Wednesday, March 18, 2020

In memory of Stratis Haviaras

Crossing and Recrossing the River

One day we intersected
on a greasy patch of sidewalk
before Bartley’s Burger Cottage.

You asked how my verse lines end,
and I said with the cheery ding
of the typewriter carriage return.

Thus came the prose poem issue
of your journal, Arion’s Dolphin,
which almost made us famous.

Later, on Greek Easter,
in your rental near Fresh Pond,
the suffering of lamb on spit

said more about Jesus and
his ultimate descent into art
than your Orthodox bible did.

Your vacation film of you
and Maggie nude on the beach
thrilled your Harvard colleagues,

but I had to step outside and blush
in the secretive urban dark.
The dinner at which Simic plucked

the best wine from the wine list
at institutional expense remains
Harvard Review’s high-water mark.

I haven’t found a better wine—
even in the taverns of Athens,
where you spoke the same Greek

you polished with post-Classical
aplomb in your earliest poems.
When you read for my students,                                 

my fellow professor called you
“a hunk,” and noted that your wife
must keep you firmly leashed.                                                  

After you returned to Greece
to rake your ancestral bones,
the air thinned between us but

I still see your elegant mustache
twitching as the politics
of Fascist generals you defied

faded in showers of Euros.
We won’t meet again on earth,
but let’s remember those dinners

at the Parthenon Restaurant,
when the cheap retsina drowned us
in laughter the color of stone.


Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Claiming and Reclaiming Thoreau

When Ellery Channing entitled his 1873 biography Thoreau the Poet-Naturalist he wouldn’t have thought that those two honorifics conflicted. The American romantic-transcendentalist of the nineteenth century closely associated nature study with poetry. Thoreau lived in nature and culture with equanimity. His agile prose (he is not a very good verse writer) accommodates with consistent rhetorical and rhythmic ease his transcendental idealism, his field notes, and his uncompromising social commentary.

Now in an era of environmental crisis, climate change, forest destruction, species depletion and spread of destructive insects and disease, Thoreau’s ability to live in and for nature while drawing upon the full range of human culture is a compelling ideal for ecologically alert citizens. A spate of books in the past decade has emphasized his affinity for the natural world, reprinting, for example, his writings on birds (first culled from his Journal in 1910 by Francis H. Allen, then in 1964 by Helen Cruickshank), and most recently collecting his observations on trees, wildflowers, and animals. Other editors and critics have claimed Thoreau for science: Richard B. Primack in Walden Warming, for instance, calls him an early “climate change scientist.” Although fewer scholars have revisited Thoreau’s philosophical, cultural and social writing (gathered in Reform Papers and Men of Concord), his comments on his contemporary world still generate collections of pithy quotations.

Recent critical discussion has focused on Thoreau’s 1850s observations of the specific facts and qualities of the natural world rather than on his Romantic, self-consciously literary persona. While this has produced exciting insights into his profound grasp of natural process and growth, it risks ignoring the whole Thoreau, the man who was able to embrace both culture and nature in a synthesis that Emerson, the brilliant theorist, could only envy. But as Wallace Stevens might have noted, we live in a time when the pressure of reality lies heavily upon the imagination. Thoreau may seem especially vital now because of his alertness to the particulars of the natural world, while his metaphysical and aesthetic ruminations may strike us of lesser importance. Still Thoreau is often at his best when he combines natural observation with lyric mediation, as when this poet-persona converses (in a slightly self-satirical manner) with an alternate persona in Walden:

See those clouds; how they hang! That’s the greatest thing I have seen to-day. There’s nothing like it in old paintings, nothing like it in foreign lands,--unless when we were off the coast of Spain. That’s a true Mediterranean sky. I thought, as I have my living to get, and have not eaten to-day, that I might go a-fishing. That’s the true industry for a poet. It is the only trade I have learned. Come, let’s along.

The difficulty in unpacking this passage, which combines Thoreau’s interest in aesthetics, nature, and economics, is parsing its playful tone. How seriously are we to take this speaker? In Walden and his travel writing (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, A Yankee in Canada), Thoreau dramatizes a satiric, ironic, oblique sort of speaker whose utterances require us to process with intellectual subtlety and caution. The natural history observations in the later Journal, however, constituting the bulk of Thoreau’s life’s work, present a more direct and impartial voice. Although often enhanced with rhetorical, literary, and mystical nuances, his observations serve as benchmarks against which to measure our own ecological situation.

Walden’s Shore, Robert Thorson’s first book, places Thoreau firmly in the grip of science. By examining the geology and hydrology of the pond and Thoreau’s own observations and measurements, Thorson situates his subject in a scientific context in which he was not always comfortable, but which impacted the last decade of his life. Although he does not read Walden as a literary effort in a particular literary genre, and shows little interest in the shifting registers of Thoreau’s prose as he obsessively rewrote his masterpiece, Thorson’s scientific point of view is compelling. He focuses on the ways in which Thoreau “winnowed” and “culled” material from the Journal to use in Walden, omitting most of the more detailed observations but referring back to them through various literary devices. He is especially alert to the ways in which Thoreau compresses and transforms these specific observations into more broadly inclusive metaphors. This is a useful contribution to our understanding of Thoreau’s writing process, so it is surprising that in his new book Thorson rather dismissively labels the Thoreau of Walden a “literary stylist.”

In Walden’s Shore Thorson traces a tension between Louis Agassiz’s theory of catastrophic glaciation and Thoreau’s “nature spirituality” (289-293), but does not deal with the aesthetic tension between a transcendentalist vocabulary and the scientific language of observation and recording that Thoreau learned from studying Asa Gray’s botanical textbooks, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and the scientific surveys in his personal library. Thorson does, however, acknowledge and discuss at some length Thoreau’s frequently expressed doubts about and sometimes disdain for the scientific approach to the natural world. As Thoreau observes in “Walking,” “we may study the laws of matter at and for our convenience, but a successful life knows no law” (216). And in response to a questionnaire from the Association for the Advancement of Science, Thoreau called himself “a mystic—a transcendentalist—& a natural philosopher to boot” (Journal, March 5, 1853). This complicates any examination of Thoreau’s commitment and contributions to science.

The Boatman, Thorson’s new book, opens with a description of Thoreau’s seven-foot scroll field map of the Concord River (now in the Concord Free Library), and from this artifact argues that Thoreau’s intellectual development proceeded from a primitivist view of nature to an acceptance of human impact as part of a larger, more complex view of the ecosystem. Thorson goes so far as to attribute to Thoreau an optimistic view of human encroachment, emphasizing ways in which the riverscape has become more interesting. “Thoreau’s positive attitude can help brace us for the global changes headed our way,” Thorson cheerfully observes (20). Those of us who lack the long view of the geologist may not share this sunny outlook.

But Thorson doesn’t claim that Thoreau’s acceptance of human intervention was uncritical: a substantial part of his book focuses on a legal action demanding the removal or lowering of the Billerica Dam. Thoreau’s profound understanding of the function of river systems and the impact of development was important not only for that legal outcome but for ecological controversies of the future. While acknowledging the literary political, and social aspects of Thoreau’s earlier work, Thorson is more concerned with the “older, wiser scientific genius” of 1859, the year in which Thoreau drafted this scroll map. The “flowage controversy,” in which upstream farmers sued over the flooding of meadows and ruination of their farms, is a less familiar episode of Thoreau’s life. As a focus and locus of Thoreau’s evolved scientific thinking it is a central concern of this book. Although his role in the legal proceedings was anonymous, his insights pervade the report that convinced the court to order the removal of the dam. Thanks to subsequent acts of political corruption, however, the dam remains today.

In emphasizing and exploring Thoreau’s life on the river system Thorson joins the ranks of recent Thoreau critics who place the Journal beside Walden as his major literary works. Whether the Journal is finished enough or organized to qualify as a literary work of the first order remains an open question. As Thorson himself notes in Walden’s Shore, “there is no order inside the two-million word edifice [the Journal]. Rather it is a mélange of topic, place, chronology, completeness, and mood; inconsistent from room to room” (250). If Thoreau had assembled this material following the example of Darwin and had constructed a coherent narrative around his river journeys he might have produced a brilliant book. Still, everyone interested in Thoreau must find the later Journal fascinating. And while Thorson’s book on the geology, hydrology, and limnology of Walden is cogent and informative, The Boatman is more dynamic, in keeping with Thorson’s observation of Thoreau’s “enthusiasm for the continuous flow of matter and energy that is distinctly absent from his later descriptions of Walden Pond, with its invisible groundwater seepage” (80). This is partly because Thorson places his subject in an historical narrative, working Thoreau’s life on the river into the larger history of the three rivers of Concord, beginning with geological and early prehistory through the early European settlement and the problems of shifting water levels that began even before the first dam was built. The historical-biographical narrative continues through Thoreau’s life as a writer and naturalist, emphasizing his attraction and growing commitment to boating. While in Walden’s Shore Thorson claims that Thoreau’s “favorite place” was the cliffs above Fairhaven Bay (232) he now sees the river system as the writer’s preferred venue.

 Although this is a highly compressed biography, Thorson manages to at least mention most of the important incidents of Thoreau’s life up to his epiphany in June of 1851 when he first read Darwin’s Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R. N., later mercifully shortened to Voyage of the Beagle. After this key moment, Thorson’s narrative expands. Now the boatman takes over, and Thorson explores in minute detail Thoreau’s river explorations of the 1850s, the decade in which he more fully developed his naturalist persona.  Does this mean that he had reconciled himself with science? Did reading Darwin convince him that science could transcend taxonomy and become a creative act? Did he imagine himself someday reworking his mass of detailed and often compelling observations to a work as cohesive as The Voyage of the Beagle? Or discouraged by his failure to support himself as a writer, had he given up his literary ambitions and committed himself to a new field? Apparently not. “Walking,” begun in 1851 and finished in 1862, one of the last works (along with “Autumnal Tints” and “Wild Apples”) he prepared for the press, is as distinctly Transcendentalist and literary (in the sense of being deeply allusive, ambiguous, and aesthetically challenging) as anything preceding it. With more systematic (yet not purely scientific) natural observations embedded in a literary-romantic matrix, the last ten years of his Journal tease us as Emily Dickinson’s lifetime of unpublished poems does. We possess a mass of material, but we don’t know the author’s ultimate intentions for it, if he had any.

Thorson doesn’t have much to say about the conflict or harmony between the literary artist and the scientist, but he does confront some of Thoreau’s other ambiguities, such as his approach to his surveying work, which helped destroy portions of the Concord he loved, including marshland drained for farming, forest felled for timber and construction, and other abuses that he deplored but tolerated for the sake of making a living. And in the chapter entitled “River Sojourns” Thorson paraphrases the essence of Thoreau’s river journeys in a few compact and eloquent pages (134-145) that in their sensuous appeal seem the product of a literary rather than a scientific sensibility. Thorson is not unaware or unappreciative of Thoreau’s literary voice; rather he has chosen to emphasize other aspects of his subject’s life’s work.

The last four chapters explore Thoreau’s observations and measurements of the Concord River system in the light of the legal controversy between the farmers of Sudbury and Wayland and the Billerica factory owners and the city of Boston for their roles in modifying the river profile and causing excess summer flooding in arable meadows. Although as a hired expert Thoreau worked for only a few days on this problem, his interest in tracking the vagaries of the rise and fall of the rivers occupied much of the last three years of his life. Certainly, his scientific instincts served him well. His measurements and conclusions withstand comparison with later, more sophisticated methods, and his refusal to accede to simple explanations that would favor the parties with whom he sympathized exemplifies his efforts to live a moral and principled life. Thorson’s book develops this episode far more than previous biographical studies have. This is a major contribution to Thoreau biography. Everyone interested in Thoreau will be grateful for Thorson’s meticulous study.

But why has Thoreau’s biography assumed such importance that critical discussion of his writing has faded into the background? This is not just a recent issue; Thoreau’s life has always fascinated his admirers, and has often diverted attention away from his writing. Thoreau is the most autobiographical of writers, so perhaps for some readers his first-person stance has obfuscated his essential literariness. The resultant critical reliance on biography can distort readings of his work. One critic complains that because Thoreau, when living at Walden, frequently walked home to dine with his family, he had invalidated the moral purpose of his book by violating his pose of self-sufficiency. As though Thoreau were claiming to be an eremite! Not only among the general public but among academic critics Thoreau has often been caricatured rather than studied with due seriousness.

Sometimes this caricature is subtle. Because Thoreau’s prose is compact, often pithy, and highly memorable, he has frequently been dismembered into collections of quotations for the benefit of those who can’t or won’t read his work entire. The resultant picture of Thoreau is that of a sage who spouts enlightening little anecdotes and epigrams, rather than a serious writer who troubled for years over the construction of his most famous book. This process of selective quotation begins in 1881 with passages from the Journal published as Early Spring in Massachusetts, and a few years later as Summer (1884), Winter (1888), and Autumn (1892). Herbert W. Gleason’s Through the Year with Thoreau (1917) draws from the Journal an orderly progression of the seasons. Many more collections, drawing cogent phrases and paragraphs not only from the Journal but from Walden, A Week, and his other books, have appeared over the years.

And now we have three new collections mined mostly from the Journal. We have to ask what purpose they serve beside providing fodder for gift-buyers at the Walden Pond Reservation Visitor Center. One answer is that by delving deeply into the Journal, especially, they have brought forth observations of great value that otherwise are not easily available to the general reader. Another is that by concentrating observations from different periods into a single text we can get a better overall sense of Thoreau’s evolving understanding of particular natural phenomena. The downside, though, is that by removing these observations from their context –whether in the Journal or in more finished work—we lose a great deal.

Thoreau and the Language of Trees offers ten chapters parsing his perception and delineation of trees.  Richard Higgins provides a brief essay-introduction to each chapter, plus seventy-two of his own photographs as well as others by Herbert W. Gleason and a few drawings by Thoreau. The bulk of the book consists of quotations, mostly from the Journal. Although in a brief preface Robert Richardson claims that Higgins writes “with something close to Thoreau’s own intensity” I doubt that many readers will agree. Higgins is a thoughtful and competent writer, but like most of us he lacks the concision, directness, and ingenuity that makes Thoreau’s prose so vivid and unmistakable. That said, Higgins proves to be an intelligent and sensitive guide to Thoreau’s varied approaches (scientific, poetic, mystical, religious, ecological) to his subject. His claim that “by 1860 [Thoreau’s] life revolved around trees” competes with Thorson’s depiction of the committed boatman whose last decade of life centers on the rivers: a good example of how different critics construct different Thoreaus.

Thoreau’s Wildflowers, edited by Geoff Wisner, reprints “Thoreau as Botanist,” an important essay from Ray Angelo’s botanical index to the 1984 reprint of the 1906 edition of the Journal. Angelo is an accomplished botanist with particular expertise in the flora of Concord. Both he and Wisner regard Thoreau as a committed amateur botanist. However, Angelo recognizes “the conflict between Thoreau the Artist and Thoreau the Naturalist” and concedes that “To the end, he considered himself not a naturalist or botanist but a writer, first and foremost,” and quotes Thoreau’s remarkable observation that “Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself ” (Journal, Nov. 20, 1857).

Angelo calls attention to the lacunae in Thoreau’s knowledge, and argues that although his observations are of historical importance he did not contribute much to the science of botany (Angelo considers “The Succession of Forest Trees” an ecological rather than botanical study). Thoreau’s early lapses and errors are interesting. He at one time confused poison ivy and poison sumac, an error no Boy Scout would make. However, after his serious botanical study began in 1850 he made himself into a formidable expert on Massachusetts flora, and extended his studies into the Maine woods and most notably to the upper altitudes of Mr. Washington. His herbarium of more than 900 species, although compromised by his frequent failure to indicate where he found his plants, was one of the largest collections in eastern Massachusetts. Corresponding and meeting with other amateur botanists added to his knowledge. In his last months, he was preparing a series of essays on botanical subjects. These would be published in our own time as Faith in a Seed and Wild Fruits.

The bulk of Thoreau’s Wildflowers consists of 260 pages of passages from the Journal ordered by the day of the year from early March to February, with entries from various years grouped to illustrate how Thoreau tracked the first appearance of various flowers as the seasons progressed. While this is useful to other amateur naturalists, taking these passages out of their context in the Journal makes him seem more coldly scientific than he was. Few passages include any trace of his more romantic, poetic, or transcendental meditations, even though these occur in the Journal right to the end. The few exceptions, such as the passages on goldenrod on page 133 and on aster on page 222, suggest what we’re missing. Still, with Barry Moser’s excellent drawings (reproduced from Flowering Plants of Massachusetts, by Vernon Ahmadjian) and Thoreau’s often vivid descriptions, this book would make a fine supplement to the usual prosaic field guide.

Geoff Wisner has also edited Thoreau’s Animals, which is more anecdotal and even dramatic, and much less objective. Some passages extend for several pages, notably the saga of Father’s Pig. It has run away, and Thoreau feels obliged to catch it. After four or five pages of being outsmarted, and finally hiring an Irishman to help, he does capture and re-pen the understandably reluctant critter (136-141). Some of Thoreau’s most comic and most tender writing concerns animals. Observing active creatures generates livelier writing than noting the appearance of wildflowers (although Thoreau’s prose is always graceful and compact). His rescue of a tiny kitten that has narrowly escaped drowning is unforgettable (85-88). His capture and subsequent release of a flying squirrel is a classic little tale (19-22). More than the wildflower and tree books, Thoreau’s Animals illustrates his complexity and agility as a writer. Not only are the observations more kinetic, but the selections tend to be longer and more representative of their context.

Wisner has ordered this book identically to the wildflower one, beginning in March and ending in February, with passages from different years grouped together day by day. According to Wisner’s preface, for Thoreau “the arrival and departure of animals followed the seasons and gave them meaning.” But although Thoreau notes seasonal events and the first arrival of some birds, he makes no attempt to systematically follow an annual progression with animals as he does with wildflowers. Still, Wisner argues that for Thoreau March is the real beginning of the year, and I can’t propose a better arrangement. My reservation is that a good deal of this book overlaps with the two published collections of Thoreau’s notes on birds. Omitting these passages would cut out many pages, but focusing wholly on mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects would have made this a more distinctive compilation. The illustrations by Debby Cotter Kaspari have a pleasantly spontaneous feel, and I wish there were a few more of them.

Thoreau is an uncommonly rich and self-reflexive writer, so it is not surprising that editors and scholars have unearthed many different versions of him. For Thorson, Thoreau is a fresh-water sailor and scientist; for Kevin Dann in his recent full-length biography he is a mystic; for Richard Primack he is a climate scientist; for the editors of these three collections of quotations he is a tree-hugger, a serious amateur botanist, an animal lover (but not a zoologist), a naturalist of impressionistic but cogent observations. “Every poet has trembled on the verge of science,” Thoreau notes, moving easily between the physical and metaphysical worlds (Journal, July 18, 1852). If I were to write a critical biography of Thoreau, I would present him as a writer—a literary artist—and consider his chimerical façade as the product of a life spent exploring the complexities, ambiguities, ironies, and limitations of language as the imagination intersects with the real. Every Thoreau is authentic and compelling. Each reader will create a new one.

Books Reviewed:

Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science, by Robert Thorson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0674088184. $23.50, paperback.

The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, by Robert Thorson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0674545090. $29.95, hardcover.

Thoreau’s Animals, ed. Geoff Wisner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0-300-22376-7.  $30.00, hardcover.

Thoreau’s Wildflowers, ed. Geoff Wisner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0-300-21477-2. $30.00, hardcover.

Thoreau and the Language of Trees, ed. Richard Higgins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0-520-29494-2. $24.95, hardcover.