Henry David Thoreau: “Cape Cod” (1865)

It is generally supposed that they who have long been conversant with the Ocean can foretell, by certain indications, such as its roar and the notes of sea-fowl, when it will change from calm to storm; but probably no such ancient mariner as we dream of exists; they know no more, at least, than the older sailors do about this voyage of life on which we are all embarked. Nevertheless, we love to hear the sayings of old sailors, and their accounts of natural phenomena, which totally ignore, and are ignored by, science; and possibly they will not always looked over the gunwale so long in vain. (937)

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The final work by Henry David Thoreau collected in this Library of America volume is the posthumously published Cape Cod. (For my thoughts on his essays, see my previous posts organized in the Index, linked above.) Cape Cod has some similarities with The Maine Woods. Both were published in the year or two after Thoreau’s death with the leadership of his sister. Both were based on three separate trips to a place in New England, explored over the course of a decade. Both, potentially, give a long view of historical and environmental change. Cape Cod, however, looks at a place that is fully “civilized,” while The Maine Woods considered a place that, in Thoreau’s mind at least, was still a wilderness. To find this wilderness that so attracted him, Thoreau had to look to the coast and the sea. This is his only work to take the ocean as a category of analysis. Water was a major theme in Walden, but as part of the local ecosystem. Here the ocean stands as a behemoth before Thoreau.

The sea has even power over the land. “Perhaps what the Ocean takes from one part of the Cape it gives to another,—robs Peter to pay Paul. On the eastern side the sea appears to be everywhere encroaching on the land. Not only the land is undermined, and its ruins carried off by currents, but the sand is blown from the beach directly up the steep bank where it is one hundred and fifty feet high.” (956) The sea was not something that Thoreau could quite get a handle on, but he was impressed by the sailors and fishermen who dwelled in Cape Cod for their intimate knowledge of the sea.

As a node of capitalism, the exploitation of the environment, and commerce, Cape Cod is the polar opposite of the self-sufficient world Thoreau tried to create near Walden Pond. Lighthouses, ship wrecks, and small towns lining the cape. Nevertheless, Thoreau notices signs of people living on the margins, making a living from the periphery. I am sure he saw in these self-sufficient fishermen the pursuit of the same type of life he tried to live in Walden. “It is remarkable what a serious business men make of getting their dinners, and how universally shiftlessness and a groveling taste take refuge in a merely ant-like industry.” (976) He defends this “shiftlessness” as merely a coastal version of the life he advocated.

The chapter called “The Wellfleet Oysterman” is an interesting window into a vibrant subculture of Cape Cod. I am struck that in his other works, Thoreau has little to say about other people’s labors. Often they are cast aside as wage slavery or rejected along with the rest of the emerging industrial civilization Thoreau saw around him. This chapter may be his most careful study of how other people live and work. For me this is a sign of maturity on Thoreau’s part and suggests an opening of his mind. If Walden is about he chose to live and pursue freedom, Cape Cod is interested in how others have done so. And in his honest moments, he must confess that they find their own space for freedom, even within the capitalist civilization. So those of you who think that Thoreau is an impractical lifestylist, I do suggest taking a look at Cape Cod as well as The Maine Woods for evidence that he did have a broader appreciate for the system, the damage it caused and the diversity of ways people could live within it. Well, I will keep it short and sweet today. That completes my study of Thoreau, the great American individualist and perhaps early anarchist thinker.

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Henry David Thoreau: “The Maine Woods” (1864, posthumous)

The Anglo-American can indeed cut down, and grub up all this waving forest, and make a stump speech, and vote for Buchanan on its ruins, but he cannot converse with the spirit of the tree he fells, he cannot read the poetry and mythology which retire as he advances. He ignorantly erases mythological tablets in order to print his handbills and town-meeting warrants on them. Before he has learned his a b c in the beautiful but mystic lore of the wilderness which Spenser and Dante had just begun to read, he cuts it down, coins a pine-tree shilling, (as if to signify the pine’s value to him,) puts up a deestrict [sic] school-house, and introduces Webster’s spelling-book. (769–770)

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One thing that strikes the reader of Henry David Thoreau’s book The Maine Woods is that he is describing a region under incessant threat of industrial capitalism. There is a struggle for survival at the heart of this book between the expansionist forces of New England capitalism and a more diverse world sheltered in the woods of Maine. The book consists of three essays written by Thoreau after three separate trips to the Maine forests. The first was in 1846, when he was living in Walden. The second was in 1853. The final trip was in 1857. A close analysis (which I will not do here) will suggests a gradual erosion of the wilderness in the face of expanding American capitalism. With these tours we are really seeing different stages of this conquest. Thoreau finds much appealing about Maine compared to Massachusetts, but cannot help but notice that that world is under growing stress.

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The works Thoreau published during his life were really philosophical tracts that were presented as autobiographical narratives of his time living with nature. A Week was about a river trip. Walden, of course, was about his two years living near Walden pond. They can be read for the naturalistic value they offer, but mostly we approach those texts for what they say about Thoreau’s values and philosophy. The Maine Woods is much closer to a real travelogue.

So the signs of capitalist development are all around. We see it in the creeping settling of farmers, the formation of towns, the evaporation of Indian cultures, the rising of picket fences, and mills. Yes, it is not the cruel textile mills of Lowell, but it is the start and Thoreau is wary of much of what he observes. “But Maine, perhaps, will soon be where Massachusetts is. A good part of her territory is already as bare and commonplace as much of our neighborhood, and her villages generally are not so well shaded as ours. We seem to think that the earth must go through the ordeal of sheep-pasturage before it is habitable by man.” (710) Some parts of the forests Thoreau explored have already been worked over. In his account of the first trip, he described an old logging camp that has been abandoned, leaving the countryside “overgrown with weeds and bushes.” (626)

Many may approach The Maine Woods as a book of naturalism, and they would not be wrong. I find Thoreau’s descriptions of the people of the Maine forests as fascinating as his descriptions of the landscape. The Indian guides that so affected Thoreau with their beliefs and the fiercely independence settler stand are the center of The Maine Woods. These are, in the end, the only forces that could oppose the creeping gigantism of New England “civilization.” (I am often reminded of Deadwood these days, and I felt it again here in the assumed opposition of the pioneer settlers to the forces of state and corporate power.)

The only hope for the yet pristine parts of the Maine forests was that the United States may have already looked beyond New England and, by the 1850s, was more interested in exploiting and settling the “great West.” Yet even this is a false hope. For Thoreau, Bangor stands as a cancerous tumor in the middle of the woods. The forests are alive still but only for the moment.

We have advanced by leaps to the Pacific, and left many a lesser Oregon and California unexplored behind us. Though the railroad and the telegraph have been established on the shores of Maine, the Indian still looks out from her interior mountains over all these to the sea. There stands the city of Bangor, fifty miles up the Penobscot, at the head of navigation for vessels of the largest class, the principle lumber depot on this continent, with a population of twelve thousand, like a star on the edge of night, still hewing at the forests on which it is built, already overflowing with the luxuries and refinements of Europe, and sending its vessels to Spain, to England, and to the West Indies for its groceries, —and yet only a few axe-men have gone “up river,” into the howling wilderness which feeds it. The bear and deer are still found within its limits. (655)

So, although The Maine Woods is clearly one of Thoreau’s less well-known works and overshadowed by Walden and his great essays, it is historically significant and should be understand in the environmental history of the United States. In a world without wild spaces anymore, it is not always that useful go back to the imagined pristine wilderness. As much as Thoreau believes it exists, he did not understand how the Indians used and misused the natural world even centuries before whites arrived to the Americas. More useful, perhaps, is to look at the original crimes that led to the triumph of capital over the commons. Without fully knowing it, Thoreau did this in The Maine Woods. While describing the forests of Maine he was looking into the seizure of the commons. How this happened, where, when, and by whom are some of the most important historical questions of our time as we struggle to restore the commons before capital succeeds in the destruction of all life.

Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part One

I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstance, and they know whether they are well employed or not—but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them. There are some who complain most energetically and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their duty. I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters. (335)

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Walden by Henry David Thoreau probably is the central text in the American anarchist tradition, although Thoreau never used that word as far as I know. Walden describes the technical details about Thoreau’s two years living near Walden Pond in relative isolation from his neighbors (although he was in walking distance from Concord). He saw it as a successful experiment in self-sufficiency. He took pains to describe how his experiment worked and why his model of simplicity was preferable to the values embraced by industrializing America. He was not rejecting progress. He saw what he was doing as clearly improvements and developments, including building a house, raising crops, and experimenting in innovative techniques. Through it all, however, his pursued these improvements in respect to his own values, needs, and desires.

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I am not sure how applicable the way of life described in Walden is to our world. I am sure many anarchists today would accuse someone pursuing a similar experiment today of engaging in “lifestylism,” or point out how his privileged position (having access to Emerson’s land near Concord, being a white male, etc.). These critiques may be fair, but throughout Walden, Thoreau neither rejects the need to critique the world he lives in (the one that began again a mile from his house) nor turns his back on community and society.

Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubts that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. (328)

The opening chapter of Walden is the longest. Since it is such a doozy, I will focus just on it today. This chapter stands as one of the great individualist critiques of industrial capitalism. Its prominent place in the book reminds us that Thoreau is interested in the social relations at the root of the rapidly changing world that he lived in. The fact of rapid transformation makes the lessons of the elders meaningless to Thoreau. One problem that industrial capitalism is that is distances us from a knowledge of what is really needed for life and our own capacities. The appeal of the “frontier life” is that it articulates the boundaries of this need and individual potential. He uses the metaphor of being too “warm” to suggest the nefarious aspect of growing wealthy and pursuing luxuries. Intellectual labors have been similarly degraded into the pursuit of luxury, rather than philosophy. By dwelling on the question of necessity, Thoreau tells us that we are not actually that far from post-scarcity (and if we were in 1854 we certainly are now). Increased false needs, luxuries and the like, are one of the major chains preventing us from living freely. Another aspect of this is the feeling that production has value only for commerce. For an individual, the fact that someone does not want to purchase what another has created does not decrease the value of that thing for the creator.

Following this, he explores some of the necessities of life, such as clothing, shelter, and food. The purpose of economy must be to achieve these needs, but our understanding of our needs has been perverted. While some of his arguments about self-sufficiency are dated, others seem inspiring to me. The idea of people building their own home rather than accept a lifetime of debt to banks is not only admirable, but perfectly within the realm of possibility, especially is pursed in community solidarity. From our late capitalist perspective we can look at Thoreau’s model for individual self-sufficiency as a model for sustainability by limited consumption. It is also an argument against work. He insisted that he had to work for others only as a day laborer for a few days per year. Compare this to the endless wage slavery most people of the world face today (if they are the “lucky” ones with jobs). In short, limited needs means limited need to work and limited obligation to institutions indifferent to your survival. This is not an anti-social argument, but a foundation for a much more sociable experience. He does think it is hard for people of radically different values and strategies in life to work together, but he is open to people getting their “living together.” (379)

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He has a useful examples of the added benefit of a simple life. Two people want to travel. One walks, working along the way as necessary, but always making progress toward her goal. The second, works to save up enough to purchase a train ticket. Thoreau was unconvinced that the later would reach the destination first and would have a much less meaningful experience. Today, I guess few people still take the option of working on a merchant ship to see the world, but I think we can think seriously about travelling in lower tech ways. Two weeks on a train, instead of one day on a plane may seem rational and ensure I will miss the least amount of work, but I can think of much added value that could come from the slower option.

The chapter on economy ends with a criticism of the reformism that was so popular in Thoreau’s day. He targeting philanthropy as essentially an outside imposition on people’s lives, full of moral baggage. He may have underestimated the horror of poverty, often making an assumption that a poor person may enjoy his life, but we can still take from him a belief that charity need not be presumptuous.

Following “Economy” is a series of shorter chapters that go on until the end of the book. They deal with a variety of topics. Sometimes building off of themes in the first chapter. They can, and should be, read in small chunks for various bits of applied wisdom. I think outside of “Economy,” which really is a primer for the rest, the chapters of Walden can be consumed freely and willfully. I, however, was systematic. I will talk about some of these seventeen chapters in the next post.

Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Saturday, Sunday, Monday

Surely the fates are forever kind, through Nature’s laws are more immutable than any despot’s, yet to man’s daily life they rarely seem rigid, but permit him to relax with license in summer weather. He is not harshly reminded of the things he may not do. She is very kind and liberal to all men of vicious habits, and certainly does not deny them quarter; they do not die without priest. Still they maintain life along the way, keeping this side the Styx, still hearty, still resolute, “never better in their lives”; and again, after a dozen years have elapsed, they start up from behind a hedge, asking for work and wages for able-bodied men. (30)

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Henry David Thoreau’s brilliant book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is hard to summarize or even isolate thematically. Like the subtly changing landscapes along the Massachusetts waterways that Thoreau describes, his philosophical ponderings venture from the personal to the national to the universal. Many readers will tease out something for themselves, likely disregarding the rest. If, on the surface, A Week is a naturalists account of the plant and animal life and scenery of the river, it is also a documentary of his thoughts and values. Now we are free to take in some of the scenery and completely ignore others—Thoreau is not an authoritarian telling us to “Look at that tree!” In the same way we are free to completely ignore some of his philosophy. It does not seem to me to be a system that requires unification and strict method for the observer. Nature has certain rules and principles governing how things work. Thoreau’s philosophy has that as well. In neither case, are we required to know what those rules are to appreciate the beauty before us. A Week is an ideal book to read on a day when you promise yourself to do nothing. Maybe it needs to be read in that way. I had trouble getting into it before because I was thinking about what to say about it. I came back to it a bit hung over, bored and uninspired and its treasures opened up before me.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was Henry David Thoreau’s first book. It was written alongside Walden while he was living at Walden Pond. It was published in 1849, almost a decade after the trip that it supposedly documents. It was a disappointment. Emerson did not promote the book to Thoreau’s disappointment. Of the original 1,000 books, Thoreau took back 706 of them. So, it is fair to say that Thoreau was largely neglected at this time. A few years later, Walden will be much more successful. Of course, Thoreau is not making a living from his writing and works various jobs throughout his life such as teaching, surveying, and a bit of lecturing.

A Week is broken up into seven chapters, each corresponding to a date. While I cannot even attempt to approach a summary of the work, I can highlight some anarchist themes. Thoreau is commonly identified as an anarchist and is certainly one of the most important figures in the American libertarian traditions. Months ago I looked at his essays and found not only themes of anti-slavery and individualism, but also strong currents of anti-capitalism and even work resistance. The theme of work resistance surprised me because I rarely saw that outside of a fully industrial, post-scarcity economy. Thoreau was not like Kropotkin, he was suspicious of industrialization and technology. His argument against industrial regimen of work was rooted in his effort to preserve individualism in the face of a homogenizing society. Anyway, let’s see what A Week contributes to my growing literary arsenal of anarchism.

At times Thoreau seems to hack the promethean spirit of early America, a belief in progress and the potential of the human mind to accomplish great deeds, while also sabotaging some of the clearest images of that progress. He questions the application of that promethean spirit.

Instead of the Scythian vastness of the Billerica night, and its wild musical sounds, we were kept awake by the boisterous sport of some Irish laborers on the railroad, wafted to us over the water, still unwearied and unresting on this seventh day, who would not have done with whirling up and down the track with every increasing velocity and still reviving shouts, till late in the night. [Notice that the exploitation of labor and the violation of nature are two sides of the same process for Thoreau.] One sailor was visited in his dreams this night by the Evil Destinies, and all those powers that are hostile to human life, which constrain and oppress the minds of men, and make their path seem difficult and narrow, and beset with dangers, so that the most innocent and worthy enterprises appear insolent and a tempting of fate, and the gods go not with us. But the other happily passed a serene and even ambrosial or immortal night, and his sleep was dreamless, or only the atmosphere of pleasant dreams remained, a happy natural sleep until the morning; and his cheerful spirit soothed and reassured his brother, for whenever they meet, the Good Genius is sure to prevail. (94)

In this second part, Thoreau details the two sides of this coin, labeling them the Evil Destinies and the Good Genius. It is the tension between these two sides of the American spirit that come as close as anything can to being a theme of the book.

As in the opening quote, Thoreau consistently uses the language of freedom and oppression. I included that one because it suggest the logic of the liberal state in a certain way. Like nature, the liberal state gives the illusion of autonomy and freedom. And in the same way that the industrial frontier is just 12 years away from shattering the myth that nature’s laws can be overcome, so is the jackbooted nature of the state always just one crisis from being exposed. Thoreau is perhaps most interested in the tension between freedom nature provides and the unavoidable laws of nature and the pull of society. “Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else, until civilization becomes pathetic. A highly cultivated man,—all whose bones can be bent! Whose heavenborn virtues are but good manners!” (45–46)

Thoreau’s critique of religion is libertarian to the core. A major theme of “Sunday,” the second day of the “week,” is that religions are products of their societies and reinforce the needs and assumptions of that civilization. A hierarchical society, while have a hierarchical god. A terrified society will have gods that terrify them. Thoreau seems to take from this two conclusions. The first is that people should not take the Bible very seriously, pointing out that it does not have much to teach that is valuable or unknown and that it is also bad poetry. “Examine your authority. Even Christ, we fear, had his scheme, his conformity to tradition, which slightly vitiates his teaching. He had not swallowed all formulas. He preached some mere doctrines.” (57) The second conclusion extends from this and suggests that we should create religious traditions that work for ourselves. Is he predicting William James? He talks about a wood-chopper who may find little of practical value in the New Testament. His goodness and conscience is not derived from faith and certainly not organized religion (which is often mocks in the book). “Monday” continues some of the religious perspectives of “Sunday,” where Thoreau takes a special look at the value and limitations of Hinduism and the ancient Greeks. Through this discussion these is the general suggestion that all the different philosophies and religions are windows to the same truth.

Thoreau is constantly worried that the universal truths of nature and humanity (including all that ancient “wisdom” that he gobbles up with only nominal reflection) is doomed to be swept aside and forgotten by the mad rush to industrialization. Even local history, often the topic of A Week, is in danger of being lost. Here is his ideal:

Let a thousand surmises shed some light on this story. We will not be confined by historical, even geological periods which would allow us to doubt of a progress in human affairs. If we rise above this wisdom for a day, we shall expect that this morning of the race, in which it has been supplied with the simplest necessaries, with corn, and wine, and honey, and oil, and fire, and articulate speech, and agricultural and other arts, reared up by degrees from the condition of ants to men, will be succeeded by a day of equally progressive splendor. (127)

Thoreau seems to realize that the world around him is a graveyard of ideas, past ways of living, bits of nature, people, and even entire towns. He is uncomfortable in such a place. At one point he said that has no friends in the graveyard. This again is the two sided coin. The same promethean spirit that Thoreau wants to embrace is responsible for digging a lot of graves.