Thoreau's Way from Emerson to
Thoreau: The Gesture of Self-Naming

By Albena Bakratcheva, Ph.D., Associate Professor
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, New Bulgarian University, Sofia, Bulgaria

Delivered at the 2005 Thoreau Society Annual Gathering

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Let me begin by placing two quotes together — one from "The American Scholar" and one from Walden. "... if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him", Emerson proclaimed in 1837. A few years later Thoreau wrote: "I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

[2]      Thoreau's words appear to echo Emerson's; in fact though, they don't. Thoreau is making a statement, while Emerson, addressing Harvard's "young men of the fairest promise", is actually making a fairest promise himself. While Emerson is offering an electrifying intellectual construct, Thoreau is speaking from his own, and moreover successful, life experience. What lies between Emerson's too general "single man" and Thoreau's too personal "I", is Thoreau's very own way from Emerson to Thoreau, i.e. his way to self-knowledge and, therefrom, to the true experience of self-reliance.

[3]      No doubt the electricity of "The American Scholar" — as well as that of "Nature" a little earlier, — did reach young Thoreau at the time, provoking him intellectually, as it did the rest of the transcendentalists. First of all though, it affected him existentially — in a way it affected no one else. Two facts indicate that it was then, in 1837, that Thoreau deliberately started to create his autobiography: first, he changed his name from David Henry to Henry David and second, he began his journal. While the second fact has always attracted critical attention, the first one doesn't seem to have been of more interest than either to be mentioned as a typical romantic gesture (Harding), or to be just taken for granted and therefore not discussed. And it is exactly Thoreau's change of name that I would like to bring into focus here.

[4]      In her "Memories of a Sculptor's Wife" (as quoted by Susan Howe in her poetic sequence "Thorow") Mrs. Daniel Chester French writes: "Thoreau I was never fortunate enough to see ... I loved to hear the farmers talk about him. One of them used to say: 'Henry D. Thoreau — Henry D. Thoreau', jerking out the words with withering contempt. 'His name ain't Henry D. Thoreau than my name is Henry D. Thoreau. And everybody knows it. His name is Da-a-vid Henry and it ain't been nothing but Da-a-vid Henry. And he knows that!"

[5]      What young Thoreau obviously knew better though, was that he already wanted to live deliberately. In what follows I will suggest that the change of name comes out as Thoreau's very first deliberate act, the earliest announcement of a life to be lived deliberately. In fact, this was not a gesture of self-renaming, but the deliberate act of self-naming. The twenty-year-old Thoreau transformed his given name into a self-expression of his personal choice. The change is seemingly insignificant, just a rearrangement; behind it though there is a whole universe turned upside down — the first becomes last, the last becomes first, the choice is no more made for, but by Thoreau. Concentrated as he already was on his own ego as the beginning of all beginnings, young Thoreau could not but feel the need for proper naming.

[6]      His desire for adequacy between self and name is more than clear: both should be the result of deliberate choice and creative work. From such a viewpoint the very acceptance of the given name looks as conformism and Thoreau would by no means allow that: he chooses to be named Henry, and from this moment on, 'David' becomes no more than a euphonic transition to his family name, the sequence Henry David being definitely more harmonious than David Henry. Thoreau undoubtedly had this in mind, the born master of language, of all its nuances and melodious soundings that he was. Hardly though, had the musicality of his name been the major reason for young Thoreau's decision.

[7]      But we can only guess here, as Thoreau provides no comment on changing his name. This fact can most likely be explained with young Thoreau having not yet formed the habit to write down his thoughts, and later — with the lack of interest towards something already taken for granted. The absent comment should not, though, undervalue the very act of Thoreau's self-naming. It is true, of course, that no author David Henry Thoreau ever existed and that the great writer to be, the future master of language and style, comes into the world already named as Henry David Thoreau; it is also true that Thoreau's critics have always been spoiled by the overabundance of written words that fix his "moments of being" and thus provide practically endless possibilities for interpretation. No less true, unfixed in words though it is, remains Thoreau's self-baptizement. And I would argue here, that this deliberate choice of name can and should be seen as the first step towards the great choice of Walden: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately"...

[8]      In fact, Thoreau's self-naming is his earliest deliberate act of establishing adequacy, or "correspondence", between self and self-expression, i.e. between life and art (in L. Buell's terms). Thoreau's self-chosen self-name can therefore be thought of as a literary work itself — the very first of Thoreau's works, all of them dominated by the confession made in Walden: "I should not talk as much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well." Thoreau's life-long "talking about himself" actually begins with the creation of a self-name. This is how he first announces what he will always stick to — the organic relationship of self and verbal self-expression.

[9]      "A man's power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth and his desire to communicate it without loss." This statement from Emerson's "Nature" has obviously affected young Thoreau deeply; but as the pattern will soon be settled, Thoreau already specifies Emerson's abstractness, applying it to his own, real self. Twenty year old Thoreau already "connects his thought", his own being, with what he takes to be "its proper symbol" — his upturned given name, — and thus, "without loss", utters his own truth of himself. "Words are signs of natural facts," Emerson states in "Nature". Obviously between the two there should be a perfect harmony. The "natural fact" that Henry David Thoreau comes to existence in is exactly this perfect harmony with his chosen as adequate self-name; the verbal act of self-naming turns out to be the earliest announcement of this "natural fact" coming to life. Had this been the only example of the kind, the conclusion would still have been most certain: concentrated on his own "I" as he was in his early youth already, Henry David Thoreau could be no one's follower, not even Emerson's.

[10]      Another side of Thoreau's self-naming also deserves attention. As his gesture is not one of assuming an entirely different name, but rather of rearranging his given name, Thoreau in fact does not come up with a pseudonym. In other words — and also etymologically speaking, — he doesn't coin a false name, but simply inserts a personal note in the name with which his life was begun. This fact is interesting and significant enough, especially when considered with respect to what Emerson calls "the new importance given to the single man", i.e. with respect to romantic individualism and the typical romantic preoccupation with proper names and namings. It is this sheer need for linguistic adequacy that brings forth Coleridge's idea of "organic poetry", close to which is the idea of establishing an "organic" relation between the poet and his name.

[11]      European Romanticism offers a lot of examples here. Thus, Friedrich Leopold Freiher fon Hardenberg becomes Novalis, so as to create the mystic beauty of his blue flower poetry and prose; Amantine-Aurore-Lucille Dupin gains fame as the talented and scandalous writer George Sand; Iohann Paul Frierdich Richter comes to the world as the critic and writer Jean Paul... This can be continued, of course, the case remaining the same, though: what is being chosen, is a pseudonym, i.e. a false, untruthful name, as it differs from the given name.

[12]      The result is a person, having actually two names — the artistic pseudonym as a writer and the given name in everyday life. This is the typical situation and, usually, it turns out to be very convenient; with the romantics though, it is overemhasized in terms of the impossible compatibility between the ideal world of art and the real world of life; even more than that — the notions of truthful and untruthful change places as belonging to these two worlds with the result that the romantic imagination makes the pseudonym, the untruthful name, look a lot more truthful. The self-renamings of the European romantics are actually part of their favorite juggling with incompatible contrasts — a game play that involves the author's personality and moreover, becomes its utmost expression.

[13]      Such a thing is absolutely impossible with Thoreau; when it goes about existential truths, whatever games are simply unthinkable. That seriousness with which all the transcendentalists took the idea of art as an expression of character, is definitely most visible in Thoreau and already shows in the way he establishes adequacy between himself and his name: Thoreau's way to do that is not pseudonymously, but authenticonymously. Thoreau switches the places of his "natural" names, so as to achieve what he feels to be his most "natural" name: not long after that, in Walden, he would freely declare himself "a part of Nature". Thoreau's self-naming is aimed at the only name — that name which will never ever be split into "artistic" and "real" and will be recognized as the only true one.

[14]      The name "Henry David" needs no clarifications and receives them not, not even in the literary encyclopedias, while "David Henry", if mentioned at all, remains a mere biographical detail. More than a biographical detail it cannot be, as Thoreau's autobiography begins as Henry David. And it is man's autobiography that Thoreau truly values — the personal choice of a deliberate, nonconformist life. Thoreau marks the beginning of his autobiography by naming himself; this is an act of self-initiation, a second birth just as natural as the first one, but this time including his deliberate participation.

[15]      With the years Thoreau will go on looking at his name — as well as at other, especially Indian names, — and will discover inspiring quasi etymologies: be it some distant relation between "Thoreau" and "thoroughness", or some special closeness to the Scandinavian god of thunder and agriculture Thor. All this originates in mostly a philological, rather than existential interest. Thoreau can afford it, as he has already become the "language maker" and the "namer" that Emerson wants the American poet to be; moreover, he has already given life to Emerson's intellectual construct — his own life. What will become important to young Thoreau from that moment on will be to keep on putting in words his already identified and named self. And so Henry David Thoreau begins his Journal.



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