Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Thoreau

Since 1936 Maine’s license plate slogan has been “Vacationland,” but people have been coming to Maine since long before that to fulfill spiritual or psychological needs unmet in cities and plains. I imagine one could blame Thoreau, even though he was hardly a marketing success in his lifetime. The first edition of The Maine Woods in 1854 compiled three magazine essays – “Ktaadn,” “Chesuncook,” and “The Allagash and East Branch” – into a book printed by Ticknor and Fields in Boston and published mostly at his own expense. (He said about his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “I have 900 volumes in my library, 700 of which I wrote myself.”) The second edition was published in 1864, shortly after his death, as a tribute from his friends. And after his lifetime? He’s achieved the closest possible definition of immortality outside of the impossible religious one.
His books by now are famous and have influenced millions, but it’s in the Journals that I started to understand why he’s so inspirational. I’ve dipped into them and am dumbfounded by the discipline, if not by the language. For nearly every day of his life since his 20s, Thoreau recorded several pages of painstaking and quixotic notes and drawings of the worlds – fields, forests, rivers, mountains; birds, flowers, weeds, mammals; Concord, Cape Cod, Katahdin, Olympus - around him. From there the essays spring, ornate and passionate. And the books, just collections of his essays, perhaps his feeble attempt at fame in his lifetime, were ironically un-saleable. His undying genius lay in the daily discipline of the word.
I found as I read The Maine Woods that inspiration is not necessarily in the text. It’s not so spell-binding a book that you have to put it down every once in a while and hug it to your chest in selfish, goose-bumpy loneliness. For modern readers Thoreau is a mixed blessing. Often he indulges in long stretches of the densely particular, pages and pages of arcane description of portages, for example, and then jumps precipitously to long flights of the grandiose, including a great deal of obscure mythology. Half of the second essay in the book, "Chesuncook," seems to be devoted to the moose, a magnificent animal to be sure, but not in the same league as Agamemnon. He is fascinated by his Indian guides, but there’s that modicum of 19th century condescension. The language tends to be flowery, except for the occasional terse and passionate epigram.
       It doesn’t matter: it’s the idea of Thoreau that’s so compelling - the romantic view of Walden and Maine, the passion for observation and writing, the aphorisms, reliance on self and (occasionally, humbly) on his famous friends and patrons, the commitment to art and nature and science all at once. He is superlative, the perfect embodiment of the ancient Greek and Roman concept of a Genius or Daimon guiding each person, the most brilliant attempt to make the connections between nature and spirit, the bravest resolve to make a sojourn away from pettiness, to live the way life should be no matter where you live it. He is so unself-conscious as to say in the Journal, “I felt a positive yearning towards one bush this afternoon. There was a match for me at last. I fell in love with a shrub oak."  That’s the vision that brings millions of people to Maine, to capture as much or as little of it as their other lives can stand.

Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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