Thursday, February 03, 2011

`Who Else, What Else, Can Animate It?'

On this date in 1859, Thoreau devoted a page in his journal to one sentence:

“Five minutes before 3 P.M., Father died.”

On the next page, he describes a scene almost unimaginable today:

“After a sickness of some two years, going down-town in pleasant weather, doing a little business from time to time, hoeing a little in the garden, etc., Father took to his chamber January 13th and did not come down again. Most of the time previously he had coughed and expectorated a great deal. Latterly he did not cough, but continued to raise. He continued to sit up in his chamber till within a week before he died. He sat up for a little while on the Sunday four days before he died. Generally he was very silent for many months. He was quite conscious to the last, and his death was so easy that we should not have been aware that he was dying, though we were sitting around his bed, if we had not watched very closely.”

John Thoreau was born in Boston on Oct. 8, 1787. In 1821, his brother-in-law, Charles Dunbar, discovered a graphite deposit in Bristol, N.H. Two years later he and John Thoreau set up a factory manufacturing pencils in Concord, Mass. When Dunbar left the business its name was changed to John Thoreau & Company. Henry manufactured, packaged and shipped pencils for much of his adult life. Has any writer ever practiced a more satisfyingly symbolic profession? Guy Davenport writes:

“Thoreau’s method of composition was to draft passages daily in his journal, often at the point of observation, writing with an implement he and his father invented, the lead pencil exactly as we have it now (a stem of ground graphite and clay encased in a cedarwood tube).”

The father of Nancy Hernandez, our friend in Houston, died in Michigan on Jan. 5, age eighty-eight. We never met her father and knew almost nothing about him until we read the obituary Nancy wrote for the Los Angeles Times. Suddenly, an abstract presence becomes a man, a representative American, someone we wish we had known. In the paragraph following the one cited above, Thoreau writes:

“I have touched a body which was flexible and warm, yet tenantless,—warmed by what fire? When the spirit that animated some matter has left it, who else, what else, can animate it?”


Larry Anderson said...

I was prompted by this post to look at Thoreau's journal entry for that date in my 2009 NYRB edition. The occasion of his father's death apparently opened a floodgate of remarkable observations, in addition to those you highlight.

He describes his father's deep roots in "the middle of the town" of Concord, which leads him to a defense of the humanity and spirituality of Indians, then to further reflections on the effects of accumulating deaths on surviving friends and family. Finally, with pencil in hand, he returns to the subject of his own writing and how a writer brings dead words to life, "to make them worthy of their neighborhood."

Thanks for sending me to those words -- and to the equally inspiring obituary of Francisco Hernandez. The dragster builder and the pencil-maker had a lot in common.

Anonymous said...

There is a fine history of the pencil (The Pencil) written by Henry Petroski, an engineering professor at Duke University. It includes the story of the Thoreau family's pencil manufacturing business.


mudcake said...


How lovely of you to honor my dad by weaving his passing among the writings of Thoreau and your own.

I was with dad when he took his last breath and it was just as Thoreau wrote. The moment was quiet and gentle with only a faint barely audible sound from the throat, the channel closing with his last breath.

It was a moment of grace and tenderness. We are now left to animate with words.

Thank you,