Thursday, January 24, 2013

`Concentrated and Nutty'

On this date, Jan. 24, in 1854, Thoreau visited Worcester, Mass. In a brief journal entry, he reports: “A very cold day.” He walked six miles with a friend. The forest, he notes, is less thick than in Concord: “No dark pines in the horizon.” Here, in a separate paragraph, is the part that makes me laugh: 

“De Quincey's `Historical and Critical Essays’ I have not read (2 vols.). Saw a red squirrel out.” 

At the risk of stifling the humor, intentional and otherwise, let’s take a closer look. The De Quincey volumes were published in 1853 by Ticknor, Reed and Field of Boston, as were the two volumes of Narrative and Miscellaneous Papers. On the title pages of both, De Quincey is identified as “author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Etc. Etc.” Historical and Critical Essays was acquired by the Concord Public Library, where Thoreau probably saw it. Of the English Romantics, De Quincey and his narcotic reveries would seem among the least likely to interest the abstemious Thoreau. On Sept. 8, 1851, he sniffs in his journal: 

“De Quincey & Dickens have not moderation enough. They never stutter. They flow too readily.” 

Two weeks earlier on Aug. 22, Thoreau makes similar observations at greater length, referring again to stuttering: 

“It is the fault of some excellent writers--De Quincey's first impressions on seeing London suggest it to me--that they express themselves with too great fullness and detail. They give the most faithful, natural, and lifelike account of their sensations, mental and physical, but they lack moderation and sententiousness. They do not affect us by an intellectual earnestness and a reserve of meaning, like a stutterer; they say all they mean. Their sentences are not concentrated and nutty.” 

This is critically shrewd and self-revealing. There’s a gassiness about De Quincey’s prose, an inflated vagueness perhaps abetted by his drug consumption. He was notably prolific, cranking out vast quantities of journalism. The Works of Thomas De Quincey, published between 2000 and 2003 by Pickering and Chatto, runs to twenty-one volumes, and that doesn’t include his letters.  One thinks of “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” and a few passages from the Confessions. The rest, for this reader, is a blur. Thoreau continues in the same entry: 

“Sentences which suggest far more than they say, which have an atmosphere about them, which do not merely report an old, but make a new, impression; sentences which suggest as many things and are as durable as a Roman aqueduct: to frame these, that is the art of writing. Sentences which are expensive, towards which so many volumes, so much life went; which lie like boulders on the page, up and down or across; which contain the seed of other sentences, not mere repetition, but creation; which a man might sell his grounds and castles to build. If De Quincey had suggested each of his pages in a sentence and passed on, it would have been far more excellent writing. His style is nowhere kinked and knotted up into something hard and significant, which you could swallow like a diamond, without digesting.” 

Of course, Thoreau is describing his own best prose, most of which is scattered like acorns on a crust of snow throughout his journals. That’s one of the things I like about the 1854 entry quoted at the top: “Saw a red squirrel out.” That is “concentrated and nutty.”

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