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Henry David Thoreau

"Analyzing Thoreau," or "However, In Spite of Freud and Lewinsky, Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Smoke":
Review of Carl Bode, The Portable Thoreau

Meg Brulatour, VCU

Carl Bode includes a very sympathetic introduction and a most interesting epilogue to The Portable Thoreau. His preface notes immediately that "there are three lives of Henry Thoreau" that merit study. The "conventional one" is found in strait-laced biographies, history books, and encyclopedias. The second concerns the obvious controversies in Thoreau's life: the argument over his relationship with and/or feelings for Emerson's wife Lidian, the poor reception of Thoreau's work in his own culture, and his growth and decline as a literary figure. The "third is so controversial it has only been hinted at in print; it is Thoreau's unconscious life"(1).

Bode centers his Epilogue on this third facet. After some qualifications concerning the correctness of Freudian thought--in the sense of propriety as well as verity--he charges ahead with Thoreau's psychoanalysis. Bode's chief source is "an unpublished doctoral dissertation done in 1957 by Raymond Gozzi"(683). We are warned "It is not impossible that we shall see things we may not wish to see," and furthermore that "Thoreau was not a normal man—though his writing was the richer for it" (684). His so-called abnormality shaped him into an aggressive and independent personality; his "literary creation" was a method of sublimation (690).

Bode asserts that not only did Thoreau never outgrow his Oedipal mother-fixation but that "He realized he had been warped." Cynthia Thoreau maintained a viable presence throughout her son's adult life; even when he lived at Walden Henry went "home" frequently. (In fact, Mrs. Thoreau outlived all of her children save one daughter, and survived her husband as well). Bode uses this fixation to explain Thoreau's disinterest in women his own age (with Ellen Sewall, who rejected his proposal, as the only exception) and his attraction to Emerson's wife Lidian and her older sister, Lucy Jackson Brown; these women were, respectively, fifteen and eighteen years older than Thoreau. Bode suggests it was his attraction to older women that drew Thoreau to the most ancient of them all: Mother Nature served as the superego, or conscience, for Thoreau: "Kind, lovely . . . [and] strict as a mother is strict"(686). Bode suggests Thoreau's interest in "feminine" swamps and bogs as particularly Freudian evidence of the transference of his sexual energy into the observation of and writing about nature. "While I suppose the "unclimbable mountain" may be a metaphor for either sex, the snake in the stream and the towering pine are obviously male. These last two, along with Thoreau's "superhumanly high standard[s]" for male friendship allow us to "guess" at "an incipient homosexuality" (687). Regardless of his actual sexual orientation, unconscious or otherwise, Bode says Thoreau channels his sexual energy into "a desire for mystic union with nature," and believes this channeling is clarified in the poem "The Thaw":

Fain would I stretch me by the highway-side,
To thaw and trickle with the melting snow,
That mingled soul and body with the tide,
I too may through the pores of nature flow.


Bode has the advantage of modern psychiatry in his epilogue's conclusions; Emerson could only say "'No equal companion stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless'"(687). Kind words from one whom Thoreau once accused of "assuming a false opposition where there was no difference of opinion" and who "talked to the wind" when necessary just for the sake of holding the floor! (8)

It is this love-hate relationship Thoreau had with Emerson and all other men even remotely close to him that Bode seizes on as proof of Thoreau's deeply ingrained Oedipal complex. His unresolved feelings about his male parent not only caused Thoreau to reject the idea of God as a Father, to unsuccessfully seek a father figure in Emerson and others, but was instrumental in his defiance of state and society. This explains his extreme admiration of John Brown as a martyr of deep convictions who "defied [the state] to the death"(690). Bode suggests that Henry's own father was hen-pecked but not especially mild-mannered, given to "violent speech if not violent action . . . [and] well respected outside his house" (691). He was not a scholar; he had many friends and was quite sociable. Henry disliked him but was not afraid of him.

In the end, Bode says it was the demise of both John Brown and John Thoreau, Sr., occurring in a single year, that brought about Henry's own death: "Thoreau, with a history of conversion maladies, found his burden of guilt so great when his father and Brown died . . . that he became convinced he too must die in expiation"(690). Bode asserts that although Henry no longer wanted to live, "the will to die . . . waxed and waned," evidenced by Henry's contining, on and off, to write and socialize. At one point Thoreau told Ellery Channing that he had no wish to live except for his mother and sister" and that "'Some things must end'"(695). After visiting Thoreau's deathbed, his friend Sam Staples told Emerson that he had "'Never spent an hour with more satisfaction . . . . Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace'"(696).

In his final sentences, Bode distances himself from his preceding ruminations concerning Thoreau's inner life and "his psychological problems." In the face of "our speculation [which] seems forced," he suggests that perhaps it is best after all to return to Thoreau's own self-analysis: "'The poet cherishes his chagrins and sets his sighs to music' "(696).