Life & literature


The beautiful uncut hair of graves

One of the benefits of being a long-time student of American literature is the way poems and other texts worm their way into consciousness. Today J and I went walking at Newton Cemetery, and I kept thinking of Section 6 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

READ

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

Two weeping Madonnas

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Tinsel heart

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Hell money

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Budding lilac

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

Flowering dogwood

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Weedy

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

486,867th Dead of AIDS

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

Cauliflorous redbud

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

Canada goose

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

Male and female mallard

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and children?

Canada goose

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

Male and female mallard

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Tulips

Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

Don't eat the fish

This past weekend several friends and I walked along the Housatonic River in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts: a short, shady stroll that is popular with local dog walkers and baby strollers. In sunny spots we saw butterfly weed and wild bergamot blooming, and in shady spots we could watch the slow-moving waters flow below us.

Butterfly weed

Gazing at the placid flow of the Housatonic River, it’s easy to forget its waters are polluted, not pristine. The Housatonic carries PCBs and other industrial chemicals from the long-closed General Electric plant in nearby Pittsfield. Signs along the river warn fishermen not to eat their catch, and environmental activists refer to the river as the “Housatoxic.”

W.E.B. Du Bois advocate for rivers

I knew that the author, thinker, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois was born along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington, and I knew there is a garden and historical sign marking a site near his childhood home. What surprised me when we found that marker, however, is that it focused on Du Bois’ environmental advocacy as much as his civil rights work.

Wild bergamot

Even during Du Bois’ lifetime, the Housatonic River was sullied by industrial runoff. When Du Bois returned to Great Barrington in 1930 to address a gathering of his high school alumni, he beseeched the citizens of Great Barrington to clean the river that courses through their backyard:

The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks. Almost as if by miracle some beauty still remains in places where the river for a moment free of its enemies and tormentors, dark and exhausted under its tall trees, has sunk back to vestiges of its former charm, in great, slow, breathless curves and still murmurs. But for the most part the Housatonic has been transformed into an ugly disgraceful thing

Butterfly weed

It’s obvious that even after Du Bois left Great Barrington to become a writer, scholar, and outspoken proponent for racial justice, he never forgot the river in his hometown. Du Bois’ fondness for the Housatonic reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which traces the way heritage is tied to geography, not just genealogy:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

Wild bergamot

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was only eighteen, and in it he describes his African-American heritage as running through both his bloodstream and the rivers of his ancestral homelands. In the ecological version of muscle-memory, Hughes’ soul recalls the landscapes where his people come from. Who you are as a person, he suggests, is irrevocably connected with the places you and your people come from.

Welcome to the Berkshires

Du Bois was so moved by Hughes’ poem, he published it in the July 1921 edition of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Today, we know environmental degradation often occurs in places populated by the poor and people of color: it’s not the rich white citizens of Flint, Michigan who are drinking lead-tainted water. “Environmental racism” refers to the way the privileged and powerful often dump their toxic byproducts downstream in someone else’s backyard, and it’s a phenomenon Du Bois decried, even if he didn’t call it out by name.

Wild bergamot

Du Bois suggested the way we treat our rivers reflects our values as a society, reminding his audience that “we are judged by what we neglect.” Do we see rivers and the folks who live alongside them as rubbish heaps or sewers, places where we dump and disregard the effluvia we don’t want polluting our own neighborhoods?

If we choose to neglect a river, we can also choose to care for it, and this is what Du Bois ultimately advocated, urging the citizens of Great Barrington to “rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty.” A community who cares for its rivers will care for the people and other living creatures that live alongside them, environmental justice rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Edith Wharton's house

I’ve never been much of an Edith Wharton fan.  I read and disliked Ethan Frome as an undergrad, and I generally dislike the overwrought stuffiness of Gilded Age authors such as Henry James, who was friends with Wharton.  But this past weekend I visited the Mount, Edith Wharton’s lush country home in Lenox, Massachusetts, and seeing this place where Wharton lived and wrote helped soften my attitude toward her.

Drawing room

Like her prose, Wharton’s house is too formal and fancy for my taste.  Curatorial placards around the house insist that Wharton’s style was less ornate and more modern than the Victorian style of her contemporaries, but even Wharton’s more stripped-down decor is too busy for my taste.  But after wandering through Wharton’s house and surrounding gardens, I found myself sympathizing for her. Wharton believed so strongly that interior design should reflect a person’s taste and temperament, she co-wrote a book on the subject.  Although Wharton’s writing and home decor styles aren’t my cup of tea, I can understand her desire to use her house and gardens as a form of self-expression.

Dog treats

Both Wharton and her husband, Teddy, loved little dogs, and the Mount contains ample evidence of this one thing the couple had in common.  There are dog treats on the dining room table, an ornate dog bed in the drawing room, and pictures throughout the house of Edith and Teddy with small dogs perched on their laps.  Sadly, this shared affection for dogs wasn’t enough to keep Edith and Teddy Wharton together:  the couple divorced and sold their home only nine years after moving to Lenox, leaving behind the house, grounds, and a beautifully sited pet cemetery overlooking the gardens.

Edith Wharton's bed

Although I didn’t know much about Wharton’s life before touring the Mount, I’d heard stories about how she wrote.  The library at the Mount contains an elegant desk where Wharton sometimes posed for portraits, but she is better known for writing in bed, tossing pages of longhand prose onto the floor where her secretary would retrieve and reorder them.  Although it’s difficult to sympathize with someone so privileged she didn’t have to type much less number her own pages, I felt sad standing in Wharton’s bedroom.  As light streamed through windows overlooking Wharton’s beloved gardens, I could imagine how lonely she must have felt as she lay alone writing while her marriage crumbled.

Edith Wharton's desk

After her divorce, Wharton moved to Paris, leaving behind the house and gardens she’d designed and the pampered pets she’d buried there.  Virginia Woolf famously insisted that in order to write, a woman needs a reliable income and a room of her own, and Wharton, who was born into wealth, had both, at least for a time.  Ultimately, though, Wharton was forced by circumstance to leave the house she had both designed and loved, her room of her own being nothing less than the entire world.

Ready for his closeup

Back in November, when J and I walked around downtown Boston on Thanksgiving Day, we photographed a bronze statue of Edgar Allan Poe that had been unveiled in October. Before seeing the statue in person, I’d seen photographs of it, so you might say its reputation preceded it. But before I judged the merits of Poe’s new statue, I wanted to see it face-to-face.

Taking it all in stride

Now that I’ve personally seen the statue, which is titled “Poe Returning to Boston,” I can say with confidence that it is simply dreadful. I like Edgar Allan Poe, and I hate this statue, mainly because it immortalizes in bronze all the stereotypes Poe spent his life fighting against. Poe wanted desperately to support himself and his family as a respectable literary man, writing serious literary criticism and whatever poems and short stories would pay the bills. Because some of Poe’s popular work was indeed popular, appealing to the Gothic and sensational tastes of the 19th century reading public, serious-minded writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rejected Poe, pegging him as a sensationalistic hack.

Keep off

“Poe Returning to Boston” both reflects and codifies this derision, portraying Poe not as a serious intellectual but as a madman rushing around town with wild hair, a vampirish cloak, a pterodactyl-sized raven, and an anatomically accurate heart dropping out of his suitcase. The statue isn’t a portrait as much as a caricature that appeals to popular misconceptions about a much-misunderstood man.

Poe profile

Poe might have been a rootless wanderer who never attained during his lifetime the level of literary respectability he aspired to, but that doesn’t mean he was a fiendish freak who rushed down sidewalks with body parts in his bag. The symbols in popular works such as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are just that–symbols–so portraying them alongside Poe seems overly literal-minded. Should we immortalize Stephen King alongside life-size renditions of Cujo or Christine even though those reflect only one part of his oeuvre?

A tell-tale heart

Looking at “Poe Returning to Boston,” you’d never know there’s more to Poe than his scary stories. In addition to writing literary criticism, poetry, and an adventure novel, Poe invented the detective story. Most folks see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as being a respectable chap, but he borrowed the idea of Sherlock Holmes from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Why is this less lurid aspect of Poe’s career overlooked in favor of his Gothic tales? If the literal-minded among us insist on associating Poe with ravens and beating hearts, why not also associate him with detectives and magnifying glasses?

Raven's head

Emerson famously dismissed Poe as being a mere jingle-writer, but there’s really only one thing distinguishing Poe from both Emerson and Longfellow: the latter had money and thus didn’t need to live off their writing. Emerson was born to a well-bred family of ministers–the New England elite–while Longfellow was the son of a lawyer. Both Emerson and Longfellow married well, with Emerson receiving a cash annuity after his first wife died and Longfellow receiving as a wedding present from his in-laws the house that now bears his name.

Ragin' raven

Poe, on the other hand, was the orphaned child of Irish actors: in the 19th century, a much-maligned and oft-impoverished lot. Poe wanted to be accepted and embraced by other members of the Boston literati, but he couldn’t afford to limit himself to high-brow literature. Like Mark Twain after him, Edgar Allan Poe was a writer of diverse talents who wrote whatever would sell. This doesn’t make him a sell-out; it just means that he (unlike Emerson and Longfellow) had to spend at least part of his time catering to popular tastes. 

Turning his back on Boston

Most passersby who see “Poe Returning to Boston” know very little about the man and his work: instead, popular culture contents itself with cliches and caricatures. According to the popular belief, Poe was a disturbed man who wrote disturbing stories. But doesn’t the popularity of Poe’s Gothic tales tell us more about his audience than it does about his own personal proclivities? Poe’s most successful (and well-remembered) works are the ones that gave his audience what they wanted, which was thrills, chills, and the ability to wash their hands of such sensationalism when they were done. Don’t we still blame the media for producing the violence-drenched entertainment we gladly, greedily, and guiltily consume? If there’s anything that Poe’s tell-tale heart reveals, it’s the darker side of his audience’s psyche, not his own.

Ship from shore

The weekend before last, J and I went to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. The Charles W. Morgan was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841 and represents the height of the New England whaling industry, when New Bedford was known as the “city that lights the world” because of the amount of whale-oil it produced for oil-burning lamps. The Charles W. Morgan remained active for 80 years and weathered 37 voyages. Her recent visit to Boston was part of a three-month tour of historic New England ports—her 38th voyage—ending at Mystic, Connecticut, where she serves as a museum ship at the Mystic Seaport.

Windlass

When I learned a nineteenth century whaling ship would be briefly docked in Boston Harbor, I knew J and I would have to visit. J is fascinated by big boats—every July, we tour whatever naval ship visits Boston for the holiday—and I’ve been interested in New England whaling ever since reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was an undergrad. While many readers are frustrated by Melville’s frequent and factual digressions about whales and whaling, I loved learning about this aspect of American history. If you expect Moby-Dick to be a novel about a man called Ishmael, you’ll roll your eyes whenever Melville regales you with yet another chapter filled with facts and figures. But if you read Moby-Dick as a natural history of whales and the 19th century whaling industry, you’ll realize Ishmael’s story is just a tiny portion of a much larger tale.

Crossing the gangplank

You can read about whaling in books, but seeing actual artifacts brings home what it must have been like to be a young man on a ship that tracked, killed, and butchered whales for a living. During one of the class sessions when we discussed Moby-Dick, my undergraduate lit professor brought a harpoon to class so we could feel how heavy and cumbersome they are, especially when attached to the long, coiled ropes that connected injured whales to the whalers trying to kill them. Could we imagine standing in a small bobbing rowboat, trying to hurl a heavy harpoon into the eye of a creature large enough to crush your ship?

Harpoons

In a subsequent semester, my professor took things one step further, inviting his students for a backyard cookout where he floated a whale-eye-sized watermelon in a plastic wading pool he borrowed from the child next door. Students in that class learned how difficult it is to hit a watermelon with a harpoon, even if you’re standing on dry land…but even on dry land, it’s incredibly easy to destroy a plastic wading pool with your missed shots. The child next door got a new wading pool that year, and students got a whale of a tale to tell their grandkids someday. Surely no melon tastes sweeter than the one you had to harpoon yourself.

Whaleboat

J and I didn’t harpoon any watermelons aboard the Charles W. Morgan, but we did get to see several whale boats racing across the harbor. A whaleship is large enough to house a crew of men while they locate, hunt, and process the whales they’ve killed, but a whaleship is too big to actually chase a whale. For that, each whaleship carries a handful of small rowboats that are the actual vehicles of the hunt. Each of these whale boats is led by an officer who directs a crew of men to row as close as possible to the whale so that the harpooner can take a shot.

Whaleboats

When I read Moby-Dick, I was captivated by how vulnerable the men were as they rowed right next to enormous animals who could easily smash or capsize their boats. The most terrifying moment of the hunt happened after the whale was harpooned and subsequently fled, dragging the whale boat on a so-called Nantucket sleigh ride. Men in a whale boat simply had to trust their prey would eventually tire, rising to the surface to gasp for air while being pelted with more harpoons. This was the tragic moment of a successful hunt, when the men witnessed at close range the agonized expiration of their massive prey.

Try pots

One of the innovations of the New England whale trade was the idea to convert slain whales to whale oil at sea, in the whales’ own watery habitat, rather than towing entire carcasses back to port. This meant installing try pots on the main deck so squares of blubber could be rendered into barrels of whale oil: liquid gold. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes in great detail the try pots on the fictional Pequot and the messy, smelly, and downright dangerous act of using fire to produce a slippery, highly flammable liquid on a rolling ship. The try pots on the Pequot sounded huge, like something straight out of Hell, but the try pots on the Charles W. Morgan were modestly sized, more in keeping with the economy of space that any ocean-going ship must observe.

Crew's quarters

On a whaling ship, no inch of space can be wasted, and this was amply apparent when we poked our heads into the crew’s quarters, where bunks filled every available space. Whereas the captain and officers had more spacious quarters near the rear of the ship, the crew was housed in the front, right next to the so-called “blubber room” where casks of whale-oil were stored. The crew, in other words, slept in the dirtiest, most foul-smelling part of the ship whereas the captain and officers enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Captain's quarters

Ironically, the thing that ultimately saved whales from whaling ships such as the Charles W. Morgan was the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859. In the 19th century, whale oil was the most coveted product of whaling: whale meat and baleen were far less marketable. As kerosene lamps and natural gas pipelines became more widespread, whale-oil became less popular: why go to sea to light your lamps when the earth itself bleeds fuel?

'Spouter' the whale

Now that we know the environmental costs of a petroleum-based economy, we might be surprised that Big Oil saved Big Whales, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Melville himself recognized the value of a true whale of a tale, the downfall of the fictional Pequot being based on the real-life demise of a Nantucket whaleship called the Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.

Spinning a whale of a tale

Both the Essex and the Charles W. Morgan were considered “lucky” ships because of the number of profitable voyages they weathered, but ultimately the Charles W. Morgan was much luckier. The Charles W. Morgan survives as a restored and cherished artifact from an earlier age, whereas the Essex survives only in the pages of the books (and the imaginations of the readers) it inspired.

Click here to see more photos from the Charles W. Morgan’s visit to Boston. Enjoy!

Henry David Thoreau's grave

Last weekend, on the way home from an afternoon walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, I stopped at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to visit Authors Ridge, where Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and both Bronson and Louisa May Alcott are buried. It was late afternoon, with the sun leaning low behind towering trees that cast long, slanting shadows: a preview of oncoming darkness. A steady trickle of tourists wandered through fallen leaves and slanting sunbeams to quietly examine the various stones while I waited for the quiet crowds to disperse before paying my own respects.

Thoreau family plot

I’ve visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery a few times before, but typically on foot rather than by car. When I first moved to the Boston area, I’d take the commuter rail to Concord a couple times each year, walking from the train station to Walden Pond, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, or the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge: a pedestrian pilgrimage where the journey to and from my destination took as long (and was just as interesting) as the visit itself.

Authors Ridge

If you drive to Sleepy Hollow, you’ll find dignified stone pillars pointing you toward Authors Ridge, and once you reach that eminent destination, you’ll find a small parking area where you can stop alongside one or two other cars. The folks who run Sleepy Hollow Cemetery make it easy, in other words, to make a pilgrimage to Authors Ridge: they know that’s what countless tourists come to Concord to see. It felt a bit too easy, however—a bit like cheating—to drive into the cemetery this way, as if I were checking Thoreau, Emerson, and the rest off a sightseeing bucket list: after you’ve made the requisite stop to see the stones, what’s next?

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The fact that so many tourists come to Concord specifically because of its storied history—Concord being not just the birthplace of the American Revolution, but the hotbed of the American Renaissance—was apparent before I’d even arrived at the cemetery, when we’d stopped downtown for a cup of chowder. The family next to us had an inexpensive copy of Walden sitting on their table, and our waitress asked us whether we were taking a break from shopping. “Is this what it’s come to,” I thought to myself, “that Thoreau’s backyard has become a place for Sunday shopping trips and literary sightseeing, that copy of Walden probably coming from the pond’s own gift shop?” This is, of course, a particularly cranky thought: even Thoreau wasn’t so misanthropic as to reject visitors to his cabin, and if you’re going to preserve ponds, cemeteries, and wildlife sanctuaries, you have to fund them with a certain amount of souvenir-selling.

Alcott family plot

I felt a bit sad visiting Authors Ridge on Sunday, but not because Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts would mind being visited by respectful tourists: wouldn’t any author be happy to know her or his words live on? Someone had left flowers on Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne’s graves, and Henry David Thoreau’s humble tombstone—a marker no different from any of the other stones in the Thoreau family plot, marked simply with the name “Henry”—was adorned as usual with offerings from previous pilgrims: stones, coins, and a pair of plastic pens even though Thoreau would have surely preferred pencils. Down the way from both the Hawthorne and Thoreau family plots, I overheard one family conferring with a stranger, trying to determine what they might have missed. “Emerson is down that way,” the stranger remarked, gesturing beyond the scattered family, who had fanned out among the weathered stones. “Oh, no,” the mother answered, presumably speaking for the rest. “We don’t like Emerson.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson's grave

What made me sad as I stood among sleepy stones in the setting sun on a late-autumn afternoon wasn’t the fact that some tourists pick favorites but the memory of those other times I’ve visited Authors Ridge: times when I was still in graduate school, actively engaged in scholarship on Thoreau and 19th century American literature. Back then, I wanted to be like Thoreau, believing that if I pursued a PhD, completed a dissertation on Thoreau and American nature writing, and attained a tenure-track job, I could join a coterie of literary academics who do what my own professors did, inspiring undergraduates with the intensity of their literary passions. Looking back, it all seems so idealistic, this notion that if I studied, researched, and wrote about what I loved, the academy would love me back, allowing me to make a decent living writing, teaching, and inspiring.

Sunlit

Instead, some eight years after I finished that dissertation and completed that PhD, I’m no closer to securing full-time employment within academia. Instead of teaching Thoreau to upperclassmen, I teach college freshmen how to write academic papers: a noble enough endeavor that brings its own satisfaction, but one so undervalued by the academy, most colleges believe it merits only part-time pay. Standing before Thoreau’s humble stone, I quietly lamented how far I’ve fallen from my own erstwhile hopes: while I once aspired to be an eminent scholar, now I’m merely another passing tourist, having forgotten more about Thoreau than most folks will ever know.

Mary Moody Emerson

Surely Thoreau himself knew more than a bit about the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams, having written a passage in his 1852 journal that rings sadly true:

The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.

Afternoon light

I’m in my woodshed-building years, my own late afternoon sun leaning long toward the horizon as I cobble together a patchwork of part-time jobs with the materials I’d gathered to build a career. Thoreau himself worked a ragtag assortment of jobs after deciding he wasn’t cut out to be a teacher: writer, Lyceum lecturer, handyman, surveyor. Did Thoreau ever look back on his life with a sense of disappointment, wondering silently, “For this I went to college?” In his own middle-age, did Thoreau ever feel he had wasted his precious potential?

Louisa May Alcott's grave

Emerson, at least, felt Thoreau underachieved during his too-brief lifetime, offering in Thoreau’s eulogy a backhanded compliment:

Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!

Overlooking Cat Pond

Thoreau had no ambition? It depends, of course, on what you consider “ambitious.” Perhaps Thoreau collects more mementos on his simple grave than Emerson does on his monumental one because Thoreau’s goals had a longer, more subtle scope, with Emerson writing for his own age and Thoreau writing for the ages. “We don’t like Emerson,” that woman remarked, and perhaps what she detected in Emerson’s prose was an urgent prudishness that so earnestly pursued self-culture, no room remained for anything other than enterprise and command. Aren’t there plenty of people doing and leading, scheming and engineering? Perhaps the wisdom gained from pounding beans is that at the end of years, “only beans” is nothing to sneer at.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

Thoreau died at the age of 44, my own age come January. They say that middle age is when you realize you’ll never read Proust; for me, as a writer, middle age is when I’m coming to realize I’ll never write another Walden. Is pounding out blog posts or pouring over pile after pile of student papers worth the toil? At the end of days, do either potential or ambition matter, or only what you build with them?

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