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Dark Thoreau: Another Side to Henry David
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October 31, 2008
Happy Halloween, everyone. I thought I might take this opportunity to share with you a book by Walter E. Bridgman, Dark Thoreau (University of Nebraska Press, 1982). Strike The Root seems the best venue for this, of course -- and on what better day?
It seems most profitable from the outset to quote from page ten of the author's preface, wherein he writes: 'I shall be making several points about Thoreau in the following pages: among them, that he was a deeply pessimistic man who could rarely bring himself to admit it; that he had a hostile, punishing streak in him, manifested most vividly in his imagery; that severe tensions necessarily existed between his temperament and his acquired idealism; and that, in consequence, his writings contain a good number of opaque and sometimes bizarre moments that can be attributed to these conditions of psychological strain. The cost of ignoring these symptoms of Thoreau's humanity is a skewed understanding of his accomplishments as a writer.'
I might extend Bridgman's assessment to include not simply Thoreau's literary talents, but our understanding of the man himself. We are wont to think of Thoreau as an American folk hero ' a gentle, back-to-nature, aloof intellectual whose criticisms of the environment he lived in were much as Robert Frost's a generation later: 'I had a lover's quarrel with the world.'
From the evidence we have, however ' writings culled from Thoreau's journals, essays, and poems ' it would seem that Henry David experienced both numerous and lengthy periods throughout his writing and physical life during which his cynicism was anything but so serene.
In a crystallization of Thoreau's early mindset, Bridgman offers us this at page 12: 'In those days, Thoreau . . . chose to believe that the attitudes of one's friends were of no moment. One's idealizations and subjective extensions were the only reality. Temporal disagreements were of no consequence.' Bizarrely enough, Thoreau seemed to extend this mindset to a chilly kind of synonymity between love and hate. In his 1838 poem, 'Friendship,' Thoreau wrote: 'Let such pure hate still underprop/Our love, that we may be/Each other's conscience,/And have our sympathy/Mainly from thence.
More striking still, is an excerpt from a letter dispatched to the Emerson family in 1843, during Thoreau's sabbatical on Staten Island: 'But know, my friends, that I a good deal hate you all in my most private thoughts ' as the substratum of the little love I bear you.'
As if these lyrical examples of Thoreau's inner conflict were not enough, Bridgman, at page 15, recounts this: 'That Thoreau possessed a plenitude of violent feelings cannot be doubted. One of the most famous incidents associated with him is normally recounted as an instance of his independence; it seems to me to tell quite another tale. It occurred after Thoreau was newly graduated from Harvard College and was teaching in the Concord Town School . Admonished by an observing committeeman and deacon to thrash his pupils, Thoreau at first refused, then took six of them ostensibly at random (including, disconcertingly enough, 'the maid-servant in his own house'), used the ferule on them, and resigned his position.'
Thoreau could, of course, be far more subtle ' and in ways bordering on the lurid. In the summer of 1844, after spending a night atop Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire , he resolved to climb Saddleback Mountain in northwestern Massachusetts . A thunderstorm following closely on his heels, Thoreau ascended the mountain out of a foggy valley, arriving at the summit just before sunset. He reported later in his journal that there was little else but a 'rude observatory' at the peak, though he was evidently in no mood for stargazing. Drinking from water standing in some horse tracks, and then cooking a meager meal over a small campfire, Thoreau then reputedly spent the remainder of his evening 'reading by the light of the fire the scraps of newspapers in which some party had wrapped their luncheon.' Having, for whatever reason, no blanket, he then gathered some pieces of scrap wood tumbled about the base of the observation tower. As darkness drew down, and the night grew colder, Thoreau would later report that 'I at length encased myself completely in boards, managing even to put a board on top of me, with a large stone on it, to keep it down, and so slept comfortably.'
Following the revelation of this episode, Bridgman further writes at page 44, 'It is not difficult to perceive that this is a version of self-encoffinment, followed by the oblivion of death. In fact, so naturalistically improbable are the conditions Thoreau has described that it is hard to see it in any other way. The pilgrim's ascent culminated in a trance. Thoreau had arranged that he rest like an entombed hero atop a mountain. Why?'
Indeed, it is a question that follows the reader throughout the course of Bridgman's book. In instance after instance, Thoreau displays, betwixt episodes of intense loneliness and pathos, evidence of violent thoughts and a pervasive fascination with animal mutilation and death. That such cogitations lie in stark contrast to the Thoreau with which the world is familiar at large only deepens the enigma.
Perhaps it was that Thoreau's maladies arose from sexual deprivation. Perhaps his disdain for the bureaucratic establishment of his day incited him to such mental straits. It may be that he harbored pangs of inner jealousy towards those, like Emerson, who realized greater material success than he during a life lived, by and large, in solitude. Whatever the answers, Dark Thoreau sheds an eerie, unnerving light on an already incandescent life that has, even now, yet to be adequately understood.