The American Loneliness
Novelist, playwright, and teacher, THORNTON WILDER combines the creative fire with the cool, objective delight of a critic. He began teaching at Lawrenceville after his graduation from Yale in 1920; he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey; his play Our Town (which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1938) is in production in some part of the globe almost every day of the year; and he richly deserves the Gold Medal for Fiction presented to him by the American Academy of Arts and Letters this spring. He is now working on a book which grew out of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard and of which this is the second of several installments to appear in the Atlantic. The third will be in the October issue.
by THOKNTON WILDER
WALKING to the auditorium where I am to lecture on Thoreau I pass Hollis Hall in which he lived as an undergraduate.
I think we can understand why on graduation he changed his name — David Henry became Henry David, peremptorily. Like Emerson before him he was a scholarship student.During his first year he had one coat — his mother and aunt had made it for him out of green homespun. That year the right students were wearing black. All his life he railed with particular passion against any discrimination that, is based on dress. A classmate tells us that, as a student, Thoreau in conversation did not raise his eyes from the ground and that his hands were continually moist. That chapter over, he changed his name.
As I pass Hollis I become uncomfortable; I feel those extraordinary blue eyes not on me, but directed over me, in taciturn reproach. He set down a portrait of himself and he took pains with its details. He wished it to be known that he was direct, simple, forthright, candid, and uncomplicated. Many have taken him at his word; but no, his life and personality have more important things to tell us.
How hard it is to discuss Thoreau in the presence of the young. Many aspects of his life and thought lie in that sole territory which, is inaccessible to young men and. women, I never feel an incomprehension on their part when I treat of death or loss or passion; their imaginations can extend themselves — by that principle which Goethe called “anticipation—to such matters. What is difficult is to treat of the slow attrition of the soul by the conduct of life, of our revolt against the workaday — the background of such works as Le Misanthrope and Don Quixote. I must tell these young people, who are hurrying by me, thatThoreau met defeat in his impassioned demands upon Love, Friendship, and Nature; and yet I must tell them that at the same time he was an American who fought some of our battles for us, whose experience we are to follow with a sort of anxious suspense. The rewards we obtain from the contemplation of Thoreau, however, begin their consolatory and inspiriting effect upon us as we move through our forties.
I wish I were somewhere else.
Ladies and gentlemen: —
We were talking last time about how difficult it is to be an American. We spoke of the support which a European receives from all those elements we call environment — place, tradition, customs: “I am I because my neighbors know me.” Their environment is so thickly woven, so solid, that the growing boy and girl have something to kick against. The American, on the other hand, is at sea—disconnected from place, distrustful of authority, thrown back upon himself.
Here I am again.
And suddenly, as my eyes rest on the upturned faces before me, I am encouraged. It is in many ways a sad story I have to tell. Whenever I think of Thoreau I feel a weight about my heart, a greater weight than descends in thoughts of Poe or Emily Dickinson. Yet all of us here are Americans. My subject is the loneliness that accompanies independence and the uneasiness that accompanies freedom. These experiences are not foreign to anyone here. So forward.
Perceptive visitors to America from Europe are uniformly struck by what they call an “American loneliness” which they find no less present in that fretful and often hollow gregariousness we talked about last time.
Now there are several forms of this loneliness, and the one that occurs to us first is the sentimental form. In America the very word is sentimental and it makes us uncomfortable even to employ it. Yet we see this kind of loneliness about us everywhere; like the loneliness which springs from pride it is a consequence, a deformation, and a malady of that deeper form which we are about to discuss. Both proceed from the fact that the religious ideas current in America are still inadequate to explain the American to himself. The sentimental loneliness arises from the sense that he is a victim, that he was slighted when fortune distributed her gifts (though it is notably prevalent among those who seem to “have everything ); the proud loneliness arises from the sense of boundlessness which we described as related to the American geography and is found among those who make boundless moral demands on themselves and others.
Thoreau illustrates certain American traits connected with loneliness in an extreme and exaggerated form. He finally lost his battle— the typical American battle of trying to convert a loneliness into an enriched and fruitful solitude but before he died (at forty-four, murmuring: “It is better some things should end ”) he furnished us many a bulletin of the struggle, many an insight, and many an aid.
Another of the most famous pages in American literature is that wherein Thoreau gives his reasons for going to live in solitude at Walden Pond.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. . . . nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it were quite necessary. . . . if [life] proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Thorcau’s books are a sort of cento of transcriptions and amplifications of entries in his Journal. Here is what he wrote on the third day of his residence at the pond (July 6, 1845): ”I wish to meet the facts of life— the vital facts, which are the phenomena or actuality which the Gods meant to show us — face to face, and so I came here. Life! who knows what it is, what it does?”
There are several things to notice about these passages: among them, first, that he will put his question as though no one had ever said anything valuable before; and, second, that in order to ask what life is, it is necessary to remove oneself from the human community.
Americans constantly feel that the whole world’s thinking has to be done over again. They did not only leave the Old World, they repudiated it. Americans start from scratch. This is revolt indeed. All authority is suspect. And this is boundless presumption. I quoted Whitman’s words in our last session (“It almost seems as if a poetry . . . suitable to the human soul were never possible before”). Poe, clutching some mathematics and physics he had acquired during a brief stay at West Point, launched into a description of how the universe came into being, and deduced the nature of God from his theory of the galaxies. He called his work Eureka and did not leave us in doubt that he felt that he had succeeded where the greatest minds had failed. Professional astronomers dismiss it with a smile, but we notice that the great French poet Paul Valéry, who occupied himself with mathematics for thirty years, tells us how great a role this book played in the growth of his thought. (“L’idée fundamentals de Poe n’en est pas moins une profonde et souveraine idée.“)
Thoreau did some reading at Walden Pond, but it is astonishing how small a part it plays in this central inquiry of his life. He invokes neither the great philosophers nor the founders of religions. Every American is an autodidact; every American feels himself capable of being the founder of his own religion. At the end of the passage I have quoted from the Journal there is an allusion to his reading of the Sanskrit, scriptures. It is an ironic jest: “to give a true account of it in my next excursion. He docs not believe that our souls return to inhabit other bodies, though billions have reposed in that idea all that they know of hope and courage. He makes a jest of it — fit example, to him, of the uselessness of other people’s thinking. There is something of this religious and metaphysical pioneer in us all. How often I have heard people say: “No, Mr. Wilder, we don’t go to church. My husband and I each have our own religion here —inside!” What student at the height of a lofty argument has not been heard to cry: “Listen, everybody! My theory is this . . . ” ?
To others this must all seem very deplorable. To Americans it is wearing and costing and often desolating; but such is the situation. The die is cast; and our interest in Thoreau is precisely that we see one of ourselves fighting, struggling, and finally fainting in this inescapable American situation. Thoreau asks, What is life? and he asks it in a world from which any considerable reliance on previous answers is denied him, and through his long inquiry he heard the closing of three doorsdoors to great areas of experience on which he counted for aid and illumination, the doors to Love, Friendship, and Nature.
Here are the reverberations of these closing doors: —
LOVE (October 27, 1851, aged 34): “The obstacles which the heart meets with are like granite blocks which one alone cannot remove. She who was the morning light is now neither the morning star nor the evening star. We meet but to find each other further asunder. . . .”
FRIENDSHIP (March 4, 1856, aged 38): “I had two friends. The one offered me friendship on such terms that I could not accept it, without a sense of degradation. He would not meet me on equal terms, but only to be to some extent my patron. . . . Our relation was one long tragedy. ...”
NATURE: AS early as July 16, 1851, Thoreau was saying, “Methinks my present experience is nothing; my past experience is all in all. I think that no experience which I have today comes up to, or is comparable with, the experiences of my boyhood. . . . Formerly, methought, nature developed as I developed, and grew up with me. My life was ecstasy. ...”
THE story of Thoreau’s love is only beginning to be pieced together. The obstacles that separated him from this woman were indeed granite blocks. The expressions he gives to his love in his Journal are often strange “whirling words ‘: “My sister, it is glorious to me that you live! ... It is morning when I meet thee in a still cool dewy while sun light in the hushed dawn — my young mother— I thy eldest son” (lightly crossed through: “thy young father”) “. . . whether art thou my mother or my sister whether am I thy son or thy brother.
. . . Others are of my kindred by blood or of my acquaintance but you are part, of me. I cannot tell where you leave off and I begin.” In another passage, Journal 1850, he says: “I am as much thy sister as thy brother. Thou art as much my brother as my sister.”
We have reason to be surprised that the erotic emotion expresses itself in images borrowed from the family relationships. Yet such a coloring is present elsewhere m our writers of this period, in Whitman, in Melville (Pierre), and in Poe. in America the family is the nexus of an unusually powerful ambivalence. On the one hand, the child strains to break away and lead his own life. The young seldom settle down near their parents’ home; less and less frequently do the parents end their days in the homes of their children; I have remarked that young people are increasingly eager for the moment when they are no longer financially dependent on their parents. On the other hand, the American — as we were saying — is exceptionally aware of the multitude of the human race; his loneliness is enhanced by his consciousness of those numbers. The family is at once an encroachment on his individualism and a seductive invitation to rejoin the human community at a level where he does not feel himself to be strange. Moreover, individualism has its arrogance. It has long been a tag that every American is king. Royalty marries only royalty. Other people aren’t good enough. Thoreau elevates the woman he loves to this kinship. Poe’s mother died when he was three; he lived the latter part of his life with his aunt and married his cousin. The blocks of granite which separated Thoreau from this “sister” were not all outside of him. The door of love closed and he never returned to it.
It was the friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson that Thoreau described as “one long tragedy.” The second friend who proved unworthy was William Ellery Channing, who seems to have enjoyed shocking Thoreau with an occasional ribaldry. Tragedy we too can call it, for few men could more have needed friendship, and few have been less ready to accommodate themselves to it. He wrote (June 11, 1855); “What if we feel a yearning to which no breast answers? I walk alone, my heart is full. Feelings impede the current of my thoughts.
I knock on the earth for my friend. I expect to meet him at every turn; but no friend appears, and perhaps none is dreaming of me.” Emerson knew that he was incapable of friendship, and the knowledge caused him some pain — brief pain, for Emerson had a short way with moral discomfiture; he mounted up into pink clouds and began to give voice to abstractions. This woeful triangle skirts the comic. A letter has recently come to light which gives Channing’s view of a friendship with Emerson. Channing wrote to Elizabeth Hoar from New Bedford on December 28, 1856: “. . . how strange it seemed to hear W. [Waldo] lecturing on friendship. If he knew all the hearts he has frozen, he might better read something on the fall of human hopes. ... I have never parted from him without the bitterest regret, not for having parted, but for having come. ...”
Individualism! It is the point of honor of men and nations in this century. Every nation boasts that it is a nation of individualists and implies that the other nations are composed of sheep. (“You Americans—you all eat the same things; you repeat the same slogans; you read the same book of the month; the very streets in which you live have not even names, but merely numbers and letters!”) Yet no man (and no nation) is as individualistic as he thinks he is; each is so in one area of his existence, and the extent to which he is — fortunately! — conformist in others is not apparent to him. Friendship is not incompatible with individualism, as the great pages of Montaigne have shown us, but it was incompatible in the lives of our Concord philosophers. Thousands of school children were formerly required to read Emerson’s chaotic essay on the subject. For generations Emerson’s style had the power to put the judgment to sleep, but one wonders what the teachers made of that farewell address to “our dearest friends”: “Who are you? Unhand me: I will be dependent no more.”
Thoreau’s inability to come to terms with friend.ship was aggravated by the vast ness of his expectations. To this day many an American is breaking his life on an excessive demand for the perfect, the absolute, and the boundless in realms where it is accorded to few in love and friendship, for example. The doctrines of moderation and the golden mean may have flourished in Rome and in China (overcrowded and overgoverned countries), but they do not flourish here, save as counsels of despair. The injunction to be content with your lot and in the situation where God has placed you is not an expression of New World thinking. We do not feel ourselves to be subject to lot and we do not cast God in the role of a civil administrator or of a feudal baron.
THOREAU goes to the pond, then, to find an answer to the question, What is life? He will not admit other thinkers to his deliberations, and his answer will not reflect any close relation with his fellow men. With what frustrated passion, then, he turned to nature. Nature meant primarily the flora and fauna of the Concord River valley, though he made some trips elsewhere. Now that, region has no tigers, avalanches, coral vipers. Black Forests, deserts, or volcanoes. Margaret Fuller warned her Concord friends of the dangers of accustoming themselves to a view of nature which omitted both cruelty and grandeur. On his walks Thoreau came upon some malodorous plants (June 26, 1852): “For what purpose has nature made a flower to fill the lowlands with the odor of carrion?" The question seems, to us, both biologically and philosophically a little simjdiste.
Enough has already been written about the absence of a sense of evil in the work of the Concord essayists. It is only one of the elements that resulted in the gradually progressive grayness of the last volumes of Thoreau’s Journal. Far more important is the fact that Thoreau asked of nature a gift which nature cannot, without coöperation, accord. He asked a continual renewal of moments of youthful ecstasy. Unhappy, indeed, is the boy or girl who has not known those moments of inexplicable rapture in the open air. There is a corresponding experience accorded to those in later years — awe. In ecstasy the self is infused with happiness; in awe the self recedes before a realization of the vastness and mystery of the non-self. Many never cross the bridge from one to the other. Thoreau despised and dreaded Science; to inquire too narrowly into the laws of nature seemed to him to threaten those increasingly infrequent visitations of irrational joy. “If you would obtain insight, avoid anatomy,” he wrote. With what a sad smile Goethe would have shaken his head over these words — for it was precisely from his studies of the skeleton of the vertebrates and the structure of plants that Goethe’s life was flooded, even in the eighties, with an awe which retained much of the character of a juvenile ecstasy. Indeed, Goethe at eighty would not have written the words which Thoreau wrote at thirty-three: “In youth, before I lost any of my senses, I can remember that I was all alive, and inhabited my body with inexpressible satisfaction . . .!" As the years passed, Thoreau increasingly mourned his lost youth find the intoxication which nature had afforded him then. For a time the humming of the telegraph wires aroused transports; it was his “redeemer”; then they too lost their peculiar powers. Finally, in his hist years he turns from the almost passive notation of the phenomena about him and introduces into his observations an element of progression and exploration into the unknown. He counts the rings in slumps and makes notes on the succession of trees. Those who are conversant with these things tell us that he is discovering the science of ecology. He seems, however, to be deriving no warming satisfaction from this innovation; his notes lie buried in his Journal and the work is repeated independently by others.
I am eager to arrive at all the things that call forth our admiration for Thoreau, but I must delay a moment to point out that we have brushed against two traits in him which are not characteristic of the American: the fixed orientation toward childhood, and the view of nature as engaged in close personal conversation with man. These are characteristic, however, of the region from which he came.
A portion of Massachusetts and several states of our South are enclaves or residual areas of European feeling. They were cut off, or resolutely cut themselves off, from the advancing tide of the country’s modes of consciousness. Place, environment, relations, repetitions are the breath of their being. One evidence of it is a constant preoccupation with how old one is and a striking obsession with early youth (how many of the brilliant novels which have lately come to us from the South turn upon childhood). In New York and Chicago and the West, one’s age is of relatively little importance; those who are active between twenty-five and sixty fire contemporaries. They dine and dunce and work and enjoy themselves together. This is bound up with the American sense of time which I shall develop in later lectures. Time is something we create, we call into being, not something we submit to — an order outside us.
Similarly, there are aspects of Thoreau’s relation to nature that are not those we feel to be prevalent elsew here among us. The gods of glade find brook and pond are not the gods of plain, seacoast, forest, desert, and mountain. The former are almost in reach; one can imagine oneself in dialogue with them; they can enter into an almost personal relation with those who have turned from the company of men. But the gods of great space are enigmatic; we are never sure that we have read aright the message of their beauty and terror; we do not hastily put words into their mouths. Yet the more we feel an “otherness” in nature, the more we recognize that we ourselves are natural. “It appears to be a law,” wrote Thoreau, in April, 1852, “that you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature.” “I loved nature because she is not man, but a retreat from him.” There is no such law, nor have any other American voices expressed any sentiment like it, unless we take note of a moment in Emily Dickinson’s life when she wrote:
“I thought that nature was enough /Till human nature came.” Nature failed Thoreau, as it will ultimately fail anyone who wishes to divide it up, to pick and choose only limited congenial aspects of it, for ecstasy or for retreat, or who wishes to employ one aspect of it to confound another.
And the question: “Life! who knows what it is, what it does?” It would seem that Thoreau had considerably compromised his inquiry by divesting himself of the testimony and the companionship of others and by repeating his question to a wooded vale.
Yet millions have testified and are testifying to the powerful clarifications that he brought back from Walden Pond. And all his triumphs came from his embatlled individualism, from pushing it to the limits that border on absurdity, and from facing—“face to face” — the loneliness consequent upon it. He came back with the answer that life, thought, culture, religion, government everything—arises from subjectivity, from inwardness. Our sole self is the first and last judge of values, including the values of communal life.
Here I traced briefly the long, gradual millenniary convergence of emphasis on the individual—re-
ligion’s, government’s, art’s; and showed how through an historical accident the settling of America, by that “selection of a selection" of European individualists, constituted an acceleration, perhaps a “leap" in the forward movement of this centering of emphasis.
Thoreau does not urge us to live in shacks merely to save money and time; to eschew railroad trains, newspapers, and the postal service; to lay in two sets of washable clothing and a bar of soap; to refuse these jobs which deform our souls between nine and five. These are not ends in themselves.
Simplify, simplify, simplify! All these are injunctions in order that we may refine our ear to the promptings of our subjective, inward self. The evil of community is that it renders us stupid — and cowardly. Walden is a manual of self-reliance so much more profound than Emerson’s famous essay that the latter seems to be merely on the level of that advice to melancholics which directs them to take walks and drink a lot of milk.
Thoreau did not merely meditate about the problem of living: he costingly, searchingly exemplified it, and his work rings with the validity of that singleminded commitment. One of the rewards of independence, apparently, is that you are certain that you are the master of your choices, you are not left to doubt whether or not you are free.
Yet there is no air of triumph about the latter end of Thoreau’s life. It is difficult to be an American. In some aspects of his life and thought I horeau is one of our most conspicuous, most outrageous Americans. But the spiritual situation in which these citizens of the New World find themselves is so new, so demanding, and so uncharted,
that only by keeping in contact with its total demands can one maintain one’s head above the surface. A partial American will drown. Thoreau did not grasp the New World sense of the innumerability of the human race — nor did Emerson, for all his employment of the word “universal.” Thoreau had a parochial, a wood-lot view of nature and her mighty laws. Is there a Thoreau who can tell us that once one has grasped and accepted a basic solitude, all the other gifts come pouring back— love, friendship, and nature? One reads the life story of Thoreau with anxious suspense.
And Abraham Lincoln?
And Melville — and Poe?