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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, July 18, 2004

New Books Explore Great Age of American Literature

Some 150 years ago, the publishers James T. Fields and William Ticknor agreed to publish Henry David Thoreau's second book, Walden. This was a gamble for them, since Thoreau's first self-published book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, had been a resounding failure in the marketplace.

At one point in his writings, Thoreau commented that his library consisted of 1,000 volumes, 700 of which he had written.We look back now on this time and call it an American Renaissance. Its centers were Boston, Concord, N.H., and New York.

This is the age when Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe and the young Henry James walked the dirt roads of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.

The cultured class of Boston, the Brahmins, looked on their city as a new Athens. Led by Emerson, a modern-day Socrates, its members consisted of such morally upright and intellectually inquisitive men as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Francis Parkman and Richard Henry Dana Jr.

There is no shortage of books written about the glory days of American literature. I recommend the following recent titles:

Walden Pond: A History by W. Barksdale Maynard (Oxford, 2004).

Maynard, a professor of architectural history, has written a different kind of book about Walden. It is about the pond (what we Midwesterners would surely call a lake).

He traces Walden Pond's history from Thoreau's first visit at the age of 4 in 1821 to rock musician Don Henley's present-day attempts to save the pond from encroaching developers.

You may be surprised at photographs of the pond in the 1940s that look more like Coney Island than a hermit's retreat.

The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton by James Turner (Johns Hopkins Press, 1999).

Unless you are a student of the period, chances are you have not heard of Charles Eliot Norton. He wrote no books that are remembered today, but during his lifetime he was one of the most prominent of the Boston Brahmins.

His father, Andrewes Norton, had been called the Unitarian pope. A famous statue of the father looks like a Roman senator. Indeed, he and his friends had hoped to bring about a new Augustan age in America.

Harvard was their own personal college, and its curriculum was certainly classical, centered on Latin and Greek. Foreign languages were just being introduced, and Longfellow was hired from Bowdoin College as the second professor of modern languages, succeeding eminent Brahmin George Ticknor.

Charles Eliot Norton, while never aligning himself with the wild-eyed transcendentalists, became an agnostic in religion and replaced the reasonable Unitarian god of his father with art. He was the first art historian in American and a dear friend of the great English art critic John Ruskin.

James Turner, a professor at Notre Dame, writes exceedingly well, and this book is one to savor.

Hawthorne in Concord by Philip McFarland (Grove Press, 2004).

McFarland's book takes the prize for readability. His is an impressionistic account that could only result from sensitivity and empathy for its subject.

You may have forgotten that Hawthorne lived twice in Concord, a neighbor to Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller. They would take an evening stroll from the old Manse down to Walden Pond, discussing the big questions of life.

I also highly recommend Brenda Wineapple's Hawthorne: a Life (Knopf, 2003).

Hawthorne rivaled Byron in looks and, in the words of his friend Melville, was "as deep as Dante."

Finally there is The Margaret-Ghost: a Novel, a little book by the art historian Barbara Novak that is worth a quick read.

Fuller, pioneer of women's rights and certainly a Brahmin in intellect, died in a shipwreck off New York City's Fire Island. She had formed a union with an illiterate Italian and was returning to America with both him and their child.

The captain of their ship had died at sea, and the makeshift captain wrecked the ship on a sand bar during a bad storm. Spectators watched them drown from shore, saying later they didn't know there was "anyone aboard worth saving."

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.