Henry Thoreau’s words and example deeply influenced my life since I first read Walden at age 24 and wound up writing my M.A. thesis on his early social views in the light of his personal religion. This is a man! And his stalwart, straightforward life is such an example of virtues lived that an earlier age would have named him as a saint. (That is, as a person whose life displayed virtues worthy of emulation.) I never thought, in that long ago, that I’d be able to talk to him.
“Your life is a sacred experiment! How else can it be?”
[9:30 a.m. Sunday March 12, 2006]
All right, friends, I am going to be working on the assumption that I am working on a book about guidance – sort of not realizing it – this past 15 years, not to say 40. As Henry Thoreau sat at Walden accumulating the wisdom and experience that became Walden, he thought he was doing something entirely different, at first, which was writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which wasn’t nearly so important. And perhaps I have been doing the same. So – comments, suggestions? Oh, and what was going on Friday night/ Saturday morning?
[Henry Thoreau:] You understand me instinctively in the same way you understood Colin Wilson, and the result is that our consciousnesses and yours are linked in ways unsuspected by the outside world. Walden is a finished product, and could never be changed now because too many minds link to it, and share their being with it. But I live, and I am affected, as are we all by each other.
Another part of me, another part of you, link souls and intent as you and your brother Paul, or your sister Margaret, linked soul and intent. The result may be seen as one larger soul-construction coordinating its activities with each of you consciously following your own dictates but unconsciously dove-tailing your efforts, encouraging each other at crucial times, providing “outside” assistance that proves crucial before long. As a single example, Paul sends you [Peter] Kingsley’s book [In the Dark Places of Wisdom] knowing somehow that you should have it, and because your intents are aligned, you are functioning in accordance with promptings that coordinate, and so you receive that book precisely at the time for it to make a certain constructive impact. These interactions could be multiplied many times – you give him van der Post, he gives you an understanding of light, you give her ideas, she gives you a different point of view. You understand.
I died [May 6, 1862] before Antietam Creek was fought. I had no assurance that slavery would be defeated, although it did seem clear that it would not be allowed to become national in scope. But I died of that war, for two reasons, as you may not have realized.
First, my work was finished, only because my world was finished. For me to have lingered would have worked out far less well than for Emerson, even. I would in no way have been in sympathy with what to others would have seemed obvious goods – the rise of the corporation, the destruction of the enduring edifice for the sake of the profit to be made – and appropriated – in the selling of it, even and especially the policy of reconstruction that followed Lincoln’s death. I would have been considered an old fogy, behind the time, and my age would have seemed to discredit my youth. There would have been far too great a chance that my work would have been lost to the 20th century, which needed it.
Second, on the human level, I could not survive the suffocating vapor of suffering and hatred that is war, especially civil war. I know that you have sometimes thought I ought to have stuck it out because in your view other abolitionists and I had largely caused the war, but in a wartime atmosphere the most sensitive go first; it is too hard to live. It is the somewhat coarser or insulated souls who are better able to live in that atmosphere, because not actually living there in the way I had to do. It was as simple as a matter of physical constitution which as you know is a determinative and at the same time an indicator of the total being. “I can never get well while this war lasts,” I said, and this was simple fact. It had nothing to do with politics and certainly not with self-indulgence.
Your life was about receiving guidance.
My life was about living in a way that bustling 19th-century America had no time for. It was as well that someone remind it. I was a provincial – and New England was played out after the Civil War, you recognize; it poured out its life’s blood and subsided, its prime contribution to the national experiment finished. But even in my lifetime Massachusetts was moving rapidly from the forefront to the sideline. As was Virginia, come to think of it. The frontier absorbed the nation’s imagination, and the new states that formed, not on the frontier but behind it, pulled the center of gravity ever westward. What was more easterly than Massachusetts? And even after we cast off the district of Maine, we were still of the east – the far east, not only New England but half Old England – and some of us pulled it east a good deal farther, to the land of the Hindu.
By the way (or BTW as you begin to think as your email telegraphese takes deeper hold on you) you must not expect me to speak to you here as I would speak to my readers when in a body, able to cast and recast. If you want to write brilliantly, lastingly, do it while you are concentrated in one time, one place! In eternity you revise not your words but yourself.
And so — ?
You know everything you need know. You have the inner resources; they never fail. You have the outer resources, so long as you remain open to them, and you repay as you receive. What else need be said of guidance? Your life is a sacred experiment! How else can it be? Everyone’s life is a sacred experiment – but each experiment is different, and must be tended each by each, carefully, closely.
I am happily extending my range of communication but I need to assure that I not be overwhelmed by cross-currents from others, and that any who follow my example be at least cautioned against mishap.
You see how that statement was half “you” and half “other”? that is a form of education in itself.
I do see that.
(9:45 p.m.) I am beginning to see my long relation to books and authors entirely differently. Who would have thought that I could interact with “my good Henry Thoreau,” as Emerson once called him, I think. Or that I could talk to so many possible friends I did not meet in this lifetime. It opens up our lives in a way I’d never suspected – it is perhaps our example of how we will live in ways and in a manner still unsuspected.
[8:30 p.m. Tuesday March 14, 2006]
Friend Henry, you wrote in Walden that after a while sometimes at two in the afternoon things got a little slow – that you were on the edge of being bored. That seems to be where I am now, in my freedom that is only a few months old, and perhaps temporary at that. Can you offer suggestions beyond “Get to work!”?
How many times recently in walking in the woods have you had my words running through your consciousness, if a man walks in the woods half the day for love of them he is in danger of being thought an idler—
It is true, what your friends are telling you, sometimes you need to stop. You don’t think you are doing much and so you wonder how much less you should be doing, but consider that much of your work goes on invisibly to you. It is not as though you ceased to think, to ponder, to daydream, to imagine – to put these activities in ascending order of abstraction – and so you needn’t chain yourself to your plow. The ox won’t thank you for it and you won’t be a better plowman for sleeping at the plow waiting for the ox to wake up!
“Lowly faithful, banish fear,” as Waldo said.