Thoreau's Seasons

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

In Thoreau’s Seasons, Richard Lebeaux has written a sequel to his Young Man Thoreau (1977), continuing his psychohistorical biography of Thoreau through his mature years, from 1845 to his death in 1862. Lebeaux outlined the major premises of his study in the introduction to Young Man Thoreau, and because Thoreau’s Seasons continues where the earlier book left off, it is essential to read both books in conjunction in order to appreciate fully Lebeaux’s accomplishment. His approach is based upon the assumption that there is in Thoreau a fundamental conflict between the self-assured, confident voice of the writer and the troubled, self-doubting personality of Thoreau the man. Too often, the self-created, mythic personality in the writing has been accepted uncritically as being identical with the more complex and elusive personality of the writer. “It behooves us to see Thoreau as a ’complex and tortured man,’” Lebeaux argues, “even if this is not what we want to see.” The confident, optimistic voice that one hears in Walden (1854) masks the often intense and prolonged self-doubt, conflict, and continual personal struggle that Thoreau experienced in resolving the issues of identity and vocation through his writing. The mature Thoreau that one finds in Lebeaux’s rich and provocative study is neither as confident nor as self-assured as the literary “voice” at the end of Walden.

To a large degree, Lebeaux’s approach is based upon psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s model of the eight stages of the human life cycle, first developed in Childhood and Society (1950) and later applied in Young Man Luther (1958) and Gandhi’s Truth (1969). These stages involve conflicts between trust and mistrust, autonomy and shame or doubt, initiative and guilt, industry and inferiority, identity and identity confusion, intimacy and isolation, generativity and stagnation, and finally integrity and despair. According to Erikson, at each stage of human development, it is necessary that these conflicts be resolved in order to achieve a healthy and productive maturity. Lebeaux has adapted the conceptual framework of Erikson’s humanistic psychoanalytic theories and has applied these insights to interpret Thoreau’s creative development throughout his life. As Lebeaux cautions, however, Thoreau did not simply “resolve” each stage of development and then move on to the next. Instead, each “life-crisis” builds upon previous stages; thus, Lebeaux’s psychobiography demonstrates the ways in which Thoreau’s experience had a cumulative effect upon his development as a writer and a person and shows “how he continued to struggle throughout his life with issues first encountered in earlier developmental stages.”

The major question with which Thoreau wrestled throughout his life was, “How shall I live?” This central issue of economy, vocation, and identity serves as a unifying theme in Walden, in which Thoreau purports to give a “simple and sincere account” of his life and of what he has learned through his Walden experiment, though the autonomous and self-reliant persona that one finds in Walden was often considerably at odds with Thoreau’s actual experience, both during the Walden years and after. As Lebeaux demonstrates, the actual psychological conflicts that motivated Thoreau’s Walden experiment were more complex than the economic issue of how he could earn his living as simply and self-sufficiently as possible. Thoreau’s pretense of self-reliance, in fact, belied his much deeper sense of guilt and resentment concerning his considerable dependence upon his parents and family, as well as his ambiguous mentor-disciple relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his unresolved sense of guilt for his older brother John’s death from lockjaw in 1842. These were the psychological forces that sent Thoreau to Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847, and the degree to which he was able to resolve those issues there profoundly influenced his later years. That the Walden experiment was not the unequivocal success that Thoreau pretended it was should not come as a surprise, since his account in Walden has the quality of a self-consciously embellished myth. The Journal accounts of the post-Walden years tell a story considerably at variance with the tone of Walden, and it is this conflict between the man and the myth that Lebeaux addresses in Thoreau’s Seasons.

As Lebeaux’s title indicates, the cycle of the seasons became increasingly important to Thoreau during the years after 1845, both as a creative metaphor and as a framework for personal adjustment and renewal, especially as he struggled to resolve the issues of generativity versus stagnation and integrity versus despair during these last years. When Thoreau went to Walden Pond to take up residence on July 4, 1845, a week short of his twenty-eighth birthday, he realized that he was no longer in the springtime of his youth. Thoreau’s decision to go to Walden was by no means as simple as he pretended, and his reasons were not entirely unequivocal; instead, he went, as Lebeaux suggests, out of a “complex mix of motives and opportunity.” He was at least in part symbolically declaring his independence from his family and townspeople, separating himself from the example of his unsuccessful father and domineering mother, resolving his guilt concerning his brother’s death, and putting to rest his local reputation as an idle loafer and a “woodsburner,” stemming from the accidental fire that he had set outside Concord in the spring of 1844, which had burned more than three hundred acres before it was finally extinguished by the townspeople. Indeed, in the years from 1837 to 1845, he had spent much of his time wrestling with the issues of identity, vocation, and separation from family. His time since graduating from Harvard University seemed relatively unproductive, except for the two years he had spent teaching school with his brother, John. Both brothers had been rebuffed in their courtship of Ellen Sewell, and Thoreau may privately have begun to feel some uneasiness about Concord’s judgment of him, though outwardly he remained defiant and unconcerned about town opinion.

Going to Walden, then, permitted him to redeem himself through a noble experiment in living and to erect tangible foundations for his dreams of independence and purpose. Walden Pond and the natural cycle of the seasons would provide the nurturing presence that Thoreau needed in order to forge a mature identity. He experienced a confidence and reassurance through his intimacy with nature. His springtime of hope had not passed after all, he discovered, and there might yet be some noble work for him to accomplish. Thoreau’s two years at Walden showed him that he could set up a household and live independently of the domestic atmosphere of his mother, aunts, and sisters. He left Walden with his sense of identity confirmed, sufficiently freed...

(The entire section is 2877 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Best Sellers. XLIV, August, 1984, p. 183.

Choice. XXII, October, 1984, p. 269.

Library Journal. CIX, March 15, 1984, p. 585.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, February 10, 1984, p. 185.