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David D. Cooper - Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness, and: Thomas Merton and the Inclusive Imagination (review) - American Literature 75:3 American Literature 75.3 (2003) 668-670

Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness. By Alan D. Hodder. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. 2001. xix, 346 pp. $35.00.
Thomas Merton and the Inclusive Imagination. By Ross Labrie. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press. 2001. ix, 263 pp. $34.95.

Emphasizing the providential and the ecstatic, and sensitive to ontological unity and wholeness as hallmarks rather than diversions of human purpose, Alan Hodder and Ross Labrie move against the grain of contemporary literary scholarship qua cultural studies. As a result, these two books are refreshingly counterinsurgent.

Of the two, Hodder is more self-conscious about the antinomian tendencies in his critical study of Thoreau's spiritual life. Such a tight and fascinating focus on the role of religious experience in Thoreau's life and writing, after all, runs against two decades of Thoreau studies more concerned with textual, political, ideological, and theoretical agendas. In Labrie's case, the current of Thomas Merton studies flows, for the most part, in the opposite direction—toward Merton's iconic status as mystic and saint, interrupted occasionally by critical eddies that remind us that he was an important writer and social critic who fully inhabited twentieth-century life from his hermitage tucked deeply into the Kentucky woods.

Labrie's central contention is that Merton's mountainous and variegated oeuvre—spanning everything from his spiritual narratives and religious scholarship to his experimental poetry and social commentary—springs from a compelling drive for unity and inclusiveness that animated Merton as a writer. [End Page 668] The idea of wholeness served as "a fount of his thinking about a great many diverse matters" (27–28). Labrie traces that fount through the traditions that fed it, ranging from Western contemplative practices, Eastern mysticism, and romanticism to Neoplatonism and the social witness of ideas at the heart of modern existentialism. Labrie also follows the work that sprang from that creative fount, channeled through chapters on "Consciousness and Being," "Nature and Time," and "The Imagination and Art." What emerges is greater than the sum of its well-wrought parts: Thomas Merton becomes a more formidable figure in the American literary canon and twentieth-century intellectual history.

Recent Merton scholars like Labrie and Robert Inchausti seek to resurrect Merton-the-writer from his popular status as a professional religious personality, a switch-hitter as comfortable with the Desert Fathers as he was with Taoist poets. Although Hodder sets out in the opposite direction in his study of Thoreau, he has a similar aim. He uncovers Thoreau's spiritual and religious roots (the terms are basically interchangeable for Hodder) from the layers of duff shed by a century of criticism that leaves Thoreau looking either like an environmentalist, a political iconoclast, a social dissident, or a literary artist. The effect of these critical orientations, Hodder explains, "has been to fragment Thoreau's character and our understanding of his work . . . [and] effectively marginalize. . . [the] larger religious or spiritual dimension" (10) of his life and writing, dimensions most appreciated by Thoreau's contemporaries. Hodder's aim, then, is both to recover and redress. His mode of narrative transport is the spiritual biography. His sources and texts are those moments in Thoreau's writing that Thoreau himself described as "ecstasies": "carefully crafted epiphanies, meditative evocations" or "wrenching elegiac recollections . . . of unknown origin that from an early age fired his imagination and inspired some of his most distinctive prose" (5).

Hodder carefully connects these ecstatic episodes throughout Thoreau's major published works and journals, giving particular attention and scrutiny to the "felt" character of Thoreau's spiritual experience and religious thought. Along the way, sustained attention is given to Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Rising and setting frequently throughout the first four chapters, Hodder's extended commentary on Thoreau's first book may help rekindle interest in the travel narrative that recounts a dory trip Thoreau took with his brother John in 1839. Hodder reads it as shot through with literary expressions of Thoreau's youthful ecstatic experiences, such as the famous "night drummer" episode in the "Monday" section when the brothers hear faint drumming in the distance and Thoreau is transported by the rhythm into a sensory ecstasy: "I see, smell, taste, hear, feel that everlasting Something to which we are allied" (Hodder, 90). In addition to A Week, Hodder brings fresh readings to Walden (in particular, the "Solitude" chapter) and Thoreau's journals, especially of 1851 when he laments the way that age chokes the passage to consciousness of such youthful ecstasies as the night-drummer epiphany. [End Page 669] Throughout the book, Hodder never compromises the "fact," as he puts it, "crucial to our understanding of Thoreau's religious thought: that his religious ideas are only explicable in reference to the momentous experiences of euphoria that were the real ballast of his spiritual life" (131–32).

Perhaps it is this pragmatic bent and the experiential cast of their religious experiences that connect the eccentric recluse of Walden Pond and the gregarious hermit of Gethsemane to each other. They join company with a lineage of American writers who, driven by moral resolve, the pull of conscience, and the ache for something different, drift to the margins of society. From their outposts—a pond-side cabin, a cinderblock hermitage, a Paris studio, an attic in Amherst, a basement in New York City—they answer the ethical call to critique the culture of conformism at the soft core of American life, to which literary criticism and the professional study of culture are not immune. This is both a tradition of dissenting individualism and, as these two studies brilliantly remind us, the solitary quest for ultimate realities far richer and more powerful and infinitely more complex and imprecise than social constructionism would allow. Merton's solitude brought him into a noisy and productive dialogue with a fallen world. Thoreau's retreat plunged him into an inner world seemingly as deep as the pond he tried to sound. While what they found may be always just beyond our own grasp, their narrative explorations remain intriguing invitations to search the existential depths of faith, unity, and wholeness that lie deeper than the false bottom of modern anxieties. Good alternatives, in any event, to postmodernism's call to drift into a freefall of disbelief where we can invent ourselves over and over and all over again.

David D. Cooper
Michigan State University


Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2117
Print ISSN
0002-9831
Launched on MUSE
2003-09-12
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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