Monday, March 21, 2011

`So Wide Is the Choice of Parts'

In 1840, the vernal equinox fell on March 21 and Thoreau, age twenty-two, was in the early stages of organizing his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, an almost-forgotten American masterpiece. In his journal he notes:

“By another spring I may be a mail carrier in Peru—or a South American planter—or a Siberian exile—or a Greenland whaler, or a settler on the Columbia River—or a Canton merchant—or a soldier in Florida—or a mackerel fisher of Cape Sable—or a Robinson Crusoe in the Pacific—or a silent navigator of any sea—So wide is the choice of parts, what a pity if the part of Hamlet be left out.”

It’s the springtime reverie of a young man – a young American -- with faith in unlimited possibility. His identity and path are uncertain but he fuels himself with hope. The only note out of key is sounded by Shakespeare’s indecisive prince. The excerpt and the day’s entire entry are notably free of observations from the natural world. Eighteen years later, on the same date, Thoreau visits a swamp and reports on the skunk cabbage and the song of a chickadee. He notes:

“The first spring rain is very agreeable. I love to hear the pattering of the drops on my umbrella, and I love also the wet scent of the umbrella. It helps take the remaining frost out and settles the ways, but there is yet frost and ice in meadows and swamps.”

Who knew Thoreau carried an umbrella? And who else would carry one while paying a call on a swamp? The declarations of “love” – of a sound and a smell – are fervent and chaste. Thoreau died in May 1862, made his final journal entry the previous November, and wrote nothing on March 21, 1861. Three days earlier, less than a month before the firing on Fort Sumter, he writes:

“You can’t read any genuine history – as that of Herodotus or the Venerable Bede – without perceiving that our interest depends not on the subject but on the man, -- on the manner in which he treats the subject and the importance he gives it. A feeble writer and without genius must have what he thinks a great theme, which we are already interested in through the accounts of other, but a genius – a Shakespeare, for instance – would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world.”

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