Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s most influential thinkers and writers. 164 years after it was published, Walden continues to inspire readers to get out into nature and march to the beat of their own drummer.
But what was the worldview of the man who wrote those immortal words?
Well, for one thing, Thoreau believed in the existence of fairies.
That’s one of the insights my guest mined as he explored the intellectual and spiritual life of Henry David Thoreau. His name is Kevin Dann and in his book, Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau, he takes readers on a tour of the inner life of a uniquely American philosopher.
Today on the show I talk to Kevin about the mystical life of Henry David Thoreau, and why Kevin would actually say that mystical isn’t quite the right word to describe Thoreau. And yes, we dig into Thoreau’s belief in fairies and how, despite his magical outlook on life, he was also a keen scientific observer.
You’re never going to read Walden the same way after listening to this episode.
- How Dann studied Thoreau in the way that Thoreau studied the world
- Why Dann takes issue with the word “mystic”
- Thoreau the phenomenologist
- Why our modern sensibilities have a hard time understanding the “supernatural” beliefs of the past
- Did Thoreau’s childhood portend his future work?
- The role and compatibility of folk magic/religious beliefs in early American and New England
- The porous self, and the role of irony in our modern culture
- What a century of biographies have missed about Thoreau
- What JK Rowling gets wrong about magic
- Why it’s okay to be idealistic and Romantic
- What did Thoreau do to gain the insights he did about the natural world?
- Thoreau’s epic and habitual walks, and how that habit has changed Dann’s life
- How Thoreau was different from the other Transcendentalists of his time
- Can us moderns infuse some of Thoreau’s enchantment into our own lives?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- How to REALLY Avoid Living a Life of Quiet Desperation
- The Libraries of Famous Men: Henry David Thoreau
- Men Without Chests
- The Power of Wonder
- The Forgotten Virtue of Reverence
- The Churchill School of Adulthood: Live Romantically
- The Journal of Thoreau
- CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and the Inklings
- Turn an Ordinary Routine Into a Spirit-Renewing Ritual
- Solvitur Ambulando: It Is Solved By Walking
- The Road to Walden
- The Creation of Sacred Time and Space in a Profane World
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
Connect With Kevin
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded with ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s most influential thinkers and writers. 160 years after it was published, “Walden” continues to inspire readers to get out into nature and march to the beat of their own drummer.
But what was the worldview of the man who wrote those immortal words? Well, for one thing, Thoreau believed in the existence of fairies. Yes, fairies. That’s one of the insights my guest mined as he explored the intellectual and spiritual life of Henry David Thoreau.
His name is Kevin Dann, and in his book, “Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau”, he takes readers on a tour of the inner life of the uniquely American philosopher. Today on the show, I talk to Kevin about the mystical life of Henry David Thoreau and why Kevin would actually say that mystical is not quite the right word to describe Thoreau.
Yes, we dig into Thoreau’s belief in fairies and how, despite his magical outlook on life, Thoreau was also a very keen scientific observer. You’re never gonna read “Walden” the same way after listening to this episode. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/expectgreatthings .
Kevin Dann, welcome to the show.
Kevin Dann: Thank you Brett, great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you gotta a biography out about Henry David Thoreau. This is a quintessentially American character that a lot of people have written about him, ’cause he’s had such a big influence, not only on American letters, but just people, a big cultural impact worldwide. I’m curious, how is your biography different than all the different Thoreau biographies that are out there?
Kevin Dann: Oh. Well, let’s put it this way. Let’s cut to the chase. When the Wall Street Journal headlined their review of my book with “Thoreau believed in fairies”, I guess that says it all. You know, I’m caricaturing it, but my, I would like to say that I … my biography is different from all the others in that I actually practice a Thoreauvian manner of studying Henry the way Henry approached the world. That was my intention, I don’t know how faithful I was to that method, but yeah, I would say that I tried to read Thoreau like he read the world.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, ’cause you dig in. It’s basically the way I would describe him. When I was telling people I was reading this book, and I’d be having you on the podcast, is, basically a biography of Thoreau’s, we could say, mystic beliefs that influenced his writing.
Kevin Dann: Okay, now I wanna take you to the mat on this right away, Brett.
Brett McKay: Okay.
Kevin Dann: And please don’t take it personally. Mystic, this is a slippery word.
Brett McKay: Right.
Kevin Dann: I was thinking, did I use the word ‘mystic’? I saw it in all the reviews, and even my own editor probably wove it in there. But I don’t think I myself used it.
Now, Thoreau famously, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science asked him to say what he was, and he said, “I’m a mystic, a natural philosopher, and a transcendentalist to boot.” Anyway, he himself used it, but probably the word that I would use to describe him is he was a phenomenologist. Now that’s too many syllables, right, for us to get our lips and our tongue around, but that, simply put, he is somebody who aimed always at describing what was in front of him without theory, but to let the phenomena themselves be their own theory.
And when you’re a biographer, this is my first crack at a biography, that’s a really good rule of thumb, to approach a subject, is to let the phenomenon, the life of the character you’re studying … let that be the driver. Let that be always the beacon that guides your own inquiry, rather than bringing a bunch of your own inner subjectivity to is. So, yeah, mystic, I feel like especially for … you formed this very nicely at the beginning about him being an American character. Well, American doesn’t really have a mystical tradition, a really strong and well grounded mystical tradition. I would like to think of Thoreau as having, instead, founded a new nature study that really to this day we haven’t followed up on.
Brett McKay: I guess I was reading it from my modern perspective, and as you read Thoreau’s journal entries, and we can get into some of the things that were going on in America at the time of his youth and when he was really prolific, but the thing that surprised me was … I would describe it as mystic. You could also say magical. Right? Because we live in such a very scientific, analytical … some of the things that … you talk about Thoreau believing in fairies, right? He talks about fairies as sort of this phenomenological experience that he had. It wasn’t just Thoreau. There were pockets in America that were combining all sorts of interesting things with astrology and religion and Christianity, it was just a completely foreign world for us living in the 21st century.
Kevin Dann: Yeah, that’s a beautiful way to describe it. Yeah, you know, the present always reads itself into the past. Look at us, we’ve become a totally non-magical, non-enchanted, alienated America. That didn’t just start now, I’d say the previous generations of biographers of Thoreau were sharing that experience. But it was very, very strange to me that none of them had caught the fact that, yeah, what was central to his biography from his youth on, was the fact that he did, with clear and exacting eyes, look upon the natural world. And in it he had this empathic, sympathetic, to use a antebellum favorite keyword, sympathy, which was through the heart forces, not through the head. But he was looking at the world, studying it in great detail, in exacting detail. And in a way, had a conversation, he had a heartfelt conversation. It was very much a romantic science. It was not a head science. And argued both explicitly and implicitly for that, and I think that that’s what every generation of young people responds to. It’s a very, very complex voice that he has, but it’s unmistakably universal and I think, timeless.
So this love affair with Henry is not gonna end. It’s gonna carry on for centuries and centuries, absolutely.
Brett McKay: Right, ’cause when you read Thoreau, you feel that re-enchantment, right? You think, oh my goodness, the world is full of possibility. It’s full of mystery that can be explored, and maybe not, doesn’t even have to be explored. You can just enjoy the mystery.
Kevin Dann: Oh, I think that’s the perfect way to describe it. An enchantment in a renaissance sense of the word, it means a binding of oneself in a very, very heartfelt way to the phenomena. The possibility that there’s a reciprocity, that there’s actually … the outside out there is in you, and you can be in it. And I guess that, to circle back to my little harsh stance about mystic, the mystic, to me, goes inside in order to reach God. Clearly Thoreau and transcendentalism is about going outside, going into one’s surroundings and through that to go through the illusion, the appearances, to the higher realm. That’s the thing that America seems cut out to do. There’s not, we don’t have too many X-games level mystics, you know, people who go inward. We’re not that good at meditation and at inner exploration, but we’re, man oh man, are we crazy for outer exploration. We got these characters sending up things into outer space and so on.
I think that that was, that Thoreau pioneered that path, which is a kind of Rosicrucian, ancient path of through nature to God.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about this development of this worldview of his. What was his childhood like? Did Thoreau hint that he was gonna be this guy that would write “Walden” and write these poems about nature, or was this something that developed as he entered young manhood?
Kevin Dann: Oh great question, Brett. I mean, this is the interesting thing about becoming a biographer, is do these signatures, do these hallmarks, do these gestures, do they leap out immediately? With Thoreau, you have an incredibly generous subject in that he wrote two million words into a journal, starting when he was just a teenager.
So I would say, the gesture that I felt from the very beginning that his life showed is he had a gift for expansiveness, for ecstasy. He had a gift for relationship, and it was there … you know, my own daughter, the minute she could walk, she was dancing and singing. And boom. She’s now 41 and she’s dancing and singing. And I think that each of us, especially if we’re expressive, the main gestures we carry out of the cosmos into our human being, they show up really early.
One of the cool things was when he was just in his early twenties, he sat his mother down and he interviewed his mother. He had a very intense and wonderful relationship with his mother, closer than to his father. He would catch these little things in his journal, over about a month period of time, where he’s getting the stories of his own childhood from her. Something that is so telling for a young adult when, both what does their mother say about them? And then, what do they then hold close? And I think that there was a real consonance between what his mother remembered was his essence and what he took in as being his own life’s journey, his own life’s imprint.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think one of the stories I remember reading was as a boy, I think his mother said he went off and he’d just go look at the stars for hours on end.
Kevin Dann: Well, even the thing that he records in his journal is that they had a trundle bed, and this will help take us back out of the 21st century into the 1820s. It wasn’t uncommon for people to share beds back in the day. A lot of people in smaller spaces then, bigger families, and even though there were just three children in the Thoreau family, he and his brother John slept in what was called a trundle bed. It pulled out from underneath the parents’ bed. Like a murphy bed kind of a thing, out of the wall. And that she would catch him at the window at night, having left the bed and looking out at the stars.
Yeah, there was a deep yearning in him from infancy practically.
Brett McKay: I mean, did his family, were they, how do I say this, were they romantic, poetic, religious, did that kind of help flesh that stuff out in Thoreau’s life?
Kevin Dann: Well, the picture I very much got is of a father who had mouths to feed. He had a family. He was a man on the make at a time when, in New England, when the economy was shifting and he had to be light on his feet to figure out how to prosper. And he really didn’t have the luxury of reading great philosophy. He didn’t have the higher education that Henry was able to get at Harvard. ‘Cause he was a working father, really working.
His mother, I think, had a very romantic, poetic soul and they … Henry famously said, “I was born in the nick of time.” Well, excuse me, “I was born in the right place in the right time,” you know. That there was a, in a sense, I think that that has to stem not just from the concord, but his own family. He had sense that they gave him just want he needed to become himself, truly.
Brett McKay: What I thought was interesting too, when you highlight … it’s not only a biography of Thoreau, it is a biography of early America, particularly New England. What I was, I thought was really fascinating, was the culture in New England, it was … there was a lot of magic going on. I guess, there was like a magic worldview going on, folk magic I guess you could call it. Farmers would use the almanac that had, “You need to plant under this certain moon because it’s gonna reap a better …” whatever. And everyone had that that they kind of lived by.
But also was side-by-side was the Bible and Christianity, and now today, us Americans think those things are incompatible. But somehow, people in New England at the time thought, “No, it’s perfectly compatible.”
Kevin Dann: Oh, well, yeah. I think here’s the picture that we could very very safely assume, that what was the book that more households had than any other book between 1820 and 1850? It was the Bible. And yes, there were all these amazing folk practices, probably … I’m inventing this right now just completely on a hunch, but I’d say the most common form of divination, the most common form of folk magic was to flip the Bible open. To inwardly ask a question, and then flip the Bible open and then put your finger on a passage.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think people still do that today.
Kevin Dann: That was the … I don’t know what the modern day equivalent would be, but there you go. Boom. Everybody was doing that.
Brett McKay: Something like bibliomancracy? Is that what’s called? Biblio … I don’t know.
Kevin Dann: The old term for this was the sortes virgilantes, which in classical times, they used Virgil, the great Roman poet instead of … they saw his knowledge as being so cosmic and all encompassing that the answers would be there. And the thing about divination is that anything can be a divination device. Certainly, the internet can be a divination device. In fact, that’s the most interesting thing is to think about how, in a world of digital text, rather than printed text, if magic is real, then it’s still gotta be operative in whatever the technology of the times is. And so I think that prophecy, divination, these questions about, how am I gonna get along? Who am I? What’s gonna happen around the bend there? The universal questions.
And you’re pointing to my contextualizing Thoreau in this way. A big part of that was a signature I found right away was this sense, you know, I used it for the title of the book. “Expect great things”. So his mantra was, that he said in a hundred different ways, “In the long run, we find what we expect. We shall be fortunate then if we expect great things.” And whether it’s astrology, or reading tea leaves, the operative principle of magic is that what we think manifests in the world as being real, and that’s what his mantra was. “Expect great things”.
Now that’s … that’s a great challenge in a personal way, but also in a national way because a lot of what I tried to do in the book was to consider this with … because Thoreau has a certain sense of himself as a prophet and a prophet has to be approved and in a sense, designated by his community, or her community. But the prophetic tradition was strong enough in his lifetime, it was carried mainly through poetry, and that was a lot to do with his relationship with Emerson and the expectation that poetry would carry that prophetic tradition forward and would ennoble the people as they strove to be this new nation.
Brett McKay: It sounds like that worldview … I guess as a way of contrast is as I was reading it is, Thoreau, Emerson and a lot of people living in New England, and in America at the time, the sense of self was very porous, right? The self could influence the outside world in unexplainable ways. And the outside world could also influence the self. I think-
Kevin Dann: Oh, yeah. That’s a beautiful way to put it. Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think today, we’re very rigid. We think, there’s us, and then there’s the outside world, and that’s it. They’re separate and there’s no real interaction or play going on there.
Kevin Dann: Yes, and it’s ironic as you say this, Brett, because what immediately came into my mind particularly was in relationships and close friendship because the emphasis and the quality of friendship in the era was very, very amazing, I think, if you study people of letters of that time, which is the easiest way to do it.
And we pride ourselves on all of our kind of openness about gender and so on, about relationship, but there was a tremendous amount of real intense love relationship between men, between women at that time, which was seen as really a high ideal. A great high ideal. And I think about the porous, as you said, the porous self, we have a certain … today we have all of these avenues and technologies to play with the self, seemingly for the self to be porous, but the self isn’t strong enough. The identity formation seems to be weak to meet these technologies. In a way, it feels to me, and forgive my own romanticism here, but I gotta sense of the antebellum era, they were … by the time they were 18, by the time they were 20, these young adults had identity formations that were so strong that that kinda … to lose oneself into another, or to lose oneself into a philosophy, or to lose oneself into nature, were benign and possibly life enhancing, both for the individual and for the community in a way that is much more problematic today I think.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think we kind of keep things at arms distance today. I think that’s where our irony comes in. We use irony as a way to protect the self, right? It’s like, you never wanna admit that you’re idealistic because if it doesn’t work out the way you thought you’d be, “Well, I was just joking.” Right? I see a lot of that going on. I find myself doing that too.
Kevin Dann: Well, knowing it’s the rhetoric and the stance of irony is a deeply tragic … this is really crazy, but I can remember the very first college class I taught and this would be back in the … right around 1990 probably. And I had been a bit of a Luddite. I prided myself on not having a television. But, teaching college, it was all about whatever was on TV. And I remember coming in one Monday. This was an undergraduate class, a little community college in Burlington, Vermont. All of a sudden, somebody said something like, “Not”. They said something, they said, “Not.” And I didn’t … It was the beginning of, I don’t know if it’s still around, but I think it’d come from Saturday Night Live, or something.
It was stating something as a positive, very strongly, and then going, “Not.” Almost like pulling the rug out from under you. It’s a dirty trick. If it’s not irony, healthy irony can be strong and life enhancing, but this was a kind of … I think the beginning of the road to the kind of relativism and crazy inability to distinguish reality from illusion that we swim in today.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think today the, instead of saying “Not”, I remember when that happened, because I remember as a middle school kid and you’d do that all the time ’cause-
Kevin Dann: Oh, as a middle school kid.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Kevin Dann: Now can you imagine, forgive me, my PolyAnn-ishness, but no! A middle school kid, that’s not fair to have … maybe in very, very intimate situations where the one to whom you’re practicing irony has a strong enough relationship to you as a friend that you can be learning about yourself through playing with those things. But I think, you know, we’re steeped in this from such a youthful age, how do we swim towards the truth when we’re just surrounded by tropes and … yeah, it’s a very, very difficult time in this way.
Brett McKay: No it is. I think today, instead of “Not”, it’s “lol, jk”. Which is “laugh out loud, just kidding”, when you say something. But, yeah. As a kid … I’ve got two young kids. One of the things that’s so refreshing about kids and one of the great things about having kids is when they’re at this young age, is you see how unabashedly they throw themselves into it. There’s not a hint of guile, at all.
Kevin Dann: Yes, absolutely.
Brett McKay: I guess that was the challenge of Thoreau. Thoreau was like, his life’s work is how can I keep that even as I move into adulthood. I learn more about the world than where you can get cynical and jaded, but not get cynical and jaded.
Kevin Dann: Yeah. Well, it, this is such an interesting turn in the conversation because all of a sudden I feel like I wanna go back and rewrite the biography in light of these questions you’re asking because they have become so pressing upon us at this time. And he himself, in studying him, he kept them at bay because you really … I mean he had his struggles as a young man in terms of what society expected of him and reconciling his own ideas of true success. He had a positively acid disdain for bourgeois norms that put him in trouble with lots of people from the very beginning.
But I think he had a sense of himself as so divinely favored that nothing that could come at him would have shaken his conviction. He just, he really had a strong sense that he was divinely favored, but not in a way of narcissistically, but truly in a way, as a servant of his community, of humanity in the larger sense. That he was gifted by this sense of being supported by the invisible world in a … it just never wavered. That never wavered. His own ability to carry out his writing ambitions, his goals, creatively, that he may have faltered. But the other never, ever wavered.
He never got it from any institutional church. He cultivated that just through his experience of spiritual beings that I think visited him on a regular basis. I think that it’s as clear as that. And that’s the place where I run afoul and where my biography is different. I consider spiritual beings to be real. I have, it’s my experience my whole life, and so why wouldn’t I accept that as being … when he says it I know it’s true. I don’t gloss over it, or I don’t ignore it. I take it to be central. It’s the central thing that a century and a half of biographies just missed. Totally missed.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it kinda leads nicely to that idea, exploring the Wall Street Journal’s headline, “Thoreau Believed in Fairies”. And you get into this a bit, where he would be out on a walk in nature and, with a child, or with another person, and he would say, “I saw a fairy there.” Or, there’s some sort of being here.
I think a lot of people … the modern 21st century approach would probably be like, well, he’s being metaphorical. But you made the case, no, he actually believed in those spiritual beings that were there.
Kevin Dann: Well, or what I wanted to say to the Wall Street Journal was, no, he didn’t believe in fairies. He communicated with him. They communicated with him. He had … the problem is the word ‘fairies’, I think, Brett. I like the world elemental beings, but every single culture throughout history, up and through modernity has had these experiences and he was living in a time when they, certainly his rural neighbors, his uneducated neighbors, were steeped in this. They had those experiences too, and they weren’t afraid to speak of them. In fact, they were very central to their lives.
But educated people were increasingly not supposed to talk about that. And so my own … what I think was the central discovery … here’s how it happened. You know, I, what I did when I was given the task to write a biography of Thoreau, I elected to write this book, being invited to write about any environmentalist of my choosing. So I chose my own boyhood hero, Henry. And when I opened, I thought, the first thing I’m going to do is gonna read his journal. I thought that would be the most immediate way to put myself in his shoes, not by the essays, and certainly not by the books that I had read and fallen in love with, but just to go to the journals.
At the very beginning of his journal, he tells this little story about being out with his brother, walking. It happened about six weeks before he wrote about it in his journal. He said, “A curious thing happened the other day.” Here he was, six weeks later and it was bugging him. He didn’t understand it that he was out on this walk and he was making a little rhetorical flourish about the Wampanoag chieftain locally. And he said, “There’s their hut and here is his arrowhead,” and he reaches down for this stone and he picks up the stone. When he flourishes it to his brother John, he’s looking at a perfectly shaped arrowhead.
So he tells this little story. It’s the first story in his whole journal, two million words. First time he actually tells a personal story. And he says, basically he’s saying, what? How did that happen? He intuits that he had a thought and then his thought became manifest. And it was a magical action, and he doesn’t have an explanation for it.
Well I’ve had lots of things like that happen to me in my life, and I was similarly mystified. What the heck is going on? You know? And you can’t turn to anybody. There’s nobody who can explain it for you. You basically just have to start paying attention to your own life and start studying it, and then you’ll find the answer. That’s what living in a disenchanted age will do.
So lo and behold, having him caught my attention because I had a similar question in my mind when I found, I began to find these poems, where he’s basically secretly divulging his relationship with these beings. I could completely, I could hear them because I had come through the same mystery, I’d come through the same path. You know, it’s a pretty solitary path in the modern world.
Brett McKay: Right, ’cause I think that the explanation that we would give, well, that was just a coincidence.
Kevin Dann: Right, and you know, I have a little book I wrote called, “How Things Find Us”, that is my explanation that everybody I talk to, eventually I can get them, even if they think they haven’t had elemental beings working for them, I can get them to tell me a story where things were … and they use this word, synchronicity. Carl Jung’s word.
It’s a complete black box. It’s not a helpful explanation, it’s a non explanation. It’s the way of a materialist mindset, using a Greek word that sounds scientific, that means absolutely nothing. It’s actually a tautology. We are afraid, in the modern world, to talk about beings, about spiritual beings. That’s the last frontier. Until we begin abandoning this insipid language, this New Age language of energy and forces, and talk about beings, we’re doomed, I think.
Brett McKay: As I was reading about his conception of these beings reminded me, it’s very Roman, very Greek, like the Romans believed in a genius that everyone was assigned. Or the Greeks, the diamonds. The demons, I guess is the … like good demons, like they’re little like … basically kind of like the … they’re the help you, inspire you, muses, et cetera.
Kevin Dann: Yeah, and they were close enough … look, the average … all those Harvard undergrads, Emerson’s generation, Thoreau’s both and maybe a generation after them, they all had to read the ancients. They had to read them in the original Greek and Latin. It brought them very close to that world. Nathaniel Hawthorne, their peer, his undergraduate penname was Oberon. The king of the fairies. Louisa May Alcott, she wrote a fairy book for the kids. They were all steeped in that world.
When they went over the border from childhood to adulthood, they didn’t give it up easily because they were still kind of close to a kind of sense that these were relationships, they weren’t imagined but they were real. I think that that’s really … what’s the greatest diagnostic of this? That Harry Potter is the biggest publishing phenomenon of all time. Kids are magical beings. Children are magical beings. They come into the world to do magic, and to be magical, and then unfortunately, we presented them a Muggle. A Muggle world.
The unfortunate thing is that it was presented as a fiction, and J.K. Rowling herself doesn’t actually understand magic. Does not understand the principles. If I were to set up my ideal university, my Hogwarts, I’d start kids out with Walden and with Thoreau. He knows the flora and the fauna backwards and forwards as well as anybody could. He is as grounded in the phenomenal world in a rooted and real way, as … he’s a better naturalist than any naturalist that’s out there today and discovered more laws and principles than your E.O. Wilson or any of these other characters.
He also understood that thoughts are things. Thoughts influence the world and that’s the essence of a magical worldview.
Brett McKay: Yeah. This reminds me a lot of … we’ve had a guest on talking about C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and their inkblot society. They were writing about the same type fairy. That was the thing they talked about. Tolkien’s sole object with the Lord of the Rings was to re-enchant the world. Both these guys saw the horrors of World War I, of mechanized warfare, what it did to the environment, and Tolkien wanted to create this world, the Middle Earth, where it wasn’t like that. You could sculpt your world in a way that’s idealistic and romantic.
Kevin Dann: Absolutely, Brett. And again, I may be completely talking out of my hat here, but … so if you think about the inklings in the ’20s, and in between the wars, and they were educated enough and living close to the land enough in a pre-digital age, that through the literary imagination, they were basically creating worlds. Right?
The problem has been that the 21st century has taken these creations and they’ve turned them into virtual realities, right? So that young and old are entering them as substitutes for developing the relationships whereas a hundred years ago, I think they were portals. Even maybe when I was a teenager and I was first reading the Lord of the Rings, decades after it had been written, but in the milieu of the late ’60s, early ’70s, there was the possibility of that re-enchantment that you’re speaking of.
But now, we have these cinematic and highly pixelated simulacra that present themselves as, they’re wonderfully rich and inviting landscapes for the imagination, but they don’t do I think what Tolkien and Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis were doing which was they were doing what Thoreau was doing with Walden. They were trying to paint pictures with words that invited people into the spiritual world. And in a way, the world of Hollywood, is a spiritual world. It’s been generated from human beings, from their imagination.
But I feel it’s a fallen spiritual world. What Thoreau offered in that era between 1800 and 1850, that romantic era, there was a possibility for a different natural science, a different way which would honor actual beings that by opening up to them as … and inviting conversation with them, then one could build and restore and redeem nature in a way that now we stand largely out of it. We don’t have a conversation with it. We have a … with the beings of nature, we have a kind of reductive, analytical relationship. We have an extremely reductive science. And then we have an extremely, sort of luciferic, imaginative dream life that is given digital expression and in between, we need to bring the human heart into conversation with the beings because our children still … our children more than ever are having relationships with these beings and we gotta wake up to it.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about what exactly Thoreau did to commune or his, as you said, Americans aren’t contemplatives and say Europe, where they go to a monastery and they’re just sitting there, meditating. Ours is more, it’s outward turning. So what sort of outward meditations did Thoreau take part in where he got these insights, but not only was he getting those insights about the spiritual life, he was getting incredible insights about just the natural world and how it worked.
Kevin Dann: Yeah, it was … I hate to oversimplify, but it was close observation. It was faithful, repetitive observation. His method, if he had any method, it was describe, describe again, and describe a third time. Out of that description would immerge an answer to a mystery. The most spectacular and delightful example is Walden Pond. I think every kid who grows up in the suburbs in America grows up with places that are supposed to be unfathomable. It’s where the boogie man lives, or there’s something that the whole community feels like there be dragons, even in this disenchanted age.
And for him in Concord, Walden Pond was supposed to be bottomless. And just think of this as a gesture that generation after generation with this hearsay that Walden Pond is bottomless. Once he’s built his cabin on Emerson’s land out there and spent his two years, the first winter he goes out with plumb bob and a line. He drills a couple hundred holes in the pond, and not only does he discover that it ain’t bottomless and that you can map out the cartography of the bottom of Walden Pond, but he discovers a law. He discovers that the intersection of the shortest dimension across the pond and the longest dimension across the pond will be its deepest place. And then geologists and other observers after him discovered that this is a general law. He didn’t go out looking to discover general law, he went out to answer a local mystery. And by measurement, he found the answer and the answer actually opened out to a general law.
This is a deep lesson for us that live in a world of abstraction and theory. If we could just pay attention and just make repeated observations, we could turn natural science inside out.
Brett McKay: That was sort of the interesting, I don’t know what you’d call it, paradox. ‘Cause as you read Thoreau’s writing, it’s very romantic, very spiritual. At the same time, he wasn’t a humbug, I wouldn’t call him that. But he wanted to really know how the world worked. He wanted a spiritual life to be based in reality. Would that be a fair way to describe it? Like, he didn’t want to … that perfect example right there, if he was just a complete romantic, he would go along with, “Oh yeah, Walden Pond is bottomless.” But he’s like, no I’m gonna actually find out what’s going on here.
Kevin Dann: No. I wish I had all of the quotes at my tongue, but in this seemingly new world of fake news, right, shams and delusions are deemed … that his era was paying attention to shams and delusions and that the actual, you know put your foot … his philosophy was, “Put your foot through the shams and delusions and touch bottom.”
The bottom is always there. You just bring your soul forces to bear on it and you will discover the fact behind the illusion. It’s that simple. So he never fails to practice that and I think that he lived in a kind of … there was a certain explosion of a lot of illusion at that time that put him at odds with both his neighbors and as a philosopher. He was a great wordsmith and loved wordplay and most of his greatest revelations are hidden between the lines.
So he was using, in a sense, he was using the oldest rhetorical craft in the book, which was to make the reader work. Make the reader discover the truths, not make them, but invite the reader into the kind of play that he had and with, both in the world and his observational practice and in his science and in the way he worked as a literary person, it really put him at odds, which was more … the mainstream was to dazzle and to … not to illumine but to falsely illumine very much his entire, I think, and this is why he’ll be universal, is that he got to the truth in a timeless fashion. Not through theory, but through observation.
Brett McKay: And the way he observed, people think, well that’s really easy. No, it was really hard work. I think I encountered one thing where he’d like just stare and look at a tree or a pond for ten hours. He’d just, sitting there, looking. And, to me, living in the 21st century where my brain has been destroyed by all this distraction, that just seems really hard to do.
Kevin Dann: Really, really hard to do. And, you know, historians love counterfactual arguments. They love to … to put some counter scenario into the past and then run it forward in time. And, I studied science before I became a historian and practiced science and taught science. In a way, I feel like there was an alternative natural science, fully efflorescing in that antebellum era, both in Europe and the United States. It certainly was in those places. It wasn’t anywhere, on any other place in the world where it was being developed. And it could have been what I would, when I went to school, when I took biology and I took physics, that could have been my pedagogy. It could have been your pedagogy. It would have been our children’s.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely, it’s very very difficult to find a phenomenological scientific practice. Instead what we have are these buffoons parading around as oracles. You know, guys like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, that are showman. They are also distractions. They’re not actually imparting a simple and faithful scientific practice. They’re encouraging abstraction I fear.
Brett McKay: Besides the observation, the intense observation, you talk about … a lot of times we think of Thoreau as just sort of this guy that hung out by a cabin, but he was a really hardy guy. I was amazed at some of the walks he would go on. We think of a walk, it’s around the block, it’s a mile. He would go on 20 mile hikes basically to get to some place. He wouldn’t go by horse or carriage. He would walk there if he needed to get some place.
And along the way, he was making observations as well.
Kevin Dann: Yeah, it was a habit with him. I think that he knew very early on the deep pleasure of just the rhythm of simple walking. And he also knew in that era, that the rewards of walking were immense. That you encountered things that you couldn’t encounter on horseback or certainly on the railroad. I think that in a way, if you think about whether it was on Cape Cod or in Maine, or walking to Fitchburg or walking … here’s the thing. When he was 17, 18 years old, if he had a deep question, and he thought that he might find the answer in the library at Harvard, he’d walk to Cambridge from Concord.
Just think of that. Forgive me, I just gotta tell a story. I remember when my daughter was, I don’t know, nine years old. We were, this was up in Vermont and we lived on this long dirt road, and I had told her … we were doing the shopping, and I had told her you can’t have any candy. You know, the kids are always reaching for the candy. Sure enough, she wanted the candy in the checkout line. I said, “Okay, but you cannot have it,” til tomorrow or whatever. And sure enough we’re in the car riding home, and she reaches back and she gets the candy. So I take it and I throw it out the window. This is little kid, tiny little legs. We pull in at home and she walks a half a mile and goes into the swamp and finds it and brings it back. That kind of incredible determination a kid can have.
So now think of a 17, 18 year old Thoreau. He has a question and he walks to Cambridge to the library at Harvard to help answer the question. He never lost that. If he had a question, yeah, he would walk there to get the answer. So it was a habit that he developed early. It’s a beautiful habit. It’s a timeless habit. It’s one that, I, in a way, if I were to say how Henry gave me a model for my life, I’ve been walking places to answer questions my whole life. Instead of doing a book tour for this biography, I walked from the foot of Broadway up to Walden Pond and then wrote a book about it.
This man has made a deep impact on me, for sure.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think there’s something about walking. We’ve written about this on the website. There’s a Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando, solved by walking.
Kevin Dann: Mm, beautiful. Beautiful.
Brett McKay: Means whenever you go on a good walk, what sorts of ideas you get that you don’t get when you’re driving in a car, or in the shower, seems like … I’m sure Thoreau, when he was going to Harvard, walking to Harvard, I’m sure he was coming up with answers even while he was walking. And then he found some insight, and on the way back, the walk allowed him to digest that and even gain even more insight.
Kevin Dann: Yeah, and I would say, Brett, that I used to … I walked one time from Montreal to Manhattan. I did programs at schools along the way, and I would tell the kids, ’cause people would ask me, “Can I walk with you?” And I’d say, “Sure.” And I’d go for 10 miles, somebody’d join me for 10 miles or something. When we parted, we would have a bosom friendship, a bosom love that was quite intense for a short period of time. So I would say to the teenager, I’d say, “Do yourself a favor this summer and take a long walk with a stranger, and then let them become a bosom friend.”
I think what I missed until I started to say this to you just now is, that is also the way to cultivate a relationship with the spiritual world. Don’t sit, dance or take a long walk, contemplating your own angel, contemplating the nature beings who bring the green world into fruition every spring and then die away in the fall. Walking in silence, with your mind attuned to an object of devotion, be it a dying loved one or of yet to be born new child, with in mind your own guardian angel or those beings, it creates a deep, deep bond. That is a very simple practice and one that yields immense results I think.
Brett McKay: We haven’t really talked about Emerson and the other transcendentalists, and Thoreau’s relationship with him. We know that Thoreau had a really intense relationship with Emerson. He lived with him and his family for a bit. Lived on Walden Pond.
But as you described him in the book, it seemed as these men got older, there was sort of an estrangement. Emerson went one way, Thoreau went another. It often seemed that the other transcendentalists that they worked with, they didn’t really get Thoreau. How was Thoreau different from these other guys, and why do these other guys didn’t totally accept or just understand what Thoreau was doing?
Kevin Dann: Yeah, it’s … it’s a deep tragedy, really. He had a capacity for friendship that was immense. Immense. We have this caricature view of him today that he was a misanthrope, right? It still hangs on. I’d hate to say it was just that, traditionally, it is described as Emerson was disappointed that Thoreau did not become that great bard that Emerson himself. You always have this generational thing where a great man wants to see his own boyhood, youthful dreams fulfilled in another as he’s maturing into his own path.
It’s odd with Emerson because Emerson, right at the cusp, at age 30, which is a very, very pivotal biographical year in anyone’s like, Emerson has this mystical vision at the jardin des plantes in Paris where he said, “I will become a naturalist.” This was a turning of the back on theology, on becoming a unitarian, divine, like was expected of him. Of course, no, he didn’t become a great naturalist. It was Thoreau who became a great naturalist. And I would say that his own poetic aspirations, Emerson wrote some pretty good poetry, but you just take one, any one of Emerson’s best known poems, and then take any Thoreau poem, which are completely unknown, and Thoreau’s are better. Thoreau’s are modern. They’re spritely and full of force.
So Thoreau, both poetically and in terms of being a naturalist, he did, I believe, completely fulfill these prophetic and deeply held Emersonian desires. I think it was just that Emerson became victim to a kind of bourgeois expectations. He was a guy who moved in somewhat aristocratic, intellectual and social circles. Henry was a ne’er-do-well. Henry was a guy who went naked and wore his straw hat, went in the buff across Concord River and the Assabet River and was still collecting frogs when he was a grown man. Thoreau remained childlike in spirit in a way that Emerson’s own children and the children of Concord knew instantly and responded to instinctively.
This is something is true today. The child-man will always end up being the kind of … will not be looked upon kindly by any community, just because of our own sort of bourgeois ideals about what it is to be a man. We’re coming to the heart of your … a scene of your work and we’ve grown in a lot of ways to expand the ideal of manhood.
I think Thoreau had a more expanded and a more divine manhood within him that exceeded the expectations of his time in a way that they just couldn’t, they couldn’t take it in.
Brett McKay: You’ve mentioned that, after writing his biography, you’ve changed. When you go on walks, the way you observe, but I’m curious. Do you think it’s possible for us moderns, here living in our digital world, to re-enchant and see the world like Thoreau did, or do you think the toothpaste is out of the bottle and there’s no going back to that?
Kevin Dann: Oh man. There’s no alternative. We have to. We have to. Would that there … maybe young people could tell me who, for them, is fulfilling this role as a kind of model, but maybe we’re post-models at this point. We have to be our own models. And I do absolutely believe that every generation, and particularly in America because we have such a karmic burden as the most technologically addicted and spreading illusions around the world. We have the karmic responsibility to pioneer and practice faithfully, and if so called to, share with others an enchanted science and one that discovers, rediscovers the reality of the elemental world, the fairies, that understands there’s a relationship between the angelic world and the elemental beings.
I read Richard Powers’ “The Overstory”, have you read it Brett?
Brett McKay: I have not.
Kevin Dann: He’s an incredibly gifted writer and it’s a beautiful book, and I think, captures in a sense, your question in a novelistic fashion that, for both my generation and for young people today, that would be very arresting. And yet, as I read it, I felt like for all of the … it’s a tragic story about dedicated activists seeking to give nature, specifically trees, standing, to give those beings, the trees as individual beings a kind of ability to hold sovereignty the way the human being does. It’s going to be a long time coming, but I think children know. I think every generation of children know these things, and we will eventually come around to providing them with the Hogwarts that they’re asking for. We have to. Nature is showing us that we can’t go forward in the way we have in the past.
So it’s totally possible. And I have to echo Henry’s motto. Expect great things. If we expect them, they will come. Believe me. They will come.
Brett McKay: Kevin, this has been a great conversation. Is there anywhere that someone can go to find out more about your work?
Kevin Dann: Sure, I’m drdann.com. D R D A N N .com. And all my books are there and all my essays. Yeah, I invite people to look for, July 12, on Henry’s 201st birthday, Penguin’s bringing out a book called “The Road to Walden”, which is about my walk from a foot of Broadway up to Concord, up to Walden Pond, and my inner dialogue with Henry. It’s been such a great opportunity to chat with you, Brett. I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
My guest today was Dr. Kevin Dann. He’s the author of the book “Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau”. You can find that at amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You also find out more information about his work at drdann.com and he’s got a new book coming out in July about his walk to Walden, from Manhattan to Walden Pond. It’s coming out July 12th. It’s called “The Road to Walden”, so check that out if you are interested in that. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/expectgreatthings where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com, and if you enjoy the show, I’d appreciate if you’d take a minute or two to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, please share the show with a friend or family member who you think get something out of it, or they’d enjoy it, that would really help us out as well.
As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.