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.

June 29, 2017

A Wild & Disobedient Life

Henry David Thoreau, on his 200th birthday, is an American immortal who got there the hard way – against the grain of his town and his times.  By now he’s the heroic non-conformist who modeled ...

Henry David Thoreau, on his 200th birthday, is an American immortal who got there the hard way – against the grain of his town and his times.  By now he’s the heroic non-conformist who modeled his brief life on religious convictions: that every human being has an original relation with divine spirit, and that on earth a man must become a majority of one.  So he made a dissenting record living apart, and walking the woods more like a Native American, he felt, than a Yankee.  Never to church, never married, never voted and didn’t pay his taxes.  He talked to the trees as almost-people, and he caressed the fish in his stream like almost-children. Manly and able “but rarely tender,” he won Emerson’s obituary praise that flatters us, too: “no truer American existed,” Emerson said, than Henry Thoreau.  The prophet of Concord is our subject this hour on Open Source. 

We begin with Thoreau’s bicentennial biographer Laura Dassow Walls, visiting this week from the University of Notre Dame.  There’s news and insight in her book that’s drawing high praise already.  She shares with us how her life first intersected with Thoreau’s:

I was a teenager. I was learning girl culture of 1970 and conformity and trying to figure out how to get along and worried about future and what college to go to what kind of job I could have — what kind of a job could a woman have. And they were limited. So, for instance, secretarial work was still something we were encouraged to think about. We took home Ec classes and thought of ourselves as homemakers. And here was this voice who said maybe you could go to the woods, maybe you could confront life, maybe you could figure out what it is to be alive.

 

 

The polymath and writer Lewis Hyde is a thoroughly modern transcendentalist, author of a treasured book-length essay, titled The Gift, about the making of art in a commercial society.  In conversation this week we asked Lewis Hyde to speak of form and language—the almost King-James-Version Biblical rhythms in Walden—and whatever they tell the world about the scope of the project Thoreau set for himself:

So every time you can reduce your necessities you increase your freedom. And so, I think, it’s worth in any life to pause and think which of the things you feel you have to do you really have to do because to the degree that you can discard some of them you increase the range of your own freedoms.

Susan Gallagher helps us examine the ways in which the issue of slavery underlies everything Thoreau’s writing about: freedom, conscience and the crime inside the US Constitution.

Just as historians once underestimated the power of slavery in shaping American society, I think that they’ve underestimated the power of slavery in shaping Thoreau. He described slavery as an existential threat. He says ‘right we are now in hell. We are losing our lives. And then John Brown comes along in 1859 and he says this is the best news that America has ever heard. John Brown is the first man who ever lived. And how did he live? By dying. You die for a purpose and you die because you refuse to wrestle the plank from the drowning man. You refuse to make your survival depend on the extinction of the liberty of another. Liberty is more important than life.’

Susan Gallagher teaches history and political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and she edits a vital, earthy Thoreau website at mappingthoreaucountry.org.

 

Our final guest, a natural-born, walking, talking Thoreauvian named Kevin Dann came up with a brilliant answer to our question: who, in our day, has taken up Thoreau’s role?  Dann is the author of  Expect Great Things, a phrase and now a book that has the feel of the great man himself.  There will be a prize for any listener who can top Dann’s choice as the reincarnation of this fellow Thoreau.

This episode is the first in a 3-part series on Thoreau and American philosophy. Stay tuned for more transcendental radio and check in for updates on our Twitter page.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

March 26, 2014

Harold Bloom: “Emerson Speaks to Me”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immortality in American poetry and prose has never been in doubt. In his philosophy of self reliance, the “American Plato,” it is said, invented the American mind, and maybe the American religion ...

harold bloomRalph Waldo Emerson’s immortality in American poetry and prose has never been in doubt. In his philosophy of self reliance, the “American Plato,” it is said, invented the American mind, and maybe the American religion in this nation of sturdy believers. The keeper of the literary canon, Harold Bloom, calls Emerson a “living presence in our lives today.”

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

 

March 26, 2014

Cornel West on Emerson’s Enduring Importance

Emerson is called the founder of the American religion, sometimes the American God, and surely he’s the voice of American individualism in “Self Reliance.” A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of ...

Emerson is called the founder of the American religion, sometimes the American God, and surely he’s the voice of American individualism in “Self Reliance.” A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within,” Emerson wrote, “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Cornel West, like Emerson, is a preacher with a national audience, and without a church. Emerson is his number one American writer, a soulful modern and a model public philosopher.

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

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.

Podcast • August 26, 2013

Paul Harding, Transcendentalist, From Tinkers to Enon

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the ...

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the cash register of every bookstore I go into. Enon is Paul Harding’s spooky, Hawthorny and thoroughly worthy sequel three years later. The story lurches into sudden death and a year of dissolute darkness among descendants of that Crosby family of peddlers and mechanics out of the Maine backwoods. Enon is set in the semi-rural suburbs of Boston; it’s a present-day ghost story, a sad one at that. But there’s a strong continuity in the quirky traditions of the Crosby clan, as well as in the uncommonly thoughtful craft of the author. In my reading, Enon cements Paul Harding’s place as a true prince of New England letters, spiritual heir to Emerson and Thoreau, close student of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. As Tinkers revealed, Harding is a Transcendentalist for our time, in Emerson’s definition of the type: “He believes in miracle, in the perpepetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.” In Enon, the 30-something protagonist Charlie Crosby, unhinged at the loss of his 13-year-old daughter, could remind you of Emerson himself in the essay “Experience,” recounting his soul’s disarray after the death of his boy Waldo, of scarlet fever, in 1842. In an uncannily Emersonian summing up at the end of Enon, Charlie Crosby says: “I am a connoisseur of the day. Sometimes I sit in tears. Sometimes I sit in a wordless, inexplicable kind of brokenhearted joy.” Listening to Paul Harding read, I keep hearing another great teacher, the immortal jazz drummer Elvin Jones of the classic Coltrane quartet. Paul Harding was a touring rock drummer in his time, and an Elvin worshipper. In our first conversation four years ago, Paul observed that the differences between drumming and writing are superficial. “Having been a drummer, I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know,” he said. So the reader keeps listening for Elvin in Enon, and I hear lots of him — when, for example, Charlie remembers his boyhood rounds learning clock-repair from his grandfather.

I inserted the key into the keyhole and opened the door. The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment… I lifted the lead weight and unhooked it from its pulley wheel. It felt like removing the heavy heart of the clock. I laid the weight on a rug at the foot of the stairs. It thudded onto the wool like an object from another, outsized planet with twice the gravity of our own. A heavy leaded heart, I thought. That has to do, too, with the burning ember in the center of the house.

Charlie Crosby, on his apprenticeship with George Washington Crosby, his grandfather in Enon, Chapter 2.

Isn’t he still writing rhythms, I asked.

Absolutely. I think, going back to Emerson, of fully inhabiting the moment and the idea of improvisation: when you’re a musician or a writer or a painter or a dancer, you translate the experience of that moment into your medium at a high level of improvisation. If you’re Elvin Jones, and you’re trying to make art that will engage the complexity of the human mind, you’re using all four limbs and all sorts of different tempos and textures and juxtapositions to make this elegant whole. That’s what I think of trying to do with writing, and what better medium than language – the medium that has the capacity to hold in itself all the complexity to satisfy an engaged and amenable reader? I’m thinking lyrically, trying to find the time signature, the meter of description. It’s a kind of advance and retreat, maybe it’s in free verse or free time, maybe a little bit more like Ornette Coleman, again it’s the tentativeness, the improvisation. When I read that out loud, sometimes I don’t know where the beats are going to land, because rereading them is just like the process of writing them, and when I wrote them I didn’t know where I was going to land either…

Paul Harding, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Essex, Massachusetts, August 2013.

This is the way a modern Transcendentalist writes. There are hearts in his clocks, and souls in his characters, both living and dead.

Podcast • February 10, 2012

Pico Iyer: Channeling Graham Greene and the World Spirit

  “Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals… and the march of ...

 

“Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals… and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, – yet, general ends are somehow answered… the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson Essays: Montaigne, or The Skeptic.

 “God save us always from the innocent and the good…”

The voice of Graham Greene, spoken by the British journalist Fowler in Greene’s prophetic novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, published in 1955. Quoted anew in Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head.

Pico Iyer — my monitor on the global spirit in conversation and books — hears voices: of the Dalai Lama, Henry David Thoreau, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell among others. But the strongest dialog in Iyer’s busy brain seems to run between Emerson and the late English novelist Graham Greene (1904 – 1991), the Catholic agnostic who prayed to a God he wasn’t sure he believed in, and the subject of Pico Iyer’s shivering introspection, The Man Within My Head. Emerson is “the God within,” as Harold Bloom has said, a companion in the daylight hours. Greene is “the fallen man within,” who keeps turning up in dreams and the subconscious. “Graham Greene is more of a warning than an illumination,” Pico Iyer is telling me. “Thoreau and Emerson and the American Way have shown me where I want to go; Greene is pointing to all the ditches and the cracks in the road along the way.”

I am wondering: where’s our American Graham Greene when we need one? Greene’s peers in school after World War I, Pico Iyer writes, “were learning strength and how to go out and administer Empire, already in its first stages of dissolution. Greene, meanwhile, was learning the opposite: how to take power apart, how to do justice to its victims, on both sides of the fence, how to make a home in his life for pain and even fear. As classmates set about making the official history of their people, he began picking at its secret life, its tremblings, its wounds.” Greene, in Pico Iyer’s line, was “an Englishman in flight from English-ness.” So I am asking: who are our exemplary strong antidotes to American exceptionalism and heedless folly in the world?

The names that immediately come to my head are Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, perhaps. Robert Stone is almost a direct heir to the Greenian legacy: a troubled Catholic who goes to the warzones of the world to see the soul in peril in all senses but also to see what America is up to in these shadowy corners… But the other thing is that American literature is currently being written and re-written by the latest newcomers from Russia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Korea — … think of Chimamanda Adichie, Gary Shteyngart, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lee Yun Hee and many others. And what they’re doing, among other things, is they’re remaking America… importing the wisdom of their ancestral homes and making new combinations. So that’s all promising. The American soul is taking on new colors now, and our President is another example of that. If nothing else, no matter how you feel about Obama, I would say we’ve never had a President who understands life in Indonesia as he does. We’ve never had a President who knows the complications of interacting with Kenya and therefore with many other impoverished nations, at least on the human level, as he does. He hasn’t always managed to translate that into policy but it’s certainly a step forwards because in terms of global understanding which is the currency of the moment, he has it.

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.”

Podcast • December 18, 2007

Philip Gura’s American Transcendentalism

Emersonians, awake! Evening Grosbeaks & American Dawn You regulars from the comment thread know who you are: mynocturama, peggysue, bobby, allison, nother and of course, potter, among the vast and various summer circle… We’re wallowing ...

Emersonians, awake!

Evening Grosbeaks & American Dawn

You regulars from the comment thread know who you are: mynocturama, peggysue, bobby, allison, nother and of course, potter, among the vast and various summer circle

We’re wallowing in the transcendent mystery of things with Philip Gura, the author of American Transcendentalism: A History. Gura is an eminent professor of literature and culture at the University of North Carolina, but he’s also “one of us,” avid in the non-dogmatic, non-exclusive pursuit of the ecstatic, the invisible, the divine.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gura here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3)

Toward the end of this conversation, Philip Gura explains how it began for him, 44 years ago. He was a child in Ware, Massachusetts, the son of immigrant mill folk, when he came upon a nest of “huge, garrulous, yellow birds eating choke cherries.” When he wrote to the American Museum of Natural History for help identifying his find, the great ornithologist Dean Amadon wrote him directly to say the birds had to be evening grosbeaks, cousins of the goldfinch.

Naturalist and Prophet: HDT

Birds and New England nature led to Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau led to the genius moment and the genius cluster of the American renaissance in Concord — writers, thinkers, social consciences that to this day “represent something about our past that we want to be part of” and a key that perhaps hasn’t been turned all the way in the door of American life.

The insistent voice of Mary McGrath asks, as always: “Okay, Chris, what’s the question for listeners?”

Okay, Mary, here it is: Do the mostly sectarian, literalist and Fundamentalist questions around our politics of 2008 prove that transcendentalist impulses thrive — or expired long ago? Does the tempest that Mitt Romney, for example, has stirred around himself and his Mormonism mark a dismal falling-off — or rather an amazing continuity — of the old transcendentalist passion about faith, spirit and the religious underpinnings of this nation’s life. Extra points for apt Emersonian quotes. And extra-extra points for apt quotes from other than Emerson.

July 7, 2006

Transcendental Women

I was amazed–it sounds so innocent and silly–to find that most of American Literature was written in three houses over a period of five years. Susan Cheever The handsomest author and the most adoring wife ...

hawthorne_grave

I was amazed–it sounds so innocent and silly–to find that most of American Literature was written in three houses over a period of five years.

Susan Cheever

The handsomest author and the most adoring wife in the annals of American literature are together again.

You may have heard the news that the remains of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (whose diamond-etched love lyrics are still readable in the window panes of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s family Manse in Concord, Massachusetts) have finally been returned from England and re-interred alongside the immortal Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery down the road.

But the real story might have been headlined: Sex among the Sages! And it would have dwelt on the feminist mystique and feminine intrigues that thrived among those Unitarian wisemen of Concord: in the network of Margaret Fuller, the Peabody Sisters — Sophia, Elizabeth and Mary, who married Horace Mann, the father of public schooling in America; also Lydian Emerson and a little later Louisa May Alcott.

window_etchingSophia’s etchings in an Old Manse window pane: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes” [Courtesy of Bonnie McGrath]

We will pick up the drama with Megan Marshall, whose account of the brilliant Peabody Sisters was nominated last year for a Pulitzer; and with Susan Cheever, whose forthcoming American Bloomsbury brings an intense and sometimes speculative imagination to rounding out the triangles here, and many other mysterious oblique angles. It was well known that Henry David Thoreau had an attachment to the sometimes depressive Lydian Emerson. And that Margaret Fuller had designs on Emerson, with whom she edited a sort of group-blog, The Dial magazine. It’s Susan Cheever’s version that Emerson, the landlord, threw Hawthorne out of The Manse for his for his overzealous interest in Margaret Fuller, who may well have been a model for The Scarlet Letter‘s Hester Prynne. Louisa May Alcott thickens the plot what she thought was her best book: Moods about a woman in love with an earth god like Thoreau and a sky god like Emerson — a woman who dies in a fictional shipwreck, as Margaret Fuller did in a real one.

What we knew about the Transcendentalists — like Emerson, Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott and their circle — was that they were men who, before and after Margaret Fuller’s appearance, never met a woman they could really talk with. But the women were talking with and about each other. Are we ready to deal with what they were saying?

Megan Marshall

Author, The Peabody Sisters

Susan Cheever

Author of the forthcoming American Bloomsbury