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Book Review: Princeton Redux

The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Walden Anniversary Paperback Series, five volumes, Princeton University Press, 2004.

Reviewed by Randall Conrad. Reprinted by permission of the Thoreau Society Bulletin (no. 248, summer 2004).

In time for Walden's 150th anniversary, Princeton University Press offers five major volumes designed as a uniform set, with new introductions by contemporary writers. This is Princeton's second foray into marketing its authoritative Thoreau texts in softcover editions for a more general readership.(*)

The texts, needless to say, are unchanged from the definitive editions established for The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, still known as the "Princeton Edition," by Shanley (Walden), Hovde, Howarth and Witherell (A Week), Moldenhauer (Cape Cod and The Maine Woods), and Glick (Reform Papers, now happily retitled The Higher Law).

What is new are the five introductions supplied by authors you probably have read, and who essay a variety of strategies to get you to turn to page one. We have met a couple of them before in this role; the job is challenging, the labor pool limited. In the musical chairs of Thoreau-introducing, Paul Theroux has managed to grab a different seat (Cape Cod for Penguin in 1987 and now The Maine Woods), while John McPhee (A Week) just stayed in his chair during the piano-playing, offering last year's New Yorker piece as this year's foreword. Poor Joyce Carol Oates was bumped from Walden by that other American prolific, John Updike. Cape Cod is introduced by Robert Pinsky, while Howard Zinn presents The Higher Law.
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Why do the novelists get to do Walden? Oates gave a reason in her engaging introduction in 1988: "we should understand Thoreau's 'I' to be a calculated literary invention, a fictitious character set in a naturalistic but fictitious world." Oates was fine with that, and she wrote her piece in the first person, as one writer appreciating another. (It helped that she often taught Thoreau in her lit courses.) As an adult, Oates could still relish Thoreau�s adolescent rebellion as well as his wordplay and intricate art. She could decry Thoreau�s misogyny and blind spots and still be buoyed by the living, breathing classic.

Updike, another fellow writer, is safe in savoring the "thinginess of Thoreau�s prose." Apart from that, he beats a different drum. He recommends Walden as a "head-clearing spice" and "an antidote to apathy and anxiety," but apparently knows that "we" are too caught up in life's demands to face, or even discern, Thoreau�s challenge to the mass of men.

As a result, Updike stays on the surface. His new introduction unfolds in a third-person voice propped up occasionally with an annoying "we," as if he were still at his New Yorker desk:

We slightly wince, on behalf of those more tightly bound to laborious necessity, when we read that 'to maintain one�s self on this earth is not hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely'... Thoreau makes light of most men�s need to work, and ignores the wave of industrial toil that is breaking upon New England [in the 1840s].

In a sesquicentennial introduction, "we" might have expected sympathy for the raw life-experiment of Walden, but Updike mostly squirms over his pensum. Ignoring that Oates stuff about a fictitious character in a fictitious world, Updike seeks a real Thoreau, a responsible Thoreau, and is disappointed. Thoreau, you learn, was not who he pretends to be: he was "something of a gentleman" in a Concord that "was by our lights a bucolic world."
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"We" prefer an introducer who does not obstruct the view but opens a wide window. In a bolt of inspiration, Princeton asked Howard Zinn to do the honors for The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform. Zinn doesn't doubt for a second that the man who went to jail in July of  '46 is alive in our time, and he gets right down to it, tracing the mushrooming expansion of civil disobedience from the Mexican War, Fugitive Slave Law, and Harpers Ferry to latter-day protests against racist belligerence and government obfuscation during the civil rights struggles, the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, and the "war on terrorism." Much as Thoreau individually lambasted the governor, Judge Loring, Mister Suttle and other minions of the slave powers in "Slavery in Massachusetts," Zinn limns withering vignettes of Judge Larsen and Justice Fortas in 1968 and General Powell in 1991, and wants you to ask and answer, "What would Thoreau say if he were alive today?"
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Robert Pinsky, poet, poet laureate (1997-2000), and educator, offers the keenest literary appreciation of Thoreau. You will want to read or re-read Cape Cod, not because Pinsky declares that it "can amaze modern readers," but because he actually proves it in his introduction. A work of literature is a particular structure built of particular words, and Pinsky knows the thrill of discovery that comes from the concrete, sustained exercise of textual explication. Rooting Cape Cod in the rhetoric of lecture and therefore the mode of performance, Pinsky illustrates the work's "mercurial texture" in a brilliant cascade of stylistic analyses. He shepherds you through the master's favorite lecture-hall devices -- the wisecrack, the mock sermon, and the "rhetorical flight" -- until you can really believe that Thoreau's listeners at the Concord Lyceum "laughed till they cried," as Emerson recorded in 1850.
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Of all Thoreau books, A Week is the toughest to sell. John McPhee, at his best a spellbinding nature writer, wisely eschews structure, philosophy, irreligion and the "700 books" anecdote in favor of an outdoorsy, first-person re-creation of the Thoreau brothers' two-week excursion on the Concord and Merrimack which originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2003 New Yorker.
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Introducing The Maine Woods, Paul Theroux suggests that Thoreau felt competitive in comparison to the brilliant, wide-ranging explorers of his day -- Darwin aboard the "Beagle," Burton in Arab lands, or let's just say Emerson in England or Melville in the Marquesas. I feared the man of Concord would come up short, but Theroux takes Thoreau's full measure as an artist, environmentalist and prophet of change in a wry and thoughtful appreciation. Theroux examines the three Maine excursions like the growth-rings of a tree, demonstrating Thoreau's maturation from a master of the "dazzling set-piece" to a "clear-sighted diarist" who denounces deforestation and seeks to understand Native Americans more realistically. And he beautifully celebrates the young spirit suffusing The Maine Woods: "�the woods gave Thoreau the freedom to play and be youthful, for the pine tree and the moose and the Indian loomed over him, as they would a small boy."

(*) The Maine Woods, 1983, with an afterword by Joseph J. Moldenhauer, and Walden, 1988, introduced by Joyce Carol Oates, are out of print. Back

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010