Friday, July 12, 2013

`In the Very Nick of Time, Too'

“I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too.” 

Here is Thoreau at his most attractive, as recorded in his journal on Dec. 5, 1856. We might think of it as a souvenir from one of Henry’s all-too-rare manic phases. No whining, no snottiness about his fellow citizens, little self-dramatization. Much of the day’s entry is taken up with early-winter observations – a skim of ice on the river, a pair of nuthatches (“a chubby bird”), a half-moon visible in daylight, walnuts on the tree, johnswort and pinweed “conspicuous above the snow.” 

After noting a neighbor’s rooster, Thoreau abruptly shifts focus: “My themes shall not be far-fetched. I will tell of homely every-day phenomena and adventures.” That’s an intriguing statement of purpose, one followed by such journal-keepers as Pepys and Saint-Simon, but only sporadically by Thoreau.  The drama queen soon returns: “What you call bareness and poverty is to me simplicity.” Thoreau loses me with his self-righteous sermonizing. Invariably, he morally demarcates himself from the rest of us in order to highlight his superiority. Henry knows better, sees more acutely, and is fundamentally a purer soul. The rest of the paragraph is a mixed bag of good sense (“I love best to have each thing in its season only, and enjoy doing without it at all other times.”) and adolescent paradox-mongering (“I find it invariably true, the poorer I am, the richer I am.”). 

The paragraph closes with the sentence quoted at the top. Why “in the very nick of time?” For what? Is Thoreau saying he was born in time for his own life? Is this another teasing paradox? A Yankee koan? I don’t know but it’s nice to hear him sound, for once, like the president of the Concord Chamber of Commerce. Our man was born on this date, July 12, in 1817, in the Minott House, on the farm owned by his widowed maternal grandmother, Mary Jones Dunbar. Celebrate his birthday by reading his journal, an unruly masterpiece, but with a skeptical eye. Here is Thoreau on Nov. 5, 1855: 

“I know many children to whom I would fain make a present on some one of their birthdays, but they are so far gone in the luxury of presents—have such perfect museums of costly ones—that it would absorb my entire earnings for a year to buy them something which would not be beneath their notice.”

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