Damion Searls: A Thoreau Journal for Writers & Moderns

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Damion Searls (48 min, 23 mb mp3)

Damion Searls has found and freed the lean, shapely and modern American classic inside the very definition of a “baggy monster.” Henry David Thoreau’s 25-year Journal ran to more than 7000 manuscript pages and 2-million words, roughly double the heft of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Searls’ flash insight was that Thoreau had not been keeping a diary or a notebook of gems for reuse. No, the Journal (singular) was a single project of observation, introspection and above all, composition. Writing faithfully, often 15 pages a day, the Journal was Thoreau’s steadiest employment. As his Week on the Concord and the Merrimack with his brother John was the chronicle of 7 days and Walden was supposed to be the account of a year, the Journal was the undertaking and may indeed be the masterpiece of a lifetime.

In conversation, Searls ventures that one way to see Thoreau right is to acknowledge Marcel Proust and Rainer Maria Rilke as his artistic successors — and to see Thoreau’s Cabin at Walden Pond (circa 1847) in Concord, Massachusetts and Proust’s cork-lined studio in Paris (circa 1910) as a matched pair of iconic writing rooms:

Proust himself was a disciple of Emerson’s; his first book is dotted with Emerson epigraphs all over the place. And it’s kind of staggering to think about, but at one time he had planned to translate Walden into French. Wouldn’t that have been something? When he read excerpts of Walden in another translation, he praised them in a letter to his friend by saying, “It is as though one were reading them inside oneself, so much do they rise from the depths of our intimate experience.” And that’s such a great Proustian bit of praise. That’s what Proust is always looking for. I think of Proust’s cork-lined room and Thoreau’s cabin in Walden as the two iconic places where a writer burrowed into himself in solitude and got to a place that spoke incredibly intimately to his readers. That’s the kind of Emerson project of becoming self-reliant, and that’s when you become universal. And Thoreau and Proust—which is a strange combination, but I think it’s really right, I mean Remembrance of Things Past is one of the only books almost as long as Thoreau’s journal—but they’re the ones who really did it.

And then Rilke is such an aesthete, but it’s kind of remarkable how many of these Thoreau journals end up sounding like Rilke poems in prose, or vice versa. So I think that in terms of the generational stuff it took a while. Thoreau was seen as this kind of crusty Yankee, and then he was seen as this civil disobedience hero and this environmental prophet, all of which are true. There’s a book called Senses of Walden by the great philosopher Stanley Cavell in the early 70s that started to really read Thoreau’s writing as this very dense literary, connective, pun-filled, textured thing of greatness that it is. And so I think it’s only been recently in the 70s and 80s and 90s that people have paid as much attention to Thoreau’s prose as I think it deserves.

Damion Searls with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 21, 2010.

This Journal is Thoreau entire: the Concord chauvinist who was also a cranky neighbor. At 5′ 7″ and 127 pounds, Thoreau was a compact featherweight, firm of build, grave of aspect with icy blue “terrible” eyes, Emerson said, that bristled with integrity and something like rebellion. A Tea Party edge, in today’s politics. Thoreau had “this maggot of Freedom and Humanity in his brain,” Emerson decided. He was “rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition.” Thoreau repaid a debt to Emerson (14 years his elder) in the Journal‘s first words: “‘What are you doing now?’ he asked, ‘Do you keep a journal?’ — So I make my first entry to-day.”  Later the tensions with Emerson are etched in Thoreau’s mild acid: “Emerson is too grand for me,” says the “commoner” before “nobility.” Their mutual friend Bronson Alcott had come to hang out with Thoreau a day after visiting with Emerson. Thoreau noted: “… he had got his wine, and now he had come after his venison. Such was the compliment he paid me.”

We are talking about Thoreau’s incomparable eye on lichen, on the wild-blossoming “blue-eyed grass,” and the color of everything — the man who became the fish and frogs that he, still and cool, kept watching: “I fancy I am amphibious and swim in all the brooks and pools in the neighborhood, with the perch and the bream…” Also the Abolitionist, who breaks out in the Journal as a radical Christian in the slavery fight with a “government that pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day!” Thoreau, friend and backer of the incendiary John Brown, can make Rand Paul and the Tea Baggers of our day sound wimpy: “I do not vote at the polls,” Thoreau writes in the Journal. “I wish to record my vote here.” Of the Fugitive Slave Act, which brought the bloodhounds to Boston, Thoreau bellows in the Journal: “Why the United States Government never performed an act of justice in its life!”

And still Damion Searls‘ fascination in editing and abridging the Journal is Thoreau the Writer — the high-flying poet whose imagination saw that “The bluebird carries the sky on his back;” the man who, anticipating David Shields, wanted to keep breaking form in imitation of nature: “In Literature, it is only the wild that attracts us… It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the Schools, that delights us.” We are speaking of Thoreau’s case for calluses on writers: “I find incessant labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, the best method to remove palaver out of one’s style.” And of a professional with a code: “The best you can write will be the best you are.”

Damion Searls is an exemplar of what Thoreau called “the rising generation.” He may be the busiest thirty-something in the writing game with four projects coming to flower this year: Thoreau’s Journal; a translation and selection of Rilke: The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams; a book called On Reading by Proust; and his own story collection of contemporary fictions, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, in shapes borrowed from masters like Nabokov and Hawthorne. In conversation Searls suggests we think of Thoreau, Rilke and Proust as a trio. Add young Searls, and it’s a quartet.

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  • nother

    A letter to Emerson from his wife (She added these words at the end of a letter Thoreau wrote to RWE on Feb 20 1843)


    “Last evening we had the “Conversation,” though, owing to the bad weather, but few attended. The subjects were: What is Prophecy? Who is a Prophet? and The Love of Nature. Mr. Lane decided, as for all time and the race, that this same love of nature — of which Henry [Thoreau] was the champion, and Elizabeth Hoar and Lidian (though L. disclaimed possessing it herself) his faithful squiresses — that this love was the most subtle and dangerous of sins; a refined idolatry, much more to be dreaded than gross wickednesses, because the gross sinner would be alarmed by the depth of his degradation, and come up from it in terror, but the unhappy idolaters of Nature were deceived by the refined quality of their sin, and would be the last to enter the kingdom. Henry frankly affirmed to both the wise men that they were wholly deficient in the faculty in question, and therefore could not judge of it. And Mr. Alcott as frankly answered that it was because they went beyond the mere material objects, and were filled with spiritual love and perception (as Mr. T. was not), that they seemed to Mr. Thoreau not to appreciate outward nature. I am very heavy, and have spoiled a most excellent story. I have given you no idea of the scene, which was ineffably comic, though it made no laugh at the time; I scarcely laughed at it myself, — too deeply amused to give the usual sign. Henry was brave and noble; well as I have always liked him, he still grows upon me. Elizabeth sends her love, and says she shall not go to Boston till your return, and you must make the 8th of March come quickly.”

  • What a beautiful and intelligent conversation. I’m particularly moved by the last few minutes and the contrast between the young Thoreau and the mature Thoreau who now see the play between attention, effort, and unconscious ripening that falls from our actions beyond attention. Thinking about having to be the kind of person who can write the sentences reminds me of the Greeks, and the whole exploration of virtue. Thanks so much for this hour.

  • nother

    This is what Helen Keller wrote about Thoreau:

    “When I read Thoreau, I am not conscious of him or the book or the words which flow under my finger-tips, I am There. Through him Nature speaks without an interpreter. He puts his ear to her breast and hears her heart beat; and she speaks to me in her own voice. I am a part of the river, the lake, the field, the woods–I am a spirit wild and free. I see everything myself, no one interprets for me. I have the illusion of being free of my deprivations–I live my life in my own way.”

  • A different kind of thanks: My grandmother sometimes tells me about her grandfather. I only have the vaguest notions of who this man was, but it is clear that he was a man that uncommon ability to see great beauty in places other people might not even recognize as worth of their attention. An interview like this, with appreciation for this remarkable perception, and truly beautiful passages from Thoreau, is something very nice to get to share with her.

  • Potter

    I just found this and what a wonderful conversation, a break from what comes across the transom these days! This was recorded in the Spring- and here we are it’s summer already. I was busy.

    I connect to Thoreau in a deeper than to Emerson who is more cerebral- though I would not want to have to choose ( and I don’t have to).

    Chris, I love that you call them “teabaggers” which I understand they take as an insult preferring to be called “tea partier s” .

    Wonderful quotes- especially from March 11 1859- which I relate to- about what we have learned – really learned is from long practice and it falls from us like a leaf from a tree.

    And I love the expression which I may be transposing here- that to write the kind of sentence you want to read, you have to first be the kind of person that writes that sentence– which for me translates to the feeling that one cannot really read Thoreau without recognizing oneself, one’s own experiences, thoughts and feelings. Then there is the elation of being connected through those experiences to the writer- in this case Thoreau, from another time, another place and space.


  • Thank You Damion Searls,

    You have brought Thoreau back to life- however brief it may be.