Preferred Citation: Tauber, Alfred I. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2001 2001.

Three Apple Trees


2. Three Apple Trees

Though I am old enough to have discovered that the dreams of youth are not to be realized in this state of existence yet I think it would be the next greatest happiness always to be allowed to look under the eyelids of time and contemplate the perfect steadily with the clear understanding that I do not attain to it.

Thoreau, October 24, 1843, Journal 1, 1981, p. 480

Before A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, before Walden, before the developed years of the Journal, key themes appear in Thoreau's notes that assure us that the abiding concerns articulated in these more mature works had already been framed in embryo. To be sure, Thoreau developed, modulated, and focused upon particular theses and questions as he evolved (e.g., Richardson 1986; Milder 1995), and these demonstrate both his varying psychological states and his growing intellectual maturity and insight. But beneath this movement was a foundation which grounded his thought.[1] A key support of this conceptual edifice, perhaps its very platform, was his search for an aesthetic or spiritual ideal. Whether we define him within the context of a Transcendental idealism, or a less well formulated philosophical program or poetic orientation, Thoreau was, in common parlance, a dreamer. And in dreams, time is suspended. Conversely, in consciousness, time is not only “present”; it is an obstacle to be overcome. Thoreau's reveries, his mystical excursions, his fascination with Hinduism, his experiences communing with nature were all expressions of an unencumbered temporality, where the swings of everyday life, the cycle of hours, days, and seasons—the flux of time's contingency—were suspended. In the sense of acknowledging his rootedness in time, he would seek to situate himself within time's cycle, as discussed in the preceding chapter. But there was another agenda afoot: Thoreau would pursue some perfection, a permanence, an unchanging reality “under the eyelids of time.” Time would “dream” of itself; history would be deferred; memory would be arrested in the present. In this respect, time must be tamed, for awareness of temporality and change, the marks of time, counterpoised the mystical ideal, the “perfect” that knows no change. “Indeed, a consciousness of history only strengthens Thoreau's desire to escape it” (Milder 1995, p. 32). History in

this sense was a “problem,” the key manifestation of our worldly motion, and Thoreau therefore would attempt to make his peace with history, to dam time's relentless flow.

Memory and history are time's arbiters. The latter emerges from the former, on a continuum. For Thoreau, their rootedness in time bestowed a shared character that in a profound sense expressed his own sense of identity and personhood. Throughout his oeuvre, Thoreau wrote in three “keys”: history proper as generally understood by nineteenth-century historians and their audience; “semiotic” history based on evocative clues; and personal memory, charged with emotion and subjectivity. The first, an ostensibly objective and even scientific record of the past, was written with certain misgivings and sublimated to what may fairly be described as “ahistorical” purposes. The second expressed the natural philosopher's modus operandi and thus operated as an extension of Thoreau's descriptions of nature, becoming his preferred historiographic style. And the third, the most opaque, reflecting an emotional sensibility potentially opening the psyche to view, he exercised most plainly in poetic guise. To be sure, Thoreau advocated a poesis for each of these historiographic approaches he practiced, but memory—the most amenable to the aesthetic exercise—suffered a lack of “framing” required for his historical exposition, while conventional history was also suspect because of its false conceits of objectivity and comprehensiveness. Thus, in his view, each historiographic key suited a different proposal, and he wove them all together, each playing their respective expository roles. The overarching intent was to carry both Thoreau and his reader along the river of time, which in the Augustinian temper (see preceding chapter) knows not the past, only the present. In that present, each history assumes a moral character which orients the narrative and voices the historian's deepest concerns.

In A Week (1980a), Thoreau expounds upon his theory of history (previously published in The Dial, April 1843 [Thoreau 1975c]) making explicit his views of the poetic origins of memory and history. The passage, found in the “Monday” chapter, deserves careful scrutiny and will serve as the introduction of my own characterization of Thoreau's historical method and vision. He begins with a telling aesthetic simile by drawing a parallel between a landscape's changing light and atmosphere and history's “fluctuations” (A Week, 1980a, p. 154). Just as Monet so evocatively showed us in his series of paintings of haystacks, Rouen's cathedral, and the rivers Seine and Thames, Thoreau saw history's “groundwork and composition” as essentially given, the historian's task being to discern the “atmospheric tints and various lights and shades which the intervening spaces create…. Its beauty

is like the sunset … atmospheric and roving or free … What is of moment is its hue and color” (ibid.). History is thus interpreted—impressionistically so it seems. Thoreau would seek to discover the past's truth by a critical and poetic faculty. Unfazed by a murky record, the outline suffices. The historian may proceed with confidence, for the past is less to be recovered than signified in the present. The Augustinian credo is thus clearly asserted as history's relevance and meaning are exclusively situated in the now.

Time hides no treasures; we want not its then, but its now. We do not complain that the mountains in the horizon are blue and indistinct; they are the more like the heavens.

Of what moment are facts that can be lost,–which need to be commemorated? The monument of death will outlast the memory of the dead. The pyramids do not tell the tale that was confided to them; the living fact commemorates itself. Why look in the dark for light? Strictly speaking, the historical societies have not recovered one fact from oblivion, but are themselves, instead of the fact, that is lost. The researcher is more memorable than the researched…. Critical acumen is exerted in vain to uncover the past; the past cannot be presented; we cannot know what we are not. But one veil hangs over past, present, and future, and it is the province of the historian to find out, not what was, but what is. (Ibid., pp. 154–55)

Thoreau was a consummate observer, and whether he pursued a description of the environment or of the past, he did so with active creativity. Therefore, in his view, the historian must illuminate his subject, and he does so by creative effort arising from Romantic imagination.[2] So the darkness of the past is “not a distance of time, but a distance of relation” (ibid., pp. 156–57). By bringing the past into the present—by making a “living fact”—the past is known as personal experience. History thus assumes a character of relation—the relation of the historian to his object of inquiry—and in establishing that correspondence, Thoreau understands that he is indeed creating the past. I will show how this personalization of the past is accomplished in the three keys mentioned above and then discuss how the entire enterprise is girded by the moral project that dominates Thoreau's thought. My primary text for this discussion is A Week, a work Peck rightly has called “an exemplary case of remembrance in Thoreau's work” (1990, p. 12).[3]


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.


What makes us think that time has lapsed is that we have relapsed.

Thoreau, September 28, 1843, Journal 1, 1981, p. 468

A Week is highly symbolic. Its structure in time (a week's journey), its use of a narrative vehicle (the river), its juxtaposition of present and past, its use of singular symbols, all fit together in a complex semiotic interplay of signifier and signified. The reader is constantly challenged to see through layers of meaning, finding associations that point to each of these symbolic dimensions and thereby relate the symbol to its various grammars. One of

these intricate plays is built around a second apple tree, referred to as Elisha's tree. This marker, serving as both a geographical and a topological sign, also marks time in a moral universe. The past is thus telescoped into the present, so that this historical signifier condenses threedimensional time into the single plane of the immediate.

In Thoreau's discussion of time alluded to above, an important theme pertains to the brevity of our human past. The remote in fact is near; and while “wearisome,” “the age of the world” might be spanned by “the lives of sixty old women … strung together … to reach over the whole ground” (A Week, 1980a, p. 325). Thoreau here poetically refers to a Bible's chronology, which designated the age of world as approximately six thousand years. Indeed, so compressed is history that “it will not take a very great granddaughter of [Eve] to be in at the death of Time” (ibid.). This cryptic reference to “the death of Time” may be seen as redemptive (and thus foreshadowing the last historical episode of A Week, the meditation on Elisha's apple tree [Johnson 1986, p. 160]). In Christian mythology, the millennial “week” ends in the year 6000 since the foundation of the world, with Christ's Second Coming. Perhaps, too, Thoreau's allusion refers to a redemption, independent of any Christian eschatology. In his case redemption is a vision of time itself, to the degree that time can be grasped or captured. If time is characterized by passing, by leaving the past in the wake of the ever preceding present and receding future, then to bring the past into the present cuts against that flux. Thus from my reading, Elisha's apple tree not only is a prophetic testament but serves as the essential clue for us, in a particular time and place, to recover a heretofore lost history. What then are the implications of “the death of Time,” and what might it signify for Thoreau's vision of temporality?

Overarching the particular veracity of the Elisha tree story is Thoreau's intent to explicitly show the power of obscurity and the use of the few crucial clues available to us to poetically reconstruct the significance of the history. The source of Thoreau's information is vague, even mysterious, as he begins this section by recalling a story told him by “an old inhabitant of Tyngsboro” (A Week, 1980a, p. 355) who is not identified; no other source is available to verify the account (Johnson 1986, p. 160). Thoreau might well have fabricated it—which would be consistent with his own view of history as “poetic.” Thoreau's expanded vision of history affords the latitude by means of which he arrives at a deeper truth. We understand his motive as the history of Elisha's tree unravels.

Ceaselessly peering at the relation of nature and civilization—in this case between the river's endless flow and man's brief life on its banks—Thoreau

becomes interested in recounting the height to which the river has swollen in the past. His informant claims that in October 1785 someone marked the river's crest by driving a nail into an apple tree behind his house which, Thoreau claims, was “at least seventeen or eighteen feet above the level of the river at the time” (A Week, 1980a, p. 356). This historical record is, of course, colloquial, and when an engineer later came to the site to survey for a railway, it was ignored:

He was conducted to the appletree, and as the nail was not then visible, the lady of the house placed her hand on the trunk where she said that she remembered the nail to have been from her childhood. In the meanwhile the old man put his arm inside the tree, which was hollow, and felt the point of the nail sticking through, and it was exactly opposite to her hand. The spot is now plainly marked by a notch in the bark. But as no one else remembered the river to have risen so high as this, the engineer disregarded this statement, and I learn that there has since been a freshet which rose within nine inches of the rails at Biscuit Brook, and such a freshet as that of 1785 would have covered the railroad two feet deep. (Ibid.)

Thoreau in this short passage dramatically illustrates the validity of personal remembrance, the significance of a sign or symbol for a historical event, and the unwanted skepticism of a “scientific” historical attitude toward such “flimsy” data. A singlefamily account is, in this case, more accurate than the collective, albeit incomplete, record of the community. It is the significance of the personal memoir, the solitary memory that establishes the facts of the case. That the engineer chose to ignore the testimony reveals his own limited understanding of history, for as Thoreau goes on to comment, the river will indeed rise again as part of nature's inevitable cycle.[10]

We have already considered Thoreau's vision of time's cycle, so here I will direct our attention to what I have referred to as the mode of history Thoreau is writing in this passage, specifically the use of signs by which we might situate ourselves in time. As Thoreau goes on to discuss the river's natural history, he builds on the significance of an ancient grave site:

This appletree, which stands within a few rods of the river, is called “Elisha's appletree,” from a friendly Indian, who was anciently in the service of Jonathan Tyng, and, with one other man, was killed here by his own race in one of the Indian wars,—the particulars of which affair were told us on the spot. He was buried close by, no one knew exactly where, but in the flood of 1785, so great a weight of water standing over the grave, caused the earth to settle where it had once been disturbed, and when the flood went down, a sunken spot, exactly of the form and size of the grave, revealed its locality; but this was now lost

again, and no future flood can detect it; yet, no doubt, Nature will know how to point it out in due time, if it be necessary, by methods yet more searching and unexpected. (A Week, 1980a, pp. 356–57)

To be sure, we see themes here of resurrection (the apple tree, the site of a baby's death in the Duston story, becomes a mark of friendly Indiansettler relations) and of natural history (nature's cycling which the apple tree marks). But, restricting ourselves to the question of historiography proper, the narrative hinges upon two historical clues, whose significance and meaning must be carefully scrutinized.

The hidden nail and the elusive grave site each represent complex past events that must be linked and interpolated to cohere and signify a complex weave of social history pertinent to the current era, whether Thoreau's or our own. The nail marks the witnessing of the precarious balance between homesteader and the river's perilous waters that might yet again overflow its banks and drown a farm. The past holds information we must decipher. (In this case, we do well to know the limits imposed on our own expectations regarding nature's boundaries.) The apple tree is also prophetic: after all, it is Elisha's tree. Prophets also warn: Be wary; guard against hubris; note the lessons of the past. The grave may similarly be decoded. It is a mark of relation (violence, fragile peace), telling a heretofore forgotten story of lost opportunity and lingering possibility. In this sense it is redemptive and serves as an important symbol of Thoreau's preoccupation with European-Indian history. But it is also the mark of an individual life, whose memory has its own virtue, but whose remembrance hangs on by the thinnest of threads in a now allbutforgotten story, told by serendipity and recounted by Thoreau with the barest of narrative detail. The nail in the tree and the vanishing grave each highlight the precariousness of historical record and its necessary dependence on happenstantial human memory. By enlisting them into his history, Thoreau captures the merest glimmer of a vanishing past whose irredeemable effervescence may only be glanced at by reading clues encoded by such obscure records. This is recounting through signs, or more formally, in a semiotic mode.

Another example, perhaps better known, and certainly more transparent in design, is the “Former Inhabitants” chapter of Walden. Clues of former dwellings in the Walden woods are there for those with eyes to see. Old cellar holes fringed by newgrown pines and covered with sumac and goldenrod testify to the homes of freed negroes—Cato Ingraham, Zilpha, Brister Freeman and his wife Fenda—and other modest white homesteads—the Strattons, Nutting, LeGrosse, Wyman, Quoil, and the Breeds. “These cellar

dents, like deserted fox burrows, old holes, are all that is left where once the stir and bustle of human life, and ‘fate, freewill, and foreknowledge absolute’ … were discussed” (Walden, 1971, p. 263). Thoreau reports on his joining a member of the Breed family who was revisiting the latter's destroyed homestead:

He gazed into the cellar from all sides and points of view by turns … as if there was some treasure, which he remembered, concealed between the stones, where there was absolutely nothing but a heap of bricks and ashes. The house being gone, he looked at what there was left. He was soothed by the sympathy which my mere presence implied, and showed me, as well as the darkness permitted, where the well was covered up; which, thank Heaven, could never be burned; and he groped long about the wall to find the wellsweep which his father had cut and mounted, feeling for the iron hook or staple …,–all that he could now cling to,–to convince me that it was no common “rider” [top rail of a fence]. I felt it, and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family. (Ibid., pp. 260–61)

There is a profound poignancy in these short lines. The entire history of a family hangs from a single hook, and as Thoreau comments shortly after this passage, “What a sorrowful act that must be,–the covering up of wells! coincident with the opening of wells of tears” (ibid., p. 263). Not only are the wellsprings of life covered, their very memory is almost lost. Who, if not Thoreau, would write a census of the former inhabitants of his neighborhood? Who would care? Even he must admit that his own knowledge of their lives and thoughts is trivial (ibid.). Nevertheless, their memory must be preserved, even if it is only in his own narrative. Why? To answer that question requires an examination of Thoreau's moral philosophy as it informs his philosophy of history, a topic I will reserve for the last section of this chapter. But suffice it to note here that in the active pursuit of memory, time does come to an end, for if memory is preserved, the past is present in the present and the march of temporality is arrested.

Thoreau brought history into the everpresent present by the same stratagem by which he searched for evidence to unlock the integration of nature in all her details. Thoreau honed his naturalist and historical skills on the whetstone of patient attention to detail and the free use of an extraordinary imagination. Much as a hunter might follow an obscure track, or a fisherman survey the surface of pond for hatching insects, or a farmer peer at the leaves of a sapling for signs of disease, Thoreau studied his surroundings looking for clues that beckoned to insight—sometimes relevant to his naturalist project, sometimes to the historical. The intellectual and

poetic process was the same in either case, and in some sense we might acknowledge that the vector of his interest, seemingly for a separate purpose, in fact was part and parcel of the same overall concern: natural history and man's history, intimately tied together in one great enterprise. To regard history and nature as separate categories was to commit the same error that assigned man in “civilization” to face an alienated “nature.” For Thoreau, to see history in the natural context was simply to reintegrate what indeed was always one. His reconstruction of a vivid history, immediately present to him, emerged from contemplating the same riverbank Hannah Duston saw, touching the Elisha tree, and beholding an old iron hook. In each case an emblem of an apparently irretrievable past emerged, allowing Thoreau to bring it into his own intimate experience.

Thoreau's semiotic practice, what Carlo Ginzburg has called “an evidential paradigm,” became widely accepted by the late nineteenth century. “Though reality may seem to be opaque, there are privileged zones—signs, clues—which allow us to penetrate it” (Ginzburg 1989, p. 123). Searching for faint and obscure clues to detect hidden meanings and verify truth was variously applied by such diverse figures as Freud in searching the unconscious, Sherlock Holmes in apprehending criminals, and Giovanni Morelli in detecting art forgeries. Each was able to detect infinitesimally small or inconspicuous keys in order to decode a deeper, otherwise unattainable reality. This historical art of reading discreet signs Ginzburg has characterized as “semiotic.” Semiotics certainly has a more venerable history than its formalization in the nineteenth century, and can be traced back through Augustine and the Greco-Roman grammarians through Mesopotamian divination to the primordial practice of hunters following their prey. What characterizes “semiotics” in this context, and gives it its definitional power for history, is not its scientific character but rather the qualitative nature of the interpretative inquiry: “the historian is like the physician who uses nosological tables to analyze the specific sickness in a patient. As with the physician's, historical knowledge is indirect, presumptive, conjectural” (ibid., p. 106).[11] Thoreau practiced a cognitive exercise that was fundamentally interpretative and thus “personal.” His unique individuality and confidence in his ability to decipher those marks characterize his methodology. But he must have proceeded being aware that his approach was suspect, which explains many of his defensive, if not polemical, justifications. Thoreau had, at best, an ambivalent attitude toward history, deeply distrusting the historian removed from an immediate and original relationship to experience: “There

are secret articles in our treaties with the gods, of more importance than all the rest, which the historian can never know” (A Week, 1980a, p. 125).

Given the growing positivism of nineteenth-century natural sciences, the specific designation of “scientist” for practitioners of what was previously called natural philosophy in the 1840s,[12] and the application of this appellation to the social sciences at about the same time, Thoreau was well aware that he was sailing against a prescriptive tide of scientism. New standards called for “objective” evidence for the natural philosophy of living forms—now called biology[13]—and for the record of human history as well. Thoreau attempted to meet such standards, but he was loath to leave the facts in abeyance without an interpretation whereby their significance and meaning would emerge within his personal context. Indeed, Thoreau approaches history as would an artist, whose creative reconstruction of the past must synthesize elements of memory, artifact, historical record, oral tradition, and moral purpose. In this last respect, Thoreau recognized history written in the “objective” mode as a conceit: history was hardly unbiased, impartial, or aperspectival.[14] His efforts may be seen as part of a Romantic reaction against the positivist attitude, which he justifiedly regarded with suspicion. He was not alone. At the same time that this positivist fervor was emerging in mid-nineteenth-century sciences and social sciences, a growing sensitivity to the interpretative character of the human sciences was also appreciated. This battle, whose lines were already clearly drawn by mid-century, framed the evolution of these disciplines into our own time and will serve as a central theme of chapter 4.


In Memory is the more reality.

Thoreau, December 30, 1841, Journal 1, 1981, p. 352

Memory is a prelude to history, and Thoreau exercised his memory both to write his autobiography and to stimulate and orient his communal history. Narrative thus becomes a vehicle of personal exposition; biography becomes autobiography (A Week, 1980a, p. 156). This personalized view was perhaps appropriated from Emerson's more general adage: “There is no history; only biography” (Emerson, Journal entry, May 28, 1839 [Emerson 1969, p. 202]).[15] A particularly interesting example of this exercise of memory occurs in Thoreau's recollection of his first visit to Walden Pond, a memory that must have carried potent connotations and which undoubtedly exerted a profound

influence on his choice to live there. As Thoreau attests, Walden offered him a “proper nursery,” a vision he first perceived as an impressionable young boy and which served to guide him as he sat as an adult at Walden's shore. He alludes to a reverie, where the music of the flute “awakes” what he calls “echoes” (by which he must mean the echoes of memory) of that childhood revelation.

We have two records to consider. The first is from his Journal entry written at Walden Pond shortly after he established his homestead; the second from the published version that appeared in Walden nine years later. There are both important differences and important correspondences between the two narratives, so each will be quoted in full:

Twenty three years since when I was 5 years old, I was brought from Boston to this pond, away in the country which was then but another name for the extended world for me—one of the most ancient scenes stamped on the tablets of my memory—the oriental asiatic valley of my world—whence so many races and inventions have gone forth in recent times. That woodland vision for a long time made the drapery of my dreams. That sweet solitude my spirit seemed so early to require that I might have room to entertain my thronging guests, and that speaking silence that my ears might distinguish the significant sounds. Some how or other it at once gave the preference to this recess among the pines where almost sunshine & shadow were the only inhabitants that varied the scene, over that tumultuous and varied city—as if it had found its proper nursery.

Well now tonight my flute awakes the echoes over this very water, but one generation of pines has fallen and with their stumps I have cooked my supper, And a lusty growth of oaks and pines is rising all around its brim and preparing its wilder aspect for new infant eyes.

Almost the same johnswort springs from the same perennial root in this pasture.–

Even I have at length helped to clothe that fabulous landscape of my imagination– –and one result of my presence and influence is seen in the bean leaves and corn blades and potato vines.

Seek to preserve the tenderness of your nature as you would the bloom upon a peach. (Journal 2, 1984, pp. 173–74; after August 6, 1845)

When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to this my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now tonight my flute has waked the echoes over that very water. The pines still stand here older than I; or, if some have fallen, I have cooked my supper with their stumps, and a new growth is rising all around, preparing another aspect for new infant eyes. Almost the same

johnswort springs from the same perennial root in this pasture, and even I have at length helped to clothe that fabulous landscape of my infant dreams, and one of the results of my presence and influence is seen in these bean leaves, corn blades, and potato vines.

I planted about two acres and a half of upland … (Walden, 1971, pp. 155–56)[16]

Thoreau was born in Concord in 1817. The next year the family moved to Chelmsford, and then in 1821 to Boston, returning to Concord permanently in 1823. Is Thoreau recalling that final return or an earlier visit to Walden? There is a minor but obvious discrepancy in the child's age between the Journal and Walden, but that is not of critical importance for our purposes, or his. Paramount is how the visit was “stamped” on Thoreau's earliest memory, and it remained highly evocative. The explicit vision of the wilderness for which the city was but a gate remained an orienting experience, and Thoreau was to meditate upon that pastoral world as the focus of his mature enterprise. So when he writes in the Journal that “that woodland vision for a long time made the drapery of my dreams,” we might well take heed of the importance of this memory, for it no less served as the backdrop for his later maturity.

The passage is structured on two critical phrases found in both versions: 1) “scenes stamped on my memory” and 2) “my flute has waked the echoes over that very water,” and another constant element: time has elapsed as evidenced by the new growth of trees and the John'swort, prepared to engage another infant. Thus we move with Thoreau through his own memory to its passage in time to the next generation. Thoreau evinces his own participation in that turn of time's cycle (now measured by the eyes of another as yet unidentified child—perhaps the reader of Walden), through clothing “that fabulous landscape of my imagination” (namely, the planting of crops). Is that all? Hardly. The basic theme of the passage is that this early memory has informed and directed Thoreau's life, and while we might read the planting of crops as emblematic of Thoreau's project, the image is understated.

Thoreau is engaged here in an interesting subterfuge, subtle yet telling. The Journal is more revealing in several respects, and by reading it carefully, we glean important clues about the way that Thoreau himself regarded this formative memory. Each version contains this critical passage: “I have at length helped to clothe that fabulous landscape of my [infant dreams {Walden}] [imagination {Journal}].” Note that the earlier “imagination” has been changed to “dreams” in the final published version. We are not accountable for our dreams: they appear and we may interpret them, but

they appear in the night, disappear upon awakening, and correspond only loosely to our conscious life.Imagination is the Romantic faculty par excellence. It is to imagination that Thoreau turns again and again as the cognitive apparatus upon which he builds his history, his science, his poetry. In the Journal, the vision of Walden Pond, first appearing to him as a child, remains scored in Thoreau's imagination, actively working and directing him. The memory is no longer of the past, but resides firmly in his active present. His entire life is devoted to the emancipation of that imagination, the free expression of all that this muse might hold for him, whether expressed by him as a naturalist, a historian, a philosopher, or a poet. To emphasize this point, note how Thoreau ends the memory: “Seek to preserve the tenderness of your nature as you would the bloom upon a peach.” Interestingly omitted in Walden, this sentence not only implicitly reaffirms Wordsworth's insight that the child is father to the man, but perhaps more saliently that the purity and creative power of childhood experience and imagination must be preserved to guide and inspire the adult. Thoreau explicitly pronounced the validity of infant experience in what can only be read as a rapturous passage from the Journal:

Heaven lies about us as in our infancy [Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” line 66]. There is nothing so wild and extravagant that it does not make true. It makes a dream my only real experience, and prompts faith to such elasticity, that only the incredible can satisfy it. It tells me again to trust the remotest, and finest, as the divinest instinct. All that I have imagined of heroism, it reminds and reassures me of. It is a life unlived, a life beyond life, where at length my years will pass.I look under the lids of Time[.] (January 30, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 242; emphasis added)

The “lids of time” (becoming the “eyelids of time” in October 23, 1843, ibid., p. 480) poetically pronounce Thoreau's stratagem, for as he would lift the cover from his eyes, Thoreau would “see”—understand—the deeper metaphysics of time as the everpresent present. Just as the period of infancy is brought into the presence of adulthood, so would the historical past be appropriated to the current era.

We must look for clues to further decode Thoreau's memory, just as one might explicate a dream. Note the paucity of insight Thoreau offers as to how the childhood memory directed him. The published memory is simply a scene, and thus the reader is left with no idea what gave this memory its potency. Again, the Journal entry helps decipher its power for Thoreau by testifying that the pond represented a gate to an exotic world. The first association is with the Orient, whose worldview would be so influential in molding

his mature attitudes and offering a counterpoint to the mid-nineteenth-century America he so actively criticized. This oriental allusion is a rather free association, but taking it at face value it is intriguing to observe that Thoreau linked the New England woods in some fashion with an exotic world markedly removed from any prior experience. Of course, Thoreau had no knowledge of the Orient as a child, but the point is not whether there was a linkage then but rather how the memory is being constructed in 1845. The connection is blatantly subjective, drawing together some emotional resonance between Asian images and the American wilderness. In this sense we might consider how perhaps the woods were to a certain degree always foreign, an abode that one might enter but that, despite protestations, remained alien in a deep and mysterious way, as Thoreau testified about his climb to the top of Mount Ktaadn later that fall:

It was vast titanic & such as man never inhabits. Some part of the beholder, even some vital part seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends–He is more lone than one—there is less of substance less of fair calculation & intellectual fullness than in the plains where men inhabit[.] Vast Titanic inhuman nature has got him at disadvantage caught him alone–& pilfers him[.] She does not smile on him as in the plains–She seems to say sternly why come Ye here before your time–This ground is not prepared for. Is it not enough that I smile in the vallies … Why seek me where I have not called you and then complain that I am not your genial mother….

For what canst thou pray here—but to be delivered from here.–And shouldst thou freeze or starve—or shudder thy life away—here is no shrine nor altar—nor access to my ear. (Fall 1846,Journal 2, 1984, pp. 339–40)

This episode, so unusual among Thoreau's earlier celebrations of nature, testifies to a sense that beneath the quiet pastoral of rural Concord, Thoreau recognized at that moment a fundamental chasm between the tranquillity of Walden Pond, wild in a tamed fashion, and nature untrimmed. Here, and more extensively in his later writings, Thoreau appreciates the terrifying otherness of nature, an insight that McGregor (1997) has argued was pivotal to Thoreau's existential and literary development.[17] An anxiety, sometimes surfacing only briefly (e.g., admitting his own bestiality [Walden, 1971, p. 210]) and sometimes dominating an essay on nature as hostile and indifferent to human life (e.g.,Cape Cod [1988] thematically continues Ktaadn), seems to have accompanied Thoreau throughout his life. And I believe we detect the faint pull of that undercurrent even in his fond recollection. The earliest memory of Walden Pond portrays Thoreau's mixed feelings,

where the mystic experience of Walden, the allure of nature, the mystery of the Asiatic, are all fused into an associated image where myriad passions, both affirmative and negative, are given free rein. So in our reading of his childhood impressions, we should attend to the complex image of the wondrous and the strange, and even the frightening, aspects of a new world.

In A Week, we see memory assuming its psychic function, falling between the wild associations of dreams and the finished product of history, a distilled and so less authentic rendition of free imagination. The narrative itself swings periodically between these poles of consciousness: As a naturalist Thoreau is keenly aware of his surroundings, and the text is replete with critical commentary about the scenery, the natural history, the social history of the river's banks. This critique is contrasted with a dreamlike state, which Thoreau refers to only in a poetic guise. Indistinct as an entity, possessing no character of an object of thought that might be grasped and concretized in description, the Concord River presents him the opportunity of being “embarked on the placid current of our dreams, floating from past to future as silently as one awakes to fresh morning or evening thoughts” (A Week, 1980a, pp. 19–20). The river itself affords Thoreau a unique perspective, one quite different in character from his normal life on land,[18] but there is more: In a sense, the river is dream, perceived as a mystical entity. In an unpublished poem in the Berg manuscript of A Week, Thoreau declares,

I was born upon thy banks,
River, My blood flows in thy stream,
And thou meanderest forever
As the bottom of my dream.[19]

For him the river was his poetic, if not existential, source of being. No wonder it sustained his imagination so effectively.

A Week would become a poetic work, a Thoreauvian mythology, carried to future readers, just as he was carried “on its bosom and float whither it would bear me” (1980a, p. 13).[20] Floating in a dory, Thoreau also beckoned to other means of travel, a history carried by memory, poetry, myth, and dream. These socalled “flitting perspectives and demiexperiences” are faculties outside time. Thoreau can only allude to the importance of this dimension attended to by a suspended intelligence, of which dreams are in most accounts the most ephemeral. When he describes dreams (waking or sleeping) as both integral to his experience and a foundation for the reality he so earnestly attempts to capture as a naturalist and historian, he does so with a firm assertion of their authenticity: “In dreams we never deceive

ourselves, nor are deceived…. Dreams are the touchstones of our characters…. In dreams we see ourselves naked and acting out our real characters, even more clearly than we see others awake” (ibid., pp. 296–97). Indeed, “our truest life is when we are in dreams awake” (ibid., p. 297), a position he was to hold unwaveringly into his full maturity (e.g., October 29, 1857, Journal, [1906] 1962, 10:141). Thus dreams, encoding echoes of ancient myth and personal experience lost to consciousness, possess a truth function that Thoreau acknowledges as a wellspring for his literary efforts.

Myth also served Thoreau's personalized vision of history. In a sustained discussion of fable and myth in the “Sunday” chapter of A Week, Thoreau makes three points relevant to this discussion. First, myth is “naturally and truly composed” (1980a, p. 58) and either transmitted to us as “music of a thought”—that is, unintelligible to scientific or historical analysis—or as the work of a current poet who might write “without the aid of posterity” (ibid., p. 60). In either case, myths have their own aesthetic and cognitive functions, which—and this is the second point—express a variety of truths more significant than our current understanding of history. The materials of biography and history, the more mundane labors that pass as efforts of history writing, are but materials to serve mythology, the higher function distilling the truth content of these lesser enterprises (ibid.). Finally, myth transmits a divine message, which the poet perceives and serves:

In the mythus a superhuman intelligence uses the unconscious thoughts and dreams of men as its hieroglyphics to address men unborn. In the history of the human mind, these glowing and ruddy fables precede the noonday thoughts of men, as Aurora the sun's rays. The matutine intellect of the poet, keeping in advance of the glare of philosophy, always dwells in this auroral atmosphere. (Ibid., p. 61)

Again, the past is brought to the immediacy of the now, available for each of us to partake in its light.

This idea of myth, the intermediary between conventional history and imagination, resonates deeply throughout Thoreau's writings—perhaps most vividly in Walden. The ethical imperative suggested by this passage from A Week, namely those efforts evoked by the sun's (Apollo's) appearance in the morning, is built from two temporal elements better developed in Walden. The first is the morning of our respective days. As Peck (1990) has so carefully shown, the morning is the cardinal image of Thoreau's endeavor, where he would attempt to live life “deliberately” by calling for selfconscious wakefulness. “To be awake is to be alive” (Walden, 1971, p. 90), and to achieve a meaningful life Thoreau saw the morning as the crucible of his labor, where,

indeed, “moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep” (ibid.). In a Nietzschean mode, Thoreau knew “of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor…. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour” (ibid.).Walden is a treatise on how Thoreau suggests we might respond to this challenge, and he draws a correlation between the morning and myth, a crucial guiding source for Thoreau's own heroic quest for a meaningful existence. Thus Thoreau introduces the second temporal element, the past as present. He baldly asserts, “Morning brings back the heroic ages” (ibid., p. 88) that inspire him. For in the heroic past described by myth are to be found eternal truths that can only be learned by acknowledging the presence of those fables.[21] Thoreau is a poet, but he is in the good company of heroes. Poets and heroes are workers of the morning; each is roused and vitalized by Aurora. Here we see myth operating in the now, as the poet dredges the depths of time and the unconscious which leads him to the past.

Thus this poetic venture requires conscious effort balanced by an openness to “dream”—to access the unconscious. “Morning” is consciousness, and it is counterpoised to dream, to the night, which holds its own importance for this poetic faculty. “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations” (Walden, 1971, p. 171). The interpretative character of Thoreau's journey in time—night and day; past and present—demands access to qualitative experience. Thoreau in fact built upon these impressions. For instance, from Walden, he relates how his dreams oriented his “morning work”:

After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. (Ibid., p. 282)

Inspired by his nocturnal questions, the morning provides him a response, and he situates himself in a confounding cosmos by performing worldly chores: carrying water, fishing, making his fire, observing the surroundings, and so on. And again, in the evening, he is left to other devices, visiting with a divine chronicler who in turn feeds his imagination:

I have occasional visits in the long winter evenings, when the snow falls fast and the wind howls in the wood, from an old settler and original

proprietor, who is reported to have dug Walden Pond, and stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods; who tells me stories of old time and of new eternity[.] (Ibid., p. 137)

Thoreau thus swung between night dreams and day work, each fulfilling their respective functions. Note that Thoreau also dreamt while awake, and not thus necessarily at night. He also translated immediate perceptions into the domain of dream, whereby such experience might achieve its full significance. In other words, the immediacy of experience is sometimes transformed by a poetic transposition from consciousness to a dreamlike state, so that, for instance, a landscape might be experienced as dream. For example, at the top of Saddleback Mountain, remembered as an earlier excursion narrated in the “Tuesday” chapter of A Week, Thoreau recounts the climb through an “ocean of mist” after which he arrives in “cloudland,” a dream world:

As the light in the east steadily increased, it revealed to me more clearly the new world into which I had risen in the night, the new terrafirma perchance of my future life…. All around beneath me was spread for a hundred miles on every side, as far as the eye could reach, an undulating country of clouds, answering in the varied swell of its surface the terrestrial world it veiled.It was such a country as we might see in dreams, with all the delights of paradise…. It was a favor for which to be forever silent to be shown this vision. The earth beneath had become such a flitting thing of lights and shadows as the clouds had been before.It was not merely veiled to me, but it had passed away like the phantom of a shadow … and this new platform was gained. As I had climbed above storm and cloud, so by successive days' journey I might reach the region of eternal day beyond the tapering shadow of earth[.] (A Week, 1980a, pp. 188–89; emphasis added)

Thoreau has gone to the mountain and had a dreamlike vision—a view of eternity that he would hold firmly in his memory, informing and inspiring his spirituality.

Of course, Thoreau did not need to climb mountains to find a catalyst by which he might peer at eternity (e.g.,Walden, 1971, p. 98) or recover time (e.g.,A Week, 1980a, p. 351). In whatever context contemplation was exercised, he dipped into that experience through the faculty of memory. After all, dreams are only accessible through recall, through construction by memory. Their very disorder and illogic bespeak another cognitive grammar, and memory provides the bridge between that unconscious encounter and the strictures of conscious thought. So not only does memory of the mountaintop—within the memory of the river trip—make “journeying itself archetypal and therefore the property of inward life” (Peck 1990, p. 29), but memory

itself becomes the fundamental faculty of consciousness of that inner life serving to conjure the past and create a more complete present. We have adequate testimony to the veracity of such experience for Thoreau.

A final comment regarding the relation of dreams, memory, and history: In A Week, Thoreau observes, dreams possess “a more liberal and juster apprehension of things, unconstrained by habit, which is then in some measure put off, and divested of memory, which we call history” (1980a, p. 58). History's cognitive standing is different from that of dreams or memory. Perhaps inspired by a primordial consciousness, history remains an objective and thus depersonalized account, or at least so it claims. Memory is the province of ancient fables and personal history that hover in the indistinct past and that can be recovered only in our dreams and in the faint outline of our own recall, to be reconstructed in the full light of consciousness, as history. There is, to be sure, a continuum of dream, memory, and history; for Thoreau—as a Romantic—must believe in unmediated apprehension whereby even history might be directly experienced. But the continuum itself attests to the different forms of experience that must be integrated to produce this final public, shared experience, and it is this effort that requires a synthesis of these three forms of imagination. Memory, as meditation, is situated between dream and history, partaking of the former to inform the latter. Thus for Thoreau, memory serves as the bridge which links some inarticulate infancy of experience into mature articulation.


[T]he past is not … preserved so much as remade in the image of the present: The past is too important to be allowed to exist…. [The] narrative can reveal … only the retrospective moment, and the retrospective self.

Fredriksen 1986

A Week ends with a third apple tree. Rushing back to Concord under sail and oar, the brothers have made full cycle: “[W]e leaped gladly on shore, drawing it [the boat] up, and fastening it to the wild appletree whose stem still bore the mark which its chain had worn in the chafing of the spring freshets” (1980a, p. 393). There is, to be sure, a linear beginning and ending to the voyage, but in both spatial and spiritual senses,A Week follows a cycle—the cycle of the week, the cycle of the brothers' return. This cycle nevertheless inscribes a unique passing, of which the tree again serves as a mark, or even a repository of history, now of Thoreau's own making. Whereas Walden Pond might stand for permanency, the river by its very

nature is everchanging. Thoreau might only obtain closure of time in the cyclic mode of return and its encapsulation within his own memory and its concretization in the memoir he had penned. The tree serves to tether that memory.

In some sense we might regard much of Thoreau's literary corpus as a project in memory. His writings, published and unpublished, serve two functions: on the one hand, they were a repository for reflections on almost every aspect of his life—observations on nature, society, reading, and so on—and on the other hand, they were an act of capturing experience already experienced. As we will explore in the next chapter, the epistemological effort of “writing nature” was constrained by reconstruction—by recapitulating sensations, impressions, observations—limited by the inadequacy both of language itself and of recall. Thoreau's writing was very much captive to what must be only a partial rendition of experience, and in this regard, the earlier comment already quoted (p. 51 above) concerning the limit of his Journal writing (A Week, 1980a, p. 332) refers to this incomplete record, the never completed autobiography (in this case his trip on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers). Thoreau was well aware of these restrictions, but the limitations of history as usually conceived were not of his concern. The point of history for him was to establish moral, not epistemological, accuracy. Thus two of Thoreau's key metathemes concern how memory might be deployed in constructing the self to fulfill a moral agenda, the pursuit of a life of virtue; and, closely connected, how memory, built from imagination, was to be fashioned into works of public art.

Pursuing his own memory, as well as the collective past, was integral to Thoreau's own view of individual and communal identity. From this perspective, virtue, at least in part, hangs on the ability to readmit experience for scrutiny in order to ascertain meaning. The past follows us, there is no escape; and just as the individual lives his life cumulatively, so does the community. Each must then examine history as it reflects on our present condition. Memory is crucial in appreciating our full selves. We retain what we value, and we know what we want to know or need to know. We forget what we do not use or somehow cannot make part of ourselves. As Emerson wrote, “memory has a fine art of sifting out the pain and keeping all the joy” (1904, p. 104). And yet some memories we want to lose remain to haunt us. Those are parts of our psyche that live in a separate locale—part of us, yet somehow different. One of the gulfs separating us from Thoreau is the obscurity of such despondent memories. His celebrated solitude was more than socially contrived, for even in his intimate Journal there is little that reveals insight as to the causes of his sadnesses and disappointments, despite his biographers'

best efforts to uncover them (e.g., Krutch 1948; Harding 1965; Lebeaux 1984; Bridgman 1982; Richardson 1986; Peck 1990). Thus when we seek to understand Thoreau and search his testament of memory, we must be struck by the selective nature of his narratives, the facile character of his art of memory, perhaps hammered on the anvil of experience but appearing to us as finished products of careful craftsmanship, as works of art. Rather than as a lingering quandary, I regard such opacity as an important clue to how Thoreau himself would have us understand his memory.

We might more profitably approach Thoreau's use of memory through another portal. I have maintained that for Thoreau, memory became part of the apparatus by which he constructs his moral identity. Memory was an active process directed by a particular telos. Memory is selective and intimate, to be employed for present purpose. Recollections do not remain locked in a closet called the Past. As we act in the world, we are aware of ourselves as integrated identities by linking that past with our present. So in ways deeply personal to our innermost being, we recall our own personae formed in different contexts of time and place; and in our attempts to situate ourselves in those past worlds of childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and on, we bring the past with us. We require a construction to enable us to establish a continuous flow of identity between the present and our everreceding past selves. Memory is thus crafted. There is no recall that is not filtered by intervening experience, and that experience interprets and reshapes the original experience. While memory helps to maintain continuity with the past, it too is reshaped to accommodate our present persona. We know, albeit implicitly, that our memory is a faculty critical in forming our very identities. We constantly refashion ourselves to adjust to new demands, goals, ideas, relationships. Memories are modulated as we redesign our views of ourselves and our world, because memory is so intimate to our very selves. Here we see the intersection of Thoreau as historian and Thoreau as poet. If indeed history and memory are constructed to address the moral expression of the self, this must be accomplished through imagination, or the poetic faculty. But to make a memory valid in a public way, to test its authenticity in the domain of “knowledge,” it must be subjected to historical analysis.

Thoreau was fundamentally a poet, not a historian. Again and again, he would choose the testimony of an informant's memory and imagination as more important, if not even more valid, than conventional historical narratives. Why? Is not history, in fact, publicly verifiable and therefore more reliable? After all, the difference between memory and history, at least most obviously, is the degree of verisimilitude. History and memory each attempt

to capture the past and bring it into the present in order that we may better understand ourselves now. Each is used to interpret the past, to interpret the present and, perhaps, to better predict the future. We rely on each to situate ourselves in the confusion of our own time, and to seek the antecedents of our present predicaments and knowledge. These are critical functions, to be sure, and history in its formal abilities is more “valid” in these respects, because its knowledge is generally accessible and to a certain degree agreed upon. But memory has another function altogether, also shared by history (but less selfconsciously), that is, memory's essentially moral character. Memory is moral when it is radically selfreferential and selfdefinitional and thereby valueladen. From that understanding we employ memory in order to situate ourselves in the world and thus guide our actions.

Thoreau's use of memory is so striking precisely because he uses it to convert a personalized past into history, a subjectivized public knowledge. He thus follows a contemporary view of history, and of ourselves: “Memory is the ground of history. It is the interior state of mind from which the exterior framework of history is drawn” (Hutton 1993, p. 96). Thus history is admittedly subjectivized, and in that insight we have a picture of the psyche, which

is not an archive but a mirror. To search the psyche for the truth about ourselves is a futile task because the psyche can only reflect the images that we have conjured up to describe ourselves. Looking into the psyche, therefore, is like looking into the mirror image of a mirror. One sees oneself in an image of infinite regress. (Ibid., p. 115)

Thoreau modulates history into a species different from a scientific practice by explicitly turning objectified history into a personalized image of himself. In the process the implicit moral standing of history becomes explicitly moral. There is no confusion as to the subjective nature of Thoreau's memory, because memory, which is clearly about his past, exclusively reflects his subjectivity and serves to identify himself. When he makes memory integral to history—and this is the critical turn—he forthrightly assumes a particular personal orientation which, in the sense described above, is moral. Thus historical character would assume in his practice a selfportrayal—who we are, or perhaps, who we might wish to be.

Thus Thoreau's memory is a lens less to examine his “psychology” than to decipher his, and our own, moral life. In his inquiry into the American past, he asks, Who are we? What were we? What do we hope to be? Each question falls squarely in the moral domain. These are evaluative judgments, interpretations of our national persona. From this perspective the self, individual and collective, becomes fundamentally a moral category. So memory

in Thoreau's imaginative cosmos is both a faculty by which to comprehend and order the world (a part of the mental agency we refer to as “knowing”) and also a moral faculty. The “isness” of history thus falls into two domains: the epistemological “isness” of facts and various kinds of social relations, and the moral “isness” of rectitude and maleficence. In general, for Thoreau, the former is in league with the latter, and usually in its service.

In the main, Thoreau used history to fulfill a moral agenda—the moral actuality as revealed by historical presentation, that is, the past's bestowal. To glean the past was to create a moral universe. What makes memory moral is that we choose our recollections, constructing them within a particular framework that has value to us. It is the overriding valueladenness of memory that modulates its epistemological status, radically. Because memory need not be anything but private, it may safely reflect our most intimate personal values and serve us in living them. At least part of Thoreau's importance resides in his sharing his intimate memory for public purpose.

So Thoreauvian memory has become public. It is now history, and Thoreau might be appropriately judged by the historiographical standards of his era; in that light, he stands apart. His work is distinctive, eschewing the new positivism infecting all of the human sciences. As in his nature studies, Thoreau adopted a position in opposition to the stringent objectivity of his period, and in so doing, he attacked the hegemony of the scientific ethos. To be sure, history shares many of the same epistemological values and constraints as science, and historians, as public agents of our collective past, are committed to proceeding by objective means to recover our antecedents. But Thoreau sought a more personalized vision of the past, and while he would acknowledge that science offered a highly effective means for obtaining certain kinds of knowledge about the world, he rejected its universal application: in his own writings he presented a prescient criticism of the very pillars of positivist historical analysis.[22]

However, rather than dwell on the question of scientific objectivity here, a theme developed extensively in later chapters, we remain closer to our central concern if we explore how Thoreau emphasized history's close affinity with memory: history goes beyond its epistemological project and becomes moral just as memory is a moral activity for the individual. Again, Thoreau wrote history selfconsciously recognizing this dimension of history's import. His relevance today in no small measure resides in our own ability to scrutinize his experimental approach toward establishing the moral standing of history. We regard the past through the prism of our current values, and we bring the past into the present, even projecting it into the future—for example, as our “manifest destiny” or our “burden of history.”

We reinterpret our social evolution from the vantage of our current understanding, and although historians deplore presentism—the prejudice of interpreting the past in terms of our own cultural moment—we nevertheless cannot totally escape the strictures of our imbibed culture with all the attendant orientation it bestows. In the acts of shared memory (and forgetting), a historical character emerges, and thus history, when viewed as a social activity, becomes a critical means by which we define ourselves as a group, analogous to how memory helps define the individual. Memory is constitutive of our personal identities; history, firmly situated in the civic domain, becomes constituent of social identity.

For Thoreau, the play between memory and history reflects the duality of the past he sought to capture—a communal history entrusted to the individual interpreter. Part poet, part explorer, part philosopher, Thoreau wrote history with multiple faculties and varied agendas. Although we currently lack the moral self-consciousness exhibited by Thoreau, historians of our era might look at him as a member of their own guild, practicing a variant of their own style. We are now critical of nineteenth-century historicism, “based upon the proposition that humankind, having created its own experience, can recreate it” (Hutton 1993, p. xxiii). We are no longer sanguine that historians are so capable of reentering the mindset of the historical actors they would examine in the hopes of understanding or even reenacting their problems. “What is remembered about the past depends on the way it is represented” (ibid., p. 6), so on this view, minimally, the historians' own tradition, but more pervasively and implicitly, culture at large, provides the very framework for inquiry. Linking the past to the present, this larger Weltanschauung, with all its attendant values and posthistorical knowledge, directs the very historical enterprise that seeks “objectivity.” Thus the retrospective perspective, in some sense, confines that venture.

To acknowledge the limits of our own view is to accept a deeper comprehension of the nature of history and memory. Thoreau certainly appreciated the daunting task of the historian:

When I remember the treachery of memory, and the manifold accidents to which tradition is liable—how soon the vista of the past closes behind—as near as night's crescent to the setting day—and the dazzling brightness of noon is reduced to the faint glimmer of the evening star, I feel as if it were by rare indulgence of the fates—that any traces of the past are left us. (June 7, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 314)

Our image of the past then is radically fragmentary and provisional, for the past is remembered only within a given social or conceptual construction which is defined by the historian's community at large. There is no preserved

“whole” of time, only that which we choose to recall and reconstruct. The past then is constantly being revised in living memory, and we draw whatever inferences and conclusions seem warranted with a wary eye— selfconscious and circumspect about the limits of our own time and place. History thus becomes our own memory: “to remember the past is to reimagine it” (Hutton 1993, p. 70). This was an art Thoreau practiced with grace and verve, in large measure because he believed that “in memory is the more reality” (December 30, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 352).

In the sense that memory was his own, a conduit into his private ego, Thoreau was most certainly correct. To be sure, history was a civic calling, an attempt to direct public policy and inform his compatriots of the moral lessons of the past, but in the end, history, like nature, was to be personalized. No wonder it was so carefully hammered on the anvil of his writing. Thoreau is perhaps an exemplar of this casting of memory into the molds of a personal vision. Again, memory becomes an artistic material in his hands both to reveal and to create his identity. The philosopher David Krell might well have referred to Thoreau when he observed that we should “ask whether writing is a metaphor for memory or memory is a metaphor for writing” (Krell 1990, p. 4), by which he was referring to the complex and multifaceted role of inscription in memory processes, whether “passive” or “active.” Indeed, the interplay of active retrieval and formulation, in writing and otherwise, and the way in which memory simply visits us, impressing the past on our present, reflect the enigmatic character of consciousness itself:

How is it that I appear to be both slave and master with respect to my memory? For the most part I am fed memories, am thrown into them by the vicissitudes of my situation; my memory flow seems autonomous, almost schizophrenic, perpetually announcing to me my bondage to a past. At the same time, I can remember; that is, I am able to pursue a memory, fasten onto it, and interrogate it. I appear to be able to adopt a stance over and above the involuntary flow of memory. But what sort of “I” is this? What must my consciousness be in order to do such a thing? (Ibid., p. xii)

This question informs much of our inquiry regarding Thoreau's construction of the self, the reflection required for his various epistemological projects, and the acute selfawareness of himself as both poet and moralist. In this chapter we have focused upon his historiography, and in the next we will consider his scientific epistemology, but in each case this “split screen” of self-consciousness visits him in various guises and represents a persistent characteristic of his thought.

Three Apple Trees

Preferred Citation: Tauber, Alfred I. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2001 2001.