Henry David Thoreau and Raymond Chandler, Two American Eccentrics, Pt. I
Introduction and review of Searching for Thoreau: On the Trails and Shores of Wild New England, by Tom Slayton, illustrated by Ethan Slayton,Images of the Past, Bennington, Vermont, 2008 (Paperback) 240 pp.
Two books about great American literary eccentrics have captured my imagination recently. They are not only exceptionally good books in their different ways, but they also discuss themes which have occupied me particularly in my recent travels and readings: wandering, exile, and walking, the unfathomability of human relationships, particular places and people, notably New England and Southern California, and what Pope, Durrell, and others have called “the spirit of place,” following the ancient concept of the genius loci. Henry David Thoreau and Raymond Chandler, who in their individualism—alienation even—were both exiles in their own country (in Thoreau’s case his own home town), have more in common than would appear on the surface, just as Los Angeles, the city with no past, has as powerful agenius loci as Walden Pond, now skirted by a constantly roaring Route 2 and a parking lot for tourists: today a cheap and convenient resort for any family with an S.U.V., a boat, and a gaggle of raucous children. Both men were grounded in the Greek and Roman classics, and both made significant and interesting use of their learning in their writings; both men were attracted to much older women, not that Thoreau ever did much about it; both men lived with or close to forceful mothers well into maturity; both men have been thought to be closet homosexuals; and both Thoreau the teetotaler and Chandler the alcoholic could be intensely priggish in their own veins. And both men would have been horrified at the thought of all those little brats pissing in Walden Pond.
Tom Slayton, editor emeritus of Vermont Life, has brought his incomparable knowledge of the trails and landscapes of New England to a thoroughly engaging commentary and practical hiker’s guide to Thoreau’s haunts in nature, all within a morning’s drive of the Berkshires, if not within the county; and novelist Judith Freeman has brought off a brilliantly successful tour de force in her account of her peregrinations—mostly be car, of course—around Chandler’s and her own adoptive home town, with the appendage of a research trip to Oxford (where a part of Chandler’s papers rests in the Bodleian Library) in search of an understanding of his obsessive devotion to his wife Cissy, who was eighteen years his senior. Both books are particularly fruitful explorations of the relationship between literature and the physical experience of place enjoyed by the reader who travels in search of whatever intangible goal his reading has planted in his mind. After all, reading is a kind of locomotion: one walks with one’s eyes, as, walking, one sees with one’s feet.
Chandler is indelibly connected with Oxford in my memory, for I first began to read him there, during my first year of post-graduate study in Classics, at an age when I found Thoreau totally unappealing, if not repellent. During those three years in England, while not the least homesick for America, I found myself drawn to certain American authors, if only to cut the rather hermetic variety of provincial Englishness that surrounded me. I read mostly poets: Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens. Then I discovered Chandler, who was enjoying a posthumous renaissance on both sides of the Atlantic, and whose novels and short stories were being issued in Penguins, easily pocketable on the train to London or on country walks, where I did a lot of my casual reading. Chandler not only offered a concentrated distillation of American life, he excited my literary sensibilities with the Homeric, Aeschylean, and Virgilian echoes that resounded through his works, however subtly. If Chandler was America in England for me then, he is England in America for me now—a true enough reflection of his own nature as a born mid-westerner raised and educated in England, who chose to settle in Los Angeles, the heart of rootlessness, where he wore British tweeds and cultivated public school manners, experiencing life as an exile, wherever he was.
I also had vivid, if fragmentary memories of Los Angeles, where I spent part of my early childhood, not to mention more recent ones of Walden Pond. Thoreau’s path up Mt. Greylock is fifteen minutes’ drive away from the spot in which I write these words. However, I mention all this only to establish that every reader’s response to either of these books will necessarily be enmeshed in his or her life experience, which will inevitably influence one’s reading of of both authors, even though a philosopher may well read his Thoreau closeted in a study, and Chandler’s noir L. A. wields power over our imaginations because it is a city of the mind—of dreams, really, if not nightmares.
Of course this is not the only way to look at it. Some may brush this all away, firmly believing that all that’s relevant or meaningful lies between the covers of the book. This is particularly true of older literature. I have read that more than one Oxfordian (Earl of, not dreaming spires) has been stimulated by the tourist industry of Stratford-upon-Avon. Many classical scholars harbor a mistrust of archaeologists and of literary colleagues, weak-minded enough to take an interest in the cleared and partially restored archaeological parks of the Acropolis or Delphi, as if there were no hope for any man who could not find bliss in lemmata and cruxes. I witnessed this once early in my Chandlerian Oxford days, when I went to the Regius Professor of Greek for advice on my course of studies. When I expressed my enthusiasm over a vaguely planned trip to the land of Socrates and Byron, he said that he saw it once, shortly after the Second World War, but he never set foot there. “As soon as the coast came into view, I vomited a bucket of blood, and I never left the ship,” he said. So much for seeing things with your own eyes and walking places with your own feet.
The recently deceased and much lamented George MacDonald Fraser, who like Chandler did his own turn in Hollywood, or at least Wardour Street, has observed in his very amusing and not entirely unimproving book, The Hollywood History of the World, that we have a much more vivid and exact sense of what the ancient world looked like than Samuel Johnson, Macaulay, Byron, or any visitor to Rome or Athens on the Grand Tour, thanks to the efforts of men like Cecil B. DeMille, Mervyn LeRoy, and their set designers, whatever they may have gotten wrong for whatever reason. This will not stop me from following some of Tom Slayton’s trails, or visiting some of the roughly 33 mostly nondescript houses in which the Chandlers resided, rarely for more than a year. For that matter, the world of the American Transcendentalists is notably scarcer in the movies than Marlowe’s L. A. There must be a reason for it, although Thoreau could be said to be the greatest adventurer of all, living and observing like a world traveler on the outskirts of his home town. It is worth remembering that Thoreau and Rhett Butler would have been approximate contemporaries.
Most of us who are attracted to Thoreau’s work and example inevitably have our ins and outs with him, and few would want to change places with him. Most of us would prefer to enjoy compromised forms of the pleasures he describes so eloquently in Walden, “Walking,” and other works rather than pay the price he seems to have paid for his relationship to nature, if it was, in fact, a necessity for him to make those sacrifices. His self-righteousness, his lack of material success, his celibacy, and his eccentricities were part of his character, and none of his contemporaries found them particularly endearing. Thoreau was anything but a cynic, but he had a bite, above all, if it came to the values his fellow Concordians, like most Americans, held in the highest esteem. He gladly bared his teeth at the self-centeredness of the man who in all good faith established a prosperous farm or factory in the wilderness through hard work, clearing land and killing wildlife, and the hypocrisy of that man and his family, when they display the fruits of his labor in church, unthinkingly muttering pious cant among their neighbors. (A good spirit in which to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood. Read Alan Miller’s review here.) Thoreau can be as exasperating to his admiring posterity as he was to his contemporaries. Tom Slayton is acutely aware of this, as a man who likes to celebrate his explorations into the wild, not with Thoreau’s somewhat monkish priggishness, but with a soothing beer consumed with his son or friends.
If you live in a rural college town in northern New England, you are likely to have met a Thoreau, even to count one among your friends. Pale, possibly sporting a scraggly beard, soberly dressed, usually in a rural style, dull and heavy in speech, they radiate the gravity of their commitment to the ideal. Thoreau’s humor, above all his ability to laugh at himself, may not always have trickled down to them, and we must always remember the odds against having aWalden tucked away, unrecognized, on one’s hard drive.
I discovered Thoreau through sympathetic moderns who walk in nature, observe it, and responsively create. Richard Long would be more likely to admit to reading Chandler than Thoreau, but he comes first to mind. Then there’s Smithson…and in fact recent months have been fairly replete with walkers. Claude Lorrain in his younger years trod out into the Roman Campagna to draw; Millais haunted the Scottish Highlands; and Elgar composed primarily in nature, either on foot or on his bicycle, above all in his beloved Malvern Hills. C. S. Lewis and his friend Owen Barfield used to discuss the classics on extensive rambles in the countryside around Oxford. And for that matter, Thoreau and I have further interests in common—passions, even—perhaps Homer above all. I don’t doubt that he loved reading as much as walking and observing, and aren’t the hexameters of the Iliad as full of movement and life as a journey into the wild? Thoreau thought so.
Tom Slayton makes his reservations about Thoreau clear. In this he is no different from the rest of us, but his honesty and straightforwardness make his confession easy. We each have our own Thoreau, and Slayton starts his account with the speculation, a ritual proem in most Thoreau books, about who Thoreau actually was. (The first chapter of another Thoreau book I am currently reading, Ethel Seybold’s lively Thoreau: the Quest and the Classics, is entitled “Proteus.”) Tom Slayton sees his reservations as an opportunity to improve his understanding of Thoreau, as well as to exercise his passion for hiking and climbing in New England, and he sets out deliberately to discover Thoreau—successfully in his own and this reader’s judgement—in the places he visited with particular engagement, certainly not Harvard Square. Slayton begins with Walden and the Concord Woods, moves on to the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, then Monadnock, Wachusett, and Greylock, then Katahdin and the Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and finally Mt. Washington—all places familiar to New Englanders with the least inclination to the outdoors. He the process, he interweaves his readings in Thoreau with hearty forays into these locations, describing them honestly, and always keeping an eye the commonality of modern concerns about pollution, overdevelopment, and conservation with the issues of Thoreau’s time, which are remarkably similar. Far from looking at the physical experience of Thoreau’s places as an irrelevant distraction from what one can read on the page, Slayton regards it as essential.
Walden, as Slayton stresses, was no more an idyllic retreat in Thoreau’s time than it is today. It becomes this in spirit only through Thoreau’s experience and consciousness, which was highly selective, whether from the attunement of his own epistemology, his self-awareness as observer and narrator, or literary technique. As rarified as it was, it made him a precursor of modern conservationists and preservationists, who, unlike their prophet, enjoy the benefits of an organized activist community. Slayton is most in sympathy with Thoreau the explorer, the scientist, and conservationist, and rather less patient with the intellectual and spiritual awareness which inspired his passion to know and to preserve. This awareness of the need for a balanced relationship between man and nature, which he saw more fully realized in primitive man—in native Americans, ancient Indians, or Greeks, came from a deeper source than scientific study or the arbitrary preference of a loner. Slayton, as sympathetically and intelligently as he reads his Thoreau overall, has little patience with his allusions to ancient authors and with his speculative ramblings, which, in his opinion, severely compromises A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
Also, for Slayton Thoreau was a scientist manqué. In this spirit he takes issue (on p. 19) with one of Thoreau’s most characteristic and inspiring passages, his account of the measuring of Walden Pond and its broader significance. After giving a detailed account of his measuring of the pond, Thoreau draws his conclusion and amplifies it, considering its import for the human being:
If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful. The particular laws are as our points of view, as, to the traveller, a mountain outline varies with every step, and it has an infinite number of profiles, though absolutely but one form. Even when cleft or bored through it is not comprehended in its entireness. What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics.
It is the law of average. Such a rule of the two diameters not only guides us toward the sun in the system and the heart in man, but draws lines through the length and breadth of the aggregate of
a man’s particular daily behaviors and waves of life into his coves and inlets, and where they intersect will be the height or depth of his character. Perhaps we need only to know how his shores trend and his adjacent country or circumstances, to infer his depth and concealed bottom. If he is surrounded by mountainous circumstances, an Achillean shore, whose peaks overshadow and are reflected in his bosom, they suggest a corresponding depth in him. But a low and smooth shore proves him shallow on that side. In our bodies, a bold projecting brow falls off to and indicates a corresponding depth of thought. Also there is a bar across the entrance of our every cove, or particular inclination; each is our harbor for a season, in which we are detained and partially land-locked. These inclinations are not whimsical usually, but their form, size, and direction are determined by the promontories of the shore, the ancient axes of elevation. When this bar is gradually increased by storms, tides, or currents, or there is a subsidence of the waters, so that it reaches to the surface, that which was at first but an inclination in the shore in which a thought was harbored becomes an individual lake, cut off from the ocean, wherein the thought secures its own conditions–changes, perhaps, from salt to fresh, becomes a sweet sea, dead sea, or a marsh. At the advent of each individual into this life, may we not suppose that such a bar has risen to the surface somewhere? It is true, we are such poor navigators that our thoughts, for the most part, stand off and on upon a harborless coast, are conversant only with the bights of the bays of poesy, or steer for the public ports of entry, and go into the dry docks of science, where they merely refit for this world, and no natural currents concur to individualize them.
Slayton takes this as a naive distortion of an empirical method Thoreau had taken up competently in accurately measuring the lake and interpreting its proportions, but then botched by wandering into moral and metaphysical speculations, but this passage is in fact an experiment, if a slightly playful one, in Goethean science, in which the macrocosm and the microcosm are inextricably linked, including man, who directs his consciousness towards nature as a living, integral part of it, and who responds to and understands it not only with the intellect, but with the heart and will as well. There may be as many Thoreaus as there are readers, but this is a matter of his intellectual context. See also Thoreau’s meditation on sunset, Christmas 1851: “What sort of science is that which enriches the understanding but robs the imagination?”
Tom Slayton’s “researches” into Thoreau, that is, his hiking trips into the wild—the wilderness—inasmuch as it exists in New England today (or in Thoreau’s time), are genial, practical affairs, although with a true outdoorsman’s sober awareness of the dangers involved in doing things like climbing Katahdin. His accounts of his adventures are skillful, exciting, and instructive. At Walden and on the Merrimack he travels in groups as well as in private with friends and relatives, in order to put before our eyes the community work that is being done in conservation and public education. Both the Merrimack and Walden Pond are in much better shape than they were 50 to 75 years ago. Civilized groups of nature enthusiasts can take lecture tours down the river, all appropriately dressed by L. L. Bean and equipped with neat, brightly colored plastic kayaks, which make Tom Slayton’s fiberglas canoe look like a World War I battleship. He advisedly makes the reader aware of present issues, their background, and the future outlook, and he also provides ample information about how to organize one’s own visit, both in his main text and in an appendix: “Tips on Tracking Thoreau.”
Tom Slayton is not a man to gush, but his disciplined descriptions of specific locations show sensitivity and attractive language. For example, his account of the Presidential Range includes a description of its great alpine meadow which takes the reader right along with him: “a rolling upland, where fields of tawny deer’s hair sedge, tiny bog cranberry, bearberry, diapensia, Lapland rosebay, and alpine azalea gradually supplant patches of weather-stunted spruce and fir as the trail winds higher and higher.” (p. 149)
As full of detail as his book is, Slayton never loses track of his purpose and his theme. He does indeed find Thoreau in the places, plants, and animals he studied. His kind of participation is not of Thoreau’s intense, totally absorbed kind, since he is basically a rationalist, but I think no one could argue with his basic tenet about Thoreau, that he was a seeker of the wild: “He was a good Romantic…but he was also a naturalist and came to understand that wildness did not have to be found only in wilderness…For him it was a pervasive quality—close to what the ancient Chinese called the Tao, the mysterious, all-encompassing force that winds the mainspring of the universe. He searched for it everywhere.” ( p. 3) Slayton constantly returns to this theme as he visits and revisits Thoreau’s haunts. whether in obvious places like the Maine woods or in heavily developed places like Cape Cod or Walden Pond. He puts it in the forefront of his conclusion, quoting Thoreau: “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild…I believe in the forest, and in the meadows, and in the night in which the corn grows.” Or as Walt Whitman said in a quotation that follows hard upon it: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” While some may see these statements, both confessions of belief, as pure Goethe, it is enough to ponder them in themselves.
Is it enough only to ponder Thoreau’s texts, closeted in one’s study? Much of the best studies on Thoreau have come about in this way. Tom Slayton compellingly demonstrates that there is something more, for Thoreau is a philosopher who constantly challenges us to seek participation in nature and his thought by following his example and going out into the wild. But by all means buy this book and read it, even if you aren’t the outdoorsy type.
Click here to read Part II.