Thursday, October 25, 2007

What Hath God Wrought? De Tocqueville & Dickens

The generations after the American Revolution have interested me as a sort of test-tube study of human nature. And the ability of the political and social fabric of a new country to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. A few years ago, I bought Joyce Appleby's Inheriting the Revolution as an adjunct to De Tocqueville. Then I read Charles Dickens rather uncomplimentary American Notes in an anthology. Now Daniel Walker Howe’s new book, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848” has come out.

I read Walden Pond back in the sixties and then married a woman whose parents live right on the Lincoln/Concord town border about a half-mile from Walden Pond. I went many times to Walden and imagined Henry David Thoreau's little hut and all the transcentalist-wannabes and abolitionists who paid him a visit. And I learned the local lore on what a ne'er-do-well HDT was considered in Concord, where his mother did his laundry while he swanned in his pond-side hovel. Concordites [?] even accused him of stealing fresh-baked pies from their window sills, a most unneighborly crime! And one can't help noticing the railroad tracks near the pond, and I more than once saw a train back in the day trundle noisily past HDT's garden patch. I would remember his maxim: "we don't ride on the train, it rides on us."

Thoreau was a Luddite much as the global-warmers now ascribe rises in temp exclusively to man's meddling with nature. Emerson knew better, and eventually
Emerson lost patience with his peculiar friend. When Thoreau died, in 1862, Emerson delivered an ambivalent eulogy, regretting Thoreau’s limited compass: “Instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!”

Jill Lepore's review points out many of the momentous ideas abounding that Emerson was talking about that HDT probably missed, such as the beginning of the women's suffrage movement and the beginning of the end of the institution of slavery. While Thoreau was growing beans, America was growing into an empire.

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