October 12, 2021

"These days, we understand Thoreau to have been a nonpracticing gay man, whose retreat to his weatherized cabana at Walden was... an anti-heteronormative broadside."

I'm trying to read "Thoreau in Love/The writer had a deep bond with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. But he also had a profound connection with Emerson’s wife" by James Marcus (The New Yorker). 

I've taken an ongoing interest in Thoreau ever since I encountered him when I was a high school student in the 1960s, and I've noticed and blogged things about him throughout the 17 years of this blog, and I'm even also interested in the subject of historical figures who might have been gay. How did I miss the development of this understanding that Thoreau was "a nonpracticing gay man"? 

If he's nonpracticing, and he didn't talk about it, whence the idea that he was gay? Doesn't that erase asexuality?

Anyway. Let's read:

Thoreau wrote a pair of essays, “Love” and “Chastity & Sensuality”... Thoreau plays two roles at once: the libertine, who argues that sexual matters should be discussed more frankly, and the prude, who is visibly relieved that they are not. There is some blather about abstinence as virtue... But then he gives his stamp of approval to the botanical kingdom, whose “organs of generation” are “exposed to the eyes of all.” 

In other words, we should all be like shameless flowers.... It’s a surprising and hilarious reversal, followed by the most honest paragraph in either essay: 

The intercourse of the sexes, I have dreamed, is incredibly beautiful, too fair to be remembered. I have had thoughts about it, but they are among the most fleeting and irrecoverable in my experience. It is strange that men will talk of miracles, revelation, inspiration, and the like, as things past, while love remains.

Sex, to Thoreau, was no more than a rumor, a rapidly dissipated dream. Love was something else: the last miraculous thing. He had no idea what to make of it, drawn as he was to both women and (mostly) men, eager to share his feelings and utterly convinced that such disclosure would kill them off for good.... 

“I fear bodies,” he once wrote, “I tremble to meet them.”

36 comments:

Ficta said...

For some reason, I'm reminded of this:
From his girdle hung a row of seastones which dangled at every movement of his portentous frame and on these were graven with rude yet striking art the tribal images of many Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity, Cuchulin, Conn of hundred battles, Niall of nine hostages, Brian of Kincora, the Ardri Malachi, Art MacMurragh, Shane O’Neill, Father John Murphy, Owen Roe, Patrick Sarsfield, Red Hugh O’Donnell, Red Jim MacDermott, Soggarth Eoghan O’Growney, Michael Dwyer, Francy Higgins, Henry Joy M’Cracken, Goliath, Horace Wheatley, Thomas Conneff, Peg Woffington, the Village Blacksmith, Captain Moonlight, Captain Boycott, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, S. Fursa, S. Brendan, Marshal Mac-Mahon, Charlemagne, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Mother of the Maccabees, the Last of the Mohicans, the Rose of Castille, the Man for Galway, The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, The Man in the Gap, The Woman Who Didn’t, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, John L. Sullivan, Cleopatra, Savourneen Deelish, Julius Caesar, Paracelsus, sir Thomas Lipton, William Tell, Michelangelo, Hayes, Muhammad, the Bride of Lammermoor, Peter the Hermit, Peter the Packer, Dark Rosaleen, Patrick W. Shakespeare, Brian Confucius, Murtagh Gutenberg, Patricio Velasquez, Captain Nemo, Tristan and Isolde, the first Prince of Wales, Thomas Cook and Son, the Bold Soldier Boy, Arrah na Pogue, Dick Turpin, Ludwig Beethoven, the Colleen Bawn, Waddler Healy, Angus the Culdee, Dolly Mount, Sidney Parade, Ben Howth, Valentine Greatrakes, Adam and Eve, Arthur Wellesley, Boss Croker, Herodotus, Jack the Giantkiller, Gautama Buddha, Lady Godiva, The Lily of Killarney, Balor of the Evil Eye, the Queen of Sheba, Acky Nagle, Joe Nagle, Alessandro Volta, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Don Philip O’Sullivan Beare. - James Joyce, Ulysses

Enigma said...

See the public statements of Morrissey (UK pop music performer) for a living person with this experience. He's been routinely perceived as gay, but long claimed celibacy too. One of his 1980s Smiths videos was suppressed for decades in part because it tagged him as gay with pink triangle symbolism. The bottom line is that his lyrics are so unconventional that NO average person could come up with that stuff.

Let the eccentrics be eccentric and unique, but don't demand a category or label where none can exist.

"Heteronormative" is a nonsense word here. Normative or average is the operative term. You'll never meet another person like so-and-so.

rhhardin said...

Thoreau was concerned with the mot juste and what it meant to find it, mostly about everyday things.

Stanley Cavell The Senses of Walden is good.

Biff said...

The most salient points from the literature and humanities courses I took while a Yale undergrad can be summarized as follows:

1) Every author, poet, philosopher, or artist of note was LGBTQetc, whether they knew it or not.

2) Anything longer than it was wide represented a penis, and anything concave represented a vagina.

Ice Nine said...

He seems rather a clueless pussy...

Sebastian said...

"The intercourse of the sexes, I have dreamed, is incredibly beautiful, too fair to be remembered."

What does that mean? Grammatically, too fair seems to refer to the intercourse. Either way, I don't get the too fair to be remembered bit. Anyone?

"I have had thoughts about it, but they are among the most fleeting and irrecoverable in my experience."

This is the most honest thing he wrote? I call BS.

cr said...

“I fear bodies. I tremble to meet them.” This reminds me of the Anglican CS Lewis saying, “Apart from the Blessed Sacrament itself, the holiest object presented to your senses is your neighbor.

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

If he's nonpracticing, and he didn't talk about it, whence the idea that he was gay? Doesn't that erase asexuality?

Welcome to the 21st Century! Every man not trying to publicly mount every woman he sees is automatically labeled as gay by the LGBTQXIOMWR@#$@ crowd.

MadisonMan said...

What an interesting sentence: "We understand xx to have been" -- Something that can never be disproven, because who knows to whom "We" refers. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.

When people don't fit conveniently into the normal "box" assigned by others, everyone is free to speculate -- after they're dead -- on just why they weren't box-able.

rcocean said...

Could be Theroux was asexual. Sorry. As for Thoreau in general, I like his travel writings like A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Cape Cod and the Maine woods.

Otherwise, he was your typical New England Crank, who when he wasn't being foolish was dangerous. He loved domestic terrorist John Brown for instance. I'm not suprised that the current bunch of Lefties want to believe he was Gay. He fits the profile.

And I loathe Emerson.

Michael K said...

I had a Thoreau thing at one time and even visited Walden Pond. This piece is of the same genre of those claiming Lincoln was gay because lawyers following the Circuit in Illinois at the time often shared the same bed.

Quaestor said...

We? Who are "we"? James Marcus and his tapeworm?

Only a practicing homosexual would describe Thoreau's shack as a cabana. Obviously, Marcus longs for Thoreau the cabana boy -- lean, sleek, sun-browned and available for a pittance.

Thuglawlibrarian said...

Who cares? A small group of political activists with an agenda.

Howard said...

It's a deep pond. Relatively small 1/2-mile long. Less than a quarter mile wide with a few deep narrow inlets. In many places, the bottom drops steeply from the shore. I haven't seen any turtles, snapping or not. The lunker trout don't scare off when you swim by. It's very sandy with an assortment of gravel, cobble and boulders. There are several submerged cairns. Who knows what burned in the hearts of folks 200 odd years ago.

Gerda Sprinchorn said...

The TV series Dickinson, cheerfully dumps on Thoreau:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmneLDB6hAI

Dickinson is kind of a fun series, an odd mix of silliness and seriousness, with an overlay of 21st century sensibilities.

Also fun: Louisa May Alcott is portrayed as a shameless fame-seeker who passionately states that "poems about ravens are really popular right now."

Gerda Sprinchorn said...

Before antibiotics, STDs could turn you into a horrible physical and mental mess. We forget this. So it was entirely reasonable for an unmarried man to abstain from sex at the time.

LordSomber said...

People projecting their sexual insecurities onto long-dead historical figures is so trite and boring.

Harsh Pencil said...

"As a deeply closeted gay man, ..."

Andrew said...

"This reminds me of the Anglican CS Lewis saying, 'Apart from the Blessed Sacrament itself, the holiest object presented to your senses is your neighbor.'"

A noble sentiment, until you meet your actual neighbors. "Um, could you turn the music down? Also, you need to clean up after your dog."


10/12/21, 11:01 AM

rehajm said...

I’ve always thought Walden was kind of lame. Crappy touristy parking lot across the street. On par with all the foreign tourists taking pictures of that office building on Boylston St that’s in that law show from long ago…

The water was okay I guess…glad Howard gets something out of it…

tim maguire said...

Nonpracticing? Ha! I have it on good authority that Thoreau once had a fling with Dumbledore.

Christopher B said...

I think NorthOfTheOneOhOne hits it pretty close. Much of this 'famous figure was gay' stuff is based on a combination of motivated reasoning and stereotyping that usually gives the Alphabet activists the vapors but they think is great if it makes Thoreau FABULOUS!

Mark said...

You missed that Thoreau was "a nonpracticing gay man"??

Come on, man! EVERY prominent person in history was gay, didn't you know that? Most prominently Saul/Paul of Tarsus, Michelangelo, Abraham Lincoln (who slept in the same bed as his law partner), Roger Goodell, and on and on.

Joe Smith said...

'"These days, we understand Thoreau to have been a nonpracticing gay man...'

So he wasn't very good at it?

Obligatory 'Stripes' reference:

'Are either of you homosexual?'

'No, we're not homosexual, but we are willing to learn...'

who-knew said...

If this doesn't sum up the uselessness of modern humanities The favorite trope of the anti-Trumpers needs to be applied here. "James Marcus claims without evidence".

Titus said...

Morrissey is not celibate now. He has been in a relationship with a man for years.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Andrew,

A noble sentiment, until you meet your actual neighbors. "Um, could you turn the music down? Also, you need to clean up after your dog."

That was, of course, Lewis's point. Your annoying neighbor might any day be transfigured to become a being of unimaginable splendor and glory. Your neighbor isn't a saint, and no one is sinless except Jesus. But anyone may be saved. There's a Lewis essay called "The Weight of Glory," which is where this argument (and possibly the quotation above) arises.

madAsHell said...

"The intercourse of the sexes, I have dreamed, is incredibly beautiful, too fair to be remembered."

I had a roommate in college that purchased a copy of "How to get all the beautiful women".....or something equally prurient. The book was filled with meaningless statements, and anecdotes to be shared with a female.

My X-Ray glasses were a much better investment.

h said...

Replace the word "gay" with the word "Presbyterian" and the whole argument makes just as much sense (if you were a Presbyterian).

tim in vermont said...

I did think it was funny when he strongly hinted, in "The Maine Woods," I think it was, that his Indian guide had used some fresh ejaculate to repair a leak that had appeared in the bark canoe.

"Where did you get that substance?" Thoreau asked.
"Some things a man doesn't even tell his wife," the Indian replied.

Maybe Thoreau really didn't know, and was just reporting a conversation he found odd, but I didn't get the idea from that that he was gay.

It could have been "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," not sure which.

If he had a strong attachment to Emerson's wife, I am calling that "the preponderance of the evidence" that he was straight and unmarried.

Lurker21 said...

The idea that Thoreau was a latent or non-practicing homosexual has been around for a while, but nobody made a big deal out of it. Probably because it was so obvious that he seemed to care more about mosses and ants, herons and hedgehogs than in having sex with other human beings.

Jane Langton, a local popular novelist, conjectured in one of her books that Thoreau was actually Emily Dickinson's secret long-time love. Of course, it was just a cute gimmick nonsense, but Dickinson is going through the same process of postumous homosexualization now, both in the academy and in the trash media. It has been said, more reliably perhaps, that the much older Thoreau was Louisa May Alcott's schoolgirl crush.

I would agree that while society has become more tolerant of homosexuals, it's become less tolerant of the asexual. It used to be that people were assumed to be heterosexual unless proven otherwise. Today the assumption is that if one hasn't proven one's heterosexuality one is probably gay or at least LGBTQQ.

I thought Greta Gerwig got too much praise for her supposedly feminist version of Little Women. If you know Alcott's life you know that she never married but, by choice or by necessity, slaved away at writing to support herself and her father. That's the metastory or the story around the novel that we're familiar with. If she wanted her heroine and fictional alter-ego to get married, that was her choice, and I'm inclined to think that it should have been respected.

wildswan said...

They say the left has seized the heights of our culture. They have seized something - the classrooms, maybe, the salaries, the committees. But since when are classrooms, salaries and committees culture? It's a joke listening to the left on culture. Thoreau was the author of Walden Pond which is about being a closet gay. Leonardo was a painter about being a closet gay. Lincoln was a President who was about being a closet gay. Thomas Aquinas was a monk which is about being a closet gay. But WAIT. There HAVE been men who weren't gays (closet or otherwise). They were the white supremacist tyrants like the authors of the Federalist Papers. Make a list showing which great poets were ruined by being closet gays v. which great poets were ruined by being dead white males, i.e., tyrants. Defend your choices. Remember, there are 57 genders but only two ways to be a famous white man. - gay (closet or otherwise) or white supremacist (closet or otherwise). The committees have decided that is what should be said in the classrooms at this time.

Tina Trent said...

This prose may “sound gay” to some, but when Thoreau was writing, it was just a style of expression, used by both men and women. Undeniably heterosexual men used similar styles. It’s absurd to go looking for homosexuals under every rock in the 19th Century.

Back when we used to teach literature, people actually learned literary and authorial styles rather than dumbly projecting modern gender politics on them. And they largely believed in avoiding sin.

Louisa May Alcott had to concern herself with what would sell in the magazines because she had to work to feed half these preening dolts, along with her own mother and siblings, abandoned by her father, who felt work was beneath such brilliant men. Hippies and Fabian socialists never change.

tim in vermont said...

" but Dickinson is going through the same process of postumous homosexualization now, both in the academy and in the trash media."

For being so smart, these people can't imagine that in the 19th century, people were very different than we are. People of a certain class didn't have sex unless they were married, and young men of that class did not take a wife until he was in a position, unquestionably, to. support that woman in the manner in which she was used to living. This left a lot of men and women spinsters and lifetime bachelors.

It's almost like they don't really believe in this whole "diversity" drama that they are using to maximize their power. They imagine, like most liberals, that everybody is just like them, deep down.

mikee said...

Would you choose Bill Clinton or David Thoreau babysit your teenage daughter?

Stephen St. Onge said...

If he's nonpracticing, and he didn't talk about it, whence the idea that he was gay? Doesn't that erase asexuality?

        It's the same as Nikole Hannah-Jones and the rest of the 1619 crowd claiming that everything good in America was created by blacks.  The goal of the claim is increasing prestige and political power.

        A few years ago it was Lincoln who was gay, based on nothing but a desire to appropriate one of the two greatest presidents for the same goal of increasing prestige and acceptance.

        On the flip side, heroes of conventional society are denigrated.  Columbus the genocidal imperialist, e.g., a story made up out of whole cloth and distortion by commies like Howard Zinn.  (Helps greatly that all the sources are in Spanish, which most Americans can't read.)

        JUST SAY NO to this nonsense.