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“I Heard a Very Loud Sound”:
Thoreau Processes the Spectacle of Sudden, Violent Death

by Randall Conrad

Published in ATQ, Vol. 19 No. 2, June 2005

This essay originates in a presentation given at the 2002 convention of the American Literature Association, just nine months after the fall of the World Trade Center towers. We Thoreau Society panelists had been asked to consider how (or whether) the Transcendentalists’ philosophy can help 21st-century citizens cope with a disaster of the magnitude of September 11, 2001. Seeking some equivalent in Thoreau’s experience, I decided to examine the following journal passage for 7 January 1853, in which the 35 year old philosopher writes of viewing burnt, scattered human remains, the fresh result of a powdermill explosion.

About ten minutes before 10 a.m., I heard a very loud sound, and felt a violent jar, which made the house rock and the loose articles on my table rattle, which I knew must be either a powder-mill blown up or an earthquake.  Not knowing but another and more violent might take place, I immediately ran down-stairs, but I saw from the door a vast expanding column of whitish smoke rising in the west directly over the powder-mills four miles distant. It was unfolding its volumes above, which made it widest there. In three or four minutes it had all risen and spread itself into a lengthening, somewhat copper-colored cloud parallel with the horizon from north to south, and about ten minutes after the explosion it passed over my head, being several miles long from north to south and distinctly dark and smoky toward the north, not nearly so high as the few cirrhi in the sky. I jumped into a man's wagon and rode toward the mills. In a few minutes more, I saw behind me, far in the east, a faint salmon-colored cloud carrying the news of the explosion to the sea, and perchance over [the] head of the absent proprietor.

Arrived probably before half past ten. There were perhaps thirty or forty wagons there. The kernel-mill had blown up first, and killed three men who were in it, said to be turning a roller with a chisel. In three seconds after, one of the mixing-houses exploded. The kernel-house was swept away, and fragments, mostly but a foot or two in length, were strewn over the hills and meadows, as if sown, for thirty rods, and the slight snow then on the ground was for the most part melted around. The mixing-house, about ten rods west, was not so completely dispersed, for most of the machinery remained, a total wreck. The press-house, about twelve rods east, had two thirds [of] its boards off, and a mixing-house next westward from that which blew up had lost some boards on the east side. The boards fell out (i.e. of those buildings which did not blow up), the air within apparently rushing out to fill up the vacuum occasioned by the explosions, and so, the powder being bared to the fiery particles in the air, another building explodes. The powder on the floor of the bared press-house was six inches deep in some places, and the crowd were thoughtlessly going into it. A few windows were broken thirty or forty rods off. Timber six inches square and eighteen feet long was thrown over a hill eighty feet high at least,-- a dozen rods; thirty rods was about the limit of fragments. The drying-house, in which was a fire, was perhaps twenty-five rods distant and escaped. Every timber and piece of wood which was blown up was as black as if it had been dyed, except where it had broken on falling; other breakages were completely concealed by the color. I mistook what had been iron hoops in the woods for leather straps. Some of the clothes of the men were in the tops of the trees, where undoubtedly their bodies had been and left them. The bodies were naked and black, some limbs and bowels here and there, and a head at a distance from its trunk. The feet were bare; the hair singed to a crisp. I smelt the powder half a mile before I got there. Put the different buildings thirty rods apart, and then but one will blow up at a time.1

Thoreau depicts the scene unsentimentally and apparently mean-mindedly. In a detached style highlighted with flashes of irony, he marshals observed details, some horrid, in order to deduce the sequential phases of the conflagration—and then, wasting no breath lamenting the tragedy, suggests a better design for future factories. To any reader with an animus against the hermit of Walden, these 600 words can only confirm the stereotypical curmudgeon and misanthrope (Bridgeman xii). Any champion of Thoreau, on the other hand, will assume that the acid social satirist who wrote Walden’s “Economy” chapter had to be aware of the irony in a gunpowder worker’s death by explosion—the ultimate wage of “driving for Squire Make-a-Stir.” Thus Laura Dassow Walls, in a rich discussion of chance and necessity in Thoreau’s philosophy, stretches toward social consciousness by interpreting Thoreau’s punch line (“Put the different buildings…”) as a criticism of the reification introduced into society by “the factory system” (250).

Actually Thoreau’s narrative does not primarily express either misanthropy or progressive social criticism. In this essay I examine its themes and imagery in relation to several related journal entries during 1853 as well as related lectures, essays, and correspondence by Thoreau around this time. I establish that the horrifying vision continued to haunt Thoreau’s imagination for months, perturbing his dreams and waking meditations, and unsettling his vital sense of oneness with nature—a state which brought him to the brink of despair. I argue that, consciously or not, Thoreau set himself the project of “working through” (as we now say) this emotionally painful experience: he would mediate the intolerable horror through his writing, finally employing the rich resources of his art to resolve the alarming philosophic contradictions he had discovered.

Until recently, few scholars took notice of this journal entry, even though its traumatizing content fairly leaps off the page. Among the pioneer modern writers, only Richard Lebeaux (1984) discusses this episode as one of the stressors which, evincing the inevitable finality of death, seriously shook Thoreau’s comforting vision of a unified, cyclical Nature during the winter of 1853. Two 21st-century interpreters, Michael West and Michael Sperber, apply aesthetic and psychoanalytic criteria, respectively. West, analyzing the richly symbolic “sand foliage” passage in Walden’s “Spring” chapter, describes Thoreau’s image of the divine Artist’s laboratory as a “charnel house” in which body parts are “indiscriminately strewn about” and infers a strong influence of the 1853 powdermill explosion (464-65). West offers absorbing discussions of Walden’s sand-bank passage in terms of Thoreau’s glossology (185-89; cf. 196-200), his “homespun fecal cosmology,” and ultimately his anticipation of death (450, 465). Sperber, writing from a psychiatrist’s standpoint, presents Thoreau’s experience of the fatal explosion as one of several triggers which, that year, coincided to catalyze the recurring depression he had experienced every January since his brother’s sudden, traumatizing death in January 1842 (17).2 Sperber argues persuasively that Thoreau’s narrative voice in this journal entry is expressive of the “psychic numbing” that is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, one facet of Thoreau’s lifelong, complex depression.

The present essay considers the image-making in several interrelated pieces of Thoreau’s writing not merely as biographical data—evidence of mental depression—but as cohesive fragments of an ongoing, self-healing therapeutic process which Thoreau undertook between January and November 1853. During these months, Thoreau realized that his very sanity was at risk, exerted his creative powers to recover stability, and in the end re-imagined himself as a seer in the presence of the divine.

Let us begin by accounting for the dispassionate tone Thoreau affects in his narrative, which alienates so many readers. A simple explanation, of course, is that Thoreau is merely expressing a certain professionalism. Only months before, the Boston surveyor and cartographer H. F. Walling had credited Thoreau with the title “Civ. Engr” (civil engineer) for the latter’s contribution of his pond survey to a new, authoritative map of Concord Village (Stowell 11). Why should Thoreau not presume to propose, from an engineer’s standpoint, a more efficient design idea for the powdermill campus?

Thoreau was in fact a professional when it came to the powder-milling industry, now that he had become manager of the graphite-grinding that was the lifeline of the family business. Apart from the need for safety precautions, milling gunpowder is akin to milling graphite. For example, Thoreau’s contemporary Addison G. Fay, initially a minister, easily made the transition from operating a graphite mill to part ownership of the very gunpowder mill under discussion here, only to perish when the mill exploded in 1873 (Conant 7). Among Thoreau’s engineering innovations in his own field, he designed and built with his father a seven-foot-tall mill-extension in 1838 that allowed finer grades of pencil-lead. He increased the efficiency of a lead mill in Acton by replacing iron grinding balls with a stone in 1859 (Harding 56-57, 397, 409). (Did he have the accident of 1853 in mind?)

Professionalism notwithstanding, Thoreau’s journal for 7 January presents internal clues that invite a more complex interpretation of its narrative voice. Consider first the immediate context of this passage—the whole journal entry for this date. Thoreau’s account of the disaster occurs, like the explosion itself, as a disruption of broader and more peaceful reflections on nature and the seasons’ cycle which comprise the overall entry for the day. The disruption dispels a morning mood of oneness and rightness induced by the promise of “a perfect winter day.” Visiting Nawshawtuct Hill very early that morning, Thoreau had been cheered by the “serene” air and sky, and by the sounds of everyday activities in the village below. Examining birch seeds in the snow, he had just written: “I am surprised to see the yellow anthers so distinct, promising spring. I did not suspect that there was so sure a promise or prophecy of spring. These are frozen in December or earlier,—the anthers of spring, filled with their fertilizing dust” (J5 428).

At exactly this point, Thoreau’s warmly affecting vision of the season’s immanent regeneration yields to the explosion narrative. At the end of it, Thoreau concludes the day’s entry by returning to nature observation: he believes he detects the lengthening of daylight, another promise of the spring that will recur (J5 429).

Taking a closer look at vocabulary, we read that pieces of timber are “strewn over the hills and meadows … as if sown.” The simile “as if sown” continues, faintly, Thoreau’s preceding imagery of birch seeds scattered on the ground: even upon this field of death, a theme of regeneration in spite of winter persists. (And the snow is “for the most part melted around.”) Coincidentally or not, the double meaning of some plant-derived vocabulary adds to the effect. The fatal blast was ignited in the “kernel” house; Thoreau finds “limbs” and a “trunk” among the body parts.

It is therefore conceivable that Thoreau in composing this passage was by no means being callous but in fact was already stirred by emotion, indeed conflicting emotions. Thoreau’s biographers agree that he was in a generally grim mood during this winter of 1853. Sensitive to the approach of midlife, Thoreau saw mortality everywhere, a state strongly reinforced by the spectacle at the mills. According to Lebeaux in Thoreau’s Seasons, the cyclical vision of life that usually sustained Thoreau yielded, for a time, to “the dreaded prospects of life’s finite linearity and uncontrollability and of personal annihilation” (174).

If Thoreau was having a mid-thirties crisis of this tenor, it is not hard to identify circumstances that would aggravate it. First of all, as noted, the January anniversary of John Thoreau, Jr.’s, horrific death in his brother’s arms surely stimulated feelings of guilt, as Lebeaux suggests, along with a pronounced longing for forgiveness and redemption. Second, Thoreau’s sustaining friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, shaky in recent years, was nearing its nadir. Thoreau would complain to his journal on 25 May 1853: “Talked or tried to talk with R.W.E. Lost my time—nay almost my identity—he assuming a false op-position where there was no difference of opinion—talked to the wind—told me what I knew & I lost my time trying to imagine myself somebody else to oppose him” (J6 149. Thoreau’s italics and hyphen.).

Third, compounding the grief and sense of loss, January also brought the anniversary of little Waldo Emerson’s demise. Sympathy over the child’s sudden death from scarlet fever in 1842 had once brought Thoreau as close to his friend and mentor as they were now distant. The five-year-old’s passing had prompted Thoreau to console Emerson with his most eloquent statement of the reason for contemplating death with indifference.

How plain that death is only the phenomenon of the individual or class. Nature does not recognize it, she finds her own again under new forms without loss. Yet death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident— It is as common as life” (To R. W. Emerson, 11 March 1842. Correspondence 63).

Thoreau of course does not mean to seem indifferent to the dead child individually. As Emerson well knew, Thoreau had “come to love the boy” while living in the Emerson household in 1841 (Harding 129). It is simply that Thoreau cannot summon the customary sympathy-card sentiments, the conventional language of what Emerson would call “habitual” grief.3 Thoreau will not employ, nor would Emerson accept, a conventional rhetoric of mourning prescribed by the prevailing culture.

Eleven years later, he is all the less likely to do so in recording the deaths of total strangers at the explosion site. Thus we gain additional insight into Thoreau’s narrative of 7 January: its very terseness may signal a deliberate refusal to mourn which is prompted by integrity rather than cynicism.

For comparison, the historical record furnishes a fortuitous and rich example of such a conventional rhetoric, lavished upon an identical event at the same powder mill at a time when several dangerous processes “usually carried on in separate buildings” had been grouped under one roof. On 16 November 1836—the first year of the company’s operation—three men were blown to pieces when more than half a ton of powder exploded. A fourth worker lingered for hours before succumbing to acute burns and fractures.

Like Thoreau, the unnamed writer for the weekly Concord Freeman witnesses a panorama of horror and writes it up with comparable realism: “…his mangled limbs, his tattered flesh, and parts of his body, were found in a neighboring field, twenty or thirty rods distant, and on a hill at least fifty feet higher than the mill.” Quite differently from Thoreau, the reporter goes on to solicit pity. “There the miserable fragments of humanity were scattered, and the pieces hanging like rags on the bushes and trees about showed how effectual was the work of destruction.” The writer laments the deaths as untimely (the mill-hands were in their 20s and 30s) and strikes chords of quasi-tragic irony:

It was heart rending to behold these poor relics of man, so torn, so mangled, so burned, and blackened, and so suddenly changed from the beauty and vigor of confident manhood to the shattered form of loathsome death. … the swift death of these four men, only showed how sooner than was expected the powder had effected its intended purpose of destruction
(“Powder Mill Explosion”)

In an era when the local newspaper in America increasingly served to codify middle-class values and to model appropriate sentimental responses to events, the bare prose of Thoreau’s journal entry raises the standard of non-conformism.

Fourth and finally, we must consider one more depressive factor in 1853, possibly the most serious of all, involving Thoreau’s life as an author. At this time, Thoreau was one year into his last and deepest revision of the manuscript that would be the masterwork of his lifetime, Walden. Undoubtedly, this periodic creative exertion obliged Thoreau on the one hand to relive the disturbing doubts and uncertainties of his quest in the woods, while on the other hand feeling pressed to present his experiences positively for posterity.

If Thoreau was pouring his creative energy into composing a sustained affirmation of nature’s life-cycles for publication, it is not surprising that his emotional reserves were depleted when it came to managing everyday mood changes. No wonder his unifying concept of life “wavered” upon viewing hair-raising evidence of life’s “linearity and uncontrollability,” feeling the finality of death, and conceiving mortality as divine punishment.

How natural then that Thoreau, drawing upon his creative abilities as a writer, would use his journal to process his intolerable feelings. In a number of instances, we will find Thoreau recalling the mill-yard scene, re-experiencing the deeply unsettling emotions it has roused, and finally weaving multiple memories and associated fantasies into a unifying vision.

We may now consider this related material in the journal of 1853. Thoreau harks back to his experience of 7 January in three separate entries that he composed two days, two weeks, and five months after that date. In these passages there is no trace of the cold, factual narrating voice he initially assumed. Instead, Thoreau is demonstrably haunted by what he made himself see.

Perhaps surprisingly, Thoreau’s response as he begins to process the experience is to moralize—to preach and scold almost as severely as if Calvinism were still alive and flourishing in Concord. Thoreau’s reactions to intimations of mortality are colored by a stark dualism. As Lebeaux notes in Thoreau’s Seasons (177), Thoreau admits only extreme alternatives, and these in the most judgmental terms—innocence or sin—redemption or damnation—nature (“infinite and pure”) or man (“the source of all evil”).

On 9 January, after two days of internalizing the experience, Thoreau writes: “Day before yesterday I looked at the mangled & blackened bodies of men which had been blown up by powder, and felt that the lives of men were not innocent, and that there was an avenging power in nature. …” (J5, 437).

Then on 21 January Thoreau records a nightmare in which he feels defiled after unearthing and touching rotten corpses. He interprets the “moral” of the dream: “Death is with me and life far away” (J5, 448).

It should be noted that Thoreau gets away with significant sleight of hand in the entry for 9 January. He attributes the destructive power of the gunpowder to nature, which he depicts as the divine agency of judgment and retribution, an “avenging” dispenser of a death deserved.

Can this mean that Thoreau believes these three specific millworkers were “not innocent”—that they deserved their fate? Not literally. In the world of transcendental analogy, actual realities, mere details, and variable circumstances take a back seat to the (presumed) universal symbolism of an experience. These three men, who in reality were blown to pieces because they neglected procedure and mishandled equipment, have become symbolic stand-ins for the sinful human race. “Nature” stands in for a punishing God, while the blackened, smoking mill yard makes a picture-perfect Hell.

In fact, it is Thoreau’s rhetorical strategy of treating the explosion no differently from a force of nature that enables him to sermonize with such idealizing abstraction. His transcendentalist perspective gives him the privilege of glossing over workaday details that might undermine the universal truth of his meditation on mortality. After all, by most reckonings, a fatal industrial accident is to be reported differently from an accidental death caused, for example, by a lightning strike or a shipwreck.

We have made considerable progress toward unlocking the nature of what is haunting Thoreau. The key lies in the third of Thoreau’s subsequent journal entries, written amid the bloom of late spring. On 1 June, Thoreau reports seeing pieces of the mill buildings “[s]till black with powder” reappearing along the bank of the Concord. He exclaims: “How slowly the ruins are being dispersed!”—expressing perhaps a note of wonder at the persistence of his own morbid recollections (J6 169). (Ironically, the Assabet mill would explode again in June, without fatalities and without comment from Thoreau [Conant 7].)

Thoreau proceeds to imagine these pieces of wood pursuing their journey downriver and across the Atlantic, “[s]till capable of telling how & where they were launched to those who can read their signs.” He draws a parallel with the cloud-as-sign that he saw in January: “The news of the explosion of the Powder Mills—was not only carried seaward by the cloud which its smoke made—but more effectually—though more slowly by the fragments which were floated thither by the river—” (J6 169).4

At this point in the journal, quite unexpectedly, the idea of the Atlantic Ocean unlocks an entirely different level of memory and image, as Thoreau vividly evokes the sight of a drowned man: “To see a man lying all bare lank & tender on the rocks like a skinned frog—or lizzard—we did not suspect that he was made of such cold tender clammy substance before” (J6 169).

Whence this drowned man? Until now, Thoreau had been remembering explosion victims. Following the association with the Atlantic takes us to the answer. Three years earlier, Thoreau had obliged himself to face the mangled, swollen bodies of shipwreck victims on two occasions—at Cohasset, Cape Cod, in 1849 and also during his fruitless mission to retrieve the effects of Margaret Fuller, who had drowned in a wreck on the shore of Fire Island, New York, in 1850.

In his journal at that time, Thoreau uses the image of parallel streams to depict the two worlds that we simultaneously inhabit, that of reality and that of the spirit—the latter alone having substance and value:

This stream of events which we consent to call actual & that other mightier stream which alone carries us with it—what makes the difference—  On the one our bodies float, and we have sympathy with it through them; on the other, our spirits. We are ever dying to one world and being born into another—and possibly no man knows whether he is at any time dead … or not”
(after 29 July 1850 [J3 95]).

In Thoreau’s metaphysics, we are all, at any given instant, so many corpses in the wash of tides. Death is our birth into another world (or, as Thoreau more often conceived it, our continuity in nature). “Who knows but you are dead already?” he repeats (J3 96).

In a public version of these reflections—”The Shipwreck,” composed and delivered as a public lecture as early as 1850—Thoreau helps his audience visualize this birth into another world by playing upon the conventional idea of an afterlife in a parallel dimension.

Why care for these dead bodies? They really have no friends but the worms or fishes. Their owners were coming to the New World, as Columbus and the Pilgrims did, they were within a mile of its shores; but, before they could reach it, they emigrated to a newer world than ever Columbus dreamed of, yet one of whose existence we believe that there is far more universal and convincing evidence—though it has not yet been discovered by science … I saw their empty hulks that came to land; but they themselves, meanwhile, were cast upon some shore yet further west, toward which we are all tending, and which we shall reach at last, it may be through storm and darkness, as they did.
(“Cape Cod” 635)

“The Shipwreck” was polished for publication as the introductory section of “Cape Cod” by 1852, when Thoreau offered it to G. W. Curtis for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. By that time, Thoreau must have all but memorized his text, considering that he delivered his Cape Cod lecture before several audiences in 1850-51. (Putnam’s ran “Cape Cod”—the opening four chapters of the posthumous book we now know—serially and unsigned in June, July and August 1855.)

So fully does Thoreau in “The Shipwreck” conceive death as integral to life that the idea of an untimely, unfair, or undeserved death is meaningless. A psychological analyst of Thoreau’s statement—noting in particular the abstract and universal voice adopted here by the writer—might well suspect that this highly rational denial of death is constructed as a defense against an intolerably painful affect, including sheer physical revulsion. John Thoreau Jr., we recall, died in the arms of his adoring younger brother, who could only watch as the ghastly death-sneer (risus sardonicus) of lockjaw froze his brother’s facial muscles into a mocking mask in the final moments of respiratory muscular paralysis and suffocation. (Sperber  9-10). (Almost from the instant it took place, this death-scene became romanticized by friends and family as an exchange of beatific smiles, although Thoreau would later use the words “ugly pain” in a memorial poem.) As Lebeaux has well established in Young Man Thoreau, the unbearable pain of experiencing this extraordinarily wrenching loss “froze” the normal grieving process in Thoreau, initiating instead a chronic depressive cycling (167-68, 172).

Only substitute the 1853 explosion instead of death by drowning—and extend “the law of Nature” to include industrial fatalities—and Thoreau’s comment in “The Shipwreck” could be read as a justification of his seemingly emotionless description of the fatalities at the Acton mill:

On the whole, it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more. I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity? … Take all the grave-yards together, they are always the majority. It is the individual and private that demands our sympathy. A man can attend but one funeral in the course of his life, can behold but one corpse.
(635—my emphases).

Thoreau’s grief-work on the first of June required him to dig down to the earlier recollection of the “bare, lank and tender” body on the beach. (He sensed soon after visiting the explosion site that this work of exhumation, though repugnant, would be necessary to bring resolution. His nightmaare of 21 January, mentioned above, expresses this idea [J5 448].) Writing his June entry, Thoreau succeeds in substituting a memory of a death-encounter that is “tender” (he uses the word repeatedly) for one that is limb-wrenching and bloody—a vision of birth/death cradled by the eternal rhythm of the salt-water tides instead of sudden, hideous dismemberment amid apocalyptic fire. He has recovered that “one body … in some lonely place” that he wished to see on Cape Cod, and has allowed it to “affect” him.

The figure of the drowned man embodies the eternal interchange of death and life. No sooner has Thoreau substituted the drowned man for the burnt men than he is free to begin reclaiming the redeeming vision that sustains him. That one affecting corpse holds the key to life.5

The process we have traced guided Thoreau out of his dualistic dead end. It recaptured his vanished closeness with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Most important for literature, it helped to shape one of the most inspired symbolic visions in Walden.

Late in the stressful year of 1853, as J. Lyndon Shanley’s work documents, Thoreau proceeded with final revisions to Walden, amplifying many passages and relocating some to better artistic advantage. One of these was the description of the thawing sand bank along the “deep cut” that had been dug southwest of the pond for the new railroad. As published, these enthusiastic lines in the climactic “Spring” chapter form one of the book’s cardinal passages, the symbolic revelation of the earth as nature’s infinite matrix of life.

In Thoreau’s initial draft of 1846-47, the shapes assumed by the rivulets of sand as they flow down the embankment are limited to those of “vegetation, of vines and stout pulpy leaves” (Shanley 204). The expanded revision, which Thoreau worked up in October or November of 1853, adds a multitude of details and colors, bringing the tumbling cascade to life and deepening its symbolic meaning—while restating in a positive mode the theme of scattered organs and limbs. As revised, the shifting forms recall not only vegetal and coral shapes but also animal parts—”leopard’s paws or birds’ feet”—and finally “brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds” (Walden 305). Thoreau sees in the thawing sand and clay “the different iron colors, brown, gray, yellowish, and reddish” (305). This is the same palette he uses to color his initial journal entry of 7 January describing the sky and earth at the explosion site.

Michael West finds it ironic that Thoreau’s vision of life should be grounded in a mineral mixture “destined to sandy sterility” (465). I would contend that this deficit is outweighed by the resonant personal—even heroic—meaning that clay held for Thoreau. By introducing the use of clay to create an improved pencil-lead after 1838, Thoreau brought an enormous boon to American artists, engineers, and writers—and he knew it. (Thoreau’s intuitive research has been nicely reconstructed by Henry Petroski [110-12].) Quite conceivably, then, the iea of “the Artist”—God or Nature—working in a matrix of sand and clay contains some admixture of Thoreau the writer-inventor, bringer of benefit to scholars, poets, and scribes for all time.

Thus by his art Thoreau manages to redeem and purify the horrifying image of the millhands’ torn corpses (“some limbs & bowels here & there”). Evoking the “laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,” he transfigures the lifeless organs of dead men into the material of birth, renewal, and creation.

Of course, the gruesome festoons in the Assabet millyard were not the sole inspiration for Thoreau’s elaboration of the sand-bank passage. Well before the 1853 explosion, Thoreau was in the habit of visualizing all creatures’ vital organs in the sand bank’s spring-like, if “somewhat foecal and stercoral,” outpouring. By playing upon the classic connotation of “bowels” (seat of the affections—sympathy or “heart”), he endows his complex image with poetic ambiguity in the journal. “There is no end to the fine bowels here exhibited—heaps of liver—lights & bowels. Have you no bowels? Nature has some bowels. and there again she is mother of humanity” (31 Dec. 1851 [J4 231]. Cf. Walden 305).

Much as the archetypal leaf, Goethe’s famous Urpflanze, became Thoreau’s template for every life form, so the dynamic “motion in the earth” that pushes it to the surface is Thoreau’s Urstuhl, an archetypal flux that partakes of both unclean excretion and raw creativity. In the journal passage cited above, Thoreau incorporated this grand peristalsis into his symbol for poesis.

As this essay has sought to establish, selections from Thoreau’s journalizing during 1853 present a continuing introspective process that is deliberate, yet is guided in part by unconscious association toward a goal of resolution of conflict and liberation from depression. This decidedly modern mode of journal-keeping offers a particularly rich illustration of the self-therapeutic practice that Sperber identifies as “writing it out,” and which he sees as “a crucial part of the treatment program that Thoreau unconsciously devised to deal with his severe stress, mood and personality disorders” (119).

With myth-making force, Thoreau the seer celebrates in Walden the return of spring that he glimpsed even in the scorched millyard. Perhaps echoing the Psalmist as much as Genesis, Thoreau now asks, “What is man but a mass of thawing clay?” (307). He proclaims the oneness of plant and animal life-forms, a unity visible in the common clay from which they are pouring in profusion. Far from “soiling” his fingers in the putrid bodies of dead men as he did in his nightmare, the seer stands in the presence of the divine creative force, in the place where nature perpetually “finds her own again under new forms without loss.”


1 Journal IV 453-54. The Assabet Manufacturing Company, situated along two miles of the Assabet River forming part of the Acton and Concord town line, produced gunpowder through various changes of name and ownership until 1940. See Austin for a highly readable tour of this company’s mills, virtually unchanged seventeen years after Thoreau’s experience (apart from introducing steam-heat instead of fire). The “absent proprietor” was Nathan Pratt, who founded the company in 1835 and owned it until 1864.

The reason Thoreau can narrow the possibilities immediately upon first hearing the noise is that explosions at the Assabet mill happened at least every several years. “Explosions that shattered a few window panes as far away as Acton Centre while not common were by no means unheard of. Anyone who had lived in the vicinity for twenty five years had almost certainly experienced two or three” (Phalen 140).

Some acquaintance with the industrial process itself may be helpful here. Kernelling, also called corning, graining and granulating, consists of feeding the processed powder into sets of rollers to achieve a given fineness of grain. If the three mill-hands were “turning a roller with a chisel,” the scrape of iron against iron ignited the fatal spark.

Powdermill structures were built on solid foundations and frames, but their boarding and roof were intentionally light so that an explosion would blow them off easily. This, it was hoped, would minimize damage to the framework and machinery (Austin 535).

As Thoreau deduces, four buildings exploded in this order: kernel house, one mixing house, press house, and another mixing house. In the manufacturing process, of course, the order is otherwise. The mixing houses were used first, followed by the press house, kernel mill, glazing house (not observed by Thoreau), and drying house (Brewster 5-6). One rod being equal to 5.5 yards or somewhat greater than five meters, the debris was flung nearly one-tenth of a mile distant.

2 I showed an early version of this paper to Dr. Sperber in 2003 while assisting with research for his book. Reciprocally, this version is indebted to his key concept of Thoreau’s “self-therapeutic successes” in discussing Thoreau’s “processing” of emotional experience.

3 In contrast to “trivial or ‘habitual’ grief,” Jennifer Gurley (“Goodness and Grief...”) considers whether genuine grief, for Emerson, is to be verbalized at all. How Emerson coped with Waldo’s loss emotionally and philosophically—absent the traditional consolations of Christianity—is summarized by David Lyttle ("Emerson and Natural Evil," esp. 66-72).

4 Fragments embedded in a hillside by the force of the January 1853 explosion (and others) remained visible six years afterward, as Thoreau noted during some Assabet River excursions. In a supreme use of irony, he now declares the victims’ body parts expunged from this exhibit:

As you draw near the powder-mills, you see the hill behind bestrewn with the fragments of mills which have been blown up in past years,— the fragments of the millers having been removed,— and the canal is cluttered with the larger ruins. The very river makes haste past the dry-house, as it were for fear of accidents (21 July 1859; Journal XII 248).

This is, to my knowledge, the last reference to the blast in Thoreau’s journal.

5 At the core of the drowned-man image is Henry’s memory of his brother’s horrid death. Forever unable to accept John’s loss, Henry invested enormous emotional energy in seeing his dead brother as proof of the eternal reciprocity between death and life. In the concluding pages of Young Man Thoreau, Lebeaux sensitively detects wide-ranging aspects of “private grief and guilt” underpinning the opening chapters of Cape Cod (199-204). “Can anyone doubt that the ‘funeral’ and ‘corpse’ that Thoreau had in mind were John’s?” (201).

Works Cited

Austin, Jane G. “Highly Explosive.” Atlantic Monthly Nov. 1870: 527-42.

Bridgeman, Richard. Dark Thoreau. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.

Conant, Brewster. “Powder Mills: a Speech … February 20, 1994.” Acton Historical Society.

Gurley, Jennifer. “Goodness and Grief, or Emerson’s Pain.” American Literature Association, Annual Conference, 31 May 2002. Thoreau Project. 20 Apr. 2005. <http://www.calliope.org/thoreau/thoradv/thorala/grief.html>

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. 1965. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1993.

Lebeaux, Richard. Thoreau’s Seasons. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1984.

———. Young Man Thoreau. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1977.

Lyttle, David. “Emerson and Natural Evil.” Concord Saunterer 9 (2001): 57-84.

Petroski, Henry. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, New York: Knopf, 1992.

Phalen, Harold R. History of the Town of Acton. Cambridge, MA: Middlesex, 1954.

“Powder Mill Explosion. Communicated.” Concord Freeman. 19 Nov. 1836.

Shanley, J. Lyndon. The Making of Walden, With the Text of the First Version. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Sperber, Michael, Henry David Thoreau: Cycles and Psyche. Higganum, CT: Higganum Hill, 2004.

Stowell, Robert F. A Thoreau Gazetteer. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1970.

[Thoreau, Henry David.] “Cape Cod.” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, June 1855, 632ff.

Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod. Ed. J. J. Moldenhauer. Princeton U P, 1988.

———. Correspondence. Ed. W. Harding and C. Bode. New York U P, 1958.

———. Walden. Ed. J. L. Shanley. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1971.

———. Journal.
[J2] Journal, Vol. 2 (1842–1848). Ed. R. Sattelmeyer. Princeton U P, 1984
[J3] Journal, Vol. 3 (1848–1851). Ed. R. Sattelmeyer, M. Patterson, and W. Rossi. Princeton U P, 1990
[J5] Journal, Vol. 5 (1852–1853). Ed. P. F. O’Connell. Princeton U P, 1997
[J6] Journal, Vol. 6 (1853). Ed. W. Rossi and H. K. Thomas
[J8] Journal, Vol. 8 (1854). Ed. S. H. Petrulionis.  Princeton U P, 2002.
[Journal IV] Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. IV (May 1852-Feb. 1853). Ed. B. Torrey and F. Allen. 1906. New York: Dover, 1962
[Journal XII] Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. XII (Mar.-Nov. 1859). Ed. B. Torrey and F. Allen. 1906. New York: Dover, 1962.

Walls, Laura Dassow. Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-century Science. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1995.

West, Michael. Transcendental Wordplay: America’s Romantic Punsters and the Search for the Language of Nature. Athens: Ohio U P, 2000.

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010