Review of Letters to a Spiritual Seeker by Henry David Thoreau, edited by Bradley P. Dean, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004, 192 pp.
In this essay, Coleman Barks, today’s leading ‘Voice of Rumi’ in the ‘West’, writes eloquently about Thoreau, as a great American mystic of the 19th century who is, sadly, often a mere historical footnote in a high school or college undergraduate course. More than a meditative man watching the intricacies of life of Walden’s frogs and ducks, more than a fierce proponent of civil disobedience, more than the occasional harborer of runaway slaves, as his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson put it:“ He [Thoreau] had a great contempt for those who made no effort to gauge accurately their own powers and weaknesses, and by no means spared himself, of whom he said that a man gathers materials to erect a palace, and finally concludes to build a shantee [shanty] with them.”*
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1856) composed a voice, playful and modest, that is a major strand in the making of the American soul. In the opening of Letter Ten in this volume of previously unpublished letters, he writes:
I am too stupidly well these days to write to you. My life is spent almost altogether outward, all shell and no tender kernel.
But not so. There is plenty of inner-life nutmeat in Letter Ten, where he explores another self-image in response to Blake’s gratitude for the last letter.
I am glad to know I am as much to any mortal as a persistent and consistent scarecrow is to a farmer—such a bundle of straw in a man’s clothing as I am—with a few bits of tin to sparkle in the sun dangling about me. As if I were hard at work there in the field. However, if this kind of life saves any man’s corn,—why he is the gainer.
Harrison Blake met Henry David Thoreau in Emerson’s house in Concord in the mid-1840s. He was impressed, even haunted, by one of his statements. Thoreau mentioned his plan to build a small house in the woods and retire from civilization, and Blake wondered if he “would feel no longing for the society of your friends.” “No. I am nothing,” Henry replied. Several years later Blake wrote the letter that begins this series.
I would know of that soul which can say “I am nothing.” I would be roused by its words to a truer life. Speak to me in this hour as you are prompted.
What follows over the next thirteen years is a remarkable sequence, not really a personal correspondence, or not just that, for a sort of gathering is implied at the other end, in Worchester [Massachusetts]. A tailor, a storekeeper, a hydropathic physician and three liberal ministers; these, along with Harrison Blake, made up a coterie of seven who would assemble whenever they received the following invitation.
Mr. H.G.O. Blake presents his compliments. The pleasure of your company is requested at breakfast tomorrow at his home, No. 3, Bowdoin Street, when he will read extracts from Mr. Thoreau’s latest letter.
This practice reminds one of how St. Paul’s epistles might have been received in Corinth and also of how the journals of Sufi masters were used in the middle ages, as a focus for conversation (sohbet) of a high order. Jelaluddin Rumi met with companions to read from his father Bahauddin’s spiritual diary. One version of the meeting of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz says that that was the book Shams pushed into the fountain when he told Rumi, “Now you must live what you have been reading about.”
Listen to how close this passage from Thoreau’s Letter Eleven is to the expansive mystery of friendship experienced by Rumi and Shams.
What a difference, whether, in all your walks, you meet only strangers, or in one house is one who knows you, and whom you know. How rare these things are! To share the day with you,—to people the earth. Would not a friend enhance the beauty of the landscape as much as a deer or a hare? Everything would acknowledge and serve such a relation; the corn in the field, and the cranberries in the meadow. The flowers would bloom, and the birds sing, with a new impulse. There would be more fair days in the year. The object of love expands and grows before us to eternity, until it includes all that is lovely, and we become all that can love.
Thoreau 1856 daguerrotype courtesy Thoreau Society
The subject of love and friendship, and their walks, does arise in these letters, along with the subject of sex, the complex relationship between doing and being, the cloak and pretension of one’s station, and many others. One of the most fascinating, to me, is Henry’s celebration in the fall of 1855 of the arrival of a shipment of forty-four oriental books from England. The sacred texts of the East arrived on a ship named Asia, and he told people of it “as I might the birth of a child.” He had made a bookcase for them in his kitchen out of driftwood planks collected along the Connecticut River.
After wading knee deep in Indian poetry and philosophy, I went late to bed dreaming of what had happened. When I woke in the morning, I was not convinced that it was reality until I peeped out and saw their bright backs.
This enthusiastic openness to other cultures is an important part of what Thoreau plants in the American psyche. He never gave a name to this ‘faith,’ but it is clear and profound and wide as the air. He deeply acknowledges the beauty of human beings, of animals and light and water, of sand and small accountings. He is our official Inspector of Snowstorms. We feel a sacred wildness in the spontaneity of his voice, his directness, the sense of fun and his distrust of the rhetorical. No flourishes for Henry, journeyman surveyor, pencilmaker, liberator of India and source for strategy in the American civil rights movement. He and Walt have this to teach us still, “Dismiss whatever insults your soul.”
Reprinted from Elixir: Consciousness, Conscience and Culture, v1, Autumn 2005, with permission of the reviewer.
The Thoreau Reader is an excellent online resource which presents annotated works of Henry David Thoreau as well as many articles about him.
At Coleman Barks’ website, you can find his performance schedule and purchase books, DVDs, and audio by Barks.
By Coleman Barks
* Quoted in Harding, Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries. Dover, 1989, p. 71.
Thoreau, Mystic of Walden and Beyond