The most radically misunderstood and misrepresented of great American writers is Henry Thoreau, and this willful misreading is rooted in politics and the refusal to accept any writer as precisely and essentially that – a writer. Not an ecologist, “environmentalist,” naturalist, anarchist, abolitionist or homespun philosopher, despite what Thoreau and his more misguided cheerleaders insist. Thoreau’s politics are contradictory, ill-reasoned and essentially adolescent. The clearest non-ideological, revisionist reading of his work I know is Jacques Barzun’s “Thoreau the Thorough Impressionist,” first published in The American Scholar in 1987 and collected in The Jacques Barzun Reader (2002).
The first portion of Barzun’s essay is largely a demolition of “On Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau’s all-too-influential tantrum of 1849. At his snottiest he describes his fellow citizens as “a distinct race from me,” a stance Barzun calls “political solipsism.” Instead, he argues Thoreau must be judged a poet who wrote “bad verse, like other great prose writers.” Barzun continues:
“Why, then do I call Thoreau a poet? The answer comes down to what I call visions. A poet’s vision is not anything fanciful or vague. It is an actual sight with a glow and a hard edge. The glow comes from the fusion of the material core of sensation with any number of associations – emotional, intellectual, spiritual; present or remote; fleeting or permanent. In a word, it is a vivid image, recorded in faultless words; I see in Thoreau the earliest and greatest of American Imagists.”
With this verdict Guy Davenport, himself a great American Imagist, would have concurred. Thoreau’s masterpiece is not Walden, masterful though it often is, but his Journals, the two-million words of which amount to ten-thousand brief essays written across a quarter-century. I read them repeatedly not primarily for Thoreau’s observations of the natural world (though I love them) but for the words with which he crafts those observations. Barzun writes:
“Now, one way to be unjust to an author is to praise him for qualities he does not possess. To be sure, the error about Thoreau is due to the assured, masterly tone of his conclusions, particularly in the Journals. But these are marvelous not for any system that dictated their writing or emerges from them gradually. In them too inconsistency is the rule, not the exception. No: the marvel is Thoreau’s fidelity to the successive visions; the marvel depends on the inconsistency.”
Such a reading is anathema to system-builders and system-seekers, readers for whom literature is a code to be cracked or a banner waved. Thoreau’s words are to be read – across a lifetime, with growing comprehension and pleasure. A writer could find no better teacher but he must pay attention to the words not some trifling philosophy. Barzun tells us:
“Writing prose is a much more difficult craft than writing poetry. One proof of that truth is that all peoples have produced poetry – and this at the very beginning of their literature – but not all have developed a tolerable prose. There is none in English or French until the early seventeenth century. Up to that time, sentences meander at great length by the addition of clauses in no special order. The result is talk, not prose. But once the canons of order and lucidity come into force, the paradoxical result is that every good writer employs a prose of his own; he can be known by what we call his prose style.”