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Reading, Writing, And History

July 2024
8min read

A Man Withdrawn

We like to make thumbnail sketches of our famous men, and to Henry David Thoreau we have given one of the most compact of the lot. We see him as the complete lone wolf, the man who tried to reform the world by divorcing himself from it and reforming himself. Declaring that a free man could not without disgrace associate himself with a government that would make war on Mexico in the interest of the slavocracy, he went to jail rather than pay taxes; then he built a hut by Waiden Pond and lived there in complete isolation, creating his own world when the world other men had created seemed unsatisfactory.

This sketch has the merit of brevity, and it is drawn from life; after all, Thoreau himself provided the outlines. But it is incomplete, for Thoreau kept changing, and he refused to stop thinking after his sabbatical in the lonely cabin; and Leo Stoller tries to bring him into better focus in his perceptive essay, After Walden .

Thoreau’s divorce from the world, Mr. Stoller points out, was only temporary. He lived for fifteen years after the Waiden experiment, and he developed new ideas. Secession from human society, obviously, came to seem an inadequate answer, and the government which he had disowned finally won his ardent support when at last it got to the point of making war on disunion and slavery. Furthermore, his ideas on economic man underwent considerable expansion.

To become a subsistence farmer (generations before the term was invented) was simple enough, in the 1840’s. Beyond Waiden Pond there was an open continent, and it was easy to argue that a man could leave society if he chose and strike out for himself. Nevertheless, industrial capitalism and the infinitely complex institutions that go with it were then coming into being, and it was finally necessary to accept it rather than to run away from it. The Waiden experiment might help a man get his personal life in order, but it was not a permanent answer. Thoreau returned to the world, supporting himself as the rest of us must do— that is, he got a job: which, in itself, raised problems. He objected bitterly to the way New England was destroying its forests, his beloved wilderness areas; yet his own work as a surveyor was contributing to the process.

After Waiden: Thoreau’s Changing Views on Economic Man , by Leo Stoller. The Stanford University Press. 163 pp. $4.

His goal remained the same: man should strive for the simple life, “the object of life is something else than acquiring property,” and salvation continues to lie within. But he seems to have become less certain about the means by which the goal could be reached. He came to see (as Mr. Stoller puts it) that “the preindustrial economy itself was no guarantee of a true simplicity,” but to find a place for simplicity amidst a growing industrialism began to look very difficult. The Waiden experiment had failed; there was no economic foundation for Thoreau’s doctrine.

“Thoreau could not longer advise mankind to resign from the industrial and agricultural revolutions and head for the woods,” says Mr. Stoller. “Neither, however, could he reconcile his individualism with any form of socialism. He was left with a critique of industrial and commercial civilization but with no associated program of action.”

Individualism, then, was not, by itself, quite enough. In the beginning Thoreau’s assumption was that men lived after all pretty much as they chose to live, and that if they did not take proper advantage of their own freedom of choice it was their own fault. But he could see that it was necessary to live in America as it was; perhaps, therefore, even the best individualist had to give some thought to ways in which the existing society could be improved. If self-culture was to be attained it would have to be won within industrial society and by means of it.

Obviously, this line of thought leads one to the point where sooner or later he must embrace organized political action, and this point Thoreau never quite managed to reach. He was coming to see that “the success of the single man in his private life was dependent on the success of the community of men in their social life,” but his social thought was transitional. He never worked his way through to a final solution; and yet, as Mr. Stoller aptly remarks, “perhaps we are mistaken in asking completion and should rather be satisfied with growth.”

Reformed’s Role

Thoreau’s growth was in the grand tradition. He shared to the full in the New England Puritan heritage, which compels men to a constant re-examination of the responsibility which the righteous man owes to society. From the earliest beginnings around Massachusetts Bay, there has always been the question: When society follows a course which you consider morally wrong, do you then withdraw from society (thus keeping your own principles intact), or do you get into the thick of things and try to shape society into a better form? John Winthrop had to grapple with the problem two centuries ahead of Thoreau, and his course is examined in Edmund S. Morgan’s thoughtful book, The Puritan Dilemma .

Puritanism, as Mr. Morgan says, created in men and women an almost unendurable tension. It required a man to devote his life to the search for salvation, but it also taught him that he was really helpless to do anything but evil; he must reform the world, but the world’s evil was incurable. As governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony in its all-important formative years, Winthrop faced the problem “of living in this world without taking his mind off God.” Withdraw from the world he could not; he had to stay on the firing line and do his best.

Not for Winthrop were Thoreau’s doubts about the extent to which a man should try to modify the society about him. Every nation (as Winthrop kept insisting) existed by virtue of a covenant with God, in which it promised to obey God’s commands. Government had a sacred task and enjoyed divine sanction in carrying it out, but the citizen was not thereby absolved from responsibility. If government lived up to its high commitment the citizen must support it, but if it should fall from grace the citizen must be ready to go on the warpath and replace it with a better government. He must also keep an eye on his neighbor.

The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop , by Edmund S. Morgan, edited by Oscar Handlin, Little, Brown and Company. 224 pp. $3.50.

A colony dedicated to such principles could not be an easy one to govern, for the line that separates such dedication from pure cantankerousness can be very thin. But it did have remarkable possibilities for development, and some of these possibilities, in Massachusetts Bay, were fully exploited. If men are bound to have a government which is bound by God’s laws, they must decide for themselves what sort of government that is to be and then they must create it. Winthrop saw to it that the colonists were able to do this—and, without quite realizing it, thereby carried the budding nation a long step in the direction of democracy.

He had his problems, among them one posed by Roger Williams, who in his seventeenth-century way was something like Thoreau: a man perfectly willing to withdraw from an imperfect society and go start a new one on his wild lone. When Winthrop prayerfully urged the young man to reconsider his notion that everyone but Williams was out of step, Williams retorted: “Abstract yourselfe with a holy violence from the Dung heape of this Earth.” From a perfectionism of this sort Winthrop consistently abstained. But the community to which he gave so much expert guidance was bound to develop men who felt that way.

The Massachusetts Bay experiment did not come out quite as Winthrop had anticipated. In a way, it succeeded; that is, as Mr. Morgan says, it “came as close as men could come to the Kingdom of God on earth.” But when it had attained this success—around 1640—it found that England, the mother country for whose guidance this difficult task was being performed, was looking the other way. The world was no longer watching … and thus the whole colony was on the verge of turning its collective back on the world and following a separatism of its own, stepping off into complete, self-satisfied isolationism. Against such a step Winthrop set himself. The rest of the world might indeed be lost in sin, but it had to be lived in and with; not even in a New World which they were shaping by the dictates of their own consciences could men escape from their responsibilities. To do right in a world gone wrong, man must remain in the society of his fellows.

Great Debate

Among the men who accepted this notion without hesitation were those two nineteenth-century leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. In 1858 they went straight to the hustings for a hand-tohand grapple with a burning political question which, boiled down, was the question of the continued existence or the containment and ultimate extinction of chattel slavery. They debated the issue, in a series of the most famous political arguments in American history, each man doing his best to bring about the political action that would make America a better land; and the complete record of their debates is made available in Created Equal? edited and with an uncommonly penetrating introduction by Paul M. Angle.

Created Equal? The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 , edited and with an introduction by Paul M. Angle. The University of Chicago Press. 460 pp. $7.50.

Both Lincoln and Douglas deserve the title, “statesman,” and in these debates they were doing what statesmen are supposed to do, but do not often do: that is, they were taking the hottest issue of the day and bringing it directly to the people, discussing it from the same platform so that an informed electorate might at last come to an intelligent decision. Yet something escaped them—or, perhaps, lay beyond the boundaries of the democratic process itself. For these notable debates did not finally settle the issue that engaged them. They did settle a state election, to be sure, and they had much to do with determining how a subsequent national election would go—but within three years the nation had given up debating the issue and had taken to fighting about it, getting into a four-year war whose incidental costs are still with us.

And a reader of the text can hardly fail to be struck by the fact that for all their thoroughness in debate both men stayed away from the fundamental issue that lay beneath the slavery issue itself: How, in a nation dedicated to freedom and democracy, do black and white races finally get along with each other? If slavery ends, what relationship takes its place? Are all men created equal, no matter what the color of their skins, and if they are, how do they go about living together? With this question the debaters refused to grapple.

Resort to Force

When debate fails, action comes; and an instructive companion book to Mr. Angle’s is the excellent First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter , by W. A. Swanberg.

Mr. Swanberg stations himself right where the dam finally burst—at Charleston Harbor, in South Carolina—and examines the course of events from, roughly, the fall of 1860 to the April day in 1861 when the guns opened fire. When he begins, the United States is still one nation, rather lackadaisically maintaining certain badly run-down military installations in one of its seaports; before he gets very far the one nation has unaccountably become two, and the men responsible for these military installations (to say nothing of the men responsible for the two nations) are trying to do the best they can under conditions of unheard-of complexity and difficulty; and when he concludes the two nations have gone to war, and what could not be debated out will be fought out.

This makes a wholly fascinating story; a record of the strange, exciting, and sometimes incomprehensible things men did when a war that nobody really planned came over the horizon and became inevitable and at last actual. It is more than a simple account of the things done by soldiers and elected officials, although it gives the complete story of their doings.

First Blood: The Story of Fort Sumter , by W. A. Swanberg. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 373 pp. $5.95.

In effect, all hope of a political solution had died, when Mr. Swanberg begins his story. Somewhere along the line—perhaps before Lincoln and Douglas ever began to debate with one another, perhaps while they were talking, perhaps afterward—the American political mechanism had broken down. A settlement had gone out of reach, and instead of trying to persuade one another, men of North and South were mounting guns around Charleston Harbor.

… A long step, this, from Thoreau’s pious hope that a man could withdraw from an unsatisfactory world? Long enough, certainly; and the question of how man, the social animal, adjusts himself and his society to the demands of his ideals still is unanswered.

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