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Of what manner of stuff is the web of time wove[?]

Thoreau, January 8, 1842, Journal 1, 1981, p. 361


The more common form of historical exposition, what might be called “objective” or “scientific,” is fully exercised in A Week. There, Thoreau explores the New England heritage through historical records and narratives, personal recollection, and oral tradition, using the river both as the conduit into that past and as the vehicle of bringing history into his present. Of the various cases we might examine, the Hannah Duston story, appearing in the “Thursday” chapter, is particularly evocative. The saga of this frontier woman's abduction by a band of Canadian Indians allied with the French in King William's War was first recorded by Cotton Mather following a personal interview with the heroine in his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) and has repeatedly been celebrated over the past three hundred years.[4] Thoreau read extensively in colonial history (Johnson 1986, pp. 122 ff.), but he apparently relied most on a single source for the story, B. L. Mirick's History of Haverhill, Massachusetts (1832), as the basis of his own account. Duston's escape has generated extensive comment (e.g., Arner 1973; Johnson 1986; Smith 1995), and Thoreau likewise used the story to reflect on the moral tenor of Indiancolonial relations and the implications of those conflicts for the American character. This episode thus exhibits, in miniature, Thoreau's use of history and his selfconscious refashioning of it to serve certain thematic ends.

The story, in outline, has some constant elements that appear in all versions. On March 15, 1697, the frontier settlement of Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by Indians (20 in number [Anderson 1973]), who killed more than a score of the settlers (27 [ibid.]) and captured at least another dozen (15 [ibid.]). One of these was Hannah Duston (1657–1737). Hannah's plight was complicated by her having given birth a week or so earlier to a daughter; her nurse, Mary Neff, was also taken into captivity with mother and child, who had been left behind as her husband fled with their seven other children. Before retreating with their captives, the Indians bashed the crying infant against an apple tree. A few days later, the war party split, and Hannah, Mary, and an adolescent boy, Samuel Lennardson (Leonardson [ibid.]), were conducted toward a rendezvous in Canada by two warriors, accompanied by three squaws, and seven children of various ages. Motivated by the murder of her baby and the fearful (and humiliating) prospect of running the gauntlet naked, Hannah devised and led a daring escape by killing all the Indians except one woman and a child. According to her own account, she tomahawked the Indians in their sleep and delivered ten scalps as testimony to their death. Massachusetts had posted a bounty of 50 pounds per Indian in 1694, but cut this reward in half the following year and then repealed it entirely in 1696. Thomas Duston, upon his wife's

behalf, successfully appealed to the legislature, which voted Hannah 25 pounds, and the nurse and the boy 12 pounds, 10 shillings each, “for their service in slaying their captors” (quoted by Anderson 1973).

In the 150 years preceding Thoreau's own retelling, the Duston story evoked strong moral response, beginning with Mather's original account.[5] Mather, of course, was no neutral chronicler. As an extension of his disdain for the papacy and his own separate hatred for native Americans allied with the French, he regarded the Indian Wars, beginning with King Philip's War (1675–77), as a holy conflict with barbarism, a battle that never ended in his own lifetime.[6] The unstable nature of colonial-Indian relations, the unresolved questions concerning Indian sovereignty, and the very legitimacy of land claims nagged at colonial identity. The conflicts contested in seventeenth-century Massachusetts continued to haunt Thoreau, albeit with a different moral posture, but with the same basic question posed. Jill Lepore offers a cogent summary assessment of this predicament:

Waging the war, writing about it, and remembering it were all part of the attempt to win it, but none of these efforts ever fully succeeded. No matter how much the colonists wrote about the war, no matter how much or how eloquently they justified their cause and conduct … [they] could never succeed at reconstructing themselves as “true Englishmen.” The danger of degenerating into Indians continued to haunt them. (Lepore 1997, p. 175)

One of the ironies of the Duston saga is that she indeed acted with as much savagery as her captors, showing us just how narrow the divide between the “civilized” colonists and the “barbaric” Indian proved to be. Thoreau, of course, sympathized much more easily with the Indians than his forefathers could,[7] and given his extraordinary interest in chronicling their history and studying their culture, we might fairly surmise that he both admired and wished to emulate them to some degree. Certainly, his view of their integration with nature was an ideal he himself pursued. Thus the Duston story of settler revenge is replete with ambiguity that Thoreau employs for his own purpose.

Thoreau's account begins with an identification: Just as he and his brother are paddling on the Merrimack, he imagines the other paddlers 142 years earlier, awkwardly manipulating the swollen spring river, ill dressed for the climate and place. Instead of a leisurely sojourn, these individuals proceeded with “nervous energy and determination,” while “at the bottom of their canoe lay the bleeding scalps of ten of the aborigines” (A Week, 1980a, p. 320). The harmony of the wilderness of Thoreau's present is thus rudely disrupted with the memory of alien settlers holding native bounty.


The narrative continues with the protagonists' identification and their abduction briefly recalled. Not knowing the fate of her other children and husband, witnessing the fiery destruction of her homestead, and facing the gauntlet, Hannah is dispassionately described as planning and executing the escape. The crucial difference between Mather's account and Mirick's is the embellishment offered by the latter of the Indian's frightening aspect, adding a psychological element of terror for the reader not sufficiently alarmed by the savagery of the Indian assault, and the party's return to the campsite after embarking on the river to scalp the Indians as proof of their story. Thoreau omits Mirick's obvious denigration of the native American but retains the added element of Duston's return to obtain evidence of her exploit (Mirick 1832, p. 91), thus highlighting her resolute character—one that Mirick, and most other commentators, had called “heroic” (ibid.).[8] But Thoreau holds final judgment in abeyance. It is the consequences of Duston's capture and torment that dominate Thoreau's narrative:

Early this morning this deed was performed, and now, perchance, these tired women and this boy, their clothes stained with blood, and their minds racked with alternate resolution and fear, are making a hasty meal of parched corn and moosemeat, while their canoe glides under these pine roots whose stumps are still standing on the bank. They are thinking of the dead whom they have left behind on that solitary isle far up the stream, and of the relentless living warriors who are in pursuit. Every withered leaf which the winter has left seems to know their story, and in its rustling to repeat it and betray them. (A Week, 1980a, p. 322)

This is a remarkable passage. Thoreau slips into the present tense and would have us party to their escape, immediate witnesses to their terror. We are there, “this morning,” and thus reenact their flight before the same trees. Time in the past is thus suspended, and dramatically the historian's voice has strangely mutated.

This grammatical turn is a striking shift in perspective by which Thoreau would attempt to bring the emotional quality of these historical events into present consciousness. Despite a distance of nearly a century and a half, he would have his reader identify with the scene as essentially his or her own. Like Hannah Duston, we are intruders in the wilderness, and while we watch her canoe drift off to a safer haven, Thoreau camps at the river's edge and recognizes the odd juxtaposition of his cultural disposition in the wild, not so different from Duston's own existential quandary:

On either side, the primeval forest stretches away uninterrupted to Canada or to the “South Sea;” to the white man a drear and howling

wilderness, but to the Indian a home, adapted to his nature, and cheerful as the smile of the Great Spirit. (Ibid., p. 323)

Duston is out of place, and, in a sense, a victim of her own intrusion. A murdered child was the price paid for a contested imperialism, and we all share in that heritage; as Thoreau concludes, “there have been many who in later times have lived to say that they had eaten of the fruit of that appletree” (ibid., p. 324). Through his shifting into the present, we become parties to Hannah's deed. And while the apples from the tree of the murdered baby link us to those times, it is the everpresent river that confronts Thoreau— and us—with the immediacy of Duston's moral challenge. Instead of lauding her bravery and commemorating her revenge, Thoreau poses us a deeper question: In what way is her past our own?

Appropriately, Thoreau immediately follows the Duston account with a comment on history and the faculties required of a historian. First, he observes that antiquity is only seemingly out of reach, and it is our lack of historical imagination that makes such stories as Hannah Duston's ostensibly removed from our own experience. “The age of the world is great enough for our imaginations” (ibid.), and the apparently distant past is, in fact, quite accessible. Second, that accessibility requires a poetic artistry (“A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry, for common sense always takes a hasty and superficial view” [ibid., p. 325]; Thoreau expounds on Goethe as an exemplar), and one must tap into the deepest psychic recesses to draw out the critical and pertinent insight (“The unconsciousness of man is the consciousness of God” [ibid., p. 329]). Finally, Thoreau makes an honest admission about his own historymaking:

Unfortunately many things have been omitted which should have been recorded in our journal, for though we made it a rule to set down all our experiences therein, yet such a resolution is very hard to keep, for the important experience rarely allows us to remember such obligations, and so indifferent things get recorded, while that is frequently neglected. It is not easy to write in a journal what interests us at any time, because to write it is not what interests us. (Ibid., p. 332)

Given the way the Journal dominated Thoreau's literary life, especially after the publication of A Week, this entry is ironic, if not astonishing, but it may be taken at face value in at least one respect: Historykeeping, the writing even of one's own biography, is incomplete and biased. The significance of events, the meaning of experience, are only assumed upon the reconstruction in the present for present purpose. History remains a creative, even

poetic work for Thoreau, part of a master project that has other voices to be blended in with chronicles such as the plight of Hannah Duston.

Thoreau paid a price for this eclecticism. On the one hand, his histories are vignettes, unsustained commentary. And there is a literary penalty too. One might argue that A Week lacks coherence because the various elements of the narration, the different kinds of descriptions, are truncated, episodic, disjointed, and thematically diverse. This is a criticism much less applicable to the polished Walden, but in virtually all of Thoreau's published work we witness, to varying degrees and with varying success, a complex interplay of narrative tropes. Putting aside the literary criticism that such a strategy had afforded, I would simply observe that Thoreau persistently pursued the same attempt to achieve a particular harmony of a unified personal experience that must, by its very character, be produced through different voices. As a Romantic he understood, and celebrated, the variegated nature of experience. No single voice might abide alone, and more to the point, their integration gave each fuller expression. In this sense, Thoreau willingly forsook completeness, whether in his natural, historical, or autobiographical descriptions, to display the greater whole. Again, we might say he created in the manner of later Impressionists, the blurred details subordinated to the larger project that might clearly emerge, articulate and full, when viewed at a greater distance from the canvas. History would have to play its role in that endeavor as only one component among others.

If history then loses its narrative independence in Thoreau's oeuvre, if it is simply used for a greater enterprise and becomes molded to serve another encompassing vision, we understand that for him history cannot claim epistemological autonomy, nor, more saliently, even a worldview. History becomes just another element of consciousness, to be integrated and subsumed in a deeper metaphysics of the self. In this regard, it is interesting to note Thoreau's comments on Thomas Carlyle, friend to his own mentor, Emerson. Thoreau certainly takes a critical view of Carlyle's writing and historiography, but here I want to emphasize a Romantic characteristic that Thoreau heartily endorses, namely the narrative latitude allowed in the historian's craft. Primarily, Thoreau sees history as a historian's creation, not the past as some entity residing alone and independent:

No doubt, Carlyle has a propensity to exaggerate the heroic in history, that is, he creates you an ideal hero rather than another thing, he has most of that material. This we allow in all its senses, and in one narrower sense it is not so convenient. Yet what were history if he did not exaggerate it? How comes it that history never has to wait for facts, but for a man to write it? The ages may go on forgetting the facts…. The

musty records of history, like the catacombs, contain perishable remains, but only in the breast of genius are embalmed the souls of heroes. (Thoreau 1975a, p. 264)

Indeed, exaggeration is elevated to a value sui generis:

Exaggeration! was ever any virtue attributed to a man without exaggeration? Do we not exaggerate ourselves to ourselves, or do we recognize ourselves for the actual men we are? Are we not all great men? Yet what are we actually to speak of? We live by exaggeration, what else is it to anticipate more than we enjoy? The lightening is an exaggeration of the light.Exaggerated history is poetry, and truth referred to a new standard. To a small man every greater is an exaggeration. He who cannot exaggerate is not qualified to utter truth. No truth we think was ever expressed but with this sort of emphasis, so that for the time there seemed to be no other. Moreover, you must speak loud to those who are hard of hearing, and so you acquire a habit of shouting to those who are not. (Ibid., pp. 264–65; emphasis added; proclaimed again in Walden's “Conclusion” [1971, p. 324])

In this short passage, Thoreau has offered keen insight into the very psychology by which one knows the world in general, not to speak of history in particular. On his view, the centrality of our individual perspective empowers the selection of what is important to us and, by such interpretation, the mundane is transformed into significance. This translation succinctly captures Thoreau's own vision of the poet as historian.[9] Indeed, he explicitly acknowledges that personalized (exaggerated, interpreted) history is poetry and that in its faithful execution a new (higher) truth is attained. History is thus constructed (with how much license he leaves unspecified) by bringing only certain elements of the past into the “future,” that is, the historian's present.

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