Friday, December 25, 2009

`A Very Good Sort of Sprite'

“When I was a little boy I was told to hang my clean stocking with those of my brother and sister in the chimney corner the night before Christmas, and that 'Santa Claus,' a very good sort of sprite, who rode about in the air upon a broomstick (an odd kind of horse I think) would come down the chimney in the night, and fill our stockings if we had been good children, with dough-nuts, sugar plums and all sorts of nice things; but if we had been naughty we found in the stocking only a rotten potato, a letter and a rod. I got the rotten potato once, had the letter read to me, and was very glad that the rod put into the stocking was too short to be used."

This is the gently comical voice of John Thoreau, Henry’s older brother and companion on the boat trip that produced A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It comes from a letter John wrote to their friend George Sewall on New Year’s Eve, 1839, and is quoted by Walter Harding in The Days of Henry Thoreau. I like the touch of a “clean stocking.” Already in small-town New England in the 1820s, Santa Claus is a fixture of folklore, still morphing into the figure we recognize today. Dickensian flourishes are few – A Christmas Carol wasn’t published until 1843. I’ve always suspected that after Jesus, Dickens was more responsible than anyone for giving us Christmas. There’s no blasphemy in this, for when we say Christmas we speak of two happily congruent holidays, sacred and secular.

Santa’s broomstick is a nice homely touch. How many Americans in the 1820s had ever heard of reindeer (“an odd kind of horse”)? The prop turns Santa into a benign, gender-reversed Halloween witch. “Sugar plums,” of course, echoes Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823), better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” (“While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads”). I was taught naughty children would find lumps of coal in their stockings Christmas morning. Somehow, “a rotten potato, a letter and a rod” is weirder and even more disappointing.

Earlier in 1839, John and Henry made the boat trip from Concord, Mass., to Concord, N.H., and back that forms the mythic backbone of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a heartbreaking book if read in the context of the Thoreaus’ lives. On New Year’s Day, 1842, John nicked the tip of his left-hand ring finger while stropping his razor – a minor wound we would wash and bandage. Eight days later it had become “mortified,” meaning the tissue had turned black and necrotic. On the morning of Jan. 9, John’s jaw stiffened and by that evening he suffered convulsions. A Boston doctor examined John and concluded he could do nothing for him. No one could have until the vaccine for tetanus was discovered in 1890. John Thoreau, age 27, died on Jan. 11 in the arms of his helpless brother.

Henry wrote the first draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, one of the great unread books of American literature, while living at Walden Pond, and published it in 1849. A pioneering hybrid of prose and poetry, it is also an elegy for the little boy who hung his clean stocking in the chimney corner.

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