Hemingway and Thoreau, a comparison

Thursday, August 5, 2010

3:10 AM. Reporting for duty, sir. (Mainly because I couldn’t sleep any longer.)

You haven’t been making note of questions and potential areas of concern, and so you don’t have the next easy step you might have.

True. I don’t know where the time goes after I read this in and send it out. It isn’t like I have a social life.

No, but it also isn’t like you are as systematic as you might be, and ought to be. Routine will be your salvation, if you will let it be.

Even such a thing as a notebook for questions, handled right, would be a help.

Of course. Now, yesterday you were very tired, and took a recuperative day. That’s one thing. But losing the time you intend for work would be another thing.

I have this sense of time always passing. I always have had it. Years ago – well, no need to re-tell it. I just always feel the ticking clock.

You do – and you also lose yourself in a book or a pursuit and forget the ticking clock. The two extremes define and bound your life.

So, is today’s topic the work I don’t do?

Like your brother’s joke – what would you like it to be?

Fair question. This book I’m reading, The Hemingway Women, is reassuring me that the things I am getting are right – the cause of Hadley’s quarrel when Hemingway went to the Greek-Turk war in 1922, for instance. It was very reassuring.

Yes, and then you heard yourself thinking of Hemingway and referring to him, in an imaginary conversation, as Henry. Which brought you up short.

Of course it did. To me, there’s only one Henry, and it ain’t Ford! But what do Henry Thoreau and Ernest Hemingway have in common?

You might list of their similarities and their contrasts. And you might bear in mind that although everything means something, it doesn’t necessarily mean what it may at first glance appear to mean.

Yes, well, a good approach. I was afraid to ask directly. Still am, I see. I wouldn’t be able to trust the answer.

Just ask an emotionally easier question. Such as, why?

Well, let’s start with making a list. They both loved the land, the outdoors. Both voracious readers. Both meticulous observers, close craftsman of words, highly individual writing styles. Both knew how to do things. They were skilled with their hands as well as with their minds. Both interminably self-educating. Both, I would say, spiritually present. It expressed differently.

But the differences are striking.

Thoreau versus Hemingway

No experience of warfare. No experience of sexuality. No marriage. No pursuit of fame. No active pursuit of writing as career. Active spiritual connection. Rejection of Catholicism. Read several languages. Almost no foreign travel. Not superstitious. Pursued by tuberculosis. No history of physical accidents. No children. Only a very limited fame

Yet I am not approaching the nub of this. All right, how stupid. Ask! (It’s what I remind other people to do. Don’t ask rhetorical questions, or try to figure it out, ask.) So, Ernest, how would you compare and contrast the two lives?

You have read that I passed over the Transcendentalists as dried-up intellectuals who were too spiritual for their own good. They didn’t speak to me. When I thought of great American writers, I thought of great writers of fiction, for one thing, not essayists, and that is how I saw them, as essayists. Essayists, moralists, safe village-people, or anyway New England people. It got all mixed up in my mind with my mother’s pride of English ancestry.

I don’t remember your reaction to Melville.

I only looked at Moby Dick. If I had read White Jacket, say, I might have realized that here was a kindred soul, or Omoo. And if I had gotten far enough into Moby Dick to see what he was driving at, maybe I would have been captured by him too. But his style was so different, and his metaphysical attitude, and his plot was so slight – so little cargo for all that sail, you might say. Now, of course I know what you know of him, so he looks radically different. Bartleby the scrivener was looking for a clean well-lighted place himself. But I didn’t know. And to return to Thoreau’s work, there was no entry-point for me. Even Walden smelled of the writer’s midnight oil, to me. It kept me from pursuing the man, nor did I believe in life-to-life communication.

So if you look at him and you now —

Henry Thoreau was born a lot longer before I was than one generation, or even two. Do the arithmetic. He was born in 1817, I in 1899. He died in 1862, still a long generation before me.

Well, he’s farther from me – nearly 130 years – but it didn’t stand in the way.

It would have, if you had been less steeped in history and if you hadn’t been pointed toward him! I was not. Anyway, his life was a secular equivalent of a lay brother of the Middle Ages. He was raised a Protestant, in a country that associated Protestantism with political and intellectual freedom, so he would have been incredulous if you’d told him so, but basically he was a good Catholic. Not a Catholic of the 19th century, of course, but of the Middle Ages. He was also a very modern American, pre-industrial and post-industrial, as you noted long ago.

I don’t think Henry would agree to being called a Catholic!

Ask him.

That’s a thought. Friend Henry?

Make note of this three-way conversation. It won’t be the last. Such interaction is one more possibility you are to demonstrate, so that others may do it and so much more.

That would be nice. That would be an accomplishment.

Showing the way; that is your function. So many of you, in your time, have that function. You encourage each other, because you coordinate on this side, and because your time so badly needs showing. So badly, and so well.

It would not be wrong to think of me as consisting of many strands, several of which were contradictory, needing to be reconciled. The living of a life reconciling them thus opened up new possibilities for others, by providing a model. You understand, we’re not talking here of reputation or observed example. More like a template. Once do anything, and it becomes easier for others to do it.

Sounds like the morphic resonance fields I have heard about, although I haven’t actually read about the theory.

Leading theory aside, the fact is that anyone’s life is an exercise in living contradictions without letting the contradictions destroy the temporary container. For some this is easy because the range of contradictions is not wide, or because they live mostly unconscious of the contradictions and so they work themselves out more or less automatically, at a lower pressure, so to speak. But others hold together great forces under terrific pressure – as Ernest did – and the results may be fruitful and the cost to the container considerable. In my case, I chose a quiet life surrounded by my family who loved me and supported me by believing in me and letting me go my own way. I mean my parents and sisters – and [brother] John, of course, while he lived.

My uncomprehending aunts served to remind me that not everybody grew up with my particular parents! I was fortunate in my family circumstances, and in Concord, as provincial as it was, and of course in Emerson setting up shop nearby and thereby opening so many doors for me by his recognition and his acquaintances and even his human failings.

My career did not take off in the way my talents would have seemed – and did seem – to indicate. Emerson was impatient with this, thinking it the result of my lack of ambition. But there was no immediate outlet for what I knew; only a very few people could hear. And when I published Walden and it wasn’t seen, I realized it. That lack of fame, that quiet life, that continual contentment, provided the external counter-pressure (though you might not think of it as pressure so much as lack of pressure) to the otherwise overwhelming force of internal contradictions.

Now look at my life and Ernest’s and see the difference. His life was lived in public, under great and partly self-created pressure. He attained fame by the time he was 25, at a time when I remained unknown and still undeveloped. His war, his rebellion against his parents and his surroundings, his thirst for fame and achievement, the intensity of his romances and friendships, his insatiable desire to learn and become expert in various fields, all added to (and also publicly expressed) the pressure. That pressure blew off, continually, in emotional explosions, in irritability, in manias.

It’s just one more example of how no one can adequately judge another’s life. What look like character flaws – the explosions, the suspicions, the irrational fears, the excesses of food and drink and other things – look different, do they not, if seen as the relief of invisible but unrelenting pressure.

Yes. And so you deliberately kept your own pressure lower?

Not entirely consciously. For one thing I was (consciously) a child of my times, which meant in my case a child not only of 19th-century New England but of New England’s mental universe, which was largely English and, among the educated class, Latin and Greek. That is a very different background. Also we had no Internet, no telephone, no electricity, no radio or television or – until my later years – telegraphed newspaper news. Our world moved much slower than his than his did yours. We chewed fewer things, but chewed them well.

Looking back, I see that we started this by Ernest saying you were a medieval Catholic.

It is curious – is it not? – that until this minute you should have forgotten H.S. Salt’s specific comparison of my life and St. Francis of Assisi’s.

Very curious, not to say suspicious, indeed. I read that book and was persuaded by it, decades ago. Wasn’t thinking of it. So you agree?

I agree to it being one strand of the bundle, as it is one strand of yours, and of Ernest’s. But to take one strand to represent the bundle, or to equate any two bundles because each contains the same strand would be intellectually slipshod.

And so, when I was mentally led – blindsided, in fact – to calling him Henry, perhaps I was having my attention called to this thread, or strand, we hold in common?

It bears further examination. But your time is long since up.

Yes, it is twenty of five. I’ve been at this an hour and a half, though it doesn’t seem like I’ve accomplished all that much this time.

Your ambition grows as it expects more and takes more for granted. Faithfulness is all.

I know. “Righteous persistence brings reward.”

Well, doesn’t it?

Seems like it. All right, thank you both.

One thought on “Hemingway and Thoreau, a comparison

  1. A fascinating conversation, shedding more light, for me, on the workings of strands, and all that each represents, in a contained community. And to always wonder how much the reconciling of their contradictions has to do with whatever we’re acting out or manifesting. What are the contradictions-to-be-resolved in my array of strand-characters? I’m going to have to talk to them.

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