As Thoreau Says, Not As He Does: ‘The Boatman’ and ‘Walden and Civil Disobedience’

It is what Thoreau wrote about how to live -- not, mind you, the way he actually lived -- that makes him a significant cultural figure.

Emerson famously remarked that to be great is to be misunderstood. It was true of him, but it was even more true of his friend and neighbor. Has any American writer been more comprehensively misunderstood, even by his admirers, than Henry David Thoreau?

Like Melville and Dickinson, Thoreau went from relative obscurity in his own lifetime to canonical status in the following century. Unlike his fellow writers, however, Thoreau’s importance grew far beyond literature. We revere him now as a kind prophet or guru. He was prescient about the alienating tendencies of modern, industrial society; he was sensitive to the environment and to our spoiling of it before environmentalism; he understood the tragedy of slavery and the necessity of political dissent.

Where Thoreau is criticized, it is for hypocrisy — for failing to live up to the ideals that he is supposed to have incarnated. Writing in The New Yorker in 2015, Kathryn Schultz described Thoreau as “our national conscience: the voice in the American wilderness, urging us to be true to ourselves and to live in harmony with nature,” and then went on to mercilessly criticize the man’s work as misleading, narcissistic, and politically dangerous.

Yet there’s a real sense in which the popular understanding of Thoreau as a prophet or guru (however hypocritical) is only part of the picture and a misleading one at that. He was, in life, a more complicated figure than the popular imagination makes him out to be. Robert M. Thorson brings some of this complexity to light in his new book, The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, by paying attention to parts of Thoreau’s biography that have been overshadowed by the success of Walden and “Civil Disobedience”. It turns out that, in addition to being a writer, Thoreau was also a successful land surveyor and a pioneering naturalist. And, although he is most closely associated with a certain pond in the woods where he went to “live deliberately”, Thoreau’s true love among bodies of water was the river. Three rivers, actually: the Sudbury, the Assabet, and the Concord, on which he rowed, sailed, and sometimes skated throughout his entire life.

Thorson’s book begins with a description of a seven-foot cloth-backed map of the Concord river — one that Thoreau made by hand in 1859, after he was hired to survey the river by farmers who sought the removal of one its dams (the farmers blamed the dams for causing the river to flood and ruining their hay). The Boatman traces Thoreau’s infatuations with these bodies of water from his childhood to maturity, where it culminates in what Thorson calls Thoreau’s “Anthropocene insight”: “the recognition that his human agency was so completely interwoven with nature that his geological epoch was unique in universal history.” In between, readers are treated to more information than they could ever want about the natural and cultural history of the Concord River Valley. The Boatman’s final chapters also acquaint us with the ways in which industrial interests manipulated the politics of environmental assessment from their very beginnings.

The consequences of attending to this Thoreau — the “older, wiser scientific genius” who was intimately involved with the push and pull of social, economic, and political life, rather than the obscure transcendentalist writer who built a dwelling for himself in the woods with his own hands — gradually comes into focus as Thorson works his way through his sometimes dense material. The most consistent interpretation of Thoreau, whether one thinks in terms of environmentalism, politics, or culture, is that of a visionary in search of a pure, uncorrupted way of life. Thorson sees this purity reflected in some contemporary environmentalists, particularly Bill McKibben, who naïvely argue that human beings have “killed” nature. Thorson also finds this attitude in an unstated assumption that nature, in our Anthropocene era, is something to be mourned, rather than appreciated and enjoyed. These issues are most explicit in the conclusion to the book, where Thorson claims that, against purism, Thoreau would want us to “accept and deal with those changes [made to nature] without romanticizing or sanitizing the past.”

Thorson is a geologist, and his interpretation of Thoreau conjures a fellow scientist: full of wonder about the natural world, but ultimately sober, careful, and realistic. Obviously, this picture conflicts with the stereotype of Thoreau as a visionary or prophet, or the mouthpiece of a “national conscience”. Thorson’s book does an excellent job showing us that there was more to Thoreau than this. But his book is drastically limited by the scientific scope of its own interests. The Boatman goes all-in on Thoreau as a scientist, but in doing so it misses the importance of Thoreau as a philosopher and a writer. Whatever Walden tells us about geology or Thoreau’s notebooks tell us about river science, these things don’t help us with the questions of how to live or how to write. It is what Thoreau wrote about how to live — not, mind you, the way he actually lived — that makes him a significant cultural figure.

Fortunately, Penguin has just reissued Walden along with “Civil Disobedience” in honor of Thoreau’s 200th birthday, allowing us to get reacquainted with why we should read Thoreau in the first place. “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” That sentence is the epigraph to Walden. Kristen Case notes in her introduction that Chanticleer (meaning “clear song”) is a rooster character in medieval folktales; Thoreau’s epigraph simultaneously alludes to literary history, and to the less rarified roosters all around him in Concord.

This mix of the rarified and the common captures something of Thoreau’s irony: roosters are good for waking people up, but who actually listens to the rooster’s song? It is hard to hear; Thoreau knew this was true about his own work, even as he believed in its value. Case devotes several paragraphs of thoughtful commentary to the epigraph before reminding us that nearly every other sentence of Thoreau’s writing can be read profitably with the same scrutiny. This is because, as Case explains, writing was, for Thoreau, a “means of thought, a way of unsettling himself and others, of getting to the roots of things.”

People will probably continue to look to Thoreau for a way out of their various modern alienations. That’s fine, as long as they recognize that looking to Thoreau for wisdom — even if we decide that wisdom consists, as Thorson’s Boatman suggests, in creatively adapting to our Anthropocene world — ultimately runs counter to the confrontational and challenging spirit that pervades Thoreau’s own writing. What this writing urges us to do — even the celebrated essay on “Civil Disobedience”, which inspired so many to political non-violence — is not to follow his example, not to ask, as some have, “What would Thoreau do?” or even “What would Thoreau say?” Instead, Thoreau’s writing does something much more valuable than any of this. It prompts us to think for ourselves.

RATING 6 / 10