Whitman visits Thoreau in Concord: excerpt

For some time I’ve been weighing the philosophies and the examples of these two primary Americans, whose ideas have driven so much of what we do and feel. Their ideas are so similar and yet crucially different in ways (I believe) that have warped our perspectives and driven so much of the civil difficulty we continue to face across the 160+ years since they met briefly – at Whitman’s home in Brooklyn. I’m working on a historical fiction piece that imagines them meeting again in Concord, where these similarities and differences play themselves out in a way that I hope expresses what I mean by that. On Thoreau’s birthday, today, sharing a section from the story:

“So this is your river, the Concord, is it?”

            “Of course it is not mine, nor anyone’s.  If anyone’s, however, then perhaps the indigenous peoples run off by the farmers so long ago.  You will find their name for the river felicitous.  They called it the Musketaquid, or Grass-ground.”

            ”I know it. From your book.”

            “Oh yes, I had almost forgotten.”

            “Ha.  And your mention, I do not pretend ownership of the word grass.”

            “Let us leave it at that, then, shall we?”

            “Ha, yes, leave.  Do you open your book, do you go back to it?”

            “I can hardly avoid it, the bulk of the edition insulates my attic room.”

            The poet pauses another moment on the bridge, chuckling at the slate blue surface, still as a lake, but no more than a ribbon of water in comparison to the mighty effluvial East River and the magnificent Hudson, America’s Nile, that embrace Manahatta back home.  He turns to see his companion already off and down the road, a stick man in soiled corduroys and a flat hat, stiff legs striding on as if he has forgotten his companion.  Well, no effort to catch up, after all.

            As he comes alongside, Thoreau continues his thought, saying, “Your book grows.  Why did you not make a new book entire of these other poems?”

            “Well, I have not said it, hesitate to speak it now, but….”

            He strides on, beaked nose leading like a divining rod, if anything picking up the pace, as if their conversation is only an aspect of his own private thought.  The poet ambles alongside, grinning at how neatly the man matches the acerbic words on his page.  He says, “I think it will be my only book, and it will swell across the years left to me.”  He hesitates, then says the words, “My American bible.”

            Thoreau doesn’t seem to hear.  He stops at a gated lane and beckons.  “Come.  Let me show you something.”  He opens the picket gate and turns down a side path through brambles, pausing to wave an arm across a plat of browning vines.  “If only you had come last week!  It was my annual melon picnic.  The community entire descends!  This year one watermelon required a wheelbarrow.  We carved it open with a crosscut saw!”

            “A melon picnic.”

            “Every year of my adult life, when I have enjoyed the freedom to garden.  It is a great labor, but a joy.  Here.”  He bends mid-row, reaching into a loamy burrow, “This one I saved in case you might come.  It will be our dessert today.”  The shiny green melon, hefty as a cannonball, easily fits in his knapsack.  “The garden seems to grow each year to fit the expanding renown of our picnic.  Like the loaves and fishes, I always seem to have just enough melons for the crowd.”  Thoreau shoulders the knapsack, turns to look directly into the poet’s gray eyes, as if to make some kind of point, adding, “May your American bible, as you call it, find a readership that swells alike.”

            They cross the railroad tracks and descend towards the pond, through regimented rows of Lilliputian trees, none more than waist high.  Spindly pines by the hundreds, interspersed with lindens, and a few oak saplings here and there.  They pause in a little open space amidst them, at a squared off depression in the black soil. Thoreau pauses, looks about, as if seeking a companion or lost in a private revery.  He gazes down towards the pond bank rimmed at this time of year with cat tails and calamus at this end.  Emits a sharp whistle and waits.  Oh my, this must be it, the poet guesses.  “Your cabin, it was here?”

            He barely nods, emits another whistle in a different pitch. 

            “But the reviews, they read as if you were far on the lost frontier!  And there is the afternoon train steaming by, and your Concord just this short walk!  And there on the far bank, is that a shanty town, too?”

            Thoreau frowns, says, “I call to my old pets, but they are long gone or they have lost the habit.  Yes, my retreat to the woods was here.”

            “But where is it now?  And the woods?”

            “All cut down since.  This was years ago.  We planted this grove just last fall to make a new wood that I fear we shall never live to enjoy.”

            The poet takes off his hat, bows his head ceremonially.  “Then I shall read your new book in reverence.  It will all be new to me as if imagined.”

            “Better for that, I think.  But it was real enough in its time.  Now the chimney bricks themselves have wandered off.”

            “So we have your book.”

            “Well, you do.  Here, have one.”

            It’s a slight thing, in a brown binding, opens to a pencil drawing of the little hut that stood here, just as the poet’s first effort opened to an etching of he himself, no name just the image to identify him.

            Whitman bends to his own knapsack to tuck it in, pulling out a second book.  “And one for you, too!  My third edition!  See how it grows!”

            “Indeed, sir!  Since the volume you gifted me just last year!  All new?  What have we here?”

            “Did Emerson not tell you?  We spoke of the new poems at some length down in Boston last spring.”

            “I fear he has said very little about them.  But we see each other only seldom of late.”

            “All for the best, I think.  Judge for yourself.  He wished to bowdlerize the lot, and that I cannot do.”

            “Ha, that he tells you!  He charges me to write with a fleshier zest.”

            “I fear his ideal might straddle our paths.”

            “To thine own self be true is the man’s oath, fleshy zest or no.”

            “Which I think he eventually came to see.”

            “In my case, too, I suppose.  Though I know it irks him.”

            “Where is the good reverend, I wonder?”

            “Down to Boston again.  You might have passed in your trains.”

            “Well, thank you.  I eagerly anticipate the wisdom of this new book.  Is this then what your letter intended, this new thing you would show me?”

            Thoreau removes his hat, bends to tug at his boots.  “Do you remember in Brooklyn you spoke of swimming at Red Hook, I believe, in the harbor?”

            “Every day that I can get there, yes, to this day!”

            “Well, I too swim.  Often of late walk a mile in the river up to my neck of a summer’s day.”  He steps out of his boots and stands to unbutton his shirt.  “So much of this new book was fished from this pond.  I would invite you to fully immerse yourself therein, so as to enrich its reading.”

            “Well, sir, then, you lead.”  The poet doffs his slouch hat, drops it atop his companion’s, and strips down in an instant.  The summer air so stifling when wrapped in linen and corduroy now fresh upon their skin.  Thoreau has already begun to walk down to the water, elegant in his stride, the poet thinks, as a red Indian, his flanks narrow as a boy’s.  He follows as best he can, tender feet hobbled by the pebbled path.

            At the water’s edge, Thoreau snaps off a reed and hands it to Whitman, snaps another for himself.  “You will require this,” he states, a glint in his steely blue eyes.  Then he toes almost silently into the water.  “Do not splash, you must slip in stealthy as a snake.” 

            The poet laughs, “Well, then, lead on, whatever initiation awaits!”  Ridiculous, to stand ankle deep in pond ooze, twiddling a stick, directed as if a child by this rural intellectual.  He had expected to sit in some stuffy parlor, nibble at corn bread, debate some point of the news.  Well the little man is far out now, up to his neck in the placid green lake, his beaked nose a pointer at the surface.  He said go slow, well then, yes sir, I follow as good as lead.

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