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Book Review: Walden Pond -- A History

W. Barksdale Maynard, Walden Pond: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 404 p., $35.00 hardbound. ISBN 0195168410. $20 paperback. ISBN 9780195181371.

Reviewed by Randall Conrad

[A version of this review appeared in Emerson Society Papers, Fall 2005.]

At one point in this wry, sauntering narrative, the author remarks: "One comes to Walden seeking nature and Thoreau, but as often as not it is people who arrest the attention." Maynard might as accurately have titled his work Walden Pond: A Biography. Clearly, his interest in Concord's famous body of water lies in the multitudes it has attracted, the people who have used and abused it from its heyday to the present. Maynard does briefly consider the geology and prehistory of Walden, but his timeline springs to life when the transcendentalists and their successors appear on the scene.

A bit like Thoreau portraying the woods' "Former Inhabitants" in Walden, Maynard has a gift for conjuring the shades to reappear and replay their special moments at the Pond. Thoreau, however, could evoke a vanished microcosm with a cast of only ten bit-players; Maynard summons throngs. Luckily, he is a compassionate portraitist: I dare say for example that his picture of the aging, increasingly eccentric and hapless preservationist Mary Sherwood, founder of Walden Forever Wild, is as poignant in its way as Thoreau's Zilpha White, all differences considered.

Walden Pond: A History is marred by minor flaws including, occasionally, a missed research opportunity to dig a little deeper than the standard sources. At the same time, this readable volume is replete with little surprises, even for the informed. For example, I never knew that the pond in its post-Thoreau days as a picnic ground was known as Lake Walden, and that the apparently timeless Thoreauvian name "Walden Pond" was restored only when the land became a National Park in 1922. Similarly, "Walden Woods"—occurring irregularly in the historical record—was dusted off by activists including Edmund Schofield in the 1980s, when they needed to defend the historic acreage against the menace of development.

It was the open-souled philosophers of nineteenth-century Concord who hallowed Walden for all time, and Maynard expertly traces the cardinal role played by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the spiritualizing of Walden Pond and its woods as vehicles of nature's regenerating influence. Maynard sensitively reviews the Pond's special meaning for Emerson, the first Concord philosopher on the scene and eventually the owner of more and more Walden acreage. The Pond’s deep waters consoled Emerson at times of unspeakable grief. His countless walks and meditations in the surrounding woods—as regular as Thoreau's would be later—inspired his deepest and most influential thinking, notably in Nature (1837).

Personal contact with this local natural setting, the equivalent of Wordsworth's Lakes, soon became a rite of passage for Concord's budding philosophers—in Maynard's wry words, “the now-customary transcendentalist baptism into the woods and waters of Walden.” Emerson, he reminds us, was the one who introduced Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller and her brother Richard, and others to the Pond and its sacrosanct groves. Not least, it was Emerson's purchase of the "Wyman" woodlot near the Pond in 1844 that made Thoreau's famous sojourn (1845-1847) possible.

As the center of an Academe that helped to unify the minds and hearts of those in Emerson's circle, "Walden Water" (as they often called the pond) played a pre-eminent role in the transcendentalist ideas of individual self-discovery and self-reliance. What Maynard finds interesting is the commonality of these ideas, and the similarity of their formulations, among the great Walden devotees during the formative decade 1835 to 1845. Marshaling journals and correspondence, Maynard delights in discovering an abundance of precursive, parallel, and derivative phraseology among Emerson, Alcott and Thoreau. Time and again, some Thoreauvian-sounding passage turns out to be penned by one of the older men. Notably, Maynard refers to a pair of Emerson lectures on “New England,” delivered in Baltimore in 1843 but never published until the present century, which enunciate a complex of “Thoreauvian” themes fully two years before Thoreau’s famous move to the pond. Emerson, he writes,

...spoke of the heroic age, the "indian in the woods," and the Greek, and of how entering the wilderness takes one back two thousand years in time, going from civilization to barbarism. He argued "against the spirit of commerce in New England," in praise of "whatever goes to separate a man," remarking that society shows "despondency," sadness, and anxiety (compare Thoreau's "quiet desperation"). "Heroic farming" was rare, as most farmers were degraded, and he excoriated "Irish laborers ... low and semi-barbarous." He critiqued village life. And, finally, he mentioned his enjoyment in watching the colorful stream of commerce passing before his door (compare Thoreau on the railroad).

"Surely Thoreau’s ideas and attitudes, however individualistic they have been held to be, cannot be understood without this larger intellectual context," Maynard affirms. As a particular instance, Maynard notes a little-studied episode in 1844 in which Thoreau and Ellery Channing were overnight guests in the home of a sawmill owner in New York state named Scribner. For Thoreau, according to Maynard, this excursion brought a real-life experience of the literary Picturesque -- the "revelation of a rustic architectural ideal: rough, unplastered, open to nature, clean, and healthful."

Maynard, an architectural historian, employs his special expertise in this example. The field of Thoreau studies has been indebted to Maynard since the 1999 publication of his eye-opening essay, "Thoreau's House at Walden"  (Art Bulletin 81, no. 2 [June 1999], 1-23—initially a presentation to the 1998 Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society). There he proved that Henry's famous house by the pond was not conceived or erected in a vacuum, but could be viewed instead as an expression, in its idiosyncratic way, of a burgeoning "rustic-retirement phenomenon" that had caught on among a newly prosperous generation of Bostonians. Thoreau, he concluded, was providing for the "poor student especially" the same inspiration and instruction that a variety of "villa books," catalogs and prospectuses was popularizing among the bourgeoisie.

At the waning of the transcendentalist era, Maynard has a field day with irony and satire. Walden Woods, he tells us, was desecrated not only by the Fitchburg Railroad with its commerce and tourism, but also by the idealist pilgrims who arrived in hordes on the same trains – Spiritualist and Unitarian picnickers, Civil War speechmakers, and Fourth of July celebrants. Thoreau-worshippers brought cairn-stones and took away relics. Emerson began to sour on the place, though he still walked here with friends and family.

Old Folks’ Picnics and Poor Children’s Excursions, rowdies and anglers, a gang of drunks bothering the Total Abstinence Society, a dance-hall and bowling alley, “ugly wooden sheds” and “vulgar ice-cream booths” – these were harbingers of a modern epoch of “continuous and rapid change” ably narrated in the remainder of Maynard’s book. The deterioration of Walden continued from the 1930s to the 1950s, as the state “eradicated the last lingering traces of the wild. Eateries and a trailer park, newly cut paths, concrete bathhouses, paved roads, heaps of refuse, and swimmers, always swimmers, eroded the land, polluted Walden Water, and shriveled the spirit of the place.

At length, against the backdrop of the radical counterculture of the 1960s, came stirrings of rebirth. A myth as powerful as the story of Walden must rightly finish with a promise of paradise regained, and Maynard’s concluding chapters function rather like “Spring” at the end of Walden. With an eye for colorful detail and sympathy for his protagonists, Maynard is a Chanticleer as he narrates the evolution of the many-headed movement to reclaim Walden. The pioneering struggles of the Save Walden Committee and the Thoreau Country Conservation Alliance (TCCA), the transfer of the Pond’s management to an environmentally enlightened agency, and the latter-day reconsecration of Walden are told with a reasonable and ginger sensitivity that presents all sides relatively fairly. Maynard details the antagonism between the idealist, impoverished organizations such as the Thoreau Lyceum, TCCA, and Walden Forever Wild and the juggernaut nonprofit that upstaged (or uprooted) them, the Walden Woods Project, founded by rock star Don Henley in 1990. Maynard nimbly recapitulates the Project's victories over ruinous land developers, its establishment in 1999 of the Thoreau Institute – a state-of-the-art location for the Project and the Thoreau Society until the latter decamped to its own quarters after this book came out – and the apparently endless stream of fundraising campaigns that it is eternally obliged to carry on, energized at intervals by Henley concerts and the like.

Maynard's selection of illustrations draws primarily from the Concord Library's outstanding collection of photographs, particularly those of Herbert Gleason, a consummate artist who set out to capture the essence of Walden's infinite landscapes from a timeless Thoreauvian viewpoint in the 1920s, but also immortalized such historic ephemera as the Walden Breezes food stand (the "Home of Hot Dogs") erected at the edge of the state reservation. Gleason's "Automobiles parked at Walden Pond" (1924), featuring a little motorbike surrounded by Model Ts, is one of many gems illuminating Walden Pond: A History.

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010