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24 April 2008

The Flowering of New England, Van Wyck Brooks, 1936

Let's take a break from the various political stories, such as the Pentagon-Media Access of Evil, and enjoy some of the better angels of our nature.

I think I may have waxed ecstatic about this book already, but I just read the chapter on Thoreau, and I must share some of it with you.

Brooks is a master not only of the apt and original figure but also of a now out-of-fashion style: marshaling an obviously intimate familiarity with his subject's writings to plausibly recreate his subject's thoughts, while simultaneously commenting on his subject with great subtlety. Intimate distance: a paradox more of a novelistic nature, at least nowadays, and wonderful to see in a work of history.

The following is from pp. 308-311 in the Everyman's Library edition (1952) that I picked up for fifty cents at a public library, which had deemed the well-preserved volume superfluous. For those currently enjoying a riotous New England summery-spring, this will have special significance:

For the sort of friends who never hurt one's feelings, one did not have to look far. Sometimes, in the midst of a gentle rain, Henry felt an influence about him that was suddenly sweet and beneficent. Every sight and sound, the very pattering of the drops, was filled with an unaccountable friendliness. It was to seek this, and all it meant, that he went for his daily walk, with note-book and spyglass in his pocket, and the hat with its lining gathered in the middle to make a little shelf, a botany-box. He was another Linnaeus, setting out for Lapland, though he did not wish to be a "naturalist." Looking at nature straight in the eye was as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. The man of science always turned to stone. Henry wished to look at nature sidewise, or to look through nature and beyond it. Too many observations were dissipating. One had to be the magnet, in the midst of all this dust and all these filings. Sometimes he rose at two o'clock, for a walk to the Cliffs, to wait there till sunrise, or to watch the fog on the river. He loved those valleys in the fog in which the trees appeared as if at the bottom of the sea. Sometimes he spent the whole of a moonlight night roaming the lonely pastures, where the cattle were silently feeding, to the croaking of the frogs, the intenser dream of the crickets, the half-throttled note of a cuckoo flying over. The bushes loomed, the potato-vines stood upright, the corn grew apace. One's eyes were partially closed then; the other senses took the lead. Every plant emitted its odour, the swamp-pink in the meadow, the tansy in the road. One caught the peculiar dry scent of the corn, which was just beginning to show its tassels. One heard the tinkling of rills one had never detected before. The moonlight over the village, as one stole into the street, seemed to bring antiquity back again. The church, with its fluted columns, reminded one of the Parthenon. The houses had a classical elegance.

Sometimes, even in the morning, usually sacred to reading and writing, the wind fairly blew him out of doors. The elements were so lively and active, and he felt so sympathetic with them, that he could not sit while the wind went by. His regular time was the afternoon, from two-thirty to five-thirty, the hour for a voyage to the Leaning Hemlocks, along the Assabet river, or perhaps to examine an ant-hill, nearer home. He had observed it the day before, with its little galleries, wide as a match, covered with the sluggish, crawling ants. In the early spring, the stalks and grasses, left from last year, were steeped in rain and snow, and all the brooks flowed with meadow-tea. Then came the May-days of the warm west wind, the dream-frog, leaping, willowy haze-days, when anything might happen and one thought that next year, perhaps, one might be a postman in Peru, or a South African planter, or a Greenland whaler, or a Canton merchant. Better still, a Robinson Crusoe on some far-off isle of the Pacific. Henry sometimes stood under a tree half a day at a time, in a drenching rain, prying with microscopic eyes into the swarming crevices of the bark, or studying the leaves at his feet, or the spreading fungi. He would watch for an hour a battle of ants, struggling on a chip, a black ant with two red adversaries, till the black ant severed the heads of the others, losing its own feelers and most of its legs, -- a second Concord fight, no doubt with as just a cause. Or, catching sight of a fox, in some woodland clearing, he yielded to the instinct of the chase, tossed his head aloft and bounded away, snuffing the air like a fox-hound, spurning the humanitarians and the Brahmins. For he felt as wild, at times, -- he who preferred a vegetarian diet, -- as if he lived on antelope-marrow, devoured without benefit of fire.

The midsummer days came, when the yellow lilies reigned in the river. The painted tortoises dropped from the willow-stumps as he walked over the bridge. The pickerel-weed sent up its blue and the vireo sang incessantly; the poison-sumac showed its green berries, all unconscious of guilt, the breeze displayed the white sides of the oak-leaves and gave the woods a fresh and glowing look, the rush-sparrow jingled her sliver change on the broad counter of the pasture. Henry sometimes felt, on days like this, as if he were nature itself, looking into nature, as the blue-eyed grass in the meadow looks in the face of the sky. He would stand for hours, up to his chin, in some retired swamp, scenting the wild honeysuckle, lulled by the minstrel mosquitoes: for he liked to subject his body to rougher usage than a grenadier could endure, and he dreamed of still remoter retirements and still more rugged paths. He walked to Second Division Brook and watched the yellow pebbles gleaming under the watercress, -- the whole brook as busy as a loom, a woof and warp of ripples, with fairy fingers throwing the shuttle, and the long, waving stream as the fine result. Just the place for a hut, with a footpath to the water. Or he strolled over to Boon's Pond in Stow, when the haze seemed to concentrate the sunlight, and he walked as if in a halo, while the song-sparrow set the day to music, as if the sparrow were itself the music of the mossy rail or fence-post. Or perhaps along the Price Farm Road, with its endless green-grass borders, with room on each side for the berries and birches, where the walls indulged in freaks, not bothering to run parallel with the ruts, and goldenrod yellowed the path. On these old, meandering, uninhabited roads, leading away from towns, these everlasting roads where the sun played truant, one forgot what country one was in. One waved adieu to the village and travelled like a pilgrim, going whither? Whither, indeed? On the promenade deck of the world.
This book won a well-deserved Pulitzer and National Book Award. I mean, it's not quite at the level of Jhumpa Lahiri, but it will serve.

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