Henry David Thoreau, “Collected Essays, Part One”: In Search of Greatness

Continuing my adventure through The Library of America, I picked up one of the two volumes covering the works of Henry David Thoreau.  This one collects his essays and poems.  For today I read the first ten essays:

thoreaucover

“Aulus Persius Flaccus” (1840). A short essay of criticism on this classical satirist.

“The Service” (1840). An early essay of Thoreau’s on violence, pacifism, resistance, and non-resistance, suggesting we can learn from the military the virtue of bravery.

“Natural History of Massachusetts” (1842).  A sprawling look at the wildlife and flora of Thoreau’s beloved Massachusetts.

“A Walk to Wachusett” (1842).  A description of Thoreau and Henry Fuller’s walk to Princeton Massachusetts.

“Sir Walter Raleigh” (1843).  A look at the heroic life Sir Walter Raleigh and a consideration of the meaning of his life for contemporaries.

“Dark Ages” (1843).  A brief essay suggesting that it is our job to unearth history.  Dark Ages are a product of how much light we shine on them, not how much they give off.  A good description of the foreignness, darkness, and remoteness of the past.

“A Winter Walk” (1843).  On the beauty of the winter in Massachusetts, but more profoundly on the struggle of humanity to survive the winter.

“The Landlord” (1843).  The importance and self-sacrifice of the bartender and inn-keeper.

“Paradise (To Be) Regained” (1843).  A criticism of J. A. Etzler’s The Paradise within the Reach of Men, a technological utopian text.  Thoreau is skeptical about the ability to overcome human limitations through technology alone.

“Homer. Ossian. Chaucer” (1844). More literary criticism, this one looking at three narrative poets.

My first impression was that these works could be divided into two themes: Thoreau’s naturalism and a search for the limit of human potential.  Now I see that there is essentially only one theme for us and that is that search for greatness, for even his naturalist writings have a touch of the Promethean in them.  I believe this search for the projectural life is one of the most important contribution he makes (inadvertently I am sure) to the anarchist tradition.  The other contribution, of course, is his ideas on civil disobedience and non-violent resistance (rather than non-resistance).

I do not see that Thoreau achieves a definition of the projectural life.  In fact, I hope we would not find that.  He does point out some models and archetypes that suggest some of the character and values of the projectural individual.  In “The Service,” he suggests that we can learn from the recruit about how to be a truly creative artist.  The brave man does not strive for quantifiable achievements.  “His bravery deals not so much in resolute action, as healthy and assured rest. . . . He does not present a gleaming edge to ward off harm, for that will oftenest attract the lightening. . . . His greatness is not measurable.” (8)  In contrast, “the coward wants resolution.” (9)  He attacks those silly intellectuals writing their mangum opus, or those politicians seeking the “grand bargain.”  Thoreau prefers to see our struggle in this day.  The projectural person cannot live for the future.  He must act in our time.  “It concerns us rather to be somewhat here present than to leave something behind us; for, if that were to be considered, it is never the deed men praise, but some marble or canvass which  are only a staging to the real work.  the hugest and most effective deed may have no sensible result at all on earth, but may paint itself in the heavens with new stars and constellations.” (18)

His nature writings show Thoreau to be not an early primitivist, but rather someone who sees nature as inspiring great deeds.  “Nature has taken more care than the fondest parent for the education and refinement of her children.” (36)  “Nature is mythical and mystical always, and works with the license and extravagance of genius.” (37)  Even the simple act of hiking shows how he thinks interaction with nature can only improve civilization.  “The mountain chain determines many things for the statesman and philosopher.  The improvements of civilization rather creep along its sides than cross its summit.  How often is it a barrier to prejudice and fanaticism?  In passing over these heights of land, through their thin atmosphere, the follies of their plain are refined and purified. . .it is only the hardy mountain plant that creeps quite over the ridge, and descends into the valley below.” (53–54).

Sir Walter Raleigh may strike us as a strange model for greatness, give what we know about the history of European empire in the New World, but Thoreau was convinced that the American civilization was being suffocated by reformism and cowardice.  But, he points out, we do not dream as children of being reformers, New Dealers, tinkerers on a sinking ship.  “All fair action is the product of enthusiasm, and nature herself does nothing in the prose mood.  We would fain witness a heroism which is literally illustrious, whose daily life is of the stuff of which our dreams are made–so that the world shall regard less what it does than how it does it, and its actions unsettle the common standards, and have a right to be done, however wrong they may be to the moralist.” (88)

In “A Winter Walk” we start with a long description scenery, flora, and fauna of Massachusetts in winter, but he ends with a description of the Promethean struggle for survival of the wintering farmer.  To survive the winter requires almost, he suggests, a different religion.  “The good Hebrew revelation takes no cognizance of all this cheerful snow.  Is there no religion for the temperate and frigid zone?” (106)  He describes the snow drifts as “imprisoning” and how the farmer’s destiny is for three months “wrapped in furs.”  It is in the victory over this that the farmer’s greatest achievement is reached.

I should end here for today with his essay “Paradise (To Be) Regained.”  In the 19th century virtually all utopian thinkers and writers saw technology as the key to human liberation.   This guy J. A. Etzler certainly seems to be one of these writers, looking for a world without labor as the key to human happiness and universal freedom.  Like Kropotkin would later do, Etzler looks to contemporary trends in science and technology and predicts that the end of drudgery and post-scarcity is just around the corner.  Etzler believed the harnessing of water power would be the key.  Thoreau is actually not that critical of these goals and the schema Etzler lays out.  His major argument against the book is in Etzler’s failure to account for the need of “moral progress” first.  “Suppose we could compare the moral with the physical, and say how many horse-power the force of love, for instance, blowing on every square foot of a man’s soul, would equal.”  (137)  While I agree that it would  be wrong to see technology as a silver bullet to all social problems and assume everything can be quantified, I cannot help not notice that Thoreau’s critique is not dissimilar from many of the most pedestrian, common, and banal attack on utopian thought.   If we constantly wait to act until “humans are ready for utopia” we will certainly never achieve utopia.

 

 

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One response to “Henry David Thoreau, “Collected Essays, Part One”: In Search of Greatness

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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