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Beyond Walden : FAITH IN A SEED: And Other Late Natural History Writings: By Henry David Thoreau : Edited by Bradley P. Dean Island Press/Shearwater Books $25; 283 pp.

April 18, 1993|W. S. Merwin | Merwin's most recent collection of poems is "Travels" (Alfred A. Knopf)

A "new" text by Thoreau, like a new species of life which in fact has been here longer than we but has only recently entered our frame of reference, does for our consciousness something that Thoreau did constantly for his own: It calls into question what we thought we knew. It makes us re-examine what we had taken for granted and had considered to be complete--in this case the legacy of a man's work which we had claimed, and had presumed to bring into the house and treat with familiarity. Those of us who have had the luck to discover Thoreau early in life, and to whom his writings continue to speak, have probably felt impelled to reconsider the nature of their importance to us from time to time. It is unlikely ever to have been a matter of mere literary history.

The abiding life of Thoreau's words is inseparable from the vigor and authority of his moral imperative, his insistence that how we live and what we say tell on each other. His fidelity to his own inquiring nature and the uncompromising clarity with which he put it into language made him a prophet without honor--or with very little--in his own time. He could note wryly that he owned more copies of his published writings than anyone alive.

The same qualities of his nature and his writing have contributed to the place he has come to occupy in American and in Western civilization since his death. It is of course in part a literary eminence, for he left some of the most trenchant, original and powerful prose ever written by an American, work that takes its place in the company of the great prose of the language. But there is also his persistent importance as a "thinker," a social critic and examiner of our assumptions and their consequences, a clear observer and outspoken witness. Through the past century and more, a growing number of readers have regarded him as a sage, with a gratitude approaching reverence. This in turn has earned for him the vexation, petulance and scorn of some critics for whom the proper function of literature is something neat and inactive, and a love of wilderness is simply silly.

Thoreau himself, that champion of consistency, was a complex of living contradictions, some of which he addresses in the course of his ponderings. His detractors have been delighted to remind everyone that the cabin at Walden Pond was an easy and fairly regular walk from his mother's kitchen door in Concord, and they suggest that his "Life in the Woods" therefore was a kind of glorified camping out in the back yard. They have been happy to point out that in his busy uselessness he had set a large tract of a neighbor's land ablaze--as though such facts somehow relieved us all of the authenticity of Thoreau's probing perception and revelations.

Thoreau, as he invited his readers to remember, was not advocating a hermit's life for himself or anyone else, and he was not prescribing his own life for anyone. He asked "of every writer, first and last, a simple and sincere account of his own life." He was urging the consistent examination of what the "mass of men" take for granted, not a life without ever making any mistakes.

No wonder he was considered, and was, an eccentric in his own time and is still an eccentric counselor. His very eccentricity tells us something constant and uncomfortable about the society that we refer to as "the real world," whatever it may tell us about the oddities and limitations of Thoreau's temperament, which have been quite apparent to many of his most devoted admirers.

Some of the most eloquent of the later tributes to Thoreau have not concealed a mixture of feelings about the man. Emerson said of him that he would as soon have taken an elm by the arm, this man who tried (once, at least, according to his own account) to improve upon the attention he was used to according to human beings by considering them as though they were groundhogs.

This Thoreau, of course, is the author of "Walden" and "Civil Disobedience," "Cape Cod" and "The Maine Woods" and the earlier journals in particular--what has come to be thought of as the canonical Thoreau. But Thoreau lived for most of a decade after the completion of "Walden," and the meticulous observation of the natural world around him, which had always been a part of his journal, came to take up more and more of it, which led a number of critics to agree that his later work was altogether a falling off. He compiled, besides, a series of notebooks of observations of the natural world, and of extracts and comments on his readings in natural history. Most of this material, apart from the Journal itself, has never been published until now.

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