Friday, June 11, 2010

`A Man Walking About All Day Long'

In American Procession, Alfred Kazin gives the truest description of Thoreau’s essential project and, incidentally, the best apologia for blogging I know:

“Writing and the constant preparation for writing became for Thoreau access to some `higher,’ divinelike energy. Writing was parallel to living; unlike living, it was a promise that became greater and even sublime. Thoreau’s existence had a theme; it was the search. He transcribed it day after day, seeking to capture experience in just one form: the sensations of a man walking about all day long. To this daily round he was restricted by his own experience; he magnified what happened but did not wish to invent anything and in fact was incapable of doing so. (Of course he scorned novels – transcendentalists always did.)”

Thoreau was never in the banal sense an autobiographer – first this happened, then that, on and on in tedious lockstep. His experience -- “a man walking about all day long” -- was raw material, the stuff he molded into precise, elegant sentences. In the hands of a clod unable to write he might have produced another pious nineteenth-century diary, of documentary worth or none. Instead he made a great American poem, one man’s small-town epic, in prose (“of exceptional vibration,” Kazin writes). Thoreau saw and heard more than most of us will, though his life by twenty-first-century standards was brief, difficult and circumscribed. But his vision was acute and disciplined, like a dragonfly’s or hawk’s. He looked where others saw.

I first read Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman in Signet paperbacks early in my early teens. I bought them all in the May Co. in downtown Cleveland when department stores still had book departments. “Thoreau” was Walden and “On Civil Disobedience,” both of which can be read as adolescent manifestoes and the latter of which remains so. I don’t think I even suspected the existence of his journals, but remember thinking those three books might be the only ones I would ever need and how comfortably they fit in the outer pocket of a backpack.

My ardor for Emerson has cooled and about the others I’m a more critical reader but also more appreciative. Almost half a century of reading Thoreau has internalized the importance of writing as well as possible on all occasions, preserving personal independence (intellectual, spiritual, economic) at almost any cost, and remaining attentive to the human and natural worlds. “Writing was parallel to living,” Kazin writes, though they also intersect in unexpectedly non-Euclidean ways. In his essay on Louis Agassiz in The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport writes:

“Thoreau’s love affair with the scrub-oak, homeliest of trees, began to have the qualities of myth, the Greek feeling for the olive which we find in Oedipus at Colonus.”

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