Thursday, August 31, 2006

Henry and John

One-hundred sixty seven years ago today, two brothers set off from Concord, Mass., on the Sudbury River, in a 15-foot skiff they had built themselves. The older brother was John Thoreau Jr., 25, who taught in a grammar school in Concord founded the year before by his brother, Henry David Thoreau, 22. Henry had graduated from Harvard two years earlier, left another teaching job after refusing to administer corporal punishment, and worked periodically in his father’s pencil factory.

The literary spawn of the brothers’ river journey was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, written during Henry’s sojourn at Walden Pond and published in 1849. In 2004, Princeton University Press published a paperback edition of the text with a learned and very funny introduction by John McPhee, the nonfiction writer for The New Yorker. McPhee describes the canoe trip he took in 2003, following as closely as development permits the Thoreaus’ journey.

In McPhee’s assessment of the book, Thoreau turned its structural weakness (it has no structure) into its greatest strength. After citing Thoreau scholar Linck Johnson’s description of A Week as a “complex weave,” McPhee observes its form like this:

“The first image that came to my mind was a string of lights – or any linear structure with things hanging on it [a homely image worthy of HDT himself], like a heavily loaded clothesline. In the magisterial Emerson, Johnson finds the aptest image. Emerson described the narrative of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers as `a very slender thread for such big beads & ingots as are strung on it.’”

The book is anecdotal and discursive, without the rigorous patterning Thoreau would later achieve in Walden. Thoreau digressed on any subject, any hobbyhorse, that caught his fancy, and that, along with Thoreau’s sharp wit, is the book’s principle charm. Guy Davenport called both books "meditations on what to do with our lives." At the moment – and this could easily change tomorrow – I prefer A Week to Walden, though I love it less than I do Thoreau’s 14-volume journal, which I’m convinced is his greatest work. Here’s McPhee’s assessment of A Week:

“Thoreau’s structure would be almost pure free association were it not for the river reeling him back in. The book seems something like a carnival midway, or a hall full of convention booths, or an aisle in a flea market. Thoreau invites you to linger at one of his tables, booths, or sideshows, a characteristic for which he surely deserves to be forgiven. This writing is commentary, editorial, philosophical, homiletic – defying generic assignment. Now he is John Muir, now he is Joseph Campbell, now he lingers in the doorway between psychiatry and religion. Near Reeds Ferry, he remarks, en passant, `We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

In the context of Thoreau’s life, A Week is a heartbreaking book. On Jan. 1, 1842, more than two years after their river journey, John Thoreau nicked the tip of his left-hand ring finger while stropping his razor. It seemed like a minor wound, but eight days later it had become “mortified,” probably meaning the tissue had turned black and necrotic. On the morning of Jan. 9, his jaw stiffened and by that evening he experienced the convulsions associated with lockjaw. A Boston doctor examined John and concluded he could do nothing for him. No one could have until the vaccine for tetanus was discovered in 1890. John Thoreau, age 27, died on Jan. 11 in the arms of his helpless brother. McPhee writes,

“John was his brother’s best friend, perhaps his only close one … [A Week], Henry’s first book, rehearses their journey as a species of memorial, the fact notwithstanding that Thoreau never mentions his brother’s name.”

This last fact always reminds me of The Education of Henry Adams, in which Adams never mentions the suicide in 1885 of his wife, Clover – a presence made conspicuous by its eerie absence. In Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Robert D. Richardson Jr. writes:

“Thoreau took it very hard and, moreover, he held his emotions inside. His family remarked how his strange initial calm sank into complete passivity. Even his interest in nature was gone; he was `denaturalized,’ as he later admitted to a correspondent. Then to the incredulous horror of his family and friends, on January 22 he came down with all the symptoms of lockjaw himself. He had not cut himself; it was purely an emotional – a sympathetic – reaction that had produced the physical symptoms. By the morning of the twenty-fourth, however, he was better, as a relieved Emerson wrote his brother William.”

Oddly, the day Thoreau recovered, Emerson’s 5-yearold son, Waldo, developed scarlet fever. He died three days later. Unlike Thoreau, Emerson, in Richardson’s words, “gave immediate expression to his grief, reaching out to others, sharing and articulating his loss in ways Thoreau did not or could not.”

On Sunday, Jan. 9, 1842, the day his brother first showed symptoms of lockjaw, Thoreau wrote in his journal:

“One cannot too soon forget his errors and misdemeanors; for [to] dwell long upon them is to add to the offense, and repentance and sorrow can only be displaced by somewhat better, and which is as free and original as if they had not been. Not to grieve long for any action, but to go immediately and do freshly and otherwise, subtracts so much from the wrong. Else we may make the delay of repentance the punishment of the sin. But a great nature will not consider its sins as its own, but be more absorbed in the prospect of that valor and virtue for the future which is more properly it, than in those improper actions which, by beings sins, discover themselves to be not it.”

Am I only imagining that Thoreau’s syntax seems more tortured than usual here? In his journal he makes no direct mention of John’s tortured death. On Feb. 20, 1842, he notes:

“The death of friends should inspire us as much as their lives. If they are great and rich enough, they will leave consolation to the mourners before the expenses of their funerals. It will not be hard to part with any worth, because it is worthy. How can any good depart? It does not go and come, but we. Shall we wait for it? Is it slower than we?”

The following day, Thoreau makes a strange observation:

“I must confess there is nothing so strange to me as my own body. I love any other piece of nature, almost better.”

Then, three paragraphs later:

“I feel as if years had been crowded into the last month, and yet the regularity of what we call time has been so far preserved as that I….will be welcome in the present.”

The editor of the edition of Thoreau’s journal I am using adds a footnote to that final ellipsis:

“[Two lines missing from the manuscript here.]”


kenny the k said...

" I love to see the herd of men feeding heartily on coarse and succulent pleasures, as cattle on the husks and stalks of vegetables."

Anonymous said...

what edition of thoreaus journal are you using?? I am very interested to pick it up.

Paul Maher Jr. said...

I am with you on the under-appreciated Concord and Merrimack, perhaps because as a boy I lived in very close proximity of both of those rivers (in Lowell). I favor Week more than Walden, because though it is pithy, it bears a sweeter taste. It is puzzling that Yale University Press chose not to allow Jeffrey Cramer to annotate that book, but gave a green light for the rest.

I have it in me to create an indie film about that book, somehow, someway.

best wishes,