Thursday, April 30, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Treehugger Thoreau Accidentally Sets Forest Fire)

April 30, 1844—His early dreams of literary success in New York City dashed, forced to return home to his family, needing to establish himself financially, Henry David Thoreau watched his self-esteem disintegrate further, along with 300 acres of woods in his hometown of Concord, Mass., that he and a companion had accidentally set on fire.

The incident confirmed his reputation in town as a fool, drove him to the periphery of his community—and led to the writing of his classic memoir about living in close harmony with nature, Walden.

I have issues with Susan Cheever’s chronicle of Thoreau, Emerson and the rest of the Transcendentalists, American Bloomsbury. The descriptions of the Concord landscape will make you want to visit posthaste, as I did last fall. But her hints of affairs among the local legends don’t hold up to scrutiny. Even longtime residents—a very liberal lot, with maybe only one John McCain sign out in the front lawn compared with hundreds for Barack Obama—rolled their eyes at mention of the book's unsupported speculation.

But Cheever reminded me, by process of association, of someone who could shed better light on Thoreau: oddly enough, not a biographer such as herself, but a fiction writer—none other than her own father. Geoffrey Woolf’s perceptive review of Blake Bailey’s new biography of John Cheever in The New York Times Book Review illuminated one of the high points in the great short-story master’s work: “Goodbye, My Brother.” The story, Woolf pointed out, makes brilliant use of an unreliable narrator.

You remember the concept from English 101, right? It’s a first-person narrative in the voice of someone who is misleading, unable to make connections between his views of a situation or reality, or both. Think of Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

So how does “Goodbye, My Brother” relate to the unfortunate fire in the Concord woods, as retold in Thoreau’s journal? The events in both are narrated by someone who is telling things at variance with the facts. Moreover, by the nature of how much and what they’re telling, they end up revealing much more of themselves than they ever intended.

Setting a forest fire was the last thing on Thoreau’s mind in 1844: he prided himself on his knowledge of the woods. That’s why, when he did so while on an outing with friend Edward Hoar, he had a tough time facing himself, let alone the citizens of Concord.

Cheever’s narrator writes, “I don’t think about the family much,” then contradicts that in practically the same breath by dwelling on his ancestry at great length. Similarly, in his journal account of the fire—written six years after the event—Thoreau rationalized his behavior when, unable to do anything to stop the blaze, he instead stopped and watched it continue:

“I had felt like a guilty person—nothing but shame and regret. But now I settled the matter with myself shortly. I said to myself: ‘Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein.'”

Of course, Thoreau had not “settled the matter with myself shortly.” After all, it took six years for him to consider the incident—and even then, he confined his thoughts entirely to himself, in the journal.

Second, it was not true that he had “done no wrong therein.” Thoreau stated, incorrectly, in his journal that he and Hoar had burnt only 100 acres. In actuality, as the Concord Freeman indicated four days after the event, he had burnt three times that number, causing $2,000 in damages to the properties of A.H. Wheeler, Cyrus Hubbard, and Darius Hubbard.

Hoar’s father, Samuel—the judge who was the most prominent citizen of the town—is believed by Thoreau biographers to have soothed things over by reimbursing the aggrieved property owners. But that didn’t stop other townspeople from coming to their own conclusions about responsibility for the event.

Yes, it was an accident, they conceded, but Thoreau and Hoar were dunderheads who should have known better. They had borrowed a match to cook fish they had caught, but the match, falling on ground uncommonly dry for that time of year, quickly raged out of control of the two young men.

While Hoar sought help by boat, Thoreau had done so on foot. The exertions of sprinting two miles for help had so worn him out that he sat down on a rock and watched the flames and the townspeople who tried to put them out.

Calling the fire a “glorious spectacle” is an attempt at flippancy toward a reaction by the townspeople that wounded Thoreau in his amour proper. By the time he set down his retrospective thoughts on this curious incident, many townspeople had gradually come to appreciate his knowledge of all matter of plants and wildlife that Ralph Waldo Emerson had suggested that he be named “town naturalist.”

But generations later, just as large a group in town remained annoyed with him. One of the Wheeler girls, still alive in the Roaring Twenties, said angrily, “Don’t talk to me about Henry Thoreau. Didn’t I all that winter have to go to school with a smoothed apron or dress because I had to pitch in and help fill the wood box with partly charred wood?”

Thoreau’s ears must have burned when he heard “Woods-burner” behind his back. While living in Staten Island, Thoreau was deeply homesick for his hometown. The barely concealed resentment of him, however, undoubtedly inclined him to go to a spot where he was less and less bothered: Walden Pond.

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