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.