“It is not natural….

…for a man to write this well every day.” But somehow, Thoreau could.

…for a man to write this well every day.”

So commented the great literary critic Alfred Kazin on Henry David Thoreau’s Journal, which he kept quite regularly from his Harvard College graduation in 1837 to just a few months before his death.

Kazin is right: the Journal is a real gem of American letters and philosophy, with whole lot of great nature writing thrown in.  I am currently reading Penguin Books’ wonderful edition of the Journal from 1851; I did not think it possible that the man could have another masterpiece like Walden in him, but sure enough, he does.

To my mind, Thoreau’s image as the patron saint of American nature writing is actually misleading: he was after something more universal.  Nature was the means by which humanity can discover the transcendent; it was not the end in and of itself.  (Which is why Thoreau was a Transcendentalist; get it?).  But still, being the window into the transcendent is not too shabby.

Here’s part of an entry from February 27th, which I read this morning:

Of two men, one of whom knows nothing of a subject, and what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing — and the other really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all — What great advantage has the latter over the former? Which is the best to deal with?

I do not know that knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel & grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we had called knowledge before.  An indefinite sence [sic] of the grandeur & glory of the Universe.  It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun

But man cannot be said to know in any higher sense, than he can look serenely & with impunity in the face of the sun.

This is superb reminder for intellectuals and academics.

The Penguin edition’s choice of 1851 is not an accident: it was an extraordinary year for Thoreau.  But it is great as a starter.  Next up: Princeton University Press’ comprehensive edition.  It will take a long time to get through — and be worth every moment.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

One thought on ““It is not natural….”

  1. Dude. Totally.

    Hi! Just doing a little procrastinating (I'm sure there is something else I'm supposed to be doing right now…)

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