Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness

Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness

by Alan D. Hodder

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Finding that enormous as it is, the critical literature about American writer and political theorist Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) neglects much mention of the spiritual dimension of his thinking, Hodder (comparative religion, Hampshire College) sets out a descriptive, phenomenological account of it, as opposed to a standard biography or a normative theological… See more details below


Finding that enormous as it is, the critical literature about American writer and political theorist Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) neglects much mention of the spiritual dimension of his thinking, Hodder (comparative religion, Hampshire College) sets out a descriptive, phenomenological account of it, as opposed to a standard biography or a normative theological treatise. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Editorial Reviews

Robert D. Richardson
Hodder�s brilliant and persuasive study of the religious side of Henry Thoreau will change the way people think about Thoreau. This is a first-rate book, sure to have a lot of impact and to be cited for years to come.

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Yale University Press
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Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness

By Alan D. Hodder


Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08959-7

Chapter One

My Life Was Ecstasy

On the night of June 12, 1851, Henry Thoreau modified his usual routine and went for a long walk to Walden Pond under the light of the advancing full moon. The next day he recorded in his journal a long account of his moonlight adventure, beginning with the following evocative entry:

Walked to Walden last night (moon not quite full) by rail-road & upland wood path, returning by Wayland Road. Last full moon the elms had not leaved out, cast no heavy shadows & their outlines were less striking & rich in the streets at night. (I noticed a night before night before last from Fair Haven how valuable was some water by moonlight like the river & Fair Haven pond though far away-reflecting the light with a faint glimmering sheen, as in the spring of the year The water shines with an inward light like a heaven on earth. The silent depth & serenity & majesty of water-strange that men should distinguish gold & diamonds-when these precious elements are so common. I saw a distant river by moon light making no noise, yet flowing as by day-still to the sea, like melted silver reflecting the moon light-far away it lay encircling the earth How far away it may look in the night and even from a low hill how miles away down in the valley! As far off as Paradise and the delectable country! There is a certain glory attends on water by night. By it the heavens are related to the earth-Undistinguishable from a sky beneath you-(PJ.3.259-60)

For the next several nights, and periodically throughout the rest of that summer, Thoreau continued his moonlight excursions, setting off about dusk and returning sometimes not till daybreak. As this passage suggests, these nocturnal journeys were less motivated by the scientific interests that sometimes prompted his usual afternoon walks. In the moonlight, familiar landscapes surrounding his home assumed a mythical or dreamlike character. Time and space seemed transformed. "The light of the moon in what age of the world does that fall upon the earth?" he wondered. Countryside showered in moonlight was a world apart from that which he encountered in the glare of noonday sun. As he reflected more on his moonlight walks later that summer, it seemed to him that sun and moon represented two different states of consciousness, two different orders of reality even. At such times, he saw no "crowning advantage" in the sun's light; it did not "enlighten" the way "the silent spiritual-contemplative moonlight" did (PJ.3.272, 286). Sunlight caused his thought to "wander," whereas in moonlight he became "more collected & composed & sensible of [his] own existence" (PJ.3.354). But on June 13, the chief lesson of his prolonged exposure to moonlight the night before was to remind him of the narrow limits within which our lives are normally confined: "We do not commonly live our life out & full-we do not fill all our pores with our blood-we do not inspire & expire fully & entirely enough so that the wave the comber of each inspiration shall break upon our extremest shores-rolling till it meets the sand which bounds us-& the sound of the surf come back to us.... We do not live but a quarter part of our life-why do we not let on the flood-raise the gates-& set all our wheels in motion" (PJ.3.261).

In general, the summer of 1851 was a kind of watershed in Thoreau's life. He had weathered the formative years of the 1840s, including the as yet undistinguished two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, and he was entering a more settled phase of his adult life. That July he turned thirty-four and already he was feeling his age. The following fall and winter, he complained intermittently of the corrosive effects of age, a certain coarseness and laxness of discipline, a loss of elasticity, both of mind and body (PJ.4.46-47, 265-66, 383-84). His health that summer was robust, but it had not always been so, and it must have come as a rude shock earlier that spring to be fitted with false teeth, his humorous expressions of stoic nonchalance notwithstanding (PJ.3.218). During the previous decade, Thoreau's family, tightly knit as always, had been rocked first by the agonizing death of Henry's older brother, John, in 1842, and then the wasting decline of his eldest sister, Helen, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1849. Henry himself had experienced periodic bouts of bronchitis since at least his college days; early signs, presumably, of the same disease that killed his sister and would eventually overtake him too, eleven years later in 1862. Perhaps it would have surprised him little to know that by 1851 he was already well into the autumn of his life.

From the standpoint of midcareer, Thoreau must have looked back on the years since his 1837 graduation from Harvard College with a mixture of pride and frustration. Much had been accomplished, to be sure, but by most external measures, his life so far had consisted mostly of a series of experiments and false starts, with no decided success anywhere. The 1840s had been a decade of sound and fury that to some of his neighbors-and perhaps to Thoreau himself-came to signify disappointingly little. After his graduation from Harvard, he tried school-teaching for a few years, but positions were hard to find after the financial panic of 1837, and in the end he found himself poorly suited to the work anyway. What he most wanted was to make his way as a writer. But to survive he was obliged to participate in the family pencil-making business and take odd jobs around town.

It was during his last year or so at Harvard that Thoreau became acquainted with his famous neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, already widely recognized as the leader of a new movement of Unitarian reformers who came to be referred to, at first pejoratively, as "Transcendentalists." Emerson quickly recognized Thoreau's originality and brilliance, and encouraged him in his literary ambitions. Their subsequent friendship came to be the most formative, if stormy, of Thoreau's adult life. In 1841 Thoreau accepted Emerson's invitation to move in with the Emerson family in the capacity of a kind of resident handyman. As was no doubt intended, this situation proved as helpful to Thoreau's professional aspirations as it did to the management of the Emerson household, since before long the two men were actively collaborating in their work on the new Transcendentalist literary magazine the Dial. During the years from 1840 to 1844, Thoreau's poems, essays, and translations frequently found their way into the pages of the Dial, notwithstanding the sometimes discouraging criticism from the magazine's first editor, Margaret Fuller. During these years, Thoreau poured most of his attention into his poetry, but despite some early successes, his poems met with a tepid reception. His talent, he soon realized, was better realized in prose.

From the perspective of American literary history, the next seven years were a time of tremendous achievement, but the significance of that achievement was not at all obvious in 1851, to Thoreau or to anyone else. In the early 1840s he had managed to break away from his exclusive dependence on the Dial as a literary outlet, and his travel essays and reviews began appearing more widely, in such monthlies as the Boston Miscellany, the Democratic Review, and Graham's Magazine. But Thoreau was looking for something he could sink his teeth into, and in the summer of 1845, he moved to the cabin he had built for himself that spring on the shores of Walden Pond, in large part so that he could devote himself without interruption to the book-length narrative he envisioned of the trip he and his brother, John, had taken on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1839. He must have been pleased with the results of his work, since by the time he left Walden in 1847 he had not only completed the bulk of the manuscript for what would become his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, but he had also made significant headway on a projected narrative of his two-year stay at Walden. By decade's end, his now celebrated essay "Civil Disobedience" and the narrative of his 1846 trip to Maine's Mount Katahdin had also been published.

By May of 1849 then, Thoreau had reason to hope that he stood on the threshold of real literary success. Although publication of A Week had met with delays and difficulties, he liked his first book-he was pleased, as he noted later, with its unroofed, "hypaethral" character-and seemed to have high hopes for it (PJ.3.279). Emerson also, after hearing parts of it read aloud, thought it "a book of wonderful merit," as "spicy as flagroot, broad & deep as Menu" (Letters.3.338). Finally, on May 30, 1849, ten years after the river voyage itself, A Week was published in Boston, with little fanfare, by the firm of James Monroe. But despite the great sense of expectation in Concord, the book turned out to be a commercial disappointment. A few critics praised Thoreau's fresh depictions of nature, but overall the book did not do well. After such a buildup, the author must have found this reception discouraging. Privately, even Emerson began to question his buoyant former assessments of Thoreau's prospects, complaining in his journal that he "wants a little ambition in his mixture.... instead of being the head of American Engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party" (JMN.11.400).

In professional terms then, the previous decade had been a frustrating period of unfulfilled potential. But the disenchantment of these years extended to more personal areas as well. By the late 1840s, Thoreau's friendship with Emerson was beginning to unravel. Throughout his journals of these months, Thoreau worried repeatedly over perceived slights received at the hands of this usually unnamed "friend." His conflicted feelings about Emerson in turn helped to fuel his repeated digressions on friendship in the journals of this period. Notwithstanding the brazen declarations of self-sufficiency in Walden, the journals portray a man who agonized deeply about the problems and possibilities of true friendship. By the end of the decade, the relationship that had seemed so full of mutual promise in the early 1840s had grown somewhat prickly, and by the early days of 1850, Thoreau was wondering whether it could be salvaged at all (PJ.3.48, 193). Thoreau's love and admiration for Emerson were too deep ever to be repudiated completely, but by 1851, he had moved out of his illustrious friend's orbit in his determination to chart his own spiritual and literary trajectory (PJ.4.137).

The disappointments of the 1840s no doubt exacted some high costs for Thoreau, but they did result in one important dividend in the form of a powerful new sense of personal autonomy and self-determination. After his famous one-night incarceration in the Concord jail in 1846 over his refusal to pay the state's poll tax, the till-then characteristically apolitical Thoreau became increasingly embroiled in issues of social conscience, particularly concerning slavery. Concord was an important way station on the Underground Railroad, and for several years Thoreau served as one of the town's leading agents, harboring runaway slaves himself, ministering to their needs, and facilitating their eventual escape to Canada. The Fugitive Slave Act, enacted in the Compromise of 1850, provoked him to high dudgeon, as it did other Northerners. In his journal entry of April 19, 1851, Thoreau lashed out at the Massachusetts authorities for their collusion the previous week in the forced return of the runaway slave Thomas Sims. Invoking the authority of Jesus-"Do you think he would have stayed here in liberty and let the black man go into slavery in his stead?"-Thoreau railed at the hypocrisy of this nominally Christian country for its countenancing of the slave trade (PJ.3.203-07). He had seized the moral high ground on the slavery issue and refused henceforth to budge.

But the summer of 1851 was a time of new beginnings. Having acquired a surveyor's compass the previous spring, Thoreau began to find more work surveying. By the beginning of 1851 the demand for his services had begun to accelerate. He found these jobs more congenial than working in his father's pencil factory and certainly better for his lungs. As business picked up, he could spend more of his time outside and earn a decent income in the bargain. This work proved enabling in another respect also, for it allowed him more time to pursue his growing interest in Concord's natural history. Encouraged especially by their mother, the Thoreau siblings had grown up with a special interest in the natural world, but in recent months, Henry's interests in local flora and fauna had become much more methodical and precise. Long tracts of his journals were increasingly given over to detailed observations of local plant life, birds, animals, and other natural forms and phenomena. He began to keep lists of his observations and record facts gleaned from his readings in natural history. Already he was acquiring a reputation in Concord as an authority on the town's natural history.

The best index of the changes in Thoreau's life in the early 1850s was the journal he had begun keeping in the fall of 1837, shortly after his graduation from Harvard. Throughout most of the 1840s, Thoreau used his journal primarily as a resource for his various publishing projects. By May of 1850, however, the journal entries became conspicuously more detailed and lengthy. By the following November, Thoreau was writing in the journal almost daily, and by the beginning of the next year, his entries typically extended to many pages of his notebooks, a compositional pattern that remained unchanged for the next ten years of his life. No longer did he conceive his journals primarily as a staging area for the production of other literary works. In fact, it is clear that the journal had become important in its own right and served increasingly as the principal focus of Thoreau's literary endeavors. From this point on, his usual routine was to spend his mornings in his garret reading and writing in his journal, and his afternoons walking for several hours in the woods and fields in Concord and the surrounding towns. Field notes scribbled into a small notepad were later amplified at some length in his journals at home.

However disappointed Thoreau may have been with his personal and literary fortunes up till this point in his life, the journals of the spring and summer of 1851 give no indication of it. There is no sense of resignation in these pages and certainly nothing of defeat.


Excerpted from Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness by Alan D. Hodder Copyright © 2001 by Yale University . Excerpted by permission.
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