This Week's Show •

Walden & the Natural World of Transcendentalism

Henry David Thoreau, our specimen of American genius in nature, wrote famously short, and long.  “Simplify,” in a one-word sentence of good advice.  But then 2-million words on 7-thousand pages in his quotable lifetime journal. ...

Henry David Thoreau, our specimen of American genius in nature, wrote famously short, and long.  “Simplify,” in a one-word sentence of good advice.  But then 2-million words on 7-thousand pages in his quotable lifetime journal.  

It’s one of many odd points to notice about Thoreau at his 200th birthday: that the non-stop writer was equally a man of action, a scientist and a high-flying poet whose imagination saw that “the bluebird carries the sky on his back;” and still a workman with callused hands, at home in the wild, a walker four hours a day on average, in no particular direction.  His transcendentalism was all about the blossoming intersection of nature-study and introspection, fact and idea, detail and ideals.  In his pine grove, on his river, at his pond, the outdoor Thoreau.

N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945) Walden Pond Revisited, 1942

What does a Transcendentalist do, we were asking in the first of three bicentennial Thoreau shows?  All the answers are to be found in the canoe trip that became a masterpiece, titled: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. What the Transcendentalist does is soar – between water below and sky above; between this day and eternity, between Nature, and human society.

We start our journey at the South Bridge Boat House near Thoreau’s house on Main Street in Concord, just upstream from the Concord River itself.  A naturalist philosopher in the Thoreau lineage, Alex Strong from Maine, is one of our guides.  During our trip down Thoreau’s “little Nile”,  Alex tells us about what the strapping, young 22 year old was learning on his voyage: 

He was learning about big-N Nature when he was studying the Perch, studying when flowers bloomed, where the bees were. The notes he took, the meticulous notes, weren’t just about the little details; they’re about understanding the whole picture and keeping nature sacred while understanding it, in all its finite mundane details.

Next up, the still-water Walden, a pond in Concord, Massachusetts where Henry Thoreau wrote his great book in a cabin by the shore. In 1845 Walden was a woodlot next to the new railway where the 28-year-old poet went to “suck out the marrow of life,” whatever it turned out to be. Our guide to the pond and the book, the young philosopher John Kaag had been in and out of the Walden water the other morning before we got there.

 

Photo by Michael J. Lutch

While we’re here, at Walden, we decided to stop and consider the statuesque, very tall, dark-green, almost black, pine trees all around Walden Pond, trees that Thoreau came to consider cousins, virtually human.  Richard Higgins, widely traveled in Concord today, has written a book on Thoreau and the Language of Trees, and he has no doubt that Thoreau spoke it fluently, from the heart.

Finally, we conclude with a Thoreauvian meditation on walking. Real walkers are born, not made, Thoreau liked to say.  “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”  These days the woods and the bookstores are full of such walkers.  Andrew Forsthoefel made his reputation in public radio walking 4000 miles from Philadelphia to San Francisco, with a sign that said “walking to listen” and recording back-road stories. And then there’s the literary traveler Paul Theroux, of Cape Cod and Hawaii, of the Mosquito Coast and The Great Railway Bazaar. He has spent a lifetime on trains, and in kayaks, and a lot of it on his own two feet in China, in our own Deep South and specially in Africa.  In our conversation, Theroux extends Thoreau’s idea that walking is in-born, into some more than others.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

Podcast • January 26, 2017

Just Say No!

Millions of people marched over the weekend, showing the outlines of a global, feminist, anti-racist, anti-Trump resistance… maybe. The question on our minds this week is whether the protesters can sustain and direct their dissent to create real ...

Millions of people marched over the weekend, showing the outlines of a global, feminist, anti-racist, anti-Trump resistance… maybe. The question on our minds this week is whether the protesters can sustain and direct their dissent to create real political and economic change.

Nobody can predict exactly how Trump’s agenda will play out, and the first days haven’t been good — the non-stop volley of tweets, executive orders, appointments, and headlines. Attention has been paid, Mr President. Now what? Without the institutional structures of old — party, unions, media, and churches — what’s the path of most resistance?

Our guest L.A. Kauffman helped organize the New York anti-war protests in 2003 and 2004, and has written a new book for Verso called Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. She traces U.S. movements after the 1960s, from Earth First to ACT UP to the Seattle WTO protests to Occupy and beyond. She is euphoric about the possibilities of “upbeat unruliness” to transform our current, dismal political reality.


Protesters in in D.C., where an estimated 500,000 people marched, and New York, where 400,000 people came out. Hundreds of thousands more marched around the world, including at least 750,000 in Los Angeles. Photos by Zach Goldhammer and Conor Gillies.

Still, we wonder how a huge array of ordinary folks, of every political stripe — from Hillary Clinton fans to the antifa Black Bloc (a.k.a. the folks burning limos and punching Nazis) — with nothing more in common than their dislike of Trump, can mobilize within the current structure of electoral politics (and a Democratic party already failing to “present a united front to defend human rights and civil liberties in the Trump era”). Some wonder if it’s even worthwhile working within institutions that have brought us continued war, poverty, and inequality.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Princeton professor, socialist organizer, and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, offers a broad-tent vision of grassroots resistance mixed with a healthy dose of cynicism about traditional political leadership. In a widely-shared statement this week, Taylor encouraged Americans to build social movements outside of existing party politics. She disregards the Democrats as revisionists, who throughout the 20th century have worked to absorb, contain, and de-radicalize social movements (black liberation movements in particular). But Prof. Taylor critiques are aimed primarily at the ruling political class; she discourages organizers from harping on whether whether or not the street-level marchers were too white, too liberal, or too #StillWithHer: “The women’s marches were the beginning, not the end. …There are literally millions of people in this country who are now questioning everything. We need to open up our organizations, planning meetings, marches, and much more to them.”

Mark Greif, founding editor of the magazine n+1 and author of a new essay collection, Against Everything, takes the position of a born contrarian when it comes to the new administration: “No President” — not “not my president” — has been his motto since the election and civil disobedience remains his default stance. Greif, like us, is deeply influenced by the New England transcendentalists, and forces us to ask, WWTD (what would Thoreau do)? The answer may lie in Thoreau’s own question: “The laws are there. Do they really represent you? What would it take for them to represent you?” Cultivate inefficiency, and don’t be afraid to be a crank, Greif says. “Be yourself friction, inside the machine.” Hear a longer interview with Greif below:

We’re joined in the studio by minister-activist Mariama White-Hammond and The Tea Party chronicler Vanessa Williamson.

Watch producer Zach Goldhammer’s interviews from the Women’s March below:

illustration by Susan Coyne

March 27, 2014

The Transcendentalist Ripple Effect

Check out a growing timeline of the Transcendentalist lives and legacies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, in a tangled infographic above.      

Check out a growing timeline of the Transcendentalist lives and legacies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, in a tangled infographic above.

 

 

 

March 26, 2014

A Walk in the Woods with Robert Richardson

This podcast is a short excerpt from Emerson Redux, a full hour show on Ralph Waldo Emerson created in 2006. We all half-know Emerson by the other writers he gathered around him in the American renaissance ...
A Repl

A replica of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond

This podcast is a short excerpt from Emerson Redux, a full hour show on Ralph Waldo Emerson created in 2006.

We all half-know Emerson by the other writers he gathered around him in the American renaissance of the 1840s and 1850s – Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Walt Whitman, and most especially Henry David Thoreau, who wrote his masterpiece as Emerson’s tenant on Walden Pond.

To get the feel of Emerson, who can be elusive on paper, I went out to Concord on a brilliant October afternoon with the great biographer Robert Richardson, in the wind-blown woods where Emerson took his walks with Thoreau. I asked Richardson to connect the dots –  nature, divinity, spirit, the very wind over our heads, and the voice of Emerson today.

March 18, 2014

The Transcendentalists Are Coming!, Again

This week on Open Source, revisiting the birthplace of the American mind. Five houses on three streets within a period of five years in Concord, Massachusetts launched American literature and poetry, the environmental movement, progressive politics, feminism, and new ideas about religion and education. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, and their friends and neighbors. Where is the center of the rebellious mind today and what is it saying?
Robert Richardson on Emerson's Apostasy
Harold Bloom: "Emerson Speaks to Me"
A Walk in the Woods with Robert Richardson
Cornel West on Emerson's Enduring Importance
The Transcendentalist Ripple Effect

This week on Open Source, we’re taking advantage of a sick-leave rerun to revisit the birthplace of the American mind a year after we first broadcast this show. The story of the Transcendentalists starts in five houses on three streets within a period of five years in Concord, Massachusetts. And it launched American literature and poetry, the environmental movement, progressive politics, feminism, and new ideas about religion and education. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts, and their friends and neighbors. The Transcendentalists are coming. What is the legacy of this American renaissance? What do these thinkers mean to you?

The Transcendentalist Ripple Effect

Check out a growing timeline of the Transcendentalist lives and legacies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, in the tangled graphic below (click here for full-size). Transcendentalists Big Bang-01

Podcast • June 10, 2009

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 ...
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.”

December 31, 2006

William James: Son, Brother, Hero

The quick-silver mind of William James -- "incandescent, tormented, mercurial" were his wife's words for a scientist and philosopher who fancied chaos, chance and direct experience -- leaps off the page of Robert Richardson's new biography. Not a surprise, really, from either man. We have stomped the Concord trails of Thoreau and Emerson with Bob Richardson.

The quick-silver mind of William James — “incandescent, tormented, mercurial” were his wife’s words for a scientist and philosopher who fancied chaos, chance and direct experience — leaps off the page of Robert Richardson’s new biography. Not a surprise, really, from either man. We have stomped the Concord trails of Thoreau and Emerson with Bob Richardson; to be with him is to feel the glow of his “minds on fire.” In William James’s case it’s the reckless, ever-experimental energy, what novelist Henry James remembered from boyhood as “my brother’s signal vivacity and cordiality, his endless spontaneity of mind.”

Just to remind you, James was first among the Harvard faculty giants a century ago, a man who’d tutored Teddy Roosevelt, W. E. B. DuBois and Gertrude Stein, a famous international lecturer who also dabbled in drugs and mind-bending gases and who, on his death-bed asked his brother Henry to linger in Cambridge for 6 weeks post-mortem, to receive if possible William’s messages from the next world.

Beyond his imprint on canonical learning and common understanding of psychology, philosophy and the study of religion, Robert Richardson writes: “James’s best is often in his unorthodox, half-blind, unpredictable lunges at the great question of how to live, and in this his work sits on the same shelf with Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson and Emerson.”

Robert Richardson says there will always be three reasons to reacquaint ourselves with William James. I would add two more. Please add your own below.

1. James fathered the study of “consciousness,” about the same time Freud (a passing acquaintance) was developing the unconscious. James conceived of mind as a living stream of activity. His emphasis was on the action in consciousness, inseparable from the physiology and chemistry of the individual brain. The elementary fact of mental life “is not thought, or this thought or that thought, but my thought.” James is the source point of the cognitive sciences and the widespread study today of “how the mind works.”

2. William James was the philosopher of “Pragmatism,” i.e. the now old-fashioned American argument that the truth is something that happens to an idea; that the truth of something is the sum of its actual results. As in his psychology (where he argued: the child is not crying because she’s unhappy; she’s unhappy because she is crying), Pragmatism put the focus on the “fruits, not the roots” of ideas and feelings. President McKinley’s annexation of the Philippines, for example, demonstrated American Imperialism to be a Bad Idea:

… during those three years and more when our army was slaughtering and burning, and famine, fire, disease and depopulation were the new allies we invoked… The most sanguine expect no real assimilation of our prey to us or of us to our prey for fifty years to come, and no one who knows history expects that it can genuinely come at all.

William James, Address on the Phillipine Question, December,1903

3. James was the re-inventor of religion, most especially for the multitudes (then and now) itching to loosen the authority of church and dogma. James created the modern universe of religious studies by shifting the focus from saints, scriptures and creeds toward the actual experiences of individuals — both common and peculiar.

4. As the son and brother of two remarkable Henry Jameses (Sr. and Jr.), William is a human study of endless interest. Growing up in the “gleeful anarchy and high-toned hilarity” of a rich, over-gifted family, eldest-son William felt pressure from his noisy, peripatetic father to be a scientist, and from himself to be an artist. He wrote in a letter from Germany at 16: “I will be prepared for everything.” Will we ever grasp how these James boys (the Good James Boys, as opposed to Frank and Jesse, their contemporary Bad James Boys) came to their enthusiastic mastery of multi-lingual reading, non-stop writing, distillation, argument and style? Richardson is brilliant on another personal secret: the process by which William, near suicide in his mid-twenties, “turned trouble into insight and self-loathing into energy.” James himself wrote later: “Despair lames most people, but it wakes others fully up.”

5. As a prose stylist, William today is arresting, fresh, original and quotable as he ever was — quite as perfect for his own purposes as was Henry, the beloved brother that William never stopped needling for his wordy abstractions in fiction. William James’s sentences have the sound of a man’s voice teaching — and of family-friend Emerson’s rockets going off. As, for example, in the line drawn against Platonism in his essay, “The Stream of Consciousness”:

…A permanently existing ‘Idea’ which makes its appearance before the footlights of consciousness at periodical intervals is as mythological an entity as the Jack of Spades.

William James, The Stream of Consciousness, 1892

When Jimmy Carter in the oil shortage of the 1970s called for “the moral equivalent of war” against a ruinous energy addiction, he was of course drawing on one of William James’s most eloquent, uttlerly ageless essays, a sweeping denunciation of war and at the same time, a paean to military values:

…History is a bath of blood. The Illiad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizens being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen…

…All these beliefs of mine put me firmly into the anti-military party. But I do not believe that peace either ought to be or will be permanent on this globe, unless the states, pacifically organized, preserve some of the old elements of army-discipline. A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy. In the more or less socialistic future toward which mankind seems drifting we must still subject ourselves collectively to those severities which answer to our real position upon this only partly hospitable globe. We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built — unless, indeed, we wish for dangerous reactions against commonwealths, fit only for contempt, and liable to invite attack whenever a centre of crystallization for military-minded enterprise gets formed anywhere in their neighborhood.

William James, The Moral Equivalent of War, 1910

I think of William James as he thought of John Stuart Mill, “whom my fancy likes to picture as our leader were he alive today.” Or, as the philosopher George Santayana thought of his colleague. William James, Santayana said,

…kept his mind and heart wide open to all that might seem to polite minds, odd, personal, or visionary in religion and philosophy. He gave a sincerely respectful hearing to sentimentalists, wizards, cranks, quacks and imposters… He thought, with his usual modesty, that any of these might have something to teach him…. Thus, William James became the friend and helper of those groping, nervous, half-educated, spiritually disinherited, passionately hungry individuals of which America is full.

George Santayna, Winds of Doctrine, quoted in Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, page 160.

I think of William James, in short, as our mightiest, most inclusive American mind, still amongst us with an almost neighborly familiarity. Where shall the conversation begin?

Robert Richardson

Author, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
Extra Credit Reading
Matt Asay, Open source: pragmatism buys in, InfoWorld, January 28, 2007: “I know I find open source in everything, but it seems to me to be a perfect rendering of James’ pragmatism. It’s not about the theory behind open source that matters. The only thing that matters is the output. That output makes me think that open source is “true” in the Jamesian sense.”Paul Vitols, searching for beliefs, Genesis of a Historical Novel, March 30, 2007: “Like everyone else, I take actions through the day. Right now I’m writing this blog-post. That means I have certain specific beliefs, in James’s view, that are propelling me to this action. I believe that writing this post is furthering my interests or aims somehow. His point would be that those beliefs, whatever they are, are already there; they already exist and are active, whether I’m aware of them or not.”

William F. Valicella, Suggestions for Writing Well Part One: The Example of William James, Maverick Philosopher, January 16, 2007: “To write well, read well. Read good books, which are often, but not always, old books. If you carefully read, say, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, you will learn something of the expository potential of the English language from a master of thought and expression.”

Gabriel, Gabriel’s LiveJournal, The Older, Cooler Brother, March 3, 2007:

“I’ll just leave you with these facts to explain why William James is so awesome:

* The Principles of Psychology are really just the notes William James made when he invented the brain.

* William James’s stare is ‘The Moral Equivalent of War.’

* William James doesn’t write books, he stares down his brother Henry until Henry takes dictation.

* Anytime you experience anything, William James experiences it, too.

* William James’s fists cure stupidity, too bad he’s a pacifist.”

Jonah Lehrer, A Console to Make You Wiip, Seed Magazine, November 16, 2006: “To understand how the Wii turns Zelda into a passionate experience, we have to revisit an old theory of emotion, first proposed by the great American psychologist and philosopher William James. In his 1884 article ‘What is an emotion?’ James argued that all of our mental feelings actually begin in the body.”

Diego Saa, Out of Self: Day 247., Teachable alcoholic, January 17, 2007: “Anyway, it has been an exceptional week so far, and for that I’m grateful to God. We’ve got a book reading club going with my homegroup and some of us are currently reading William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. It’s proving to be quite a reaffirming experience to me; in that my personal belief of a Higher Power is predicated upon tangible phenomena.”

Mike Lynch, The Varieties of Religious Experience, PrawnWarp’s LiveJournal, November 29, 2006: “James, as an old-fashioned psychologist, is primarily concerned with the subjective experience of religion by its adherents. It’s his patience with the effusions of the revival-tent Methodist, the Mind-Cure movement and various mystics which I think would drive Dawkins to distraction. It tries my patience, and James is continually apologising for the imposition on his auditors of yet another excerpt from a tract or pamphlet; but the source documents are fascinating, and often hilarious.”

Maureen Ryan, A graduate seminar on Milch-ology: The creator of ‘Deadwood’ speaks, The Watcher, January 13, 2007: “Here’s what Milch said in response to a question about where he drew his inspiration from: ‘William James — and several of the actors have attempted to take their lives in the aftermath of my protracted speaking about William James.'”