Thoreau on his bicentennial: did a “truer American” ever exist?

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One of two photos we have of him, from 1856

When Henry David Thoreau was near death, a friend at his bedside asked, “You seem so near the dark river, that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Thoreau’s reply: “One world at a time.”

And what a world it was. According to Robert Pogue Harrison, writing in the current New York Review of Books,  “Thoreau was almost superhumanly awake to the flora and fauna of his surrounding environment.” Trees, turtles, huckleberries, or wildflowers would send him into ecstasies.

Robert’s article, “The True American,” reviews ten – that’s right, ten – new books on Thoreau during the Saint of Walden Pond’s bicentennial year. The title of the article borrows from Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s funeral eulogy that “no truer American existed.” But the word “true” requires some parsing. According to Robert:

These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty.

Another contradiction then: Thoreau was ethereal and sensual, unworldly and deeply incarnate – “we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing it,” he claimed. “I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound,” Thoreau wrote in his journal. “Daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!… Contact! Contact!

Elsewhere, “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” And the dawn is right here, right now. At least potentially. Thoreau declares: “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”

Robert concludes:

Robert Harrison hosting “Entitled Opinions” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Among Americans nothing has more authority than facts. Of course the contrary is also true (a quarter of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth; more than three quarters believe there is indisputable evidence that aliens have visited our planet). Is it true that we crave reality? Yes, but we crave irreality just as much if not more. Our addiction to our television, computer, and cell phone screens confirms as much. As for death, it does not seem that today we have a knack for concluding our mortal careers “happily.” …

The other equally important lesson is how to touch the hard matter of the world, how to see the world again in its full range of detail, diversity, and infinite reach. Nothing has suffered greater impoverishment in our era than our ability to see the visible world. It has become increasingly invisible to us as we succumb to the sorcery of our digital screens. It will take the likes of Henry David Thoreau, the most keen-sighted American of all, to teach us how to discover America again and see it for what it is.

Read the whole thing here. It’s terrific.


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