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How Henry David Thoreau still surprises, 200 years after his birth

The rich legacy of the American nature writer, tax dodger, moralist, activist . . . and pencil manufacturer.

This month marks the bicentenary of the birth of the American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Despite the century and a half that have passed since his premature death – he was 44 when he succumbed to tuberculosis – Thoreau remains arguably the most important writer in the English language on our relationship with the rest of nature.

His book Walden (1854), widely viewed as his masterpiece, is available today in at least 17 different editions, and such is its enduring status as one of the classics of American literature that the novelist John Updike feared it was at risk of the same literary condition as the Bible: exalted but unread. Despite such misgivings, Thoreau’s continued relevance is indisputable. Almost every word that he ever wrote – much of it unpublished in his lifetime – is still in print in some form or other, including A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), his collected essays and poems and his monumental, two-million-word journal, which runs to 14 volumes.

Thoreau was an important thinker on more than just the natural environment. His other great themes were humanity and the pursuit of a moral life. He was, for instance, a lifelong opponent of slavery and an inveterate source of succour to runaway slaves. In 1845, having withheld his poll tax for years from the US government on the basis that it was morally unfit to enjoy his meagre contributions, Thoreau was arrested and incarcerated.

The time spent in the town jail may have been no more than a single night, but three years later the experience inspired an essay that became one of the foundational texts on the individual’s moral duty towards unjust or illegal government. The title of the piece, Civil Disobedience, has helped to frame campaigns of resistance to oppressive regimes across the world and has impacted on the lives of millions of people.

All of this global significance comes from a man whose central legend is that he lived, worked, walked, thought, wrote and died in the small Massachusetts town of Concord, where he was born. Among the merits of Laura Dassow Walls’s excellent, wonderfully exhaustive biography is its ability to tease out and unpick many of the myths about Thoreau. One of them concerns his supposed relish for poverty. The author who wrote, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” came from a family of French Huguenot descent that enjoyed increasing middle-class prosperity based on the factory production of graphite pencils.

Nor was the hermit of Walden Pond too unworldly to get involved in commerce. On the contrary, Thoreau was a tinkerer who loved to create or improve the design of things, from boats, houses and machinery to orchards and pencil production. It was his refinement of the manufacturing process that sealed the reputation of Thoreau pencils as among the finest in 19th-century America.

The parental household, in which he lived as a lifelong bachelor, appears to have been peaceful and loving, intellectually elevated, artistic, solidly liberal in politics and broad-minded in matters of religion. What helped determine the young Thoreau’s attitude towards Christianity was not parental pressure but the many disputes between Concord’s various Trinitarian and Unitarian factions. His creed evolved out of lofty indifference to such squabbles and a growing conviction that life’s only true text was nature, while the proper place for worship was the woods and fields.

In later life Thoreau’s vehicle for such ideas was the many lectures, essays and books that he produced over two decades, in which he perfected a prose admired for its mixture of pithy, aphoristic clarity and dazzling self-confidence. So it is striking to observe that the young author was noted not for any egotism but for his acute reserve. The youth of Concord used to throw snowballs at the po-faced young Henry, mocking his big nose and insulting him as “the old maid” or “the Judge”.

Thoreau’s years as a young adult were also marked by a struggle to escape the heavy shadows cast by the two older male figures to whom he was closest. These included his elder brother, John, who was as popular, outgoing and athletic as Henry was withdrawn and awkward. Yet there was never a hint of jealousy on Thoreau’s part towards his charismatic sibling.

This was partly a result of Thoreau’s dawning self-confidence, which he acquired through his Harvard education and was something that the family did not extend to their less-gifted elder son. The other more tragic reason was John’s death from tetanus in 1842, when he was just 26 years old. Henry was capsized by the event and eventually made his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a kind of memorial to his brother. Yet John’s early death had the unforeseen consequence of freeing Thoreau to cut his own increasingly individual path.

The other pivotal figure in his life was his Concord neighbour, the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was already famous when they first met. Their relationship continued until Thoreau’s death, by which time his material and intellectual debts to the older man were massive. He often lived with and worked for Emerson, sharing household life as if he were a family member. Thoreau was also inducted into the wider society of Emerson’s transcendentalist coterie, which included the mystic and teacher Amos Bronson Alcott, the poet William Ellery Channing, the journalist and proto-feminist Margaret Fuller and the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. These connections expanded Thoreau’s horizons and helped bring his work to the attention of authors or editors, while hugely assisting his earliest efforts to be published.

The link between the two men may have survived, but it was often intensely troubled. Perhaps the force field created by Emerson’s reputation carried too high a voltage for the younger, unknown writer to flourish comfortably within its orbit. Critics such as James Russell Lowell sneered that Thoreau’s ideas were merely fruits stolen from his neighbour’s orchard. One of the small complaints I have of Walls’s biography is that she is too reluctant to step out from the daily facts to intrude her own opinions on these broader themes.

Walls is a distinguished academic specialising in Thoreau and the wider intellectual world of 19th-century New England. But her biography, the first major study in a generation, prefers to illuminate rather than to diagnose the character of its subject. All Walls will reveal about his relationship with Emerson is what Thoreau tells us. He repeatedly produced obituary notices of the friendship, while the other man noted: “As for taking Thoreau’s arm I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree.” For all their name-calling, however, their vital friendship strangely endured.

One of the benefits of Walls’s biographical method is that, in accumulating the minutiae of his daily life, she enables the reader to appreciate some of the contradictions in Thoreau’s character. One such example arises from his late career as a land surveyor, to which he brought the gifts of technical problem-solving and meticulous observation. Thoreau was much in demand about Concord and while it gave him an honest crust as he tried to write, his surveying work directly assisted the industrial conversion of a landscape he cherished. Many of the woods he surveyed were clear-felled and destroyed. He may have asked his readers to “get your living by loving” but Thoreau also helped to kill the things he loved.

Even more compelling is the opportunity she provides to examine Thoreau’s reputation as the consummate woodsman who, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “could lift a fish out of the stream with his hands [and] charm a wild squirrel to nestle in his coat”. In Maine, however, where Thoreau made several arduous expeditions into the furthest reaches of the Penobscot watershed, he hired as a guide a Native American called Joe Polis. This tribal elder, who was also a political champion of his people and well versed in the equally treacherous swamps of the white man’s politics, was frequently astonished by the childlike lack of survival skills exhibited by his Yankee clients. Not that the author bragged. “He begins where we leave off,” was Thoreau’s verdict on the relative merits of the white and red man, when it came to living off the land.

What this new book allows us to appreciate is Thoreau’s essential human qualities. He may well have been a lesser person than his legend. He may have been found wanting when measured by the moral strictures issued in his blistering – and, let’s be fair, humorous – writings.

Yet in his study of nature Thoreau demonstrated the same omnivorous appetite and intellectual qualities as his contemporaries Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Charles Darwin (1809-82). He was a poet, philosopher and writer every bit the equal of Emerson. His masterpiece is a prototype for an entire literary genre, a text that mediates between the author’s self and the more than human parts of nature. As Walls writes, “Walden blossoms as a holograph of the planet and of one human life, lived as a prism refracting the sunlight on to the page.”

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

Henry David Thoreau: a Life
Laura Dassow Walls
University of Chicago Press, 615pp, £26.50

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon