Monday, February 22, 2010

"Warm, Moist, Incarnated'

Robert Louis Stevenson, who cites no evidence and never met his fellow three-named consumptive, writes of Henry David Thoreau (in Familiar Studies of Men and Books, 1894):

“He was not easy, not ample, not urbane, not even kind. His enjoyment was hardly smiling, or the smile was not broad enough to be convincing. He had no waste lands nor kitchen-midden in his nature, but was all improved and sharpened to a point … He has a cold, distant personality. . . His point of view is both high and dry.”

One still hears the familiar complaint. Even an admirer, John R. Stilgoe, in his introduction to the latest culling of Thoreau’s journal (The Journal 1837-1861, New York Review Books, 2009), calls him “arrogant, supercilious, observant, but often doubting himself.” Like Swift, Thoreau was irreducibly himself, and this inevitably bothers those more adept at ingratiating themselves at any cost. The supreme wish of many, even writers, is to be liked or loved, and those who don’t share their proclivity baffle and frighten them. Not all of us are given to random acts of hugging. Thoreau was not, by affiliation or temperament, a Unitarian. Emerson was, but even he wrote of his friend and rival:

“Yet, hermit and stoic as he was, he was really fond of sympathy, and threw himself heartily and childlike into the company of young people whom he loved, and whom he delighted to entertain, as he only could, with the varied and endless anecdotes of his experiences by field and river: and he was always ready to lead a huckleberry-party or a search for chestnuts or grapes.”

Thoreau, in other words, was a complicated, contradictory man and writer (and no “hermit”). No man is all of a piece, except a sociopath. One-hundred fifty years ago today, on Feb. 23, 1860, Thoreau, this "cold, distant personality," wrote in his journal:

“A fact stated barely is dry. It must be the vehicle of some humanity in order to interest us. It is like giving a man a stone when he asks you for bread. Ultimately the moral is all in all, and we do not mind it if inferior truth is sacrificed to superior, as when the moralist fables and makes animals speak and act like men. It must be warm, moist, incarnated, -- have been breathed on at least. A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.”

1 comment:

Frank Wilson said...

Or, as Emerson said, "Henry is, with difficulty, sweet."