The Concord Circle & the Birth of American Philosophy
OPEN SOURCE WITH CHRISTOPHER LYDON 7.13.17
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. The second resounding declaration of independence in this country came 75 years after the first. The Jefferson version — Philadelphia,1776 — conceived the American nation. The second, hatched mainly in the rustic village of Concord, Massachusetts, brought forth the American voice and thinking — and it still sounds like rockets going off: Emerson’s new essays in 1850, Melville’s Moby-Dick, 1851, Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, 1852, Thoreau’s Walden, 1854, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, 1855. The foundations of American letters are getting set in place for all time. It is Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday this week that prompts a radio hour on our second founding, when Melville declared Hawthorne our Shakespeare, and Emerson told Whitman: you’re the voice we’ve been waiting for. So in the perplexities of 2017we’re listening again to the Concord circle for help, and wondering why the brave free spirit of Thoreau in particular sounds ripe for revival. David Bromwich, the Sterling professor of English at Yale, gets the tour bus started:
David Bromwich: There is that feeling I think about this generation of the late 1830s, 1840s, 1850s that springs up in New England the sense that they’ve come back to some radical understanding of human nature which honors the individual mind and soul which believes in something greater than itself, and you know this is a literary movement that accompanies social experiments and others who were working to invent a new way of life at the time. Emerson is the central figure and as it has come down to us Thoreau is the voice, the conversational voice, that we think of as in some way vindicating Emerson, as showing the strength of this romantic and Protestant moment, but without the excessive religiosity. I’m not sure what it is people object to in Emerson since I’m an admirer, pretty unqualified, but it’s often said Emerson is somehow complacent, doesn’t admit the tragic element in life and so on. That there’s not enough evidence of conflict in him. He’s always sure of himself. Thoreau makes room for doubt. And there’s no end of evidence of conflict of contestation political and otherwise in Thoreau.
Christopher Lydon: David you speak of a movement. I see also incredible individualists. Often contentious they’re all looking for a place in Emerson’s sun. Look around that circle. Who do you see?
DB: Well there is Emerson. There is Margaret Fuller who becomes editor of the Dial, one of the great American magazines ever and it comes to be reinvented in the early 20th century and edited by another woman of genius, Marianne Moore. There is a Thoreau
CL: The apprentice, so to speak.
DB: Well, Thoreau is the genius apprentice of the central genius, Emerson, that’s right. And if you go a little farther out to writers who are mainly known for their work as social chroniclers and social critics you get you know a figure like Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker with his great sermon on merchants which is an inspired and powerful critique of the mercantile mentality of New England at that time so there is social and literary and aesthetic and political criticism all as it were going together with different voices. But you know the individual writers — Emerson’s a perfect example — often participating in every single one of those idioms of protest.
CL: Hawthorne lives in Concord for a while anyway. Whitman, Melville come to call. Put them in the in the gang.
DB: Well Whitman and Melville are New Yorkers and Whitman and Melville — I think the modern reputation of those two writers has it and I think it’s correct — lived more than Emerson and most of the people in his circle did. It was said about Thoreau that he had travelled widely in Concord and that meant partly that he traveled in the precincts of his own mind; that was enough for him.
But you know Whitman is a reporter on the Brooklyn Eagle, knows New York, its topography, its various social classes, its men and women since Whitman is the first great non-sexist in modern literature, who celebrates motherhood but celebrates all the physicality of the human body male and female and sex too. That’s an element of something that comes out of the freedoms Emerson made possible that Emerson himself can’t be held guilty of.There is a kind of indifference to bodily things. It’s very noticeable in him.
But you know Melville as any reader of this literature knows had one of the most various lives of experience of any American writer: going to sea, working in a bureaucracy, then being alone as a writer for very much of his life. So Melville lived certainly in the first couple of decades of his adult life he lived with risk and he wanted to.
I think of the Concord circle as much more self-contained and much more a group of people concerned with experiences of the mind and of you know the sensations we associate with just living and observing life. They don’t say go out young man and see the world; they say look in yourself. Is there something you can find there that that’s different from anything else that wants to be redeemed.
CL: Is Emily Dickinson, there in Northampton, on their map at all?
DG: Dickinson is the most private the most solitary in a way the cagiest and the deepest wit of all that group. And she’s an observer of nature not just indoor nature, but nature usually on a small scale quite as sharp as Thoreau. But, her best work is in poetry. It’s poetry which is in inimitable but done in a sort of stanza form usually that she borrowed from Protestant hymn writers and that you know she explored with a depth no one else has ever tried or succeeded in. So I mean she’s one of the great poets in English of the 19th century, period.
CL: David introduce Walt Whitman as indeed he introduced himself, sort of flinging Leaves of Grass over Emerson’s transom.
DB: Yeah, and Emerson responded. I think that’s what you’re looking to hear in a letter from Concord dated 21 July 1855, “Dear Sir I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I’m very happy in reading it as great power makes us happy.” Emerson didn’t write letters like this normally. He really didn’t. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career which yet must have had long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion but the solid sense of the book as a sober certainty. It has the best merits namely of fortifying and encouraging.” What’s most notable there to me. Rereading it you feel it all over again. Is the intuition the sort of sudden dawning sense that Emerson registers that something has begun. There’s something fresh. Quite new in kind in America now. Only an American could have written that.
CL: Who should we be comparing it with? Paris in the 20s? I keep thinking the Harlem Renaissance, but the Elizabethans? The founders at Philadelphia maybe?
DB: It’s a it’s a great artistic moment. I don’t think it can survive comparison with Elizabethan England or with Paris in the 1920s. But you know look Elizabethan England we’re talking about really two generations of writing.And Paris is an international manifestation. It is writers from Ireland, from America, from England, from Russia, you know pretty much everywhere, but there’s not the same coherence. I guess I’d fall back on my first comparison with the very limited, very circumscribed, but extraordinarily intense production of great work in a new mode that you’d get in British romanticism, in the years roughly speaking 1795 to 1825 and beginning in the Lake District. You know in the house inhabited by Wordsworth and his sister and visited by Coleridge as a nuisance houseguest.
CL: I see it as a sort of precursor of the Duke Ellington Band and the Harlem Renaissance in general but specifically the band with a big leader and many, many different voices. The Minguses, Paul Gonzalvezes, Kudi Williams, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster especially. He’s my Melville in the Ellington band, but a peculiarly American sort of itinerant performance group with a stamp that lives today
DB: Extend that comparison between Ben Webster and Melville. I want to hear it.
CL: Well there’s a depth, there’s an epic seriousness, a kind of weight that the more lyrical, say Whitman or Johnny Hodges lack. There’s a kind of all-time, middle of the century voice. It’s also a little dissident. He leaves the Ellington band. He becomes Billy Holiday’s great accompanist, but it’s sort of the deepest depths the Moby-Dick experience in American music.
DB: Yes, right.
CL: David Bromwich, bring it into even 2017. What happens to this energy, this affirmative spirit about this country, this language, this style?
DB: Yeah. Well the group is going to be of interest as long as people read great writing. I don’t have any doubt of that and of the lot Dickinson, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville and a great deal of his work will will last. And they’re being read now and they’re being read by young people who may be at the beginning of their own movent now. We’re living in an age of conformity oppressive and sort of flattening in its demands and its monotony in some of the ways Emerson found to be disturbing to him in the in the late 1830s.
I can see it in some of the students I teach the sense that they’re all too sure of their own docility and they don’t like it. They want to get out. They’re not quite sure how. But there is there is there is a desire for something that will not just reflect the glories of America’s world empire, globalization, the greatness of consumer life and you know lengthening that life as long as we can. They want something, too of the soul, of the Spirit.
Emerson wrote to that sense of unease in “The American Scholar” and there’s just a bit I wanted to quote to you because it’s it’s got his voice every bit as much as the letter to Wittman he’s talking about the young men of his time, the ones who might become scholars, and that they should have more hope than he can yet see in them. It’s the passage that Bobby Kennedy loved and used to quote.
“They did not yet see in thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers of a career do not yet see. That if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts and, there abide, the huge world will come round to him.”
That is written with hope. It’s a faith not everyone is capable of. But it’s a very strange contradictory and I think implicitly oppressive environment we’re living in. And I can’t help think people are going to want to break out of it.
In the current London Review of Books, David Bromwich has an overview: “The Age of Detesting Trump.”
Coming up: The down-to-earth uses of Transcendentalism. One of our philosophy professors says it saved his life; the other has found in the Transcendentalist moment a strong feminist model for action. This is Open Source.
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. What kick-started our focus on the Thoreau bicentennial, most of a year ago, was a young man’s memoir that had striking reviews and an unlikely title: American Philosophy: A Love Story. The author turned out to be a 38 year old professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, John Kaag. His book is a candid account of his troubles and a devout thank you to the Concord philosophers of the 19th Century and their descendants — notably Emerson, Thoreau and William James — who had come to his rescue. Last month John Kaag canoed with us on Thoreau’s Concord River, and walked us around Walden Pond. Here, finally, is a piece of his story:
John Kaag: I started reading American philosophy when I was an undergrad. I read Emerson and Thoreau, William James, Jane Addams, but I really didn’t get them when I was going through undergrad or through graduate school. For the most part it remained too esoteric. It remains, you know, the stuff of theory. Even when Emerson and Thoreau say go out for a walk, experience, experience, experience, simplicity, simplicity I still didn’t get it. But you’re right. Something happened in 2009 that sort of shook things up a bit.
Chirstopher Lydon Voice Over: What had happened in John Kaag’s life was that his alcoholic father died and his first marriage collapsed.
And it made me remember that philosophy is this love of wisdom and love of wisdom doesn’t have to be theoretical or abstract. It’s the stuff that keeps us alive, keeps us going. And I think that that’s what came home to me that philosophy should be understood as a way of dealing with the difficult business of living.
Sometimes you think about philosophy as this academic pursuit or a theoretical pursuit but in this case I discovered that philosophy can actually save somebody’s life. And I would say that it does in mine. It, it saved my life. William James saved my life, I think. Yeah that sounds hokey but it’s very true.
CL: John, it just touches me that you mention, for me, our greatest public intellectual William James who was depressed badly in his own 20s and lived an unbelievably productive, brilliant life. But he says at some point despair lames most people but it wakes others fully up — waking up being a very Thoreau phrase too.
JK: That’s right. I mean James’s 29th year was his worst. My 29th year was my worst. And he in 1896 he gave a lecture called “Is Life Worth Living?” And I had never read “Is Life Worth Living?” before that spring. It was given to the YMCA, the Cambridge YMCA. And you can imagine these sort of bright eyed, bushy-tailed Cambridge youths listening to William James and James comes in and says “Is life worth living?” And he says maybe, it depends on the liver. And from March until the next fall that is all I thought about. James’ point, if I understand him correctly, is that it’s up to you to make life worth living. It depends of you, it depends on the liver.
CL: Emerson, James, the James brothers, all of them are such brilliant writers. What if you just said oh this is great literature and leave it at that? And something like a shaker chair. This is a beautiful artifact of 19th century America but it’s not our philosophy, maybe never was.
JK: No don’t do this! there is nothing particularly special about the trauma that I went through in life. People lose their families. People have alcoholic fathers. But if there is anything unique about this story is that these little tragedies can actually be the impetus for philosophical reflection.
When we think about Emerson’s “Experience” essay. where at the beginning Emerson says “I find myself on a staircase. Up the staircase is a infinite number of steps and down the staircase is an infinite number of steps and I have to find myself in the middle.” But at the end of the essay what gets me is this one phrase “Up again old heart.” Up again old heart. This is what experience requires. Like, we started this by saying philosophy saved my life and it did. That up again old heart, like let me show you a companion in misery. Emerson shows it. He’s gone through it. James shows it. He’s gone through it. He’s seen a father die. He’s seen his son die. Just up again. So I think that’s something to remember.
Lydia Moland is a philosophy professor at Colby College in Maine, a specialist in German idealist philosophy of the 19th Century. In her distress over American politics last year and this, she found herself casting around for help in the Concord philosophers, specially their fixation on slavery and freedom. And among the first things she found was that not all the bright lights in New England were in Concord, and not all of them were guys.
Lydia Moland: After the election I think it’s time for me to look in my own history for people who thought carefully about the American moment and thought about it philosophically. So I had this very underdeveloped idea that I would go to the Schlesinger library and start looking for the philosophical underpinnings of American Abolitionism.
And in this box of letters was a letter signed by someone I had never heard of that just rocked my world. And it was signed L. Maria Child and I didn’t know who this person was and googled her and the more I read about her the more entranced I was with the breadth of her involvement. She wrote self-help books, she wrote biographies, she wrote histories, she wrote children’s periodicals, she wrote novels. I think what I was most transfixed by was the sound of her conscience that comes through so explicitly in the way she talks, especially about Abolitionism.
CL: So she was a pretty suffragette feminist obviously, but it’s much broader. How should we connect her to what the guys were doing and Margaret Fuller, but the main stem of the transcendental movement? it sounds related in lots and lots of ways.
LM: Yeah for sure and I think the other strain that comes through very clearly is this movement towards self-reliance and the idea that the divine is within us. And so if we would just listen to our own voices and, as I say Child calls that usually conscience, we would do bette we would liberate ourselves from the kind of bad thinking that you know vexed the European tradition for way too long.
So like many of these thinkers that you’re talking about Emerson and Thoreau she got her start thinking about German philosophers, Schiller. She read Herder. She read John Paul. And then she met William Lloyd Garrison and as she put it later in her life “he got hold of the reins of my conscience” and she essentially said I couldn’t live my life in the same way again in that same quote she says “So help me God.” It was a real sort of religious conversion for her. And Garrison could tell it seems that she had a voice that could reach people maybe even in a way that his voice couldn’t. He was the one who called for the first woman of the republic. And you can see this coming through in the way she argues. She tacks back forth between high articulated, idealistic principles and very concrete stories about the lives of slaves, for instance.
And then she’ll sort of go back up and say and how can you read something like that, you northerners, and then tell me that you have to obey the Fugitive Slave Law. And I think that’s sort of call for consistency and for thinking across one’s commitments. That’s very philosophical to me. One way of talking about philosophy is the search for consistency of thought and for clarity of articulation. She’s always doing that.
CL: This question is bouncing around in all these discussions of Thoreau and Emerson: what makes it philosophical? Is it philosophy? Was Lydia Maria Child a philosopher?
LM: She didn’t call herself a philosopher. I read in one review of her books for instance this quote: “Mrs. Child disclaims the character of a philosopher but she knows how to teach the art of living well.” And I love that quote because the “but” there also makes clear that there is a living well is also a philosophical question. Philosophy sometimes gets too far away from that question becomes arcane and verbose and all of the things that some of these Germans were accused of being, but philosophy is also the art of living well, of noticing if there are parts of your life that aren’t in harmony with each other. Noticing that adjusting those parts of your wish to live a life of harmony and with the promise that that’s a better life, that that examined life is more worth living
CL: She was also an activist though. I mean her view on slavery sounds like Thoreau, who is a friend of John Brown who felt the raid at Harper’s Ferry was a good idea. And even if John Brown had to die for it it had to be done.
LM: Yeah and Child herself was very rocked by the John Brown incident and her response to it was very typical of her. She was as I say a brilliant writer and a brilliant argumentative thinker, but she also was a doer. So what she did after John Brown’s failed raid was write to the governor of Virginia and volunteer to come down and care for John Brown as he lay wll let’s just say moldering in a jail cell awaiting trial and execution. And then when the governor of Virginia wrote back a very condescending letter he said of course you can come and visit him but you know and then said several very disparaging things.
And then he published her letter in the newspaper without her permission. And you can feel her in that moment turning her gun wheel around to him. Now she writes this 11 page response that is just blow by blow destroying his argument. And then there’s another senator’s wife who gets in the mix, a Virginian senator’s wife, who writes to her and says, “Mrs. Child do you read your bible?” and then says to her doyou know that we take care of our slaves then we take care of our slave women when they’re giving birth to their children. She had no idea who she was dealing with because you weren’t allowed to read Lydia Maria Child in the South. So she just didn’t know she was confronting one of the best argumentative thinkers in the abolitionist movement.
So then Child quotes a bunch of bible verses at her. It’s again a very long letter. And one of the lines in it is essentially we also take care of women who are giving birth. The difference is we don’t sell their babies. And then she published as correspondence between her and the governor and John Brown and the senator’s wife and distributed 300,000 copies of it much to that at her own expense. So she was such a doer. She wasn’t just going to write something. She was going to volunteer to do something and then publish more if she needed to to get her viewpoint read.
She was also, as you know, very effective at the practical and many other spheres and this is another thing that I think she shares with Thoreau. So she wrote this book called The American Frugal Housewife. And the subtitle is something like, “a book for those who are unashamed of economy.” It has recipes. It tells you how to get grease stains out of your cotton clothes. It tells you well what to do with you need to get rid of bed bugs all with this assumption that Americans are going to be self-reliant and that many Americans are not upper class and they need this kind of self help books to be self reliant in the way that they aspire to be.
CL: Lydia Moland, I can hear it in your voice there’is kind of electric connection with this woman, Lydia Maria Child. But my question is: what is it about these voices? I’m thinking Thoreau, sometimes Emerson, that can feel absolutely immediate. In this moment, in my life, they’re speaking to me. Uncle Waldo. Aunt Lydia.
LM: Well yeah, and that’s interesting because Child was so influential on some of these later abolitionists — who were about a generation younger than she was — both because they read her children’s periodicals when they were children, but then were convicted by her appeal for that class of Americans called Africans. And they specifically called her Aunt Lydia sometimes…
LM: And I think it’s that combination of a person who could speak to a national crisis with this very practical get out go do something. If you’re Thoreau, take a walk. If you’re Child, you know, go do your own laundry and then go and throw your body in front of an abolitionist to shield him from a mob.
So you have to do these things You can’t just be thinking them.
In these terms of what does it mean to live a good life in an age when we’re trying to figure out what it means to be American. And I think we’re at a moment like that now too. We’re trying to figure out what is it about this country that’s worth fighting for and how do we fight for it in very concrete terms not just idealistic terms. So I think all of that feels very relevant and very direct.
CL: I couldn’t agree more, and I think it’s actually there’s something in the air: anxiety about our country, what we stand for, that makes these guys more relevant than the accident of Thoreau’s 200th. I mean there’s something out there.
Bring it home, as close as you can, to the American anxiety of this very day.
LM: For me it has to do with the worry about moral corruption. And I think you get that in Thoreau for sure; you get it in Emerson. What do we have to fight against to make sure that there isn’t a kind of slow erosion of our moral character that makes us incapable of fighting our own principles? Child was very clear that Northerners had messed things up and that Northerner had aided and abetted this evil in self-interested ways, that there was a hypocrisy that ran so deep that it was unnoticeable. And I think part of what I feel her saying so clearly is look at yourself. Look at yourself! What is it about our moral character that eroded to the point that we weren’t interested in Black Lives Matter? Or that we weren’t paying attention to the 99 percent or that we didn’t think that we were part of the problem. I think that Thoreau was onto something like that. So you can’t just read Thoreau and then go back to your desk job or your failed marriage or whatever it is that’s dragging you down. Child is saying something similar. I think once she felt like her conscience had been awakened she felt that she needed to awaken the conscience of her fellow countrymen and women and she needed to do that in whatever way she knew how. So there’s a great entrepreneurial spirit. There’s great ingenuity. In that spirit Child, for me, is enormously encouraging.
CL: Lydia Moland, what is it we’re rediscovering here, in our own neighborhood, in the 19th century?
LM: I think it’s a call to look at ourselves as complicit in a problem that we didn’t want to recognize that we now need to get much more real about we need good arguments to convict our self to show ourselves where our thinking went wrong where we became corrupted where we became negligent where we stopped caring when we should have cared.
It can be very overwhelming to try to figure out how to live your life any day.if you feel like your country is in a national world historical crisis that question becomes paralyzing. But when you can find people who say go take a walk. Go write a book. Go protest somewhere. Go do something thoughtful. That can be enormously encouraging and liberating and energizing. I think one of the things Child was also saying remember that this is not about us except for in so far as we have gotten this wrong.
She has this wonderful way and I think Thoreau is like this too is saying you can feel that something’s wrong here. I can tell you feel that I want to help diagnose that and I want to help you see how you are complicit in it so that you can change your life in a way that makes you know that you have not lived that life in vain.
Lydia Moland asked me to note with respect that the best book on Lydia Maria Child, until Ms. Moland writes her own, is Caroline Karcher’s from 1994, titled First Woman of the Republic.
Coming Up: Transcendentalism, the legacy of Concord, in the whole wide world. The everywhere author Pico Iyer says it’s thriving more in Asia than here. This is Open Source.
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. Pico Iyer has made himself a writerly embodiment of the world spirit — not just by having Indian parents, an English upbring, an American university education, and a Japanese wife; but because he inhales the fumes of global cultures in incessant, humble travel. It says a lot about the spirit of Emerson, Thoreau and Concord that Pico Iyer to this day calls himself a Transcendentalist, and finds other like him in the far corners of the earth.
Pico Iyer: I think to begin with Thoreau was one of the great globalists before the word even existed. He was this open vessel ready to take wisdom from wherever it came. And I think that’s one of the many ways in which he was 150 years ahead of his time. He was using the word yoga which I hadn’t known existed in the English language in 1850. He was likening the Walden Pond to the Ganges. He was, if you think of the great Zen thinkers through the last eight centuries he would belong on that list I think.
Christopher Lydon: American philosophers are a little embarrassed by the directness the immediacy of this treasury of thinking. What do you hear in that?
PI: Americans are embarrassed by precisely what is most singular and most redeeming about America to the rest of the world. And so I speak as a non-American who spent the last 40 years in almost constant movement around the globe. And if you were to ask my neighbors in Japan, or my schoolmates in England, or my uncles in India what does America represent? They would say it’s the country of revolution. It’s the country of individualism. It’s the country of long horizons. It’s the country of possibility. And those four things among so many others are exactly what Thoreau was speaking to and from. And with an unembarrassed directness, an unapologetic hopefulness that you wouldn’t find in Europe where I’m sitting and you might not find in the East Asia from which he was drawing and you know I love the fact that Mahatma Gandhi on whom my father once wrote a book read Thoreau in prison instantly realized that Thoreau as he later said was one of the great and most moral of Americans, took from Thoreau the very words “civil disobedience”, learned how to resist, and walked against the British empire through Thoreau. And then wonderfully. Martin Luther King took that same notion from Gandhi in reimported it back into America and I think sitting having this conversation the year 2017 and you being in New England we would all say that Martin Luther King Jr. is one of America’s great exports from the world and to the world. But so much of what King was disseminating he got through Gandhi from Thoreau.
CL: Pico Iyer, you and I had a funny moment in conversation 10 years ago maybe on your book The Open Road about your long long friendship with the Dalai Lama. And I said midway through you know this sounds so Concord, so transcendental, so Emersonian and you said, Chris, look again. The epigraph, the marks in the book of Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau and William James very specially are continual. And I thought wow who’s talking to whom what kind of convergence is this. But ever since I thought of the Dalai Lama as sort of the greatest living transcendentalist
PI: I love that. Thank you for remembering that that conversation and as you recall the name of the book that I wrote on the Dalai Lama was The Open Road. And I was deliberately taking that phrase from Walt Whitman, the great bard of the open road. But it goes back to what we were just saying. If you asked anybody around the world what is the promise what is the uniqueness of America. They would say the open toad which means two things. One the possibility of going anywhere, the great tradition of exploration of which Thoreau was the perfect embodiment and, two, the openness to every tradition of the world and so Thoreau essentially learned from Persia and India and Japan and everywhere else and then formed this open unique synthesis that he sent back out to India and Japan.
CL: Pico that’s an incredibly wonderful and an enthusiastic review of our great thinkers it’s also almost wildly forgiving of recent years I’m thinking in my lifetime Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan we’re associated with firepower too and military blundering and bullying. In all that din of American empire I mean is that Thoreau voice still credible? Still real? Still there?
PI: It is. And I think what Americans are perhaps the people who are slowest to recognize is that the American dream is really durable, whatever is happening with the American reality. So you’re right. Geopolitically most of the world has grievances very justifiably with the United States. Culturally, intellectually, in the realm of idealism the United States is unequalled and whether if China may become the strongest economy in the world tomorrow, Japan represents the future, Europe has a greater sense of history and of sophistication than the US, but if we were to teleport ourselves right now to the streets of Tehran or Hanoi or Tokyo or Shanghai and we asked a bright young woman there where do you want to go? Where do you want to make your future? she would I’m almost certain say New York or California or the United States.
So America still has the monopoly on large horizons. Nowhere in the world is associated with possibility as the United States is. There’s no Chinese dream. There’s no Japanese dream. There’s no English dream that is magnetizing and beckoning the world to this day. And if you want if you if you cherish the notion that you can be whoever you want you can make a new future and that you can be liberated from your history which is precisely the scripture to which Emerson and Thoreau gave voice. I think the United States is still and probably always will be unrivaled.
CL: Pico there’s another inhibition here because American fear maybe New England fear of our own provincialism. I mean how can it be that a few thinkers, in the town of Concord, in the neighborhood of 1850, hit the target so powerfully?
I mean my father used to say my father used to define Unitarianism as the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston. And he was not a Unitarian. Do we kid ourselves about the importance of Concord in 1850 or are we shy about recognizing the greatness of it?
PI: America is not provincial, because it, from the outset as its founding fathers recognized, was sitting on a possibility that every other country had forfeited by then. And I can say that only as a grateful immigrant to the country. And I feel myself at odds with many American governments and I feel that the US now is one of the more provincial and more naive and undefended nations on the planet. But none of that changes the American Legacy which is unparalleled because of that liberation from history. And I think Emerson and Thoreau saw that possibility as many of them, neighbors probably didn’t they saw that they were sitting on something unique. And Emerson was of course the great voice of let’s jettison everything that has been said and done. Let’s look to the future. We don’t have to be circumscribed by what people have said and thought before.
CL: Pico I want to know how you came to these writers, you the immigrant scholar. And Thoreau in particular. Who is he to you? And when at Walden Pond or otherwise did you discover it?
PI: Perfect question and I probably speak for many people in saying that as somebody of Indian origin born and grew and growing up and educated in England. I finally made it to New England at the age of 21 to study in Boston and one of the first texts I was given on arrival was Walden together with the Emerson’s “Nature” and “The American Scholar” and Moby Dick none of which I have read before. And The Blytheville Romance and in England in the 1960s and 1970s if you studied English language literature you were not allowed to study Americans.
So I came to those guys fresh when I made my first physical acquaintance with Concord at the time I was reading these texts at the age of 21. And instantly I realised I had found my religion and to this day if people ask me, sometimes aggressively, “Why do you spend time with the Dalai Lama and not be a Buddhist? Why do you spend a lot of time in the Benedictine Hermitage and not be a Christian?” I would say. Well if I had to assign myself a religion it would be transcendentalism. I’ve learnt a huge amount from Buddhist and Christian and other traditions, but the people who make the deepest sense to me perhaps because I’m a citizen of the world are Emerson and Thoreau and that hasn’t changed for 40 years since I was 21.
CL: Trick about Thoreau is that he’s everywhere. He’s he’s Mr. Fish, he’s Mr. trees, he’s Mr. geography. He’s Mr. Bhagavad-Gita. He’s Mr. Doesn’t-read-the-newspaper. There’s so many layers and and crotchets of his thinking…
PI: He is everywhere. As you say he’s the environmental movement. He’s the civil rights movement. He’s the hippie movement. He’s every revolution around and he’s the information overload movement. So to this day I still cherish the line actually of Emerson’s who said something like, “I love the church when no one’s in it.” I’ve spent this last week with my wife in Paris and a large part of what we’ve been doing is stepping into churches.
Neither of us is Christian. But when you step into the church and the light is flooding through the stained glass windows and there’s incense everywhere and there’s absolute silence in this crowded modern city. You are taken to something deep inside yourself which is exactly the territory that Emerson and Thoreau made their own. I think in recent years for me Thoreau has become the single widest voice wisest and widest voice on what all of us are suffering which is dizziness.
We are overwhelmed more and more information is coming in on us. There’s fake news, there’s true news, there’s disinformation, there’s misinformation. We don’t know what to do with it. And we opened Thoreau writing on the opening of the telegraph in around 1850. And he says, “The horse comes a mile a minute is not bringing the most important news. If I’m receiving too many letters it means I haven’t heard often enough from myself.” Thoreau was speaking to the person who needs to take a breath, to step away from the rush of the world, to remember what he cares about, to clear his head. To cut through the noise and if you were to define Thoreau in one way would be cutting through the noise of the world even in his time in order to hear something deeper than the world and truer than the self.
And if that was true in his day, it’s a thousand times truer right now. So many people I know are going to black hole resorts where they pay hundreds of dollars a day in order to be physically separated from their tablets, their laptop, and their cell phone. So many people I know are going for week-long hikes or on retreats to monasteries not because they’re in search of a religion, but because they’re in search of peace of mind and freedom from distraction and maybe extended attention. And you turn to Thoreau and he said better than anybody I think in the last hundred and fifty years what it is we’re seeking in those moments of stillness. What it is we’re finding and why we have to separate the world. Not just for political reasons in order to march to our own drummer but for spiritual reasons in order to hear the universe speak. I’ve heard people say that prayer is what what you do when you speak to God and meditation is what you hear when God speaks back and whether or not you put a big G to the God or not or whether or not you want to put that into religious terms, maybe you could say if you want to speak to reality and if you want to listen to reality what you have to do is to go to your own Walden Pond.
And I honestly don’t know of anybody who’s expressed that universal, fundamental human longing as well as Thoreau. And like you, I love Emerson and Emerson was sending great fireworks into the sky. Beautiful provocations. Each one of his sentences is a kind of golden arrow urging us to take off into our sense of possibility. But Thoreau was the person who took those principles and built a house on it and dug deep deep and I think what we often forget is that he was such a tricky, rich, canny, unique writer himself and each one of his sentences was built to last. If I walk down the street here in Paris and look for greetings cards they’ll probably be every other one may have a sentence from Thoreau in it.
PI: Yes or just in the original English ,partly because the French are so good at English now and partly because no translation probably quite does justice to the density and the many sidedness of the sentences. You know his sentences carried volumes in them in a different way from Emerson’s, but that’s what it means that they’ve lasted it.
And I think without Thoreau We have no Gary Snyder. We have no Jim Harrison. We have no Peter Mathiesson. Many of the great writers that we cherish today in America wouldn’t be possible without Thoreau. But that’s partly because his sentences were so punny.
CL: On Thoreau’s 200th birthday Donald Trump is president. ISIS is a nightmare. Europe is falling apart. At least half the world is terribly disadvantaged compared to the other. How does this imagination speak to a world that in so many ways seems to be collapsing? Bring Thoreau back into the conversation Pico
PI: Very happily because what I hear people all over the world saying increasingly right now is we are hungry for wisdom and we’re desperate for clarity.
And I think when you think of those two terms there aren’t many people I would turn to before Thoreau and I used to work from a 25th floor office in midtown Manhattan four blocks away from Times Square in my 20s and it was exhilarating. I was writing on world affairs for Time magazine I thought in certain ways I was in the center of the world. But four years before that I had been imbibing Thoreau and Emerson and I thought even then there must be a deeper, broader, wiser, more durable world then what is coming over the teletype machines of you kno2 the latest headlines from Beirut in those days or Central America in those days and on the basis really of Thoreau and Emerson more than anybody I left that world. I moved to rural Japan. My wife and I share a rented two room apartment in the middle of nowhere in Japan. I’ve never used a cellphone. We don’t have a car or a bicycle. We don’t have a television that I can understand. We live in this very very stripped down world. And I feel it’s the most luxurious existence I can imagine certainly much richer and deeper than the one I knew in the heart of New York City.
I’m venturing that if you and I would come back to this conversation three years from now it will be exactly the same headlines regarding ISIS, perhaps regarding the economy. And I think Thoreau’s great wisdom which in fact is the Dalai Lama’s great wisdom, is you can’t change the world all at once. What you can do is change your response to the world.
CL: Pico, you’re priceless. You’ll do as our Thoreau.
PI: If only! But I think there’s no shortage of our Thoreaus you know. As I say when Gandhi is walking on the Salt March, he’s Thoreau. When Chris McCandless, an idealistic young American goes to Alaska to live a clearer purer life — he came to a tragic end alas — but he was our Thoreau. When Allen Ginsberg is declaiming from Buddhist Sutras in the heart of New York City he is our Thoreau. Annie Dillard. Probably one of the great visionaries of our lifetime. She’s pure Thoreau and she would be one of the first to say it.
CL: I want to get Muhammad Ali in there.
PI: Absolutely. I mean talk about civil disobedience and talk about the promise of America. Yes. Thank you for getting him in there. And every, you know, whoever we think of as the Nobel Peace Prize winners, pretty much every year, probably come from that Thoreau spirit and that Thoreau inheritance they’re acting on the very principles that he gave such witty life to.
CL: Lead on, Pico Iyer!
PI: Alright, well let’s all walk together!
CL: Amen. Come and see us, we’ll walk around the Pond. First thing. As soon as you land.
PI: You’re on, Chris! I’d love to do that. Thank you.
Thank you, Pico Iyer, and all sorts of Thoreauvians we’ve been meeting for the first time. Laura Walls at the top of the list for her bicentennial biography: a long labor of love, insight and brilliant reporting.
Thank you: David Bromwich, John Kaag, Lydia Moland.
Our show this week was produced by the wisdom-lovers: Zach Goldhammer, Frank Horton, and Becca DeGregorio. Susan Coyne illustrated the Concord lights for us. George Hicks is our engineer. Mary McGrath is the center of our circle. I’m Christopher Lydon. Join us next time for Open Source.