NOW COMES GOOD SAILING: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau Edited by Andrew Blauner
ISBN 978-0-691-21522-8  Princeton £20 

Reviewed by Alan Dent



 Twenty-eight essays by different writers, all with impressive credentials. Some of that needs a large pinch of salt: the advertising of academic qualifications and receipt of garlands standing in these days for quality of writing. It might be pleasant to read a book by someone who has no Phds has never won a prize, doesn’t have tenure: just as Thoreau says a patch on someone’s clothes doesn’t make him judge him any the worse, nor should the absence of certificates and ribands.  

It's sometime true of anthologies by various voices that they embrace a uniform style. That isn’t quite true here, though it’s not always possible to distinguish easily one writer from another. One of the things which makes Thoreau memorable and hence this book possible, is that he writes like no one else. He may have been Emerson’s pupil in a way for a while, but he didn’t absorb his style. If it’s true that “Le style, c’est l’homme même”, it ought to follow that the most unusual individuals, those whose responses are most particular, those who think their way around all conventions, have the most individual styles. Thoreau was certainly unusual. He may well have been homosexual, though he seems to have had no active sex life (interesting given his influence on Bert Lawrence). He experienced a strong need not to follow the crowd, which he saw as failing to live with sufficient intensity. If he had a complaint about the time he belonged to, it was precisely that. Perhaps he would have felt the same about any society, certainly any from what we call history; pre-history may have provided him with the intensive contact with nature which seemed to content him, but our evidence of how it felt to live in those times is scanty.  

The best pieces here are by Alan Lightman, George Howe Colt, Michelle Nijhuis, James Marcus, Celeste Headlee, Tatiana Schlossberg and Wen Stephenson, essentially because they write about Thoreau and not themselves. Some of the other authors have interesting things to say, but more about their own experience. It might be fair to judge that reflecting on Thoreau can produce an essay about your own life, but none of these writers is at the level of their subject in writing, thinking or intensity of living.  

Lightman’s essay, To A Slower Life, has at its core that sense of disturbance, the need to kick against the pricks, which characterised Thoreau and his disciple Lawrence. Orwell remarked that Lawrence and writers like him could make a living from insulting their readers. It’s at least true they could do so by challenging them, a characteristic which has virtually disappeared. Kafka was of the view that a book which didn’t strike the reader like a blow to the head wasn’t worth reading. Publishers and agents today would wince. In this age of the user-friendly, a book should be a warm bath. “…what have I …lost when I must be engaged with a project every hour of the day..?” asks Lightman. He quotes researcher Kyung Hee Kim who observes that since 1990, “children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less likely to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing and less likely to see things from a different angle.” Ask any teacher. From a human perspective this is horrifying, but from the point of view of the people who run the world, it’s probably reassuring. What do economic and political bosses want more than people who can’t think and act for themselves, who do what they’re told and are easy to push around? Lightman believes the pandemic has made us slow down and question a life lived at a hundred miles an hour. Early on, it seemed so. People were saying how good it was to take the time for a walk in the woods and wildlife we’d never seen began to emerge as traffic receded and quietness spread; but we seem to heading back to our headlong ways. Progress insists. Interestingly progress embraces right and left: Marx is as wedded to it as the Vorticists. It isn’t the belief that things can improve, which is rational. It’s the conviction that in and through the passage of time things are certain to get better. Take a look at climate change and reflect on how irrational that is. Lightman’s essay is buoyed by its tone. It leaves you with a heartening and healthy sense of unease. What are we rushing around for? To make the rich richer and the powerful more secure. Take a walk in the woods.  

Schlossberg writes of ice, which connects her piece to George Howe Colt’s delightful rumination on Thoreau the skater. In the winter, at Walden, Thoreau saw men and equipment arrive to cut blocks of ice which was sent across the world. He took it philosophically. Today, the pond freezes no more. Perhaps Trump should be asked to explain why. Frederick Tudor made a fortune selling New England ice at the time the global market was in the making. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the craziness of a system which transports goods which can easily be made locally across thousands of miles in pursuit of profit. Schlossberg is concerned with ice as a scientist but she grasps the moral implications of our brutal treatment of the planet: “How do you live a moral life in the confines of an immoral system?” It’s interesting that she judges the world’s economic system immoral. Robert Sullivan quotes Thoreau: “Our whole life is startlingly moral.” We are moral by nature, but our economic system requires us to suspend our morality in this sense: morality implies universality. A simple truism. If it’s wrong for me to work for starvation wages, it’s wrong for everyone. The essence of our system is the denial of universality: the rich deserve their wealth because they are talented, hard-working etc; the poor work hard but the “market” decides they should be poor. Schlossberg’s question implies the solution to the conundrum: the system has to be ditched.