Thoreau’s Fire: the Spark of "Walden"

Baskin’s Thoreau: nickel first-class (1967)

Is it too late to celebrate Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) with an honest, unblushing American face? Have we laid too much pavement, built too many Cheesecake Factories in too many malls, imprisoned and executed too many harmless rejects and overextended our military rule too far ever to put Thoreau on our postage again?

That’s the major reservation in this otherwise festive gab about the making of one of the universally cherished American writing minds, Henry David Thoreau – to this day an exemplar of simplicity, conscience, naturalism, non-conformity, the power of solitude and great prose.

John Pipkin’s argument in the form of a novel, Woodsburner, is that what fired young Thoreau to bust out of his father’s pencil factory, to hole up in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts and eventually to write the secular scripture known as Walden, was strangely enough, a real raging wildfire that Thoreau himself carelessly started – a fire that burned 300 acres and could have destroyed his town.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with John Pipkin about young Henry David Thoreau. (31 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

John Pipkin: never too late

John Pipkin’s take is that the fire in fact rescued the 26-year-old Thoreau from what was beginning to look like a life of failure. With his doomed brother John, Henry had paddled through their famous week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, but he hadn’t yet composed any of its signature wisdom. As for instance: ” …steady labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one’s style, both of speaking and writing.”

It was the shock and embarrassment of the fire he started — the “woodsburner!” whispers in Concord — that got Thoreau in gear as a writer, Pipkin supposes. The Pipkin premise makes Thoreau (who admitted being thrilled by the blaze) more socially sensitive than the “hermit and stoic” that Emerson recalled in his brilliant memorial essay. “It cost him nothing to say No,” Emerson wrote. “Indeed, he found it much easier than to say Yes… Hence, no equal companion stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless. ‘I love Henry,’ said one of his friends, ‘but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.'”

Whatever effect the fire had on Thoreau, it may have been part of what prompted Emerson to buy the land at Walden Pond where he then invited his friend to build his writing camp. Even then they were both vexed by the intrusion of the railroad through Concord and the pace of “development” in their woods. So the fire makes a plausible moment to reimagine the hatching of American doctrine.

John Pipkin (born in Baltimore, now a Texan) was a student at the University of North Carolina of Philip Gura, keeper of the Transcendentalist flame. Professor Gura’s lament on Open Source not so long ago was that we have traduced Thoreau and Emerson not just by ignoring their earnest advice but spinning them into literary abstractions. Pipkin’s rejoinder is that the environmental emergency arrived with the first European settlers in America and that the model activist, even at this late date, is still Thoreau. “He was the attorney of the indigenous plants,” as Emerson said, “and owned to a preference of the weeds to the imported plants, as of the Indian to the civilized man.”

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  • nother

    Tonight I decided to flip open my copy of Walden to see if I happen to come across any references of “fire” and the first page I opened to – and it kinda freaked me out – was:

    “If I should only give a few pulls of the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, that is, without setting the bell, there is hardly a man on his farm in the outskirts of Concord, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, nor a boy, nor a woman, I might almost say, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we be it known, did not set it on fire, — or to see it put out, and have a hand in it, if that is done as handsomely; yes, even if it were the parish church itself.”

    It reads to me like Thoreau is saying that we crave that fire in the way we our tempted to prick our finger for a drop of blood…the rush of adrenaline – of life – supersedes our slumber of domestication.

    I have not read the book as yet, but I’m curious if Mr. Pipkin ever raises the slight possibility that Thoreau intended for a fire beyond their camp. I heard the surprise that such a naturalist could make this drastic mistake. But isn’t there another side of the argument – or maybe not a whole side, but a bit off the corner – where we could surmise that Thoreau was so good that could reason before hand the extent of the fire, and the odds of the people putting it out. The fact that the fire was put out means that he would have been right in this regard.

    In my unlikely hypothetical, Thoreau would be committing an ultimate act of civil disobedience. It would be a hot needle in the finger of Concord society, a stark reminder that they have built their houses in the Concord woods, the Concord woods do not surround their houses.

    In Emerson’s biography “Mind on Fire” Richardson writes of Waldo’s and Thoreau’s relationship: The two men shared a sympathy with a certain kind of intellectual anarchy that Santayana says ‘is full of lights. It’s blindness is made up of dazzling survivals, revivals, and fresh beginnings.’ Yet there was always this unapproachableness in Thoreau, and a number of people shared Emerson’s lurking sense that Thoreau’s anarchic vitality was poisoned because it was drawn from a well of isolation that was ultimately destructive.”

    (Incidentally, it’s facinating that it was the personal strain of a fire in Emerson’s home that did him in at the end.)

    “A spark of fire is infinitely deep, but a mass of fire reaching from earth upward into heaven, this is the sign of the robust, united, burning, radiant soul.”

    -Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Brother Nother, that’s an extraordinary comment. You have a “mind on fire,” as in Robert Richardson’s title on Emerson, in your own brilliant head. All admiration and thanks, Chris.

  • jimmcdowell

    Radio Open Source, Love this episode! Thank you!

    Before i listen a second time to the interview and not having as of yet read the book, I can’t help but picture some sort of salvation experience or perhaps a baptism (of fire) separating two portions of Thoreau’s life. This revelation drives me to personal reflection on the “fires” of my past, painful but necessary crucibles driving me the this present version of Jim.

    Thanks for an amazing morning devotion!


  • Yo, Jim. Delighted to hear, as ever. You demonstrate that Oklahoma City lies well within the

    Concord Circle. So does Paul Harding and all he writes. And doesn’t Nother write like one of the originals? Stay in touch, bro.

  • hurley

    Right on, Nother. A much darker take on Thoreau — verging on Dostoyevsky — than we’re accustomed to. HDT as radical firebug.

    By the way, I recommend yet again William Bronks beautiful essays on Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, originally published in The Brother in Elysium; Ideas of Friendship and Society in the United States, later republished, along with other essays, in Vectors and Smoothable Curves.

    Also, Nother: rude of me not to have answered you apropos what I plan to read this summer. I mean to read back, but I’m really looking forward to new books by Thomas Pynchon (Inherent Vice) and Robert Harbison (Travels in the History of Architecture). Harbison someone to discover (start with Eccentric Spaces if you’re interested). How about you?

    Wonderful show, by the way.

  • jimmcdowell


    a friend has my copy of “Mind on Fire”. Would you mind explaining your second to last paragraph if its not to much trouble?

    (Incidentally, it’s fascinating that it was the personal strain of a fire in Emerson’s home that did him in at the end.)

  • nother

    Chris, thank you so much for the compliment, the inspiration, and the search. Whenever my tiny embers begin to dull, I know I can rely on you to reflect the sun. Richardson writes that Emerson’s idea was to always connect “one’s own small flame to the great central fires of life.” – Sounds like the work of Christopher Lydon, as well.

    Jimmcdowell: Sorry for my sloppy reference. (I was also sloppy in referencing the biography.)

    From “Mind on Fire.” On the night of July 23, 1872, a crackling sound inside the plastering waked Emerson in the upstairs bedroom of his Concord home. The house was on fire.”

    Later: “The fire constituted one more ending. After the fire Emerson virtually gave up public lecturing…”

    Later: “The fire affected Emerson PROFOUNDLY. He was exhausted; he became ill. His power of attention and his memory weakened visibly.”

    But the fire-talk that instills chills is Emerson’s last action the night he went upstairs to die. He went to the fireplace (as was his custom, Richardson informs us) “and took his fire apart, setting the sticks, one by one, on end on each side, and separating all the glowing coals.”

    hurley: Well, now that I’ve heard from you, my reading list just expanded by three. More and more, I can see why Thoreau took that sojourn into the woods, not just to observe nature and write, but find time to read as well!

    My mantra on books is a quote from Thoreau, “Read only the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”

    Richardson writes in “Mind on Fire” “Emerson was in perpetual quest of basic books, books that bore original witness, books that met Montaigne”s stern query ‘What do I know?’ – books that were not just distilled from other books and that, as Whitman said, would probably pass away.”

    “But recollect, you only read to start your own team.” -Emerson

    My team will be reading biographies of Helen Keller, Mark Twain, and Che Guevara. The Bhagavad-Gita, and Confucius. Emerson’s journal and some Montaigne. And my beach read will be “The Tender Bar.”

    Thanks, this has been great…as Chris says in this program – any excuse to talk about these guys!

  • Things happen for a reason. The fire may have been devastating to Thoreau initially, but it was a blessing in disguise.

  • nother

    Please let me add one more thought. In the passage by Thoreau that I quoted above, the line that sticks out for me is “since burn it must.”

    Can four words together be more layered then this? If we reflect Thoreau thought on Emerson, it can refer to Emerson’s mind – and the self he was driven to attain – but also to the inevitability of his earthly demise.

    And Emerson’s home did burn, “Since burn it must.” Emerson’s doctrine was metamorphosis.

    “The Greek sculpture is all melted away as if had been statues of snow, here and there a solitary figure or fragment remaining, as we see flecks and scraps of snow left in the cold delles or mountain clefts in June or July. It is so with all things. Permanence is but a word of degrees, everything is medial.”

    – Emerson

    “When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before.”


  • jimmcdowell

    Fascinating, and thank you all!

  • potter

    Thank you for this conversation on Thoreau. Thoreau affects me much more deeply and in other ways than Emerson but he is a complement to the heavy thinker, the philosopher. You can relax with Thoreau, you have to stretch with Emerson.

    When I was working on a clay project years ago I took “Walden”,the unabridged audio tapes, from the library and went right through, drawn in. The narrator was perfect so I found myself relaxing, sinking into Thoreau’s world.. So for me this book would be worth reading or hearing again even if I don’t live to read all the great books oxidizing on my shelves…. which is certain.

    The audio is available online for free. The reader sounds good and may be the very same:

    I’ll put here one of Thoreau’s perhaps best most enduring phrases from Walden:

    “in Wildness is the preservation of the World”

    words we need to keep repeating.

    The fuller quote:

    The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild, and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends it’s fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind….

    I connect Thoreau to Matsuo Basho who wrote “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (and other Travel Sketches ….Penguin, Yuasa trans.) Coincidentally here fire enters the picture in Basho’s life. His Zen meditations on nature in the form of travel writings and haiku poems began shortly after Basho’s hut burned down in 1682 when he began his wanderings across Japan.

    Not so oddly to me then I find Rick Fields wrote a book “How the Swans Came to the Lake” a history of Buddhism in the west. In Field’s essay ”Thoreau the Buddhist” he says that Thoreau “forecast an American Buddhism by the nature of his contemplation, in the same way that a certain quality of transparent predawn forecasts a clear morning He lost himself in nature as the Chinese painters did, by becoming one with nature.”

    Thoreau the Buddhist”

  • potter

    Testing– here is the link ( I hope).

    Thoreau the Buddhist

  • Thank you, Potter. Ah, the circle! Thoreau the Buddhist brings us right back to the New England Transcendentalist Dalai Lama, as Pico Iyer told us last year.

    Pico Iyer’s beautiful book on his friend the Dalai Lama is chock full of quotations from our guys, Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson. But you’d doubtless noticed, Potter, that Emerson and the Dalai Lama have never been seen together.

  • neoni

    I find it really fascinating, too.


  • philip-gura

    I read John’s book as soon as it appeared and enjoyed it. I well remember the seminar on Transcendentalism he took with me: we read extensively in Perry Miller’s classic anthology and learned about the full range of the Transcendentalists’ interests. I am delighted that his work back then has eventuated in such fruit!

    I am a little surprised that Chris’s comments, as well as those of several commentators, have focused on Thoreau when the book is so rich in other characters and situations, showing us the complexity of Concord in Thoreau’s time. Think, for example of the opening chapter of CAPE COD, when Thoreau describes the drowning of all the Irish immigrants, coming for the promise of the New World. Concord was filled with such people, as well as with, for example, African Americans, as Elise Lemire as recently shown in her fine BLACK WALDEN. Many of Thoreau’s neighbors were those who welcomed the railroad, cotton mill and American enterprise, not those who were flocking to Brook Farm or New Harmony. John’s book informs us so well of the demographic in which Thoreau lived and labored.

    Also, I think that we must give more credence to the honesty of Emerson’s assessment at Thoreau’s death. He wanted his young friend to engineer for all America, as he put it, but Thoreau was content to lead a huckleberry party. The problems America faced then (and those we face now) demanded more than just idiosyncratic personal gesture; they required the commitment of a Brownson, Ripley, or Parker, moving toward social justice. That is why, for all Thoreau’s value in awakening us to the “right” issues, we should consider how precisely we can best act in the world. Slavery would not have ended without the great organization of the abolition movement. Often, we have to move from the individual act of conscience to a unity of purpose in numbers. Some of the Transcendentalists knew that.

    Thanks, as always, for a wonderful forum.

  • So glad you checked in, Phil Gura, a voice of real authority.

    I am in a sort of rapture, half-way through a very deliberate re-reading of Moby-Dick. The range of these Concordians is staggering, and the depth, and the sentences!

    You are always right, Phil Gura, to nudge me, even with a hammer, about the social commitment of these guys. And then Jim Carroll came along in Practicing Catholic and introduced me to another of the neglected Emersonians, Isaac Hecker, who transcended to the point of converting to Catholicism and founding the Paulist order of priests…

    So thanks again for a lift. Onward, ever onward, as Waldo liked to say.

  • Monique

    I was not able to listen to the audio, but I was disturbed to read that Thoreau got a thrill out of watching the woods burn. While I do admire his writing, I’m not really sure I can admire the man. It is interesting to note that Thoreau brags about going to live in “the woods”, but he was actually living only a short distance from his mother’s house. What kind of pioneering spirit was that? That being said, I still enjoy reading Thoreau, but he was more of a promotional artist than a true philosopher – a virtual BHL of his day.

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