Journalist Robert Sullivan often documents unlovely corners of the natural world: The Meadowlands (1998) turned a naturalist’s eye on a dispiriting region of northern New Jersey notable for its Mafia dumping grounds, while in Rats (2004) Sullivan gave Ratus norvegicus the Dian Fossey treatment. His latest book, The Thoreau You Don’t Know, attempts to recuperate Henry David’s reputation among those who remember him from high school English as a voice of unyielding asceticism. Instead, in Sullivan’s telling, Thoreau was an ordinary sinner like the rest of us: before his experiment in living deliberately, Thoreau was best known around town for having started the biggest forest fire in Concord’s history. Sullivan also reveals that Walden was no wilderness—it was a woodlot, occupied by Irish laborers who had just finished laying railroad tracks through the forest.
I met Sullivan on Smith Street in Brooklyn and we walked to the Gowanus Canal, a waterway of legendary despoliation, to talk about Thoreau and the intersection of the man-made and the natural.
Sullivan: Around 11 o’clock, a cormorant comes, and I don’t know where he spends the nights, but I see him here late in the day. He comes and sits on that oil boom, which, whenever stuff gets spilled, that stops it. But the cormorant lives there and I just keep thinking: how does that cormorant live? Just being here all day, you’d think it would kill you. I don’t get it.
Rumpus: You’d think there’d be much better places to fish in the harbor.
Sullivan: You’d think, but there are fish in here. You see fish in here all the time. You also see—this is, what, kind of high-ish tide?—on low tide, on a day after it rains, you see the most vile—this is just a giant sewer.
Rumpus: Because of the runoff?
Sullivan: Runoff is a big problem, and non-point-source pollution. So everything from raw sewage to antidepressants that you threw down your toilet, or even that you put through you, goes out to the Gowanus Canal. And two weeks ago, a guy somehow drove down the end of Dewar Street and parked his car in the Gowanus Canal, and the Fire Department and police had to go in to the water, which, it looks kind of nice today—
Rumpus: Was he still in the car?
Sullivan: Yeah, they had to go in the water and get him out of the car. One day I want to meet the fireman who went in there and ask him, you know, what he did with his clothes, how he feels, that kind of thing.
Rumpus: And what kind of suits do they have to go in the water?
Sullivan: Yeah, you’d think, OK, they have a fire protection suit, a certain kind of hazmat suit, radiation suits, and then you probably have a special Gowanus Canal suit. Wouldn’t you think so?
Rumpus: What would Thoreau have made of the Gowanus Canal?
Sullivan: In Walden, he’s always going to this one spot that he loves a lot, the railroad cut, between the pond woods and the town. It’s this industrial feature, and he loves to check out what’s growing around there—it’s the interstitial area and that seems to be what really turns him on. Not that he isn’t turned on by going into the raspberry bushes, but what he’s really interested in is how the classic nature interacts with this industrial nature. He’s not afraid of it. In fact there’s this kind of big climactic scene that happens at the railroad cut. Basically on the side of the highway. This is not not part of the deal. The Gowanus Canal is not not part of the deal.
Rumpus: I remember being surprised on a high school trip to Walden, surprised in a disaffected-teenager sort of way, by the fact that the railroad tracks go right through the woods by the pond. Because I had assumed that it was tarnishing this place that was famous for being pristine.
Sullivan: Right. There’s this great book called Inventing Niagara by Ginger Strand. They really worked hard at Niagara Falls to separate the beauty of the falls from the industry that was running due to the power of the falls. And that separation, and that disappointment that says, “Oh my god, there’s a railroad track here, this can’t be a beautiful place. I can’t communicate with the Oneness here.” That split that, in academic circles, is called false binary, that’s what I would argue sets up a bad situation. And that makes the Gowanus Canal more polluted, and the last nature preserve—maybe less polluted, but still—the last nature preserve. And so we have nature preserves, and we don’t live in nature.
Rumpus: Because this is a blight, an eyesore.
Sullivan: Of course, since I started writing books about gross places, I’m sort of happy and nervous to say that people have taken to recreating in abused areas. There are boat trips on the Gowanus Canal.
Rumpus: Were you surprised by how much Thoreau’s writing lined up with the way you thought about nature in your previous work?
Sullivan: I guess I was kind of surprised, because when I started riffing on Thoreau, I wrote this Meadowlands book and I said, “Oh yeah, I’m going away to a wild place to be alone.” And, using that joke, as I kind of accidentally got more into Thoreau, I thought, “Wait a minute, I think he was making a joke too.” I’m sad that I didn’t get his joke as well as I could have, earlier.
Rumpus: There’s a lot in the book about Thoreau’s struggle to make a living as a freelance writer. Was that your way in to his biography?
Sullivan: I never thought about him as a writer; I thought of him as a monk in the woods. So that was one of the ways I convinced myself I could write a book about Thoreau—because I could easily convince myself not to write a book about Thoreau. I thought, “This guy was trying to write, and he was trying to sell his stuff, and it was tough. And, you know, one of the things he’s doing is writing every day and trying to figure out: Why bother?” So the way I finally decided I could approach Thoreau was with my one expertise, which is as a freelance writer. Naturally, I have been criticized for that by people who say I don’t know Thoreau at all. Which is understandable. I never said I knew Thoreau.
Excerpt from The Thoreau You Don’t Know by Robert Sullivan (Collins, 2009):
I’d like to introduce the Thoreau you don’t know, or don’t necessarily know, or know but perhaps never hear people talking about when people talk about Thoreau. People talk a lot about Thoreau in America—they reference him in these days of ecological awareness, in these green times, in times when, as people all along the political spectrum agree, we care about the earth, the wilderness, what’s wild. But when we talk about Thoreau, we talk about a particular Thoreau who I would suggest has more to do with us than Thoreau. The Thoreau we already know is, for instance, not here. He’s out, away, off in the woods most likely, on the shore of that lonely little pond or ascending a faraway mountain. He’s busy getting more in touch with the natural world. He’s not in town with us, that’s for sure. The Thoreau we know doesn’t really go to town. He’s managed to separate himself from the hustle, the rat race—or at least to say that he has. People wonder, after all. They always have. People don’t completely trust this Thoreau. They wonder if he’s coming clean, if he really does spend all his time out at the cabin. People wonder if he wasn’t cheating somehow, ordering food in or the nineteenth-century equivalent. People wonder especially today, when there is all this pressure on us to be cool to the environment, when there is a lot of pressure to be Thoreau.
Whether or not you buy his story, the Thoreau we know is a secular priest of solitude who lives quietly and alone and, frankly, prefers it that way. That Thoreau lives—and this is perhaps the most significant thing about the Thoreau we know—in nature, which is not like the place where the rest of us live. Thoreau’s nature is a special, separate place, a place untouched by humans, except, of course, by Thoreau. The mere existence of the Thoreau we know stakes out the boundary of this extraordinary place in our mind’s eye, and in the eye of society. That Thoreau lives there makes him “inestimably priggish and tiresome,” to quote a cultural critic. In his own day, the New York Times described Thoreau as living in a “cold and selfish isolation from human cares and interests.” James Russell Lowell, editor of the Atlantic Monthly when Thoreau was trying to get published, related him to Diogenes the Cynic, who lived on the streets of Athens in an open barrel, like a dog: “His shanty-life was a mere impossibility, so far as his own conception of it goes, as an entire independency of mankind. The tub of Diogenes had a sounder bottom.” And yet as much as we chide him for being there, we don’t necessarily want Thoreau to come home from the woods. Our relationship with him is symbiotic; the Thoreau we know, as difficult as he can be to deal with, helps us to live our not-so-strict lives, our less-intentioned existence.