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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