Sunday, March 20, 2011

`It Is Only at His Best That He Is Readable'

A casual observation by Helen Pinkerton sent me back to the shelves and prompted another bookish digression. I had written to her in an email:

“The failing is mine but I have never been able to appreciate or enjoy Hawthorne. I read him dutifully, mostly because of Melville, but I seem immune to his charms and I feel no urge to rectify the situation.”

Pinkerton replied:

“I was always interested in Hawthorne, though mainly because of his relationship to Melville. About four years ago I tried re-reading the Marble Faun, after luxuriating in James's descriptions of the Italian, especially Roman, settings in his work, and found I just couldn't take his wooden, repetitive, almost sneering descriptions of Italy and the Italians themselves. His breadth of vision is extremely limited compared with James and Wharton, Nevertheless, he did have a shrewd, conservative, thoughtful intellect.”

The pairing of James and Hawthorne returned me to the former’s much-quoted, seldom read monograph, Hawthorne (1879), in which James offers this teasingly ambivalent characterization of his subject:

“We seem to see him strolling through churches and galleries as the last pure American—attesting by his shy responses to dark canvasses and cold marble his loyalty to a simpler and less encumbered civilization.”

Rereading Hawthorne after a decade failed to kindle a renaissance of interest in its subject but I was impressed by James’ understanding, at age thirty-six, of Americanness, in particular his assessment of “the unconventional Thoreau, [Hawthorne’s] fellow-woodsman at Concord.” With Lincoln and Melville (in Moby-Dick), Thoreau and James constitute the nineteenth-century quartet of great American prose writers. In Chapter IV, “Brook Farm and Concord,” James writes of:

“…that odd genius, his fellow-villager, Henry Thoreau. I said a little way back that the New England Transcendental movement had suffered in the estimation of the world at large from not having (putting Emerson aside) produced any superior talents. But any reference to it would be ungenerous which should omit to pay a tribute in passing to the author of Walden. Whatever question there may be of his talent, there can be none, I think, of his genius. It was a slim and crooked one; but it was eminently personal. He was imperfect, unfinished, inartistic; he was worse than provincial--he was parochial; it is only at his best that he is readable.”

Let’s interrupt to note that Thoreau, a Harvard man, earned most of his living as a surveyor and manufacturer of pencils in the family business. He was never a hermit but remained content to live on the margins of literary culture. He had no literary “career,” as such; rather, a vocation. Most of his writing – his two-million-word journal – was published more than forty years after his death. As a result, few contemporaries read his masterpiece, except for the material Thoreau pulled from it and recast as essays and lectures. Who can think of a comparably gifted American writer whose writing life – except for its dedication and genius – was less like James’? He continues:

“But at his best [Thoreau] has an extreme natural charm, and he must always be mentioned after those Americans--Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, Motley--who have written originally. He was Emerson's independent moral man made flesh--living for the ages, and not for Saturday and Sunday; for the Universe, and not for Concord. In fact, however, Thoreau lived for Concord very effectually, and by his remarkable genius for the observation of the phenomena of woods and streams, of plants and trees, and beasts and fishes, and for flinging a kind of spiritual interest over these things, he did more than he perhaps intended toward consolidating the fame of his accidental human sojourn. He was as shy and ungregarious as Hawthorne; but he and the latter appear to have been sociably disposed towards each other, and there are some charming touches in the preface to the Mosses in regard to the hours they spent in boating together on the large, quiet Concord river. Thoreau was a great voyager, in a canoe which he had constructed himself, and which he eventually made over to Hawthorne, and as expert in the use of the paddle as the Red men who had once haunted the same silent stream.”

James here is shrewd and a little snide. “Flinging a kind of spiritual interest over these things” – that is, the natural world – is faintly condescending. At his best – that is, in the later years of his journal – Thoreau “flings” nothing. The verb implies something frivolous and imposed from outside, like gingerbread ornamentation on a house. “His accidental human sojourn,” too, is patronizing, as though in other circumstances Thoreau might have been a woodchuck. James is observing a close but divergent species. In his final reference to Thoreau in Hawthorne, James writes:

“Henry Thoreau, a delightful writer, went to live in the woods; but Henry Thoreau was essentially a sylvan personage, and would not have been, however the fashion of his time might have turned, a man about town.”

The author of Walden, of course, assured us, “I have travelled a great deal in Concord...”

1 comment:

Levi Stahl said...

This is dead on, according with the Thoreau I've discovered through the Journals over the past year and a half. Though, as you note, James didn't have them as part of his image of Thoreau, they are in their essence about as far from the concept of "flinging" meaning as you could get. They rather wrest their meaning from hours of attention to the larger world.

I do, however, find more in Hawthorne than you do. Perhaps it's a small thing, but I am a fan of Mosses from an Old Manse and Twice-Told Tales. At their worst, the stories in those books are too-simple parables, reading like they were aimed at children, but even so each book offers a handful of stories that partake of the truly strange, and even at times the uncanny--and that convey, at least in my estimation--the feeling of early nineteenth-century New England better than any other writing except, well, Thoreau's.