“—Not familiar with this Thoreau, a Frenchman?”
“—A New Englander, hermit and mystic. Americans run to originality.”
“—Examined his soul, did he? I hear a lot of that in America.”
The exchange comes in a middle of a story, “Dinner at the Bank of England,” by Guy Davenport (collected in The Cardiff Team, 1996). The second speaker is George Santayana and two of the three points he makes in his first sentence are inaccurate. Thoreau was inarguably a New Englander and lived his forty-four years in Concord, Mass. He was no hermit but hosted melon parties, and was too enamored of facts and the quiddity of the world to wallow in mysticism. Even Emerson lauded his “robust common sense.” More than most Americans, Thoreau certainly ran to originality without trying to do so (the mark of true originality). Simply being David Henry Thoreau (his given name) was more original than most of us could stand.
Elsewhere, Davenport, our Thoreau, writes: “…Thoreau’s eye is as lively as a squirrel, and his descriptions are beautiful not because he is out to write poetic prose but because they are accurate and meticulously responsible as to information.” Thoreau and Davenport reveled in curious information and fueled their lives and writerly engines with curiosity. Elberry writes to me in an e-mail:
“…i am keen to get Thoreau's journals, after reading your posts. You really are a great encourager of curiosity, i think because…your own curiosity is quite immeasurable, provokingly so.”
Thoreau is tirelessly curious and a tireless provoker of curiosity in others. His prose, once he matured, was charged with surprise. Often we have no idea how the sentence of his we are reading will conclude – a trust in improvisation he learned from Emerson, then honed. Thoreau esteemed facts but not exclusively. He was no Gradgrindian piler-upper of facts but recognized their capacity for poetry. When he saw a flower he smelled it. A world of scents and olfactory receptors – the convergence is inevitable.
In school I fear for the inert children, the implacably indifferent ones immune to wonder and beauty. I’ll take the manic phase of a bipolar disorder any day. The incurious ones are prey to boredom, manipulation, resentment and violence, even if only emotional. Those without curiosity are probably condemned to misery and to making others miserable. Reviewing a biography of Charles Darwin, Davenport awards the biologist his supreme accolade:
“He loved what he was doing, and he did it out of pure curiosity.”