Sunday, October 07, 2007

Couple of links for a Sunday morning

The upright citizens of Concord, Massachusetts, didn't think much of young Henry David Thoreau. The cabin on Walden Pond, the night in jail for tax evasion, the constant scribbling in journals—it all seemed like a waste of a perfectly good Harvard education. Even more mysterious was his passion for flowers. "I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed," Thoreau confided to his journal in 1856, "and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession, running to different sides of the town and into the neighboring towns, often between twenty and thirty miles in a day."

Thoreau planned to turn his vast botanical records into a book, but he died of tuberculosis in his mid-40s, the project undone. Walden and his handful of other published writings languished in near obscurity, and even his close friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said that Thoreau had squandered his talents on the woods. "I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. ...Instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party," Emerson lamented in his eulogy of Thoreau.

Michelle Nijhuis's article in this month's Smithsonian explains how Thoreau's botanical notes (eight years worth) are helping scientists monitor global warming.

Of the nearly 600 plant species for which Thoreau recorded flowering times during the 1850s, Primack and Miller-Rushing found only about 400, even with the help of expert local botanists. Among the missing is the arethusa orchid, which Thoreau described with admiration in 1854: "It is all color, a little hook of purple flame projecting from the meadow into the air....A superb flower."

And, in The American Scholar, Melvin Jules Bukiet takes to task a portion of today's contemporary lit that he calls Brooklyn Books of Wonder. Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness, he writes. [T]he BBoWs usually toss a child into a situation of extremity and then rescue her from the jaws of narrative.

He contrasts these escapists books--The Lovely Bones in particular--with serious fiction, which, even if it’s fabulist, sharpens reality. BBoWs elude reality to avoid the taint of anger or cynicism or the passion for revenge felt by real people in similar situations. Instead of telling a story of brute survival, BBoWs indulge in a dream of benign rescue.


  1. That was a good article. Thanks.

    Did you see that there is a new book just out? _I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau_. This fits nicely with some of my other reading, and it's nice to have just a sampling. The length of the complete journals has been intimidating.

  2. I was just reading last night about Emerson's final assessment of Thoreau in the Emerson bio I am reading and Richardson quoted Emerson on Thoreau's lack of ambition. So then to read it here I had a little deja vu moment :)


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.