Sep 11, 2013


Students and other humans often want to know why writers seem more likely to be oddballs than people in other vocations or lifestyles. If that stereotype is accurate, were they odd first, or were they writers first, whose craft forced them into unusual existences?
Song Sparrow
Can a writer or artist critique a society in which he’s enmeshed, or must he sit at the edge of the mainstream in order to see it well enough to present it with something like disinterest and objectivity? Artists are a bit like scientists—observers, witnesses, reporters—so they and their subjects must often be at different ends of the microscope.

Most likely, well-researched biographies have already explained all this, and I hope to get to them some day. For now, here are some samples of what Thoreau’s friends said.  Of his face, Hawthorne wrote: ‘[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty." 

Hawthorne also wrote that Thoreau "repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men."[91][92]

On the other hand, Hawthorne also sings the praises of the odd and gifted Thoreau. In our age of growing careerism, when students and their parents seem to be seeing high school and college only as another kind of trade school, only a means to materialistic, functional, mundane, blunted ends, I especially like this passage from Hawthorne: 
"Yes, Thoreau showed me things, and though it didn't aid me in the Harvard                     curriculum, it helped me through life.
            "Truly, Nature absorbed his attention, but I                don't think he cared much for what is called the beauties of nature; it was her way of working, her mystery, her economy in extravagance; he delighted to trace her footsteps toward their source .... He liked to feel that the pursuit was endless, with mystery at both ends of it . . ."
Not Every Pond Is Walden

But at some level Thoreau must have sensed an attitude from others about his appearance and his way of being in the world, especially when we hear a similarly critical, even mocking assessment from the principal female thinker at Concord, Louisa May Alcott. From Wikipedia: “Thoreau also wore a neckbeard for many years, which he insisted many women found attractive.   However, Louisa May Alcott mentioned to Ralph Waldo Emerson that Thoreau's facial hair ‘will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man's virtue in perpetuity.’”   (Gilman, William, et al, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 16 vols. (Cambridge, Mass 1960–). 

And these were Thoreau’s friends. Most likely we've all been this catty and superficial, but these are sensitive, perceptive artists, who, it turns out, were major witnesses to the human condition.  Abolitionists. Reservoirs of morality, humanity, wisdom, fonts of compassionate insight that saw through the inanities of their Victorian era. Serious, eloquent New England stock. Or not.

So I have to wonder if Thoreau, in this elite company as well as the ordinary folk of Concord, had deeply personal motives for seclusion and contempt for so much of human convention and enterprise. Maybe he was driven not only by his abstract thoughts about nature and society, but also by the mockery he sensed from the people closest to him. If this was civil life, surely it called for civil disobedience. 
Young Buck

Once again from Wikipedia, here are today’s final tidbits, which I find both melancholy and inspiring:  When his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded: "I did not know we had ever quarreled."

Aware he was dying, Thoreau's last words were "Now comes good sailing", followed by two lone words, "moose" and "Indian". He died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862 at age 44.


Anonymous said...

We probably all have it within ourselves to be writers, poets, real estate magnates, painters, stock brokers, photographers, car salesmen, car mechanics, scientists.

But we have to choose at some point, because there's only room in that noggin for so much and no more. We are the curators of our own intelligence, experience, and desires. Decisions must be made as to what stays in and what goes out. Otherwise it's chaos.

John Evans said...

I suspect Thoreau from a very early age sensed his profound difference from -- what was to him -- the very alien world of so-called normal people. Perhaps he was so estranged from that world and felt such an isolation from it that, rather than adapt, he emphasized those differences, even to the point of baffling his colleagues in the arts.

Your post raises that eternal question -- why are we artists so different, and what pushes us in such contrary directions?

I think one is an artist by personality and make-up. For an artist, art or writing is a calling, and perhaps misery can result from failure to heed that calling.

J.K. Rowling had it down, to me. On the one hand, there are the muggles -- normal, everyday folk who preside over such things as drill factories. On the other hand, you have the wizarding minority -- misunderstood, yet extremely talented, and hounded by the muggles to the point that they do their utmost to conceal their world.

Jean Spitzer said...

Especially like the second photograph.

And the image of ugliness serving Thoreau better than beauty.

Forty-four sounds so young.

Banjo52 said...

AH, FNS--Finite Noggin Syndrome. Loud and Clear. But seriously . . . yes, we might all survive in various enterprises, but at what cost? When i think about the paper work of a used car salesman, I drop my stereotype of those folks as white-collar criminals. (Sooner or later, I pick it right back up again).

I seriously considered returning to the small town as a lawyer. That might have been the end of me. And when we cut up frogs in h.s. bio class, I was so fascinated that I briefly considered medicine. I can't imagine that having worked out. And later, when I went into "take this job and shove it" modes, I somewhat seriously thought about: long-haul trucker; barber; bartender.

John, fascinating to wonder just when we begin to notice how we're like and different from the majority. I also think "a calling" vs. "a career" vs. "a job" constitutes a HUGE consideration, and I worry that too few youngsters think about it.

I haven't read Rowling, but the TV outlines of her life, esp. her beginnings, are inspiring.

Jean, thanks. It's interesting--and worrisome--to consider how ugliness, beauty, and the huge middle-ground affect our outcomes, isn't it.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Those last words really get to me. Humor, and poignancy...

I think artists and creatives nourish the weird parts of themselves. So maybe it just grows a bit closer to the surface in us? :)

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, thanks. Do you think creatives know they are, and are trying to be, weird? I agree that what we want from our days, and therefore nourish in ourselves, puts us in a minority. But isn't that different from consciously seeking to be weird? I wonder if the problem is partly the overlap between weirdness on the one hand and creativity/originality on the other.

Lovers' Lane