Monday, May 11, 2009

Prophet of nature’s loss

John Pipkin, Woodsburner (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009). 367 pp. $28.95.

When I was younger and vulnerable to enthusiasm, I revered Henry David Thoreau. Driving from California to St. Louis in the summer of 1976, I took a detour through Massachusetts to visit Thoreau’s grave. In those days, the simple squat headstone engraved with the name HENRY was bare. I was among the first, I believe, to leave a stone—a European Jewish custom for this most American and least Hebraic of writers. I was drawn to him by two qualities: his wild-apple independence and hand-milled prose. As far as it is possible for any writer to be, Thoreau was not a man of his time. His famous decision to withdraw from “civilized life” and to dwell “alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor,” was really little more than a practical demonstration of his place in history.

Consider this passage from his Journal (January 9, 1855):

What a strong & hearty—but reckless, hit-or-miss style had some of the early writers of New England—like [John] Josselyn—& Wm Wood—and others elsewhere in those days— As if they spoke with a relish making their lips—like a coach whip—caring more to speak heartily than scientifically true. They are not to be caught napping by the wonders of nature in a new country & perhaps are often more ready to appreciate them than she is to exhibit them. They give you one piece of nature at any rate, & that is themselves. They use a strong homely coarse speech which cannot always be found in the dictionary—nor sometimes be heard in polite society—but which brings you very near to the thing itself described. The strong new soil speaks thro’ them. (I have just been reading some in Woods “New England’s Prospect” [1634].) He speaks a good word for NE—indeed will come very near lying for her—& when he doubts the truth of his praise he brings it out not the less soundly—as who cares if it is not so—we love her not the less for all that. Certainly that generation stood nearer to nature, nearer to the facts than this, and hence their books have more life in them.This passage, by the way, can be found in the Thoreau Edition, a scholarly project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which has transcribed and posted online Volumes 18–33 of the Journal so far. I quote it not merely to feel the slip and grit of his style between my fingers, but also to suggest that Thoreau’s approach to nature, despite coming nearer to fact than his contemporaries’, was still more literary than naturalistic. Although he preferred scientific truth to hearty speech, Thoreau was fully aware of the literary tradition into which he was insinuating himself, and his wakefulness to the wonders of nature was filtered through books. References to his reading are scattered across his pages like skater insects on the surface of Walden Pond. First and last, Thoreau (who pronounced his name thorough, by the way) was a writer. He contributed to the country’s development just as much as the railroad builders; he improved the landscape with words. His subject is not nature, “infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us,” but our relation to nature. Some men wanted to open it to new channels of highly lucrative trade; he wanted to open it to new channels of highly verbal thought.

In more recent years, alas, Thoreau has been seen as something else—“the spiritual forefather of modern-day environmentalism,” as a Boston University philosopher called him. The image at left, copied from Greg Perry’s Thoreau blog, is emblematic. The Thoreau Centers for Sustainability, “green nonprofit centers” in New York and San Francisco, naturally take his name. Champions of “green living” credit Thoreau for creating the basic concept. Even John Pipkin, in his new novel based on the embarrassing incident when Thoreau burned down some one hundred acres of the Concord Woods, has the not-yet-thirty writer reflect on the accident: “As towns and cities expand across the continent, woods like these, vaster tracts by far, will disappear beneath ax and saw and the other engines that men will devise to quicken the clearing of what brought them here.”

It is difficult, as you can tell from this sentence, to write a novel about Thoreau. Even if his voice were not so distinctive, or if he had not developed it by April 30, 1844, when he set the fire, the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of Thoreau playing in the ear. Pipkin tries to solve the problem by splitting the narrative among several Massachusetts residents who are affected by the fire—a Norwegian farmhand, the farmer’s wife he adores, an unchurched Protestant preacher, a Boston bookseller in Concord to open a second shop, two Czech lesbians—and also by casting the reflections of “Henry David” in free indirect discourse. Only once does Pipkin essay a passage in Thoreau’s voice. Running to Concord for help in battling the fire, Thoreau composes a journal entry in his head:Having passed the greater part of my life in indecision, I have decided at last how I intend to pass the balance of my days. The Dial is finished, and so is that corner of my being. There will be no other magazine to publish my simple poems and wandering thoughts. The world before me is of too much consequence to be merely observed. I must spread roots in it and become a man of practical concerns. Henceforth I shall sign my name Henry David Thoreau—Civil Engineer. The world does not want for another self-assured scribbler, possessed of a surfeit of words and little of necessity to say. . . . I have decided! I shall make pencils, still. I shall make their manufacture and perfection my work. The drill, the saw, the lathe—these shall be my tools. Plumbago and Bavarian clay [the secret to the superiority of Thoreau pencils], minerals from earth, galvanic batteries, baked pencil leads—these shall be my trade. Far better than the ungrounded ideas and airy pursuits that frustrate those men who would call themselves my contemporaries.Although some scholars have dated his decision to become a writer as early as 1840, Pipkin’s conceit is that the woods-burning incident alters the course of Thoreau’s life from practical to literary concerns. Guilt-ridden over his responsibility for the destruction of nature and unable to live among men who will go on pointing the finger of blame at him, Henry David realizes that he must atone: “There are wildernesses still, and what was lost at Concord might yet return, if it knows that its return will be safeguarded.” And so he decides to take up the pen again in service of nature. He becomes a prophet of its loss:America is not so stalwart a place as it may seem. The bountiful stores of plumbago and lumber and coal and fish and fur and all the other incomprehensible riches of the continent, riches waiting for industrious men to come along and scoop them up—these things are not endless. Once gone, they are gone for good. . . . Man’s inability to conceive of the world’s limits does not render the world limitless. And there is no longer a new world for the empty-handed to flee to from here.Well, every novelist must be granted his donnée, I suppose. It is significant, though, that in dividing up his chapters, Pipkin allocates more of the narrative to Oddmund Hus, the Norwegian farmhand who lives alone in the woods in a single-room cabin of his own making. Working alongside him, throwing shovelfuls of dirt at the advancing fire, Henry David marvels that “this man has already accomplished what he has only dreamed.” Apparently ignorant of the term’s provenance in nineteenth-century America, Pipkin has Henry David refer his new friend as Young America. Both men set fires earlier in the day, but Oddmund knew what he was doing and was able to contain his, while Henry David, who as yet has only visited nature on holiday and does not know as many natural facts as he thinks he does, quickly lost control of his fire. The implication is obvious. Although he supplies the Norwegian derivation of his name, Oddmund has the correct name by more than an “accident of language.” He is the odd man of his time and place. By comparison, Henry David Thoreau is a callow pretender.

Oddmund is rather interesting, especially in his unrequited love for the heavy-fleshed wife of the farmer who employs him, but he is not nearly enough to salvage Pipkin’s first novel. A Ph.D. in English from Rice University and former executive director of the Texas Writers’ League, Pipkin writes with a professional lack of urgency. Because fire-fighting is more dramatic to watch than to describe, he must find other things to write about if his novel is to move forward. The progress of the fire is narrated in the present tense. You know his characters’ minds have wandered when they switch over to the perfect.

After a while Pipkin falls into an easy working rhythm: a moment of action dissolves into paragraphs of flashback or digressive meditation. He resorts to the pathetic fallacy to animate the fire in the Concord Woods (“The pine needles, though quick to ignite, are easily spent, hardly fuel enough to sustain the flames for more than a few seconds at a time. And the fire knows this; it behaves in accordance with its own set of a priori truths. It must keep moving and consuming to survive”). When he slips and says that Oddmund “has not a clue” the farmer’s wife might fancy him, you figure he has simply neglected the beeping of his anachronism detector. But then, at novel’s end, the Boston bookseller, having been scorned by Henry David for his “fine clothes” and “expensive-looking boots and the watch chain at his waistcoat pocket,” decides against opening a branch store in Concord after all. He returns to Boston and founds Starbuck’s. I mean, he opens a coffeehouse instead. And you realize that Woodsburner is not a historical novel at all. It is a moral allegory in which the spiritual forefather of modern-day environmentalism learns painfully that, to safeguard nature against loss, he must cease being a holiday visitor and fashion himself into an odd man.