A Little Man With a Big Nose

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I have just finished reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life. As I have mentioned before, I don’t usually like biographies, because if you admire the person who is the subject of them, you are devastated when he or she dies in the last chapter. Sitting in my little library, I was devastated when the American I most loved and admired succumbed to consumption at the age of forty-four.

Everyone knows a little about Thoreau, most of it wrong. When I first read the book, I was told by friends that when he moved to his cabin by the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau “cheated.” What kind of a hermit was he when he spent a lot of time in Concord with his friends. The answer is: He was no kind of a hermit. The first chapter of Walden, or Life in the Woods is entitled “Economy,” not some eremitical mumbo-jumbo.

Long after he returned to his house in Concord, Thoreau lived an active life giving speeches, writing thousands of pages of notes on nature, fulminating against slavery (his house was a station on the Underground Railroad), and supporting John Brown and his followers even after Brown was executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He had read and understood Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, even while thousands of Americans condemned it as heretical.

I love the above photograph of Thoreau, which also is on the dust jacket of Laura Walls’s biography. Look at those piercing blue eyes. The scraggly beard was to warm his neck to protect him from the ravages of consumption.

This biography is nothing less than spectacular. I was saddened to come to the end of it.

Why do I admire Thoreau so much? I can only say that he was one of the most observant people who ever lived, easily on a par with John Muir and Charles Darwin. It was Thoreau’s notion of land set aside from human occupation as “commons” which led, via Muir, to the creation of the National Park System. Also, I regard Walden as a great book in a century that included such luminaries as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

Now I’m going to have to read some more Thoreau. Lucky me!

Captain of a Huckleberry Party

Author Laura Dassow Walls and Her Biography of Henry David Thoreau

Today I did not even set foot outside my apartment. It was a nice day, even a bit on the cool side, but I was entranced reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life.

Ever since I first read Walden, I have been entranced by Thoreau. I even liked A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which was not exactly received with open arms when it was published. Wikipedia describes him as a Naturalist and indicates his chief interests as being (in no particular order) ethics, poetry, religion, politics, biology, philosophy, and history.

In addition, he was a pencil manufacturer (the family business), handyman, surveyor, builder, and agronomist. His published works represent but a small part of his interests. Perhaps his major work consisted of his notebooks, which were voluminous. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson promoted him and his work, but lost interest as the friendship wore off and referred to Thoreau as the ideal captain of a huckleberry party.

I am not always fond of reading biographies: As soon as I become interested in the subject, he or she dies at the end of the book. Still, I always wanted to know more about Thoreau, so I’ll have to put up with some grief when I get to that last chapter.

I’ll leave you with this great quote from Walden:

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.

Half of a Great Book

Danzig, Birthplace of Gûnter Grass

He was born in a fairy tale Polish city in 1927 of German and Kashubian parents. As the Second World War got under way in September 1939, Gûnter Grass found himelf in the Waffen SS and fighting on the Russian front just as the Wehrmacht was beginning its final descent into the maelstrom. In 2006, Grass, famous for his novel The Tin Drum, wrote an autobiography covering the 1940s and 1950s called Peeling the Onion: A Memoir.

The first half of the book is brilliant. As a young German soldier trying to keep the Red Hordes out of Berlin, Grass was essentially told where to be and what to do. German soldiers who wandered the battlefield without written orders found themselves hanged in droves from tree branches, many of which the young Grass passed as he wandered separated from his unit. People around him kept dying, but he somehow got back to Germany with minor wounds and spent time in military hospitals before being released into the chaos the followed the war.

His mother and younger sister had been raped by Russian troops, but refused to ever talk about the experience. The young Grass knew he wanted to be an artist of some sort, but took several years before his thinking began to jell.

The First Volume of Grass’s Autobiography

Peeling the Onion loses its focus during the years that Grass tries to find out what he is to do with his life. It takes a while for him to find that his parents and sister are still alive, and he joins up with them.

I strongly recommend the first half of this book. The second half? Not so much. Uncertainty is not quite so winning a literary trait. There are some excellent moments, but for the most part, I could have done without them.

 

Serendipity: In Praise of the Short Biography

F. L. Lucas (1894-1967)

F. L. Lucas (1894-1967)

I had forgotten classical scholar F. L. Lucas entirely. In high school, I had read his most famous book, Style (1955), and loved it. Today, I was searching the stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library and ran into his The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth Century Characters—Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell, Goldsmith (1958). It was there I read the following:

On all these men there already exist many books—many of them big. One feels embarrassed at adding to the number. Nothing can be a substitute for Boswell’s Johnson; or for those works on an American scale of magnificence, the Boswell Papers and the fifty volume edition of Walpole’s letters. But, given the brevity and busyness of life, many have not time time to read these large works, or a series of full-scale biographies; still less, to re-read them. There is a need for both long and short biographies, as for large-scale and small-scale maps. And it is not only a question of time. One reads such things not only for the amusement of reading, but also to remember. For this, I feel, biographies tend to grow too long. Just because one is told far more than one really needs, one remembers far less. The impression is blurred by multitudinousness; just as one could not, says Aristotle (with a flash of imagination rare in his austere pages) grasp as a unity a creature ten thousand furlongs in length.

I love to rediscover authors whose existence I had forgotten. Unfortunately, it seems that Lucas has also been forgotten by others as well. I had a hell of a time finding a decent photograph of him on the Internet.

Well, I for one plan to search out more of his books, and the L.A. Central Library is the perfect place for it.  I love his writing style. After all, he influenced mine when I was a teenager in Cleveland. I can only hope that I’ve lived up to his teachings.