Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’

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

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017
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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.

Henry David Thoreau: “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.”

Friday, July 4th, 2014
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thoreau

Free spirit

Happy Fourth of July. In my thinking about the day, it occurred to me that this may be the first and only nation that actually formed around the notion of dissent. We do more than tolerate dissent, we view it as the absolute bedrock of a democracy.

Then I recalled an all-time great American, Henry David Thoreau, who, in July 1846, spent a night in jail because he refused to pay six years of a delinquent poll tax at a time when American was waging what he viewed as an unjust war (the Mexican war) and while slavery was still practiced.

According to some accounts, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

Emerson missed the point of Thoreau’s protest, which was not intended to reform society but was a pure act of conscience. If we do not act on our discernment of right from wrong, he argued, we will eventually lose the capacity to make the distinction.

Prior to these events, Thoreau had been living a quiet, solitary life at Walden, an isolated pond in the woods about a mile and a half from Concord (reconstruction of the place below looks pretty nifty to me). Perhaps the sudden collision with the affairs of the world was a jolt to him: “The State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”

Toward his jailers, Thoreau expressed sadness: “They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are under-bred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. … I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.”

Thoreau's_cabin_inside

Home sweet home

Apparently, Bronson Alcott had been taken to prison for a similar refusal, but was sprung by a friend who paid the tab. Hence, he wrote, “I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.”

Too often the importance of respecting dissent, not quashing it, gets lost in a big busy country. On my Facebook page this morning I posted a comment from Robert Reich, “True patriotism isn’t simply about securing our borders from outsiders. It’s about coming together for the common good.” I added this thought: Let’s make this a special Fourth of July. Left-wingers – go hug a right-winger. Right-wingers – go hug a left-winger. Try to listen to a point of view not your own. You don’t have to adopt it, just hear it out, trying to understand where the other is coming from without refutation, denigration, or ridicule. Try to see the other person as someone who also has a collection of life experiences and who is also fighting a tough battle. Put aside hatred, not just for today, but forever. Try to enjoy the cacophony of voices that make up a democracy. Any takers?

Meanwhile, here are a few words from Jerome Lawrence, one of the two playwrights (the other is Robert Edwin Lee) who wrote the very successful The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail:

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Jerome Lawrence on The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail from William Inge Center for the Arts on Vimeo.