Also from The Atlantic's archives:
"Chesuncook," by Henry David Thoreau (June, July, and August, 1858)
Thoreau, Walden, and the Environment
by David Barber
Henry David Thoreau's abbreviated but irreproachably industrious life came to an end on May 6, 1862, when he succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of forty-four in the parlor of his mother's Concord home, surrounded by family and friends. According to the biographer Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Thoreau was his lucid and prickly self to the last breath. Asked by an anxious aunt whether he'd made his peace with God, he replied that he wasn't aware that they had quarreled. When he was gently probed concerning his views on the hereafter, he demurred with a gnomic epigram: "One world at a time."
Here we have the stuff that hagiographies are made of -- Thoreau in his proverbial role of crusty Yankee icon and wise old owl. The scene befits his legend and yet somewhat belies the tangle of circumstance that makes him such a compelling figure. In reality, Thoreau was far from indifferent to the question of how he might live on in spirit and letter. During the last weeks of his life, though declining rapidly, he managed to pull together several articles for The Atlantic Monthly that had been solicited by its editor, James Fields -- a final burst of production which speaks not only to his admirable wherewithal but also to his interest in the paper trail he would leave to posterity.
Three of these pieces appeared in The Atlantic later that year, an apt posthumous tribute that offered up a congenial mixed bag of Thoreau's penchants and pursuits. Two of the pieces, "Walking" (June 1862) and "Autumnal Tints" (October 1862), he had reconstituted from previous lyceum lectures; the third, "Wild Apples" (November 1862) -- available here in its entirety -- was cobbled out of a work-in-progress that was still in its germinal phase. Thoreau planned to call the manuscript Wild Fruits, but the homespun simplicity of that title is deceptive. The sprawling text he left behind in his exuberant chicken-scratch hand was conceived as a definitive botanical almanac of edible New England flora, ranging from the arcane (thimbleberry, butternut, hound's tongue) to the classic (pumpkin, cranberry, beach plum). This may sound like a doctoral research project, but in Thoreau's mind it came to be freighted with the overtones of a summa or scripture: in one of his journals he even refers to the work as his "New Testament."
It is now an article of faith, of course, that Thoreau secured his literary immortality in 1854, the year he published that indelible testament of transcendental self-reliance, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods. And yet what of his post-Walden existence? Such has been the enshrinement of the author's fabled two-year hermitage in the late 1840s -- determined, as he vowed, to "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life" -- that comparatively little heed has been paid to how he occupied himself in the years that followed. Now, thanks in large measure to the editorial salvage work of the Thoreau Institute's Bradley P. Dean, the general reader can gain instructive insight into how the sage of Walden lived and what he lived for after he took leave of his rough-hewn cabin. In vetting and reconstructing the two major manuscripts Thoreau left unfinished at his death -- the first was published in 1993 under the title Faith in a Seed; the second, the surviving text of Wild Fruits, was published this past January -- Dean has done much to fill in what has generally been a sketchy chapter in the life of Thoreau's mind. Taken together, the eclectic assemblage of fragmentary but nonetheless yeasty writings (most of them making their first appearance in print) should help flesh out a rounder perspective on this stubbornly many-sided American original.
When Thoreau declared to his readers on the opening page of Walden that he was writing as "a sojourner in civilized life again," it was not merely an artful rhetorical turn. As these later manuscripts attest, he remained devoted to tramping and pottering about in his native woods (which were fewer and farther between in those days of intensive New England farming than they are today), and did so with an increasingly rigorous bent. His journals dating from the early 1850s onward reveal a ripening preoccupation with the discipline of natural history: reams of studious field notes on seed dispersal and forest succession, scores of taxonomical lists and seasonal charts on flowerings and bird sightings, page upon page of detailed botanical observations and pensive ecological ruminations. And there are passages that show how diligently Thoreau sought to stay informed of the pressing scientific matters of his day -- most notably, the intellectual tumult spawned by Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which Thoreau read shortly after it was published in 1860 and quoted approvingly in his notebooks.
All this copious record-keeping, Dean emphasizes, should not simply be viewed as an avid woodsman's compulsive jottings: ever the protean soul-searcher, Thoreau saw himself engaged in a groundbreaking new chapter of his life's work. The literary import of this undertaking, however, is a cumbersome issue to contend with, not least because we can't confidently speculate what larger designs Thoreau may have fulfilled had he lived to complete what Emerson eulogized as his protégé's "broken task." And any appraisal of the project is further complicated by the unmistakable shift in the orientation of Thoreau's writing. Yet if we're left with the impression that the visionary spirit and sinewy lyricism of Walden gave way to the prosaic toil of minute annotation and meticulous compilation, it may well be another reminder of how bound up the man still is to the myth he created out of himself in that masterwork and the cult that has grown up around his name.
That Thoreau, for his own part, would have had no truck with the notion that he'd sworn off the manna of poetic inspiration is evident enough. "Facts collected by a poet," he wrote in his journal, "are set down at last as winged seeds of truth ... tinged with expectation." By the late 1850s Thoreau had begun culling and harvesting his field notes in earnest, and was making headway on a lengthy essay called "The Dispersion of Seeds" and on his early drafts for Wild Fruits. As his health eroded during his last two years, he set about wrestling his multitude of papers into working order, apparently with an eye toward converting portions of his profuse raw material into publishable form. In December, 1860, he delivered his last lecture, "Autumnal Tints," in Waterbury, Connecticut. By the spring of 1862 he was confined to his mother's house in Concord, exerting what energy he could muster on finishing the essays for The Atlantic.
Although each of these pieces finds Thoreau in agreeably vigorous form, the most enticing specimen here is "Wild Apples," the only one derived from the Wild Fruits manuscript. Because of its generous sweep and writerly aplomb, this essay commands pride of place in Dean's reassembled text, where it stands out amid numerous shorter passages and squibs that mostly read like notes toward an unusually enlivening and occasionally cantankerous field guide. Whether the manuscript would have ultimately evolved into a fullblown prophetic manifesto on redemptive wildness, as Dean intimates, may be a bone for scholarly contention, but there is no mistaking the sedulous effort being brought to bear or the sacramental tenor at which the authorial voice is often pitched.
Why has it taken so long to catch up with Thoreau the proto-ecologist, the spiritual forefather of the crusade for a sustainable synthesis of the scientific method and moral philosophy? One simple explanation might be that the romantic legend doesn't leave much room for factoring in the unruly human element, with its loose ends, mixed feelings, and unfinished business. Another factor, perhaps, is the sheer breadth of Thoreau's ambition, which seems to defy his own deathbed maxim in an attempt to straddle several worlds of knowledge and illumination at once. In any event, it may be time to entertain the possibility that although Thoreau poured his talent into Walden (and that other durable gospel, "Civil Disobedience"), the surest traces of his genius are to be found in the magpie gleanings of those teeming journals and notebooks. In the absence of a grand through-line or a homiletic high road, what these variegated entries yield instead are potent concentrates of a great American prose stylist's tart wit, flinty clarity, and aphoristic bite, the distinctive tenor of which, in the memorable phrase of the first Atlantic editor, James Russell Lowell, makes it seem "as if all out-of-doors had kept a diary and become its own Montaigne."
"What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet," Thoreau asserts in his leisurely survey of wild apple trees. "Some of these apples might be labelled, 'To be eaten in the wind.'" A similar tag could well be affixed to the dust jacket of Wild Fruits, a bountiful windfall that's all the more choice and piquant for being long overdue.
Go to "Wild Apples" (November 1862), by Henry David Thoreau
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David Barber is The Atlantic Monthly's assistant poetry editor and a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound. His first book, The Spirit Level (1995), won the Terrence Des Pres Prize for poetry.
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