Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism

Read Time:
2m 27sec

Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism.
By David M. Robinson. Cornell Univ. Press. 234 pp. $24.95

In a bookstore the other day, I saw a desk journal whose cover proclaimed, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.—Thoreau.” Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) might be spinning in his grave at the thought of being cataloged with calendars and gift books, but the desk journal does reveal something: Nearly a century and a half after his death from tuberculosis, Thoreau lives.

Think of the phrases that have entered our lexicon. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”—more relevant than ever. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” And the refrain repeated by every bar mitzvah boy, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” Why is Thoreau read and remembered long after the reputations of most of his contemporaries have faded? What is there about this oddball loner who never married and who probably had more communication with the muskrats of Walden Pond than with humans?

From the time he was a student at Harvard College, Thoreau understood that the United States was breaking free of the intellectual chains of Europe. He took his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson’s spirit of self-reliance and built on it. He also built on the philosophy of transcendentalism—the intellectual movement that celebrated heightened consciousness, the power of inspiration, and the divinity of the individual—and melded it with environmental concerns and abolitionism. Individualism, anti-materialism, environmentalism: No wonder we still read him.

In this critical study, David M. Robinson of Oregon State University painstakingly describes the unfolding of Thoreau’s life and ideas. We meet the spiritual ancestors of the earliest transcendentalists, men such as Orestes Brownson and Victor Cousin. We watch Thoreau blossom under Emerson’s guidance. And we learn, tantalizingly, about a relationship between Thoreau and Emerson’s wife, Lidian, that seemed to grow stronger during Emerson’s long trips to England. In one journal entry, Thoreau addresses an unnamed “Sister,” whom some scholars believe was Lidian: “You are of me & I of you I can not tell where I leave off and you begin.” Henry Seidel Canby and other critics have maintained that Thoreau was in love with Lidian Emerson.

Robinson hesitates to speculate about such matters. Instead, he devotes himself to explicating observations that stand perfectly well on their own, and in the process often smothers Thoreau’s vivid, concrete language beneath his own clunky prose. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” for instance, is followed by this from Robinson: “They have become convinced that their financial entrapment is inescapable, and thus have lost any larger sense of the purpose of life.” Readers who seek a connection with Thoreau would be better off turning to Walden, Civil Disobedience, or A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

—Debra Bruno

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