One World at a Time

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Reading Robert D. Richardson’s Thoreau: A Life of the Mind I’m reminded that I often find biographies both compelling and maddening. Compelling because if I’m intuitively interested in someone the story of their life necessarily holds intense interest. And then I read their story and, assuming the book is obviously well researched and well written, one of two things happens: (1) I think, wow, this person is this or that version of somebody worth knowing about and perhaps even following or otherwise referencing as a significant guide in life, or (2) I’m utterly disappointed by a sense of brevity and incompleteness; of a lifelessness in the life of an otherwise intriguing personality.

Let’s face it, writing a biography that communicates a sense of a person’s whole life versus an otherwise sensational, biased, slap dash collection of anecdotal snippets or a mere record of events is not easy. What attracts us to a biography of John Muir, say, might be that he is known generally as a lover of the American wilderness and a progenitor of the National Parks, but read his biography and you learn that he was both a seeker in spiritual terms who found a unifying, restorative solace in the wilderness and an ambitious entrepreneur type who also sought to succeed in the workaday world of commerce. Will you be drawn into his life as it was or were you more interested in the image of the man?

This brings to mind the difference between autobiography and biography. Chrissie Hynde’s biography, for example, reads nothing like I expected it to read. Which is to say that while I find her lyrics smart and keen and her music inventive, infectious and engaging, her personality, by comparison, at least as she communicates it, is not. Rather, she’s a tough-minded, skeptical, guarded, demanding, unsympathetic and self-described reckless soul. The undeniable charisma of her Pretenders persona is not the woman living the life behind that image. She’s clearly not a fake but her autobiography does nothing to reveal where the sophistication, freshness, insight, appeal and energy of her music comes from. Hence, she’d be a good one for a biography written by someone with the proper intuitive grasp of who she is beyond her own subjectivity. We mostly don’t know ourselves well enough to write an autobiography that isn’t more akin to a memoir, inevitably chock full of distortion.

A final consideration has to do with how compellingly a biographer interprets the life of their subject, how well their subject’s story reads as one in a narrative sense but also how convincingly the biographer allows their own insight to contribute to a sense of wholeheartedness, of a whole life having been lived. Because don’t think you can write objectively about anyone – a PhD perhaps likes to believe in their otherwise imaginary academic remove because they think they’ve been trained to possess academic remove. They haven’t. Trained academic or not we see what we want to see and when we’re writing a biography and we encounter something we don’t like about a person, that we’d have preferred not to have witnessed so to say, we employ our own hermeneutic – our own interpretation – and resolve the schism by way of ignoring it, sensationalizing it or, at best, weaving a richly representative tapestry from the remnants of a person’s otherwise scrap book legacy.

In the end, a biographer produces a quilt – a patchwork of disparate pieces sewn more or less coherently together – or a tapestry. The tapestry evokes value beyond its component parts – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and all that – it is an interesting, illuminating even inspiring thing in itself whereas the quilt…? – well, the quilt repurposes scraps. A tapestry tells a tale.

All this is to say that because life is a tapestry a biographer must be a weaver. A craftsman. Perhaps even an artist. A bad biography leaves me wanting; if I manage to finish it I’m left with a disturbing sense of incompleteness and brevity and an overbearing sense of the incidental quality of life, that life doesn’t amount to much and that a person’s life is frustratingly impenetrable. A great biography allows us to walk a mile in a man’s shoes, as they say, but it also communicates something valuable and compelling about the biographer himself.

Richardson, a Harvard PhD, is nonetheless a weaver. He’s an accomplished craftsman and his erudition and style as a writer contributes a compelling dimension to his engaging, intuitive expression. Hence he’s also an artist, a description he himself may have dismissed as, in his words, overstating the case. But that his biographies are considered “intellectual” is only to say they are scholarly and interpretive both. He’s a biographer who enters into the intellectual life of his subject by way of, as he says, reading everything the subject himself read. In this way Richardson reveals both his own predilection for the history of ideas and his subject’s personal mythology, as I call it.

Thoreau was driven, that is to say, by his own sense of awe, his own cosmology, his own sociology and his own supporting psychology, all of which comprise the function of a mythology. The facts are rendered, yes, but as Richardson himself suggested somewhere, it is the narrative quality of a biography that interests us, that attracts us and in the end stays with us: it’s the story told as such – a winning story when the adventure is compelling and the characters likewise. Precisely because we lack all the facts – the day-to-day continuity – of a life that is not our own it will remain impossible to fully experience but the story of a person’s life well told transcends the pedestrian reality of it even when it remains, as Richardson’s work does, beholden to the scholarly rigor.

Richardson tells Thoreau’s story, then, as if he were not merely communicating the context of Thoreau’s mind within the context of his time and place – nineteenth century Concord – but rather communicating the essence of the man, that vital animating quality of remarkableness that attracts Richardson himself to the image. A biography ought not to embellish or distort or skew. But as mythology may be regarded as true fiction, a true biography will also, albeit only inadvertently enhance the mythology of its subject.

Richardson, then, is a biographer to be read for his own sake – for his own interpretive talents – and particularly by those of us bound to a mythological hermeneutic, arguably an essentially romantic (in the sense of Romanticism) context. Anyone who has enjoyed The Rise of Modern Mythology is familiar with Richardson’s (and Feldman’s) expertise in mythography – in the historiography of mythology. He is an accomplished professional academic who chafed at the limitations of academic publishing, of writing what he called monographs for his handful of fellow academics. He rather sought creative release in a general readership and clearly looked to biography as his means of both his escape and arrival.

Richardson, it seems to me, was a seeker. His biographies are investigations into the subject but also into his own life. Hence, he wrote biographies of seekers – Thoreau, Emerson, William James – who were perhaps also, to an extent I would have enjoyed discussing with him, his guides. Thoreau, for instance, on several of his extended hikes and river trips indeed hired a guide – he understood the value of a well-chosen adept, as it were, to expedite his investigations and anticipated discoveries. We understand the solo adventurer as the classic hero in the valiant sense. “Enlightenment,” after all, as suggested aptly by Bhagavan Das (an early mentor of Ram Dass) “is not a group trip.” The seeker travels within as much as he ventures without. Yet inasmuch as we must find our own way we never, in the end, arrive at our destination without help. Help that oftentimes seems cosmically charged – as if bestowed by a so-called magical helper, as Joseph Campbell described it. The seeker or hero who heeds the helper’s advice and guidance succeeds, attains the boon. Or at least lowers his risk of failure.

It is the heuristic hermeneutic within Richardson’s work as a biographer, then – his intuitive inquiry and erudite interpretation – that invests his writing, the style of which is agile, lithe, deft and in many places dazzling, with an incomparable zing; a gripping sense of the mystery, adventure and, in a word, zeal. It is the same zeal that we discover within his subject’s lives. Richardson quotes Thoreau:

The nature which inspired mythology still flourishes. Mythology is the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted. The West [a specific American version of that old category the wild] is preparing to add its fables to those of the East (232).

The quote is apt and Richardson’s parenthetical addition is more than an academic clarification, more than what might have just as easily been rendered in a footnote. Rather, we are encouraged to consider Richardson’s own interpretation as imbedded within that of a Thoreauvian hermeneutic. But in an invitingly intimate, legitimately sympathetic, inherently authentic manner: by this time in the biography, that is, you are either traveling alongside Thoreau and Richardson both, learning to see as they see, or this book is not for you.

Thoreau’s interests during the years from 1854 to 1860 were increasingly centered in the botanical, zoological, geological, and geographical sciences. [He] had for years been interested in detailed, transcribable, ascertainable facts of all kinds. He had an unambiguous respect for things, as well as ideas about things. But as time went on he became ever more interested in the question of who is doing the observing of the facts and details. He became increasingly convinced that we see only what we are prepared to see, that we find, not the world as it is, but the world we look for (363).

Again, it is possible to interpret Thoreau’s outlook as diminished, even positivistic (ironic as that may be given Thoreau’s reputation) hence unappealing to the spiritually or contemplatively inquisitive. But positivism – the philosophical position that may in fact be better described as negativism in its refusal to accept as legitimate any possibility of knowledge beyond the information derived from sensory experience, as interpreted through reason and logic – is a word that never appears within Richardson’s book. As such, transcribing the last paragraph of the biography, rather than spoiling the adventure by giving away the ending, I’m convinced merely inspires a person to start from the beginning.

No more satisfying deathbed utterance can be imagined for Thoreau than his reply to a question put gently to him by Parker Pillsbury a few days before his death. Pillsbury was an old abolitionist warhorse, a former minister who had left his church over the slavery issue, a man of principle and proven courage, an old family friend who, like Blake and Aunt Louisa, could not resist the impulse to peer into the future. “You seem so near the brink of the dark river,” Pillsbury said, “that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Thoreau’s answer summed up his life. “One world at a time,” he said (389).

Thoreau died in May 1862. Richardson himself died in June of this year. Somehow, I think of them both as present. And each of their life’s work as essential reading.