October 14, 2009

Henry D. Thoreau's Rep

I read with surprise the charge of 19th century convert/intellectual Fr. Hecker that Thoreau was an egotistical popinjay. (Okay, I added the latter for sound effect; Hecker wrote in a letter to a friend of Thoreau's supreme arrogance and pridefulness.)

But when I read HDT, back some twenty years ago, I noticed no such thing. Of course I was faithfully reading the Sunday New York Times back then, so I was pretty much immune to arrogance and self-absorption, especially given my own similar traits.

I happened across the book Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries, opened at random and found these quotes:
"The lecture on Wednesday evening, was by H.D. Thoreau, Esq. of Concord, Mass. The subject announced in the papers as 'Home, or domestic economy,' but the real topic was 'Myself - I.'"
Hilarious.

A few months later another writes of another Thoreau lecture:
"[it] was a mingled web of sage conclusions and puerility - wit and egotistical effusions - bright scintillations and narrow criticisms and low comparisons."
But is this a case where no prophet is honored in his home country? If Thoreau was seen as arrogant then, history seems to have proven Thoreau's self-opinion as true given his place in the canon of American literature. Or perhaps it's merely that we're all self-absorbed and arrogant now, it's in the air we breathe, and so we don't notice it in Thoreau like his contemporaries did. Or perhaps most people in our age do think he's an arrogant eccentric cuss and I just wasn't aware of it.

2 comments:

Tom said...

I've told this story before, but when I was in college, I told a friend I was going to read Walden.

"Why?" he asked.

When I think of an answer, I'll read Walden.

I'd also read somewhere that the bit where Thoreau says he returned his famously borrowed axe sharper than when he borrowed it gave a hint of his own high opinion of himself.

With that background, let me suggest the possibility that what people like is the idea of Thoreau. We like the idea of being able to say, "Nuts to this," and head out into the woods. We want a great and good nonconformist, a respected someone to tell us things like, "Aim above morality," as though that meant something profound -- and, more importantly, as though it made the "Do not be too moral" that came before it profound, too.

TS said...

We like the idea of being able to say, "Nuts to this," and head out into the woods.

Agreed, that's got to be a huge part of his appeal. Probably artificially inflates his place in the canon.

he returned his famously borrowed axe sharper than when he borrowed it gave a hint of his own high opinion of himself.

Hmmm...let those among us who has never inflated ourselves before others cast the first stone. Seems awfully minor given that most writers are hardly saints.