The Thoreau Diaries

by Michael Altman

John Summers has a review of the new edition of Henry David Thoreau's The Journal 1837-1861 edited by Damion Searls over at the New Republic. Usually, I'm interested in Thoreau because of his thoughts on the Bhagavad Gita or The Laws of Menu but Summers makes an interesting point contrasting Thoreau with his Puritan forefathers:
Thoreau’s “inner voice” did not sound anything like John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, or Samuel Sewell. “It is a certain faeryland where we live,” he recorded along a walk one June afternoon. “I wonder that I ever get five miles on my way, the walk is so crowded with events and phenomena.” Like the Puritans, Thoreau envisioned New England as an enchanted world; but unlike their journals and diaries, he did not suggest an unconscious conversing intimately with God, and he broke decisively from their Augustinian style of self-accusation.
In Walden, Thoreau sits at the side of the pond and reads his Gita. He delights in the thought that the water at Walden and the water flowing from the Himalayas are one and the same and that he and the brahman share a drink together:

I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.
On one level, it would tempting to read Thoreau's vision of unity between Walden and the Ganges and he and the brahman through the lens of the Gita and an adoption of Indian mysticism--after all, Thoreau claimed to be an American yogi. But Summers' small point illumines that more is going on here. Thoreau is part of a larger American Protestant tradition that sees the world through eyes of enchantment. While the Puritans may have seen evil in the wilderness and Thoreau found enlightenment in the woods, both intimately connected the natural and supernatural worlds. What draws Thoreau to the Gita is not only its philosophical difference from American Christianity but also its similarities to his New England ancestry. Thoreau's reading of the Gita emphasizes its commonalities with Puritan thought. In this early period of encounter between America and other religious cultures it is too easy to focus on the ways Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson adopted and adapted Asian religious cultures without considering how they made sense of these new cultures as Americans (and a special kind of Protestant Christian American at that.) We have to really think through the American in American yogi.


Randall said…
Great post. Thoreau would have to have such insights while walking, right?

A good question to ponder in an American religious history course might be: Just where does Thoreau fit into the culture of mid-19th century America?

Is his interest in the East also in line with other brands of 19th-century orientalism?

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