The Thoreau You Don’t Know

Four miles or so from Walden Pond, traveling west, one comes up against the blankly assertive walls of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord — the state’s oldest working prison for men, rich in history if not in aspect. Malcolm X was an alumnus, back when it was the Concord Reformatory. Dr Timothy Leary, as a Harvard psychiatrist, ran his Concord Prison Experiment there in the early 1960s, dosing cons with psilocybin before administering the Thematic Apperception Test and the Minnesota MultiPhasic Personality Inventory. From 2002 to 2003 it housed John Geoghan, the pedophile Catholic priest whose case undid the prelateship of Cardinal Bernard Law. Nothing but an accident of geography connects the place to Henry David Thoreau, sage of the woods. And yet the circumstance that Walden was composed in the neighborhood, as it were — just a couple of minutes’ drive down Route 2 — resonates powerfully.

Robert Sullivan doesn’t make it quite as far as MCI-Concord. He does get to Walden Pond, though, arriving there in the last chapter of The Thoreau You Don’t Know: Like a good Thoreauvian he ends his journey where it begins and writes his book backward, receiving the salute of the starter’s pistol just as he breasts the finishing line. He walks to the pond from downtown Concord, an improbable hike these days, navigating interzones of American sprawl, his dash across Route 2 making him feel “like a wild animal, like some woodchuck that was about to get flattened.” Getting there at last and staring about him at the famous woods, Sullivan finds himself lapsing into that state of burdened half trance, that stupor of significance, so well known to us 21st-century types. “It was certainly meaningful,” he writes, “in a way that has to do with it being a place where a lot of people have showed up over the years thinking it was meaningful. You might say Walden is littered with meaning.”

Clearing away some of this meaning-debris, taking the trash tongs to it, is Sullivan’s brief in The Thoreau You Don’t Know. He proceeds by biography, by history, by reflection, by cheerfully unscholarly scholarship. (“Contrary to almost everything you will read about Thoreau, he did not hate New York City.”) Author of the bestselling Rats, which he researched by sitting for a year next to a Manhattan dumpster with a pair of night vision goggles on, he comes to rescue a fellow freelancer from his own reputation. The Thoreau of graduation day pieties must be swept aside. The line about the different drummer, and the line about going confidently in the direction of your dreams — forget them. Blot them from your mind. Sullivan’s Thoreau is not above the world but of it, in it, a wild and witty all-rounder, a powerhouse ironist who has been misread both by his detractors — those who, like Bill Bryson, find him “inestimably priggish and tiresome” — and (perhaps more perniciously) by the mass of his admirers.

Sullivan writes lightly and comfortably, but his idea is abstract and severe and rather beautiful. The sterile mystique that exists around Thoreau, he argues, precisely expresses our current state of divorce from the natural world. Venerating a Thoreau that is “separate from us,” we absent and absolve ourselves from our own environment — from the “nature” that doesn’t brood in solitude but is exactly where we are. “We see the nature of Walden Pond as separate from the nature of the railroad tracks…as separate from nature in our driveways, where our car has a leak and the oil seeps out and down the street to who knows where…. We don’t see our actions, the how we live, as relating to Thoreau’s nature, which is in town, right where we live.”

So back into Thoreau’s nature we go — his human nature, this time. Sullivan gives us the funny Thoreau, the trickster whose lectures — as Emerson recorded in his journal — had audiences “laughing until they cried.” He gives us the practical local man: the woodsman, the expert surveyor. This Thoreau inherited the family business — pencils — and by synthesizing a new kind of pencil lead created a smear-free writing implement that was considered to be the best in the country. (Let’s not allow the poetry of this to pass us by: it’s like Don DeLillo having a hand in the invention of Microsoft Word.) Transcendentalist, a label none of them liked anyway, is of course too airy a tag for this Thoreau. He’s an Immersionist, a Declivitator, a diver-into-things. A plumber, you might say — he built Emerson’s drain. Sullivan gives us Thoreau in 3-D: a more human humanist and a freer freethinker.

Is he also, as Sullivan claims, “America’s proto-James Joyce”? That might be pushing it. Certainly Thoreau had a fondness, a weakness in some cases, for puns. And certainly there’s a kind of generative linguistic power inside Walden. But Joycean? Still, I like Sullivan for erring on the side of expansion, for having had his mind blown by Walden. Because (if I may extrapolate from his argument a little) we are all of us, in America, in a continuing state of having our minds blown by Walden — by its moments of heretical truth, when Thoreau wields his trusty “Realometer” and the clouds of BS are parted; by its moments of intellectual reverie, when his prose creaks with the 17th-century music of Sir Thomas Browne; by its moments of theta-state intensity, when he is “notified of the passage of a traveler along the highway sixty rods off by the scent of his pipe” or sits like Thomas Merton in his cabin, listening to the rain, “suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me…”; by its endlessly expanding moments.