In the spring of 1982, I took a class called The Emersonian Tradition from Phil Eaton, a professor at Whitworth College, who assigned me to give a presentation on Thoreau’s journals. He sent me to the college librarian, Ralph Franklin, an Emily Dickinson scholar who was leaving that summer to become the director of the Bienecke Library at Yale. Franklin took me into a small locked room within the library and put in my hands a page of manuscript written on both sides by Thoreau himself. “When I turn round, halfway up Fair Haven Hill, by the orchard wall, & look NW,” the passage begins, “I am surprised for the thousandth time, by the beauty of the landscape, & I sit down to behold it at my leisure.” That moment felt magical to twenty-year-old me. I was holding a piece of paper that Thoreau himself had held in his hands and written on 125 years earlier. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald describes such an experience as “strangely intimate,” giving us “the sense . . . of another person, an unknown person a long time ago, who had held that object in their hands. You don’t know anything about them, but you feel the other person’s there, one friend told me. It’s like all the years between you and them disappear. Like you become them, somehow” (116).
I did not succumb then to the sensation of having become Thoreau, as Macdonald’s friend suggests, but it felt like I had touched Thoreau by touching the words he wrote on that piece of paper. “Camerado, this is no book,” insists Walt Whitman in his 1860 poem “So Long!” “Who touches this touches a man.” What does it mean to touch another person who lived in another time and place from our own? Is it even possible, for Emily Dickinson told Thomas Wentworth Higginson that “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied” (Wineapple 35)? To what extent do the biographied flee from us and remain mysterious, inscrutable, resistant to our attempts to ever touch them? Who is it then that we are actually touching in our biographies? In what ways can particular biographical acts—writing, doing research, conducting interviews, finding images, holding objects in our hands, making pilgrimages to places significant to the biographied—deliver up “a spirited life”—as Marie Arana says of Stacy Schiff’s biography Cleopatra: A Life—or “revitalize the work, life, and spirit” of someone—as Shana Thornton says of Alice Walker’s finding and marking the grave of Zora Neale Hurston in 1973?
In Walden, Thoreau tells us early on that what he requires of every writer is “a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land” (2). Later, in a passage that many of my students (and many other readers) seem to miss, Thoreau says, “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way” (66). These statements are the basis for what I am calling Thoreau’s autobiographical imperative. How do we who are attempting to touch Thoreau’s life through biographical acts consider his autobiographical imperative for us that we give simple and sincere accounts of our own lives and be as a different as we can be, not only from Thoreau himself, but from each other, as we pursue our own ways of living, writing, and being?
In reviewing a biography of Christopher Isherwood in the New Yorker, Hilton Als wrote, “The biographer of a copious self-chronicler has a particular burden: the feeling that he might be serving up leftovers.” This is a challenge that Thoreau biographers may feel. Raoul Peck felt this when making the film I Am Not Your Negro about the life and writings of James Baldwin. “Like a librettist crafting the script for an opera from the scattered works of a revered author,” wrote Peck, “I began my own journey, respecting at all times and preserving scrupulously the spirit, the philosophy, the pugnacity, the insight, the humor, the poetry, and the soul of the long-gone author” (xvii). “I hope,” Peck continues, “not to have betrayed a man who has accompanied me from very early on, every day of my life, as a brother, father, mentor, accomplice, consoler, comrade-in-arms—an eternal witness of my own wanderings” (xix). Alexandra Strauss, the film’s editor, adds that “Raoul Peck trusted me to bring to his film my own sensibility, my ideas, and something else I find essential, which is hard to describe but that I would call a kind of poetic, intuitive inspiration” (xxiii). What matters most for this discussion is that in making a biographical film about Baldwin, Peck took his “own journey” and engaged in his “own wanderings”; Strauss brought to the film her “own sensibility,” “ideas,” and “poetic, intuitive inspiration.” Peck and Strauss felt not only the imperative to honor Baldwin, but to also live out and express their own autobiographical journeys, ideas, and creative impulses. I Am Not Your Negro is as much a conversation between creators and viewers, as it is an expression of Baldwin’s life and words.
In How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell says that “every new reading” of Montaigne’s Essays “means a new Essays. Readers approach him from their private perspectives, contributing their own experience of life” (9). “The Essays,” Bakewell continues, “is thus much more than a book. It is a centuries-long conversation between Montaigne and all those who have got to know him: a conversation which changes through history” (9). With Montaigne, as with Thoreau, readers are always coming to the writer’s words in their own ways and contexts. But when considering the life of Cleopatra, as Stacy Schiff does, there are none of Cleopatra’s own words for her, or for us, to hold in hands, or to hear, or to read for ourselves. “Many people have spoken for her,” writes Schiff, “including the greatest playwrights and poets; we have been putting words in her mouth for two thousand years” (1). “To restore Cleopatra,” for Schiff, “is as much to salvage the few facts as to peel away the encrusted myth and the hoary propaganda” (7-8). “She was a Greek woman whose history fell to men whose futures lay with Rome,” Schiff tells us, “the majority of them officials of the empire. Their historical methods are opaque to us. They seldom named their sources. They relied to a great extent on memory. They are by modern standards polemicists, apologists, moralists, fabulists, recyclers, cut-and-pasters, hacks. For all its erudition, Cleopatra’s Egypt produced no fine historian. One can only read accordingly,” says Schiff. “The sources may be flawed, but they are the only sources we have” (8). What is marvelous about Schiff’s biographical restoration of Cleopatra is how deftly she immerses her readers in the complex and intricate conversations between these flawed sources, yet still trying at every turn to touch something of who Cleopatra may have actually been.
In Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk—a story about the 1896 walk that Helga Estby and her daughter Clara took across the United States, from Spokane, Washington, to New York City—Linda Hunt faces a similar paucity of words by the biographied, but in this case it is because Estby’s children destroyed the hundreds of pages of her manuscript in a burn barrel after Estby died in 1942. They were still angry at their mother for abandoning them during her year-long walk. Hunt engages in what she calls “rag-rug history,” a reconstruction of Estby’s life through creative detective work, digging up scraps of information from “historical societies, community and university libraries, and museums” and tying them together with “newspaper accounts of Helga’s visits with reporters along the railroad routes” (xiv). There is something heartbreaking, though, about Estby’s story given the absence of her own words and the knowledge that her words once did exist.
Zora Neale Hurston’s papers nearly went up in smoke like Estby’s, for when she died in 1960 in Fort Pierce, Florida, county workers went to clean up her place and commenced burning her papers until a law officer and friend of Hurston’s who was passing by saved what he could by dousing the fire with a hose. “There are times—and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them—,” writes Alice Walker in her essay “Looking for Zora,” “when normal responses of grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of the emotion one feels. It was impossible for me to cry when I saw the field full of weeds where Zora is. Partly this is because I have come to know Zora through her books and she was not a teary sort of person herself; but partly, too, it is because there is a point at which even grief feels absurd. And at this point, laughter gushes up to retrieve sanity” (115). Walker had come to know Hurston “through her books.” Most of Hurston’s words survived the burning and her books themselves survived being forgotten, partly due to Walker’s own journey to find her. Through all of this, Walker felt she was touching something vital of Hurston herself.
So, what do all of these biographical acts add up to? How do we touch those who have lived in other times and places? How do we, too, offer up “simple and sincere accounts” of our own journeys, conversations, and lives in relation to those we seek to know through our biographical acts? I want to suggest one particular book as an apt and powerful expression of what Thoreau asks of every writer and possibly as a model for the kind of biographies we may choose to write about him and others. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is not just a book. It is an engaging and vibrant conversation between Macdonald’s life, her father’s presence, absence, and death, the experience she has training a goshawk, and her biographical reflections on the life and writings of T. H. White, who is known best for his book The Once and Future King. From Macdonald’s father, she learns patience. “He said it was the most important thing of all to remember, this: that when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient” (19). Late in the book, Macdonald considers her father’s notebooks, which, she says, “are full of a fierce attention to things I do not know. But now I know what they are for. These are records of ordered transcendency. A watcher’s diary. My father’s talk of patience had held within it all the magic that is waiting and looking up at the moving sky” (267). From T. H. White, Macdonald learns much, including what not to do and that “being Merlyn is the best dream of all. He will wait, he will endure, and one day he will be able to stop the awful violence before it ever started” (248). From Mabel, the goshawk Macdonald trains, she learns “that there is a world of things out there—rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel,” Macdonald continues, “I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all” (275).
Als, Hilton. “I, Me, Mine.” The New Yorker 17 January 2005.
Arana, Marie. Review of Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff. Washington Post 2 November 2010.
Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne. Other Press, 2010.
Hunt, Linda Lawrence. Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America. University of Idaho Press, 2003.
Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. Jonathan Cape, 2014.
Peck, Raoul. “Notes on the Writing Process.” I Am Not Your Negro. James Baldwin. Vintage, 2017.
Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. Back Bay Books, 2010.
Strauss, Alexandra. “Editing I Am Not Your Negro.” I Am Not Your Negro. James Baldwin. Vintage, 2017.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Beacon Press, 1997.
Thornton, Shana. “Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston: A Re-Discovery that Helped Preserve African-American Culture.” Her Circle 26 February 2008.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.
Whitman, Walt. “So Long!” Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Library of America, 1982.
Wineapple, Brenda. White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Anchor Books, 2008.
Stan Tag teaches courses at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University in creative writing, literature, journaling, words, punctuation, growing up, maps, animals, trees, weather, natural history, walking, and space, place, and imagination. In 2014, he was a member of the 150th Thoreau-Wabanaki Canoe journey retracing Thoreau’s 1857 trip through the Maine woods with Joe Polis and Edward Hoar. He is the co-editor of Father Nature: Fathers as Guides to the Natural World (2003), has contributed chapters to Henry David Thoreau in Context (2017) and Rediscovering the Maine Woods (2019), and is currently writing a book on the history of the early women’s ascents of Katahdin, Maine’s great mountain.