Thursday, May 14, 2009

`He Improved the Landscape with Words'

Writers write – a self-evident, much ignored truth. They make artfully pleasing arrangements of words. Failure to acknowledge this truth has consequences, the most annoying of which is a surfeit of bad writing. Another is that gifted writers, even some of the best, are radically misunderstood. This is certainly true of Walt Whitman, who has been treated by his less literary-minded readers as a radical democrat, cosmic-consciousness raiser, prophet of labor and gay poster boy. Of course, Whitman encouraged most of these misunderstandings but who ever said the motives of even a great writer are pure?

Something similar has happened with Whitman’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, long the adopted son of faddists, nature mystics and adolescents. The ever-fatuous Bill McKibben has said Thoreau is “where American environmentalism begins.” Can you imagine a less likely father of anything? American writers seem peculiarly susceptible to misappropriation by pious cranks of every school. In his review of a silly-sounding novel based on a trivial incident in Thoreau’s life, David Myers at The Commonplace Blog makes this point:

“First and last, Thoreau (who pronounced his name thorough, by the way) was a writer. He contributed to the country’s development just as much as the railroad builders; he improved the landscape with words. His subject is not nature, `infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us,’ but our relation to nature. Some men wanted to open it to new channels of highly lucrative trade; he wanted to open it to new channels of highly verbal thought.”

Last summer, when Buce of Underbelly invited me to contribute to his Book Fair, I wrote something similar:

“Thoreau is read as a naturalist, folksy philosopher, proto-environmentalist, anarchist, cranky Yankee and abolitionist. All are true but incomplete.”

Only Henry James among the American greats was so thoroughly (thank you, David), irreducibly a writer. For Thoreau there is an intimate linkage among body, mind and words. In Walden he writes, “My head is hands and feet.” Writing and thinking are physical acts, like surveying and cutting ice. Note this Sept. 2, 1851, passage from his journal:

“We cannot write well or truly but what we write with gusto. The body, the senses, must conspire with the mind. Expression is the act of the whole man, that our speech may be vascular. The intellect is powerless to express thought without the aid of the heart and liver and of every member. Often I feel that my head stands out too dry, when it should be immersed. A writer, a man writing, is the scribe of all nature; he is the corn and the grass and the atmosphere writing. It is always essential that we love to do what we are doing, do it with a heart.”

Such a passage mingles the later, more science-minded Thoreau with the still-callow Transcendentalist. We see glimpses of a young writer (he is only 34) at last prevailing in his protracted love-hate match with Emerson. As a writer Thoreau was a force of nature, particularly in the journal, and we have yet to take his true measure. Myers says “he improved the landscape with words,” but that’s just not enough for some people.


Rosin said...

You ask, "who ever said the motives of even a great writer are pure?" I might also ask, who ever said the influence of even a great writer is limited to his or her intent?

I share your dismay when someone reduces an expansive, discursive, intellectual text to a single (if neatly unified) thesis. But -- and I admit that all I know of McKibben is what you quote from him -- I don't see why Thoreau could not have been the seed from which environmentalism grew. It doesn't seem like a misappropriation to me. Indeed, my re-readings of Walden have never failed to increase my own respect for the environment...and for man.

I wholeheartedly agree with your and Prof. Myers's position that Thoreau is first a writer, and one driven by his interest in "our relation to nature" (and not necessarily in nature itself). I also have no trouble believing that Thoreau's inspired use of nature could inspire tendrils to grow in unintended directions, causing no damage to Thoreau himself (unless he were reduced to being read exclusively as the parent of environmentalism).

Could you elaborate on why you see McKibben's statement as a "misappropriation"?

Anonymous said...

Patrick, In response to your post on Henry David thoreau, nature and environmentalism:

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Industrial Society is destroying necessary things [Animals, Trees, Air, Water and Land] for making unnecessary things [consumer goods].

"Growth Rate" - "Economy Rate" - "GDP"

These are figures of "Ecocide".
These are figures of "crimes against Nature".
These are figures of "destruction of Ecosystems".
These are figures of "Insanity, Abnormality and Criminality".

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature [Animals, Trees, Air, Water and Land].

Destroy the system that has killed all ecosystems.

Destroy the society that plunders, exploits and kills earth 365 days of the year and then celebrates Earth Day.

Chief Seattle of the Indian Tribe had warned the destroyers of ecosystems way back in 1854 :

Only after the last tree has been cut down,
Only after the last river has been poisoned,
Only after the last fish has been caught,
Only then will you realize that you cannot eat money.

To read the complete article please follow any of these links.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Delhi, India