own ‘De Sade and His Progeny’, Crisis (USA), September 1993, 54-5). Even Emerson’s friend and admirer Henry James Sr. (father of the novelist and the psychologist) worried (1884): Emerson was ‘fundamentally treacherous to civilization, without being at all himself aware of the fact … He had no conscience, in fact, and lived by perception, which is an altogether lower or less spiritual faculty’. Emerson’s love of promiscuous paradox was an intellectual escape or evasion that critics noted early on: from John Quincy Adams (diary entry, 2 August 1840); Edgar Allen Poe, who satirised him in A Chapter of Autobiography (1842); as did Nathaniel Hawthorne (in The Celestial Railroad, 1843); James Russell Lowell (who satirised him and Thoreau in ‘A Fable for Critics’, 1848), and Herman Melville (who satirised him and Thoreau in The Confidence Man, 1857), through philosopher George Santayana (Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 1900), to later literary and cultural critics such as Carl Van Vechten, Mark Van Doren, James Truslow Adams, Newton Arvin, Perry Miller, Randall Stewart, Yvor Winters, Irving Howe, Vincent Buranelli, Leo Marx, and Andrew Delbanco. Though Emerson was Thoreau’s master, and Margaret Fuller his sometime editor and friend, early on both found something deeply unnerving about Thoreau’s literary tactics and ideas. In an 1843 journal entry, Emerson wrote of a draft essay by Thoreau: he ‘sends me a paper with the old fault of unlimited contradiction. The trick of his rhetoric is soon learned. It consists in substituting for the obvious word and thought its diametrical antagonist … It makes me nervous and wretched to read it’. Andrew Delbanco notes that Margaret Fuller rejected an essay of Thoreau for the Transcendentalist journal The Dial and told him: ‘the thoughts seem to me so out of their natural order, that I cannot read it through without pain’. Delbanco calls Walden ‘a very intolerant book’ and comments that ‘The point is to attack all received ideas and images until they disintegrate under the assault’; he continues by saying that its ‘Emersonian project of destruction proceeds through a prose style that moves almost mechanically back and forth between contradictory assertions … Beneath this vibration of contraries was a dreadful emptiness … Thoreau was ultimately a despiser of culture’. Thoreau ‘faced an abyss of his own creating … the specter of absolute self-reliance more radical than even Emerson contemplated’. Thoreau’s friend Bronson Alcott wrote insouciantly of him in 1851 that he was ‘the independent of independents … indeed, the sole signer of the Declaration, and a Revolution in himself’. Yet many of Emerson’s numerous critics have noted that the disciple had learned at the master’s knee. As Santayana wrote in 1900, ‘Was not the startling effect of much of [Emerson’s] writing due to its contradiction to tradition and to common sense?’ St Augustine ‘had made a church’, Quentin Anderson wrote in 1971; ‘Emerson undertook to bring one down – and saw that he would have to take its place’. And worse was to come, in the ‘barbaric yawp’ of Walt Whitman and the anarchic immoralism of Emerson’s admirer Nietzsche and his admirers, now legion. For despite the heroic and sympathetic effort of Professor Walls, Thoreau was ultimately both an antinomian (‘There is no court of appeal whatever’, he wrote, ‘no higher law beyond conscience itself’, thus denying and defying the very foundation of any coherent ethics and ‘higher-law’ or natural-law thinking, on which he elsewhere intermittently depends) and a pharisaical moralist (with what Delbanco calls a ‘shriveling disdain’ for most people). After an 1843 day in New York City, Thoreau recorded the following impression: ‘I walked through New York yesterday – and met no real and living person’. Similar passages of ostentatious contempt can be found in the writings of Emerson, a sceptic who saw life as ultimately illusory: ‘All is riddle and the key to a riddle is another riddle. There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snowstorm’ (‘Illusions’). Twenty years ago, literary critic Jeffrey Hart wrote well on this ambiguous legacy in the New York fortnightly National Review (‘The Eye and I’, 8 December 1997). Earlier, on American Independence Day 1971, Quentin Anderson published a front-page essay in the New York Times Book Review called ‘Thoreau on July 4’. Anderson argued there, in The Imperial Self, and in Making Americans: An Essay on Individualism and Money (1992), where he presciently criticises Donald Trump, that figures such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were ultimately provincial, repetitive, narcissistic nihilists who could tell us nothing about how to live together and who had ‘emancipated’ themselves from the religious, rational, and ethical traditions of the past that animated the best human behaviour: their solipsistic ‘secular incarnation involves a denial of history and an extreme antinomianism’. Yvor Winters also wrote powerfully to this effect in Maule’s Curse (1938). Inheriting the earnest, austere, and homely ethics of early nineteenth century New England (well observed decades later in Henry James’s 1878 novella The Europeans), Emerson and Thoreau retained sensible communitarian manners, against the grain of their own thought. But the shape-shifting New York drifter Whitman did not; he understood, as Anderson put it, ‘that a rejection of Christianity in behalf of an emotional egalitarianism would have to begin with a rejection of the idea that the self was internally structured by conscience’. With this transvaluation of values, Nietzsche has arrived; and Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer are on the horizon, not to speak of many of our contemporaries and masters – literary, cultural, commercial, and political. In 1908 Paul Elmer More noted Thoreau’s provincialism: ‘he had only a scant handful of ideas’. He incarnated and articulated a certain phase of American culture, in transition from the intense, inherited Puritan-Unitarian earnestness of Boston and New England, represented nobly by the Reverend William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) in his 1820 moral-theological critique of Calvinism, his sermons and literary criticism, and his ministerial life (see Andrew Delbanco, William Ellery Channing: An Essay on the Liberal Spirit in America, 1981), to a post-Christian, Yankee eccentricity and subjectivism, dangerously superficial, seductive, and sophistical in Emerson, and bombastic, barbaric, and destructive in Whitman. Channing realised that one should not blithely praise ‘lawlessness’, the absolutisation of the self (for example in ‘great men’ in history, from ‘Nimrod to Napoleon’, as C. S. Lewis put it), and the ‘blazes of hell’, as the ‘liberated’ and dissociated Whitman did. In the fiction of Hawthorne and Melville they also realised with tragic but eloquent intensity that ‘the relativization of the Absolute leads to the absolutization of the relative’ (Sergei Levitzky, a twentieth century Dostoevskyan, Russian émigré philosopher). Thoreau did not. Professor Walls’s biography cannot help but end rather sadly, with Thoreau’s untimely death in 1862 at the age of 45, a man worn out by unremitting physical exertion (a solitary walker, like Rousseau), but also at the end of his tether intellectually and emotionally, stymied in a philosophical-literary cul-de-sac and overwhelmed by the rapidity and scope of historical change that also outraged and tormented more mature contemporary literary observers and protestors such as Cobbett, Carlyle, Engels, Dickens, and Ruskin. Thoreau immensely admired his Penobscot Indian guide Joe Polis in the northern Maine wilderness, but Polis shocked him by singing in the evening Catholic songs taught to the Indians by French Jesuit missionaries of previous generations, and he even reproached Thoreau for violating the Sabbath. This ‘Christianized and educated Indian’ later fought bravely in the American Civil War and was wounded. Thoreau would have done well to listen to him. © The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
Essays in Criticism – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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